at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: learning (Page 1 of 3)

Why Learn When You Can Google

All those little facts, such clutter in a brain, right?

Learning in school already seemed a useless amassing of facts long before internet search engines ever came along.

Historical dates without context; mathematical formulas with little use beyond test questions; grammatical points of foreign languages hardly ever used…

The modern Silicon Valley-ized approach to learning has only reinforced this view.

Calling for a focus on “learning to learn,” all those pesky small details that are so hard to remember seem even less necessary now than ever before – especially when you can just look them up online when and if you need them.

Matt Britt’s partial internet map from years ago: Try finding your way through this without prior knowledge.

Clive Thompson, in his celebration of the knowledge gain from the internet, “Smarter Than You Think” (cross-read here), celebrates the ability to not remember the name of that red-haired female singer with a feminist bent, and to have the name “Tori Amos” pop up easily enough in a web search with just those few details.

In his proof is the problem.

If all you are looking for is a simple fact that sits in the realm of common knowledge, let alone popular culture, then it has become easy enough to quickly find it online and spare yourself the “mental bandwidth” required to record that fact yourself.

There are only too many situations nowadays, however, in which people want to argue that learning is unnecessary as long as the fact can be looked up or the problem can be solved by someone else or something else.

Manners Make Man, Facts Form Faculty

Even when it comes to those facts we so hate to learn by heart, though, we need to know them if there is some way we need or want to dig deeper into the issue in question.

Of course, just learning facts and figures as Jeopardy-style factoids all sitting in separation, with no connection between them, isn’t going to make them well-learnt and useful.

Only knowing where to look up when what event in world history transpired won’t help understand how different events and developments influenced each other over the course of history.

However, learning them in connection requires previous knowledge to connect them to and makes it easier to learn more of them and see more connections.

Being able to quickly look up what formula relates different factors in physics to each other does not imply an ability to see how (and why) a certain formula can lead to a useful result while another cannot.

However, having learned the formulas and their use cases and applied them is the only way to get to the expert knowledge where one intuitively knows what formula needs to be used.

For learning itself, more facts learned in relations and as the stories they tell will help learn and remember yet more, not take away from mental storage space.

In fact, without the scaffolding of previous knowledge, not only would it be difficult to learn anything new, it’s difficult even just to know whether a fact found online is truly a fact or just somebody’s well-presented fiction.

Funnily, the more you know, the more you can actually find where there are gaps in knowledge. Even relatively simple things (or rather, things that seem that way) often do not yet have answers.

Try googling that, then.

You will, of course, need to find out where to spend your time and focus your attention.

Yet, with all the time used for entertainment and all the memory easily expended on gossip and news and assorted pop-cultural geekery, the potential to learn more that will be of greater use in other situations, in (other sides of) real life is there.

“I have always found that it is always good to know something.” Goethe, Talks Shortly Before his Death

And there’s quite enough that it may be good to know.

From languages to first aid.
From survival and self-defense to cooking and, hell, house-keeping.
From the big sweep of history to the little happenings in your backyard and neighborhood.

It’s always been good to know things, and in a time when ignorance seems on the rise as (and maybe partly because) the world’s information seems only a fingertip away, but too few people bother to transform it into knowledge, it only gets better to know.

Next time there’s no internet or the heat goes out in the middle of winter, particularly so.

Bad Experiences Not to be Missed

Half a year in a pretty different country (again), in the diverse capital of one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, in terrible air quality, with dubious food, and without my wife.
Beijing, China, as “international migrant worker.”

That was my second half of 2014.

It’s a great example of the way such things go.

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Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

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Ways We Are Not ‘At Home’ 2: Buying Rather than Being

Sure, there are nice things out there.
We all probably have some things we dream of having. And even if it isn’t things we are dreaming of so much as experiences, money seems equally as necessary for that, too.

Beyond the essentials, however, we don’t really need much in order to live well, and we don’t need to be able to buy in order to live better, so much as we need to be.

Sonnstein-Trail-Closeup

I have a particular problem with the notion of “not buying things but experiences” as good gear can help be a lot more active and for a lot longer than a fast-bought “adventure”. It just depends on whether you use it that way or not, so you can consider the cost-per-use.

