Archive for October, 2012

“But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.”

I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Your depressed facebook friend goes there every few days. You feel inept, lethargic, and powerless, this day when you’ve accomplished nothing.  All the while, everyone else is happier, stronger, and better than you. They’re getting things done, making things happen. No matter how hard you try you’re going nowhere, and you feel like an idiot for believing you could accomplish anything special. So you take the above quote drenched with extra self-loathing as your motto of the day.

If so, make sure to give credit to the author: Charles Darwin.

Yes, Charles “The Father of Evolution” Darwin. And no, this was quote was not pulled from some angsty, emo, prepubescent childhood diary. It was discovered in a letter written in 1861, two years AFTER Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

I naively used to believe that accomplishing great things meant every day needed to be some amazing, life-altering, transcendental experience, and any moment of self-doubt, reluctance, or fear was a sign of inadequacy. But Darwin’s FML moment shatters all such assumptions. Great achievers still have their moments of madness. They just don’t surrender. They just get back to work.

So if you ever again find yourself going nowhere, drink this cup of schadenfreude, and know that constructing the most influential theory in modern biology is the most that you could ever accomplish.


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For almost a year now, I’ve been studying improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood. I can honestly say there are few things more satisfying than stepping onto a stage with nothing scripted, nothing preconceived, nothing rehearsed, only you and the support of your teammates, and creating something immensely entertaining. I admit it doesn’t ALWAYS happen when I perform, but lightning strikes every now and then.

The main form of improv we study at UCB is called the Harold. The basic Harold consists of 6-8 people on stage and based on a random one word suggestion, the group creates three base scenes featuring two people each, continuations inspired by those base scenes, and two group games that all members play. Now when a Harold is done really well (or any great improv), all members’ actions are accepted and supported by the entire group. This acceptance is necessary to create patterns that the group then develops and expands. Great Harolds reach their climax when multiple patterns are juggled simultaneously. Hilarity ensues. Simple…

…but not easy. Over the past year, I’ve ran into countless moments where nothing seems to mesh. We can’t seem to find a pattern, so my partner and I will just throw details in, hoping something will stick, only complicating the mess, until our craptacular scene comes to a merciful end. This is one of those moments.

About six weeks ago in improv class, I was one of eight practicing our Harold as we entered our 2nd group game. We made a back line, and one of the guys stepped out to initiate the group game by skipping around the stage, shooting invisible arrows into the audience. One of the girls stepped off the back line and joined him. Now as an improv member, you want to identify the pattern or “game” so you can build upon it. We just faced one problem: the other six of us had no idea what they were doing.

It’s really tough to play a game when you don’t know what you’re playing. So while the two were shooting invisible arrows into the audience, the six of us in the back were trying to figure out how the heck we were going to support them. Eventually two more came out from the back line and established that they were a disorganized attack party representing the 99%, and I ended up as an aide to Mitt Romney shielding him from some very primitive attacks. I assure you, it was not as funny as you’d imagine it to be.

So after we finished our Harold, our teacher gave us our notes. Now I’m paraphrasing so his name will remain anonymous, but all you need to know is that he is a VERY supportive teacher, and I would recommend anyone to take his class, but he’s also brutally honest. So when notes for 2nd group game came up, he grimaced, pausing as he thought about how to put this nicely:


OK, guys, I get it. You’re on stage and you don’t know what’s going on. You’re trying to think about making the right move. We’ve all been there. But understand that the fact that you’re thinking about it means you’re not really in the scene. You’re trying to think of a better idea to bring out there then the one you’re seeing, but guess what? They’re not. Because that guy took action on his idea and you didn’t. The best idea is the one acted upon right now.  So embrace that idea, run with it, and just see where it takes you. – Fictional UCB Teacher

On the surface, I felt bad for leaving my teammates out there on their own. I wasn’t trying to leave them out there; I thought reflecting upon the situation was the best choice. But they were struggling, so I should’ve just gone out there and joined them. If the scene went bad, at least we were there together.

But this critique penetrated more deeply than that. Too many times I’ve had inspirations languish as I waited for the perfect moment to spring them, only to let them die when those perfect moments never came. That chance to study abroad. That girl with the dimples across the room. Saying “I love you” the night before my grandfather died. All chances I let die. I lived a life of hesitation because of my desire to grow was outweighed by my misplaced obsession for self-preservation.

I know letting go the desire for self-preservation seems unnatural. To some extent, it is. Evolution purposely makes the fear of injury especially strong. If I went to a party and a lion was mauling party-goers, I’d hope my desire to avoid mutilation would be stronger than my enjoyment of good hors d’oeuvres.

But under different circumstances, this instinct that saves us from harm also impedes us from necessary growth. Acquiring the power for greater achievement requires self-transformation, a process that at first feels like losing one’s self, but in reality, we’re simply releasing our self-imposed limitations in order for our true selves to expand and grow. It’s exactly what children do. No wonder we find them so remarkable when they “grow up so fast.” It’s also no wonder why they cry.

