Monday, October 29, 2012

When austerity is a choice

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." ~ Mae West

Walking down the aisles in the Halloween candy section of Target your mouth starts to involuntarily water as the walls of creamy, yummy, melt-in-our-mouth candy envelops you. It wraps you in a blanket of psychological comfort like few other things. 

Based on the number of candy grabbers that hit up your door last year, you toss the exact amount you need for the cute but borderline aggressive Trick or Treaters. As you walk away, you decide to grab one more bag "just in case." Never mind that extra bag is your absolute favorite type of candy -- if you're REALLY going to eat it! 

Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge -- say no more... Okay, yes, this happened to me yesterday. I admit it.

Everyday we are bombarded with visual cues like this. We run through each hour of each day with very good intentions, but research already knows those good intentions will likely be abandoned as our day wears on. We then blame ourselves and call ourselves weak and lazy when really it's less about that and more about the internal cycle we ride and even perpetuate (and exaggerate) with our choices and actions.

At the moment I'm reading Alain de Botton's book Status Anxiety. In it he mentions then vice president Nixon's 1959 visit to the USSR when he showcased the USA's industrial achievements through an exhibit of the average home of a working class family. During a speech he gave on Soviet radio, de Botton notes that Nixon accurately recounts, much to Khrushchev's chagrin, the following:
" just a few hundred years, Western countries had managed, through enterprise and industry, to overcome the poverty and famine that had gripped the world until the middle of the eighteenth century...Americans had purchased 56 million television sets and 143 million radios."
To the Soviet listeners this was astounding and to Khrushchev painfully embarrassing. Political tension aside, what was more important about this moment was how far we'd traveled as a people. de Botton continues:
"The majority of the population of medieval and early modern Europe had belonged to the peasant class. Impoverished, undernourished, cold and fearful while alive, they were usually dead -- following some further agony -- before their fortieth birthday. After a life time of work, their most valuable possession might have been a cow, a goat or a pot. Famine was never far off, and disease was rife..."
In just a matter of a few hundred years thanks to new industry and farming techniques, people went from a questionable existence in desperate conditions to a state were luxuries were commonplace and even seen as "necessities." This prosperity was reflected in annual styles in fashion to multiple types of processed foods, machines, and clothing. 

Suddenly people -- NOT just the exclusive minority -- had options and A LOT of them. During this time marketing as a discipline was born and the idea of "have to have" and "nice to have" was turned on its ear.

Examining your habits through their austerity
A friend of mine is in the process of going through a 14-day cleanse which involves a lemonade concoction and no solid foods. Other friends of mine have gone through the same experience, and I have done a variation on the theme myself from time to time over the years. All of us had different reasons for participating in such an extreme experience, and all of us seemed to get something out of it.

I find it curious, however, that while we live in the most prosperous time in human history, we choose to practice austerity. Why? 

People in less prosperous nations would love to have half of what we have in the western world and yet we consciously practice NOT enjoying it (or we go to the other extreme and lose ourselves in it).

Could it be that we can actively practice austerity to "return" to ourselves because we know it will end? 

I think it's true we can do most anything thing unpleasant as long as there's hope it will end. My time in the military and in war taught me this. At that level, it's just a game, a puzzle to be solved.

Immersion in "have not" becomes...
When you're hungry, priorities shift. Things that seemed important in your everyday life are less so as your body adjusts to its new current state. As the body is shifts into survival mode, your metabolism slows while your insides try to be as efficient as possible with limited resources. 

Then your chemistry alters which influences how you think and what you feel. Awareness is raised as you experience more direct interaction between mind and body because the "clutter" of your day is forgotten. You have the opportunity to observe ego - your internal chatter. In time even that grows quiet. You begin to experience the ebb and flow of focus that follows the rhythm of your body's response to deprivation. The experience makes us ask ourselves why we do what we do day in and day out.

Countless people have voluntarily fasted for long periods of time. It's been used for radical behavior change, political protest, and military discipline. Austerity was and still is considered a right of passage for religious practice. Even the Buddha practiced austerity, but interestingly Enlightenment didn't live in austerity as he and others eventually discovered.

The more we have the less we feel...
Caloric restriction reminds me of the dying process or any other type of event we personally deem critical. Suddenly what was so important becomes less so. The things we did to fill our days are now unappealing and in some cases seem indulgent or infantile. Caloric restriction makes us really feel again.

My first experience with this was way back in undergrad school. I was a sophomore with the classic "freshman 15." In my first year or so of adjusting to adulthood I did too much of somethings and not enough of others. As a result, I gained weight, felt sluggish, and wondered if I'd ever climb out of the rut in which I'd taken up residence.

One day I ran across an article in a magazine that asked a simple question: Do you remember what it feels like to feel hungry?

"Well, no, as a matter of fact, I don't," I thought. It was right then I resolved to rediscover it. I fasted, and oh boy, it didn't take long to remember. This and subsequent health issues of important people in my life kicked off a long journey of experimentation with my relationship to food, drink, and exercise. 