This misunderstanding may easily be the most problematic way we are not truly at home in our lives, for it is simultaneously the easiest to break, and the hardest.

It is so very easy to break because all it takes is for us to decide we have enough, get up, and get going.

We just need to explore more, of our surroundings, of life, of the world, and we can discover more.

It works both physically, by moving and getting fitter and developing new physical skills and capabilities. And it works psychologically, by exploring new landscapes out there or of the mind, learning and studying and putting the knowledge gained to use.
Both interact with and positively contribute to each other…

But it is also the hardest to break.

All those easy things that we could do and that would make us be more and live better are just too many things to easily decide what to try and find what will really satisfy – and they all require that we ourselves take our lives and learning in our hands, even as the potential result seems unclear and may be a long time away.

The next great experience, meanwhile, seems just the swipe of a credit card away, and with guaranteed immediate results, and the next new product that promises to be so much better than the one that came before, and promises to make our life so much better, also just awaits (and gets pushed on us with a lot of promising marketing)…

It is the most noticeable – once you stop to think about it, anyways – how strongly we get immersed into the customer’s approach to life if you look at all the great and anti-materialist advice columns that tell you to “Buy Experiences, Not Things!”
True, there is a lot to be said for experiences and for putting “experientialism” over consumerism – but a consumerist anti-materialism (that may not even be against a true materialism but itself an expression only of a shopper’s attitude to a cheap life that makes life itself cheap) isn’t *it*, either.

To get around this, two approaches may be recommendable:

One, keep a diary. Write down what product has lured you, what you expect and why you want it, and if you end up getting it, also note when it frustrates you and doesn’t turn out quite that good. It may help the next time you’re tempted to change your life by shopping.

Also write down what you’ve done beyond shopping and what that has done for you. Chances are, especially with the effect of memory coming in, experiences turn out even better.

Above all, however, make a habit of active living. Preferably, not just a shopping habit but one of things you do for yourself and to make your life more interesting.

Go for walks, try out new things in the kitchen, see more, stop and smell the roses – or plant some…

Ways We’re Not ‘At Home’ 1: Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding

Sure, we all have places we’re familiar with, life situations we don’t think much about, circumstances in which we feel comfortable.
Even (if not especially) in such familiar circumstances, however, we often remain on the surface, skimming over things like tourists rather than delving deeply and making ourselves at home.

One way this is happening, especially now that we could learn more and go deeply, but are driven to the extreme and superficial, is by only noticing the extraordinary and seeing only the outstanding.

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite - and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite – and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

It is only natural that we should react to novel things more strongly than to things we are used to.

Adaptation to the familiar keeps us from expending too much energy on that which we already know; novelty-seeking makes us aware of that which has changed and could present a danger or an opportunity.

No animal needs to see every individual tree in a forest anew every day, but the one that has started fruiting or been marked by a potential mate or competitor is interesting. Likewise, we don’t have to notice every single thing around us.

Our problem, however, is that we will often notice only the novel even when it would do us good to see what we have.

We notice the new functional food making great promises but overlook the real food we have always seen but never learned to appreciate and prefer (even as there would still be a hundred new ways we could prepare it).
We notice the new gadget we hadn’t seen before (and don’t have), but overlook the gadgets we have, feel familiar with, but don’t much play around with anymore just because they feel old (even as they would still offer many more functions we never learned to use to their full potential).

Even, and perhaps most obviously, in places we have grown up and lived all our lives, we often notice only those things that obviously change, but never deviate from our habitual routes, never stop to look anew and learn more about these places, and never notice how much we actually don’t know about them.

Ask yourself this:

Do you know all the fruits and vegetables in the market you usually go to? Do you know how to prepare them well?
Where you often go, have you ever taken *this* road rather than that road you usually take?
When was the last time you picked up a book to learn more about the world that surrounds you, or picked up a tool/toy you own and looked at more of its functions or possible uses?