So the best ideas really are inspired right in front of me. Maybe I will ask out that cute girl across the room. I hope she’s into improv.

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Ask the average American about the world’s greatest athletes, some common names emerge. Michael Jordan. Usain Bolt. Michael Phelps. People shouldering the biggest of expectations while the cameras are on and millions watching around the world. If they fail, the public will revel in their ridicule. And yet those are the moments when they’re known to thrive, when they’re at their absolute best.

A few months ago, another athlete caught my attention, one whose accomplishments might be even greater than those mentioned. He’s not wealthy. He’s not necessarily a household name either. But he’s a superstar in his sport. A sport where one mistake doesn’t just mean embarrassment. It means certain death.

Alex Honnold is widely considered to be the greatest free solo climber in the world. To free solo is to climb a wall without a rope, and only the most elite of climbers are successful at it (or die trying). In 2008, Alex became famous for his 2,224-foot free solo up the Northwest face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, which was later featured  in the North Face-sponsored documentary, Alone on the Wall. In June of 2012, Alex accomplished something even more daring, completing the Yosemite Triple (Mt. Watkins, El Capitan AND Half Dome, almost 7,000 feet of vertical rock) in 19 hours, about 95% of the route free soloed.

While the most impressive free solos are incredibly difficult, free soloists tend to choose routes with which they’re familiar, and thus are well within their abilities. Therefore, the biggest challenges for the free soloist aren’t technical but mental. Alex describes one moment during his 2008 free solo up Half Dome when his mentally broke down:

Basically when I’m soloing, normally I have almost like a mental armor. You can say I’m ‘in the zone.’ I have something that’s, let’s say, protecting  my head from thinking too much, and for whatever reason, on Half Dome, I ran out of whatever armor I had. I found myself, like, 1800 feet above the ground. I was like, ‘What am I doing up here? Why am I doing it?’ You know, just all the questions suddenly entered my mind. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

“Thinking too much” is a bad thing? But I learned to value thinking. Thinking was a GOOD thing. Think before you act. It’s one of the first major lessons we instill to our children. It’s our hope that this snippet of wisdom will keep them safe in a dangerous world. When our basic desires intend to lead us astray, whether it’s to retaliate, to stuff ourselves with cookies, or to jump into bed with that hottie we met at the bar, thinking keeps us from doing something we might regret. And if thinking is good, wouldn’t lots of thinking be great?

The sitting around and reflecting, like “Do I want to do this? Do I not want to do this? You know, is this something I can do?” Like that’s the really scary stuff. It’s all just like games you play within your head. That’s why I’m committing to the route. On the ground still, in the van, I’ve committed.

I think doubt is probably the biggest danger in soloing. Because basically as soon as you start to hesitate, then you’re screwed. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

So excess thinking turns into doubt and hesitation, which would be helpful for escaping unfamiliar situations, but for elite athletes, who minimize unfamiliar situations by investing thousands of hours into practice and preparation, doubt and hesitation become enemies of performance. And Alex certainly prepares:

To prepare himself [for the Yosemite Triple], Honnold arrived in Yosemite in May and embarked on a climbing frenzy. He became the first to free solo the west face of El Capitan and the first, along with fellow professional climber Tommy Caldwell, to free climb the triple. They did it in about 21 hours… On June 1, he climbed the iconic 2,000-foot-high northwest face of Half Dome, alone, with a mix of aid- and free-soloing techniques in a staggering 1:21 — 48 minutes faster than his previous record. On Sunday, Honnold and Hans Florine, a Yosemite speed climber, hope to break another speed record climbing The Nose route up El Capitan. Potter and Sean Leary currently hold that record at 2:35:45. Solo Climber Reaches New Heights, New York Times

Alex devotes his entire life to preparation:

I think my lifestyle can just be summed up as I do whatever I have to do to climb as much as I can… The only way I can go climb all the time is to live in the van. – Alex Honnold, “Alone on the Wall”

And how can he make such a full-fledged commitment?

Climbing gives me everything. Alex Honnold in “Respira”

It’s remarkable. And it’s crazy. But for those who reach such heights, it’s not. It’s simply what must be done. It’s his heart’s infinity. And there’s no question that for Alex, the sacrifice is worth it. Which leads me to one more question.

How much is your heart’s infinity worth?

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Anyone who’s known me a while knows I’m a lifelong fan of the Oakland Athletics. And after years of futility, I’m giddy they finally returned to the playoffs this year. They have since lost their first two  playoff games and are on the verge of elimination, but I’m still optimistic. And yes, I’ve seen Moneyball. And yes, it was awesome.

Many a memorable ballplayer has come through Oakland. Reggie Jackson. Catfish Hunter. Rickey Henderson. My all-time favorite player, Dennis Eckersley. I could go on and on, each player with an intriguing story behind his greatness.  But this post is not about them. In fact, it’s not even about a player who made it to the big league club, but his story might be the most fascinating of all.