Natural Born Heroes book cover

High Time for “Natural Born Heroes”

Talk of heroes seems stale when it takes (only?) an eponymous action camera for one to “Be a Hero” – and yet, from the author of “Born to Run” comes a new tale of heroic outcasts that is also a wake-up call for the everyday person to become a hero…

What Hero?

Chris McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” out April 14, 2015 strikes at an issue that is at the heart of some current confusion:

For one, talking of “heroes” seems a thing of the (mythical) past at best, a failed understanding of human imperfection at worst.

It’s become a label affixed to people doing what they prepared to do (like firefighters; just think of all the “heroes of 9/11″…).
It’s attached to people doing something that’s simply human: caring and being strong for others.
And, worst of all, it’s the tagline for Youtube “heroics” that are just action sports, if that.

Even worse, our idols seem far from any heroic ideals.
Success, in fact, seems something for sociopaths.

After all, those people upheld as great examples of success are the ones who are rich and famous (or at least rich) as – following another pattern of ‘extremization‘ – we make money the only measure. And if not money, then fame. Popularity, at least.
Their character, the sources and consequences of their money, i.e. their supposed success, don’t matter anymore, then.

The good person who did some kind of heroic deed, meanwhile, is looked at somewhat askance.

“Why would you risk your life for others? What’s the profit in that?” is the immediate thought.

At the same time, though, we still want to see and respect values. We treasure the person who is strong not for himself but for others. We long for adventure and meaning.

Here, however, we also find a problem.

Reading a title like “Natural Born Heroes” will probably make you think only of people who were genetically gifted with special skills and characters.

Enough recent books have mentioned (e.g. Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them), if not been all about (e.g. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance), the genetic component to athletic prowess, for example.

“Me, I’m no hero,” you will more likely think.

And that’s exactly where “Natural Born Heroes” draws you in and carries you through the story of the WWII resistance fighters on Crete and McDougall’s discovery of their skills in our times.

It reads just like a story of just such people who must somehow have been gifted, only waiting for the right conditions of adversity in which to excel – but there’s an almost immediate twist:

If the people who are the heroes of that story are supposed somehow to have been born as extraordinary specimens of our species, then a hero awaits in every stereotypical basement-dwelling nerd. And every playboy and outcast and ordinary laborer.

And that is just the point.

As McDougall argues throughout the examples he gives in Natural Born Heroes, jumping between the shenanigans of our World War II resistance’s heroes on Crete and modern representatives of the skills he is talking about, the “what” of hero training is what leads to natural born / everyday heroes. And, we all could be them.

“[H]eroes [aren’t] a different breed–they just had different breeding.” (Chapter 4)

“The art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance [for much of human history]; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along… The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.” (Chapter 3)

Now, I believe this is quite a re-reading of history, but as a goal, it certainly isn’t the worst.

We live in a time in which we have all the conditions for such a re-reading and such practice towards greatness, after all – and we are using them to discuss the minutiae of TV series while getting fat rather than form the fandom of life.

I just have to think back to my high school days (which were before the internet and even before most computer games).
And, there was a martial arts student who was strong but couldn’t run far, many soccer players who couldn’t even manage a single pull-up, and the highly intelligent kid who remembered everything he wanted but was so in his head he thought he would always be able to think himself out of any dicey situation… and apparently, with kids ever more indoors and playing only on tablets and computers, even balancing or playing tag has now become an issue.

Weakness Is a Human Strength

It does not end with physical skills, though.

Noticeably, McDougall is big on virtue. Yes, he says that heroes were created through the above “what,” but also that it is ultimately the “why” which brings forth the hero.

“Virtue isn’t respectable these days, and we’ve certainly seen enough hypocrisy among so-called moral leaders to question what they tell us to do,” he quotes one of his interlocutors. “But at some deeper level, we still instinctively idolize the kind of heroic behavior we claim is foreign to us, and keep acting on the heroic urges we claim we don’t have.” (Chapter 5)

The hipster, or the equally-as-ironic critique of the hipster, would even go so far as to claim that all such virtue and heroics is either self-serving or unreal, I fear. Just look at the example of what goes for personal development nowadays: It is, all too often, all about gaming the system and bending the rules for one’s own gain and appearance of greatness.

When one of personal development/lifestyle design’s biggest guru’s biggest claims to fame are the most turns in the shortest time in tango dancing, and having tricked his way into a lower weight class and then technically k.o.-ed, i.e. thrown out of the ring, his opponents in a martial arts tournament, it is more than refreshing to hear such an earnest call for virtue.

In fact, “Natural Born Heroes” doesn’t even stop at virtue.

McDougall refers to a lesson from Plutarch, which taught that “Heroes care. True heroism… isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion. … Empathy… [is] a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” (Chapter 5)

Later, too, where I have found personal development pros claim that you have to cut your ties to people, be they friends or family, if they are not 100% supportive (useful?) to you, McDougall calls for compassion which “really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what is going on around us and the smartest way to respond. It’s your social spider web, a protective netting of highly-sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you.” (Chapter 15)

What shall I say? Take that, egotistic preppers who think the apocalypse will be won by every man to himself…

In all that, where so many a physical feat seems to be all just about a record to break, McDougall (re-)discovers something that often seems to have been forgotten: that there is a deeper meaning in the pursuit of physical (as well as mental) fitness. Xenía, compassion, also expresses itself with/as the usefulness of a person to his/her group.

This idea is neatly summarized in Parkour’s, Georges Hébert-inspired/inherited, motto “Être fort pour être utile” – Being strong to be useful (as it has long been translated in articles around David Belle; it is “Be fit to be useful” in McDougall’s rendering); and it is the same spirit that I have seen in ninjutsu/To-Shin-Do, which Stephen Hayes has long been presenting as a practice for a protector.

Complete and Useful ‘Strength’

Sports and fitness are currently mainly seen as practices to get oneself lean (or built), but there is a usefulness and fascination (and fun!) with a very serious background when one looks at the modern era through the historical example:

“We’ve been living a lethal fantasy, Hébert realized. We’ve lulled ourselves into believing that in an emergency, someone else will always come along to rescue us. We’ve stopped relying on our own wonderfully adaptable bodies; we’ve forgotten that we can think, climb, leap, run, throw, swim, and fight with more versatility than any other creature on the planet.” (Chapter 26 – and Hébert was writing before WWI !)

We are now also ever more specialized, not just in work, but even in such fun, but, as McDougall quotes Hébert again,

“An individual who is satisfied with performing in exercises or sports of entertainment … but ignores the art of swimming, self-defense, or fears vertigo, is not strong in an useful manner. … A weightlifter or a wrestler who cannot run nor climb, or a runner or a boxer who doesn’t know how to swim, or cannot climb, is not strong in a complete manner.”

Never mind so many a current intellectual or ordinary person incapable of running for a few miles or pulling him-/herself up a wall or roof… (which I’ve argued to be a better sign of fitness than things like running a marathon, long before).

Here, there is so much fun and usefulness, be they for health and fitness or in preparation for whatever trouble you may happen to find yourself in, it is hard to believe that we need a wake-up call for that.

But from moving to throwing to finding food around us, we clearly do.

We aren’t – sorry, can’t resist bringing in my own concern here – not at home in this world, with the situations we may encounter and as the beings we are.

Beings who, to get back to what McDougall describes yet again, should “[aim] for the hero’s holy trinity: paideia, arete, and xenía: skill, strength, and desire [compassion]. Mind, body, and soul.

The Downside

Natural Born Heroes book coverIf there is one serious downside to the book, it is that it felt a bit short on the modern expression of such skills, the practical ideas to follow up on. McDougall visits people who represent those skills, here and there, but what they do and what there is to learn, to me always just felt shown in appetizer-sized bits.

The videos McDougall has been presenting on Outside Online illustrate these practices rather better (and maybe gave the impression that they would be the main focus when Natural Born Heroes‘ red thread is actually the WWII story).

McDougall’s book presentations (in person) seem much more focused on these practical skills rather than the WWII kidnapping, too (and so I wonder if a follow-up practical handbook, or a guide to relevant training courses, at least, is already in the works).

The story of the Cretan resistance was captivating nonetheless.