In the 2nd round of the 2007 draft, the Oakland Athletics selected Grant Desme, an outfielder from Cal Poly Pomona.  After battling injuries his first two years in the minors, Grant had a breakout 2009 season, flashing both extraordinary power and speed, hitting 31 home runs and stealing 40 bases. Later that year Grant, along with other top prospects around the minor leagues, would play in the Arizona Fall League and, competing against future superstars like Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey, and Starlin Castro, Grant outperformed them all, hitting a league-leading 11 home runs (10 of them hit in an unreal 10-day stretch) and earning that year’s MVP award. Grant’s future in baseball was bright.

Of course, it was not to be. 2009 would be the last year Grant would play professional baseball. But his dream of playing professional baseball wasn’t dashed by injury or drugs or psychological issues. Grant gave up a life of superstardom for the priesthood. In January of 2010, Grant would retire from baseball and move into St. Michael’s Abbey, 10 miles east of Irvine, to join the Norbertine Order. He now goes by the name Frater Matthew.

Many of us know stories of people finding contentment through faith and spirituality. They were depressed and felt something was missing until they “found God.” Maybe that’s your story. The most extreme of us leave the rat race altogether to join a monastery, to live up in the mountains, to meditate for hours on end. They search for “enlightenment,” or “nirvana,” or “God’s calling.”  They abandon their worldly possessions for something greater, and they say they’ve never been happier. But how could deprivation be so fulfilling? Why can’t pursuing worldly measures like money or power yield such satisfaction? And what about this can we apply in our own lives while still keeping our iPhones?

Explaining why he gave up the riches of baseball, Frater Matthew provides one answer:

The human heart yearns for the infinite,” Frater Matthew says. “It’s why things are not always fulfilling. We always need more. Every experience is good, and then when we get used to it, it’s not good enough. We want something more intense, more fulfilling. – Frater Matthew (Grant) Desme

If we follow this reasoning, then the fundamental differences between material pursuits and spiritual ones become clear. If our heart is so relentlessly hungry for a certain experience, then our heart can only be consistently fulfilled by those experiences that are infinitely abundant and readily attainable. Material pursuits like money can never be infinite, and ultimately our hearts become starved when we reach our limit of attainment. Social capital like fame and influence must be bestowed upon us by others, so dedicating our lives to attaining social capital would make happiness beyond our control.  But personal, immaterial pursuits like service, knowledge, God’s love, craft, and artistry ARE infinite, and are always available to us if we are open to them, regardless of material limitations or social standing. Our heart can pursue such experiences fully and never worry of limitations or deprivations.

From that perspective, Grant’s choice to leave a life of fame and fortune makes perfect sense. He released his desire for home runs to nourish his desire to know God. And I respect his courage to pursue his own joy, defying others’ expectations. Expectations like leading a Major League Baseball team. From the brink of elimination. To their first World Series Championship since 1989.  That was 23 years ago. Urgh, now my heart aches…

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I’m an avid listener to npr.org and came across a story on Julia Kozerski, a woman who lost 160 pounds in one year, documenting her transformation through self-pictures. Now we’ve all seen extreme weight loss stories, whether they’re on exercise infomercials, reality TV, or commercials for Subway, but they are still, nonetheless, extraordinary.  I’ve always been amazed by the discpline it takes to change one’s routine to include good diet and regular exercise. While I’d always imagined the difficulty in regularly choosing the kale salad over an In-N-Out Double-Double or enduring burning thighs while working a flight of stairs, Ms. Kozerski discussed a challenge I’d never considered:


I recall the thrills of trying on smaller sizes and the satisfaction of feeling more attractive, even sexy. More so, I remember the devastation of not recognizing the person reflected back to me in the mirror (emphasis added). – Julia Kozerski

I was floored. I couldn’t understand. Devastated? Isn’t this what she wanted? How could she still be so attached to her weight when her whole goal over the past few months was to lose it? Was she insane?

Of course, she wasn’t. Or rather, she’s insane as we humans are. We’re insane in that we know certain activities are good for us. Exercising. Healthy eating. Saving money. Reading. We may do these activities a few times, and we may even remember how great we felt after we accomplished them. We’re insane in that despite all those wonderful consequences, we’re still compelled to go back to our old routine: to veg out on facebook, to sit on the couch and watch TV for 4 hours, to gorge on potato chips, to sleep the weekend away. We’re insane in that despite how terrible those old habits make us feel, we still go back to them because we absurdly believe they define who we are. Like how, in a moment of madness, Ms. Kozerski believed she was her weight. And how she felt devastated thinking that losing her weight meant losing herself.

But we know better. Ms. Kozerski is not just her weight. And we are not just our vices. We are also our dreams and desires, and they deserve nourishment. Every now and then the storms of madness come, trying to scare us back to the past, especially when the future is so radically promising. But it’s not really madness, it’s just human. Storms pass, and we move on.

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