It was hard to put the book down – and at the same time, what I kept wanting to do more than anything was to put the book down, watch the videos and read the articles about the skills Christopher McDougall suggests we could and should be learning in order to turn us ourselves into heroes.

And, above all that, to go out and really learn and practice these skills.

In fact, I’m sure to be at the next parkour meeting in the city nearby. The tallest tree in my backyard will get a climbing rope put on it (again). And I’ve been exploring the edibility of wild herbs and the healthiness of real food, anyways.

This may all not be particularly heroic yet, but even if it’s just playing at following examples, it’s both a fun diversion and a great practice of useful skills for the now and any possible futures.

 

Traunstein-Goodbye

Coming ‘at home’ From Afar

I’m back (at?) home in Austria, wondering if I’ve failed with the small (photo and writing) projects I started in and on Beijing because I’m not finished with them… and yet I realize that this is just one of those points where being somewhere else can actually bring you closer to a place.

Wiener Eistraum, RathausIt’s not this dream that “if only I were *there* rather than *here*, I’d be so happy and everything would be so great” that people sometimes fall into that I am talking about.
Yes, I know.
Where you are can be familiar and “at home” just as well as it can be that familiar hellhole you want nothing but to get out of – but so can any other place.

We have a natural tendency to think in such ways.
We get used to what we always see, tell ourselves that somewhere we don’t know would be much better, and end up liking or disliking both here and there based more on what we decide to focus on than all that’s really there.

This process plays out particularly well when it comes to foreigners in China, where a whole other level of exoticism or “going native” or criticism or you-name-it comes into play.

One of the constant debates among “China watchers” circles round and round the (im)possibility of knowing China when you are not living there.

DSC04819It just happens too often that some expert/pundit visits Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and pronounces the power that China has become. Equally as often, experts or analysts sit in London or Washington and declare China’s impending collapse.

(Sometimes, a columnist even just has to read the China Daily to claim tremendous understanding – fittingly, on April 1.)

Meanwhile, “old China hands” live in the midst of all the chances and changes and challenges in the country and shake their heads over the naiveté of these pronouncements.

You may have noticed something similar when it comes to your own country, or even city or county:
The further someone is away, the simpler their statements about a place, and the more convinced they may often be about them.

At the same time, however, the opposite problem can also apply:
Being in the midst of a place makes one only too aware of all the nitty-gritty details of daily life, but less likely to look down deeply into the history of this place, or up and at longer-term trends and patterns.

When we are in a place we “know” (i.e., we have been for a while and know our essential ways around), we don’t usually even notice any sights that are of note to others from farther away anymore.

In Beijing's National Library

In Beijing’s National Library

This is what has always struck me about my China experiences (especially because it was the same pattern I then noticed about my attitude towards my native Austria):
Living there is great for the direct lived experience, indeed.

But the same direct experience also makes for so much focus on everyday things that happen and that need doing that there is little time and energy for anything else.

Only when I’m back somewhere else do I get to better libraries and more of an interest in understanding more deeply what I had been observing before. Not to mention the critical distance from which to try and see larger patterns, not just everyday problems.

It’s just this kind of a balance that is a back-and-forth between intimacy and distance, engagement and aloofness, that we actually seem to need in many a situation.

Even romantic interest doesn’t work without some degree of separation (at the very least, enough for interesting individuality); variety spices up life; the familiar becomes more interesting (and all the more comforting, often enough) only once it has been the unusual.

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

Mountain Running Decisions, Willpower and Ego

I think there are limits [in ultra-distance running]… but I don’t think anyone actually ever reaches theirs.
Anton Krupicka in Kilian’s Quest S04E05.

For training and gear testing – and of course, for the fun of it – I found myself running around the lakeside road to ‘my mountain’ (the Traunstein) again.
Traunstein - Blue MorningIt was a nice-enough day with a lull in the worse weather that had been moving in.
With an insulating layer and a Windstopper top, what I wore felt rather too warm.

One week before, the temperatures had been even higher, the sun was shining, hardly any snow was visible any more, lots of people were out and about on that beautiful day.
A mother with a twin stroller, running on the lakeside road? Check.
Two old men already coming down the mountain that morning? Check.
Young hikers out for a day of fun? You betcha.

on the Traunstein

Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.

Flowery View, Traunstein, Traunsee

That was then. The week later, it still seemed a nice-enough day, but more of a dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Traunstein was proof of the worse weather that had started moving in.

Getting higher up the mountain, whose top kept itself shrouded in clouds, the expected wind kicked up, too.

Only that it pretty soon was enough wind that the two layers that had just seemed too warm started feeling too cold; out came the windproof/waterproof jacket and pants that have become my constant companions on such tours.
And still, looking around, listening to the wind, noticing some snow start to fall, it was not enough for me.

A man whom I’d seen at the foot of the mountain came past me as I’d decided to turn back, and of course I didn’t like turning back when someone else went on – but it’s just this sort of social comparison and ego-kick that gets us in trouble. Turn back I did.

Not Doing, at least Not Comparing

Not doing anything isn’t the best thing for growth, of course.
Doing will lead to comparison, however, and that may make for some dangerous challenges.

Even on the nice day a week before, I had noticed that.
Compare yourself to those who are really fast, and you may feel like you belong in a wheelchair.
Walk past hikers, and you feel pretty okay with yourself.

And now, with social media, comparison has all the worse a context, especially upwards to the truly extraordinary people.

The only solution, same as it’s always been: If you are not among the best and greatest who have to compete, retreat from the competition.
Be(come) good enough and better, living for yourself.

(As I said before, at least sometimes, “winning is for losers.”)

Know when to pull back to keep yourself safe and go on another day; be happy not in comparison to others but with what you are able to do.

Having gone once across to, over and around the mountain, and back, and then still having been able to head right on to the train back to my wife – that had made me happy.

Traunsteinrunde_03212015

Having felt the need to turn back even as I could have gone on (and saw someone else do so) this time, that left me feeling daunted by the mountain, especially as a bit more sunshine would break through the clouds as I was on my way back.

Traunstein-Goodbye

It was only a wee bit of sunshine, though, and at least I got on my way back, not stuck in cold and wind up a mountain, which could just as well have been the case.

Out Further, Comfortably Inside

Becoming at home means both drawing back, making oneself comfortable, and pushing at boundaries, growing.

And here lies an interesting insight from recent science:
“Ego” – that is, willpower – apparently becomes “depleted” as we use it.

So, the more you force yourself to do something, to act in a certain way, and the more you simply have to make decisions, the weaker your power over yourself will become.

Choices such as what to have for breakfast are enough to drain ‘ego’ a bit; by afternoon, you just reach for the worst kind of quick sugar fix.

It doesn’t matter if the choices are inconsequential or important, they all require an effort that the brain will start to have trouble with.

Interestingly, there is an insight from the seemingly physiological side of things that sounds related:

When we feel that we just can’t go on, e.g. running, it may not actually be the muscles that are fatigued to the point of not working anymore, apparently.
Rather, it is our brains triggering a survival mechanism, looking to conserve some energy in case we should still need it later.

In both cases, choices (to make, or just the choice to go on) are necessary, and our mental household of energy is the decisive factor for how this will fall.

To a large extent, our conscious minds may be contributing (and we can learn to override some of these processes), but the real decision falls outside of its purview.
Rationality looks like it plays a role, but its main role may well be to rationalize the decision that came about at a deeper level.

Hypo-egoic” behaviors that don’t need such willpower because they have become ingrained in us, though, can go on – and we see that in running, where it’s necessary to forget the ego and just become motion if we want to go on at a certain point.

This is also, and more usually, the point of habits.

Make something a habit, and it will happen on cue and without a conscious, rational, energy-draining decision about it being necessary.

Just try to make sure you create good habits for yourself, be they going out for regular runs, turning back when things get too dicey, or regularly cooking good food, not flopping down in front of the TV with a beer when you really, really, would love to make more in and of your life…

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

… but don’t forget to take your relaxation seriously, too ;)

Spring Run, Ramps

Not FKT-up Trails, but Fully Known Terrains

FKT, “fastest known times,” may be the oldest running idea that no one has ever heard of.

The challenge of being faster than someone, or preferably everyone, else has surely been around for long, and if it wasn’t in head-to-head competition, it was in how long it took someone to cover the distance from one point to another.

Having moved online, info-wise, the notion got new feet.

Peter Bakwin started his list of FKTs a decade ago; FKTs were discussed years ago; and with Kilian Jornet’s “Summits of My Life” and other people’s mountain speed ascents – not to mention the various thru-hike records – they have come further into the spotlight.

As much as one can talk of a spotlight when it comes to an activity, FKT, that is a small part of an overarching activity, thru-hiking or ultra-distance running, that is not exactly receiving the most attention. (How many hikers, outside of Cheryl Strayed or her movie-adaptation version, let alone ultramarathoners, can the average person name?)

Still, the idea is simple enough: pick a trail or a mountain ascent (and descent) and try to finish it in a record time.

So far, so good – but in a sports practice that is, at heart, a very individual and intimate pursuit – (mountain) trail running – this idea leads things to unfortunate, if logical, conclusions:

When everything is always just about extremes, you always need more extreme feats. And you need simple measures by which to present them, or it wouldn’t all fit into a single tweet or a share-able headline.

“New Record”

So, if you want to get back to a certain individuality in your pursuit, and therefore away from ultramarathon races (or if you have won only too many of them…), this is a way to do so while still achieving something that can be easily measured and pointed to, and is an easily visible and shareable feat.

If you are a runner who is as much at the top of his game as Kilian Jornet (and he’s so at the top, he makes it all look like a game), this goes to such an extreme that it makes for the “FKT-up” headline I am riffing on; Christopher McDougall  used this phrase in Outside Magazine/Online to point out just how crazy some of it all was… and Jornet is aiming to even speed-ascend (and descend, for good measure) Mount Everest.

It is all very much in the spirit of extremization.

It is all about doing things and saying things in such a way as to bring them to extremes which make for messages that quickly and easily appeal to emotions. Hence, they can be shared in headlines and tweets and will be liked and shared a lot, making for visibility and popularity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Kilian isn’t very much (which is to say: not at all) motivated to do this for the “likes” – and even if you should be, it may not be the worst thing to happen by far, if it is motivation to learn and grow.

Like a Broken Record

“Extremized” activities like that, however, do often make for superficiality.

The way one hears about them and the people that perform them, it is only that one feat that counts, not the path that led there.

The extraordinary person is held up as hero-like, but is at a level which hardly anyone could achieve, which seems mainly based on innate talent, and which is, therefore, not necessarily all that motivating.

The time counts, and only the fastest time, everything else is just preparation that doesn’t matter – except it’s in the preparation, in the moving and the discovery that goes with it, that the most valuable of experiences lie.

When the speed, the time, is presented as the important thing – or maybe even just, as some would claim, not as the important thing, truly, but just the thing to do the marketing with – we are giving in to the extremization. We feed a machine of shallow attention that demands instant gratification and betray what we go out onto trails to discover.

Trails of Learning

Spring Run, Ramps

Run to fully know, and you may come home with part of lunch. Here, some of the first wild leeks (ramps) of spring 2015

The simple pleasure of motion, and motion that leads to discovery.

A pursuit that is certainly harder than simply lounging in front of the TV and waiting for great views to be brought to one’s eyes, but that is all the more worthwhile for it.

A preparation for better fitness that is also a pleasurable pastime.

A foundation for everyday heroism.

And a way of learning about a place.

This last bit, in particular, is the one I want to call for.

There is so much to learn about and discover wherever you are, and in combining physical pursuits – to range across an area – and psychological ones – to discover and learn – we are doing what humans (like many, if not most animals) have always done: Go out and “learn our place,” from the lay of the land to the resources available, from dangerous spots to beautiful sights.

Sure, the internet world will not praise you the highest for the ordinary things you’ll see and learn. But in seeing and learning, you can make yourself at home in the places you live, make yourself more fit, knowledgeable, and useful, and get to really living there, intimately, fully knowing the terrain, wherever it is that you are.

And that is where life really lies and is lived.

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