The light and the dark sides of austerity
Challenge and change are beautiful things. It's deeply empowering to take charge of yourself and your behavior. But as people who don't have as we do would tell you, it's not all that it's cracked up to be. After living and/or working in many third world countries, I know this first hand.

I'm not trying to be a killjoy for anyone wanting to experiment, change habits, or test themselves. I just want to share what I've learned over the many years I've practiced caloric restriction. I feel great when I do it - no doubt. I need less sleep, I'm more focused, and I feel lighter which consequently makes my workouts better, my relationships happier, and my production greater, but there's a dark side.

I've learned when I don't get enough calories, my experience of life and being in life are severely impacted. I grow dark, irritable, and depressed. I cut people off and feel less giving and caring for others. At first I feel more control only to have very little control in the end. 

Using a diet like this to radically change habits can be helpful, but it should include  some raw fruits and vegetables and be limited it to a few days especially when exercising intensely. Austerity raises awareness of so much, but it can also generate some nasty results as noted in the WebMD article The Lemonade Diet (Master Cleanse Diet).

Ride on the edge of discomfort. Challenge yourself everyday. But don't do it to the point of losing yourself and even others in the process.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The divide between great achievers and mediocre performers

Wisest is he who knows he does not know. ~Socrates

The Social Animal
I've been doing a slow, savoring read of David Brooks book The Social Animal. I've marked it up so much that I might need to buy another copy.

Brooks, a news writer, author, political commentator, and analyst, is a gifted storyteller. In this book he took research and integrated it into the story of Erica and Harold. He takes us through the trials and tribulations of their lifetime experiences as children, young adults, business partners, and spouses.

Although many things from the book resonated with me, the following was particularly powerful and timely:
"The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not divine spark. Instead, what really matters is the ability to get better and better gradually over time."
He continues with saying:
"Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously honing their performers devote five times more hours to become great than the average performers devote to become competent."
He also continues with differentiating the amount of time committed and the type of work the performers do during that time:
"Mediocre performers practice in the most pleasant way possible. Great achievers practice in the most deliberate and self-critical way. Often they break their craft down to its smallest constituent parts, and then they work on one tiny piece of the activity over and over again."
The point is not to just spend time practicing but also be thoughtful about what you're practicing. There is value to repetition. It's this repetition that becomes "muscle memory" or reflexive like I mentioned in my previous post.

Brooks mentions that in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, he said, "Every skill is a form of memory."

So get out there and practice presently and thoughtfully. Imagine how good you will feel and the good you can do with being the best you can be your craft.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Run to keep from tripping: Turning habits and routines into reflexes

The alarm goes off. You think, "I should workout," but then question the wisdom of such a thing when you can't even find the button on your alarm.

As you're getting ready for your day, you catch a glimpse of your running shoes faithfully waiting for you in the last place you put them. This time you say to yourself, "I'm almost ready to scoot so I'll hit it this afternoon."

The day is full, and at the end of it you feel like you've been passed through a meat grinder. As you scan the fridge or the cupboards at home for crackers, chips, cookies, or anything that will take the edge of the day, you remember your running shoes. Reaching into the bag of crackers you just found you say out loud, "I'm beat. Tomorrow I'll do it for sure."

And what of tomorrow? In the back of your mind you know it will probably play out just like today.

Habits are a curious thing. Habits are the basis of our routines. Routines are what give us some sense of immediate control, comfort, and familiarity. Even when I'm traveling I maintain aspects of my routine that I established long ago. It's the routine that reduces anxiety, takes the edge off, and makes things feel more NORMAL.

Several years ago I traveled to Sydney, Australia. In total it was a 17 hour trip from where I lived at the time. It wasn't my first long trip across the ocean, but it was brutal nonetheless. By the time I arrived at my hotel, I was completely exhausted. People there were just getting rolling with their day when I was simply trying to figure out what day it was. At home it was winter. There it was summer. The date I left was very different from the date when I arrived. At least the hotel was nice and had a cozy bed that called me with a very strong, enticing voice.

"Flying fox"
The minute I heard that captivating, hypnotic "call" I reached for my running shoes. I didn't even think about it. It was reflexive. I put them on and hit the streets. Eight miles later I felt energized, awake, and oriented to a strange but beautiful city. I discovered the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House, and the biggest bats hanging from trees that I'd ever seen in my life. Although they are referred to as "flying foxes," I swear they looked like cats hanging upside down. I remember feeling stunned and amazed when I looked around and no one sitting at tables under them and walking around them seemed the least bit phased. If my reflexes had not been fully intact that day, I would have missed this sight and so much more.

Now the point of this is not to talk about bats. It's about taking the road less traveled - the road that's harder to take especially in the face of easier paths. The habit you form today will be your reflexes for tomorrow.

When I was a kid I was on the cheerleading squad, drill team, and track team. I played tennis, did a ton of hiking, and was basically a committed tomboy. As I got older I tried weightlifting, aerobics, kickboxing, tai chi, and yoga. I also ran off and on throughout my life participating in 3K, 5K, and 10K races. While running is the one activity I've done consistently, it didn't come easily.

Vargas Pin-up Girl
I remember the times I struggled with getting started and every step I took while on a run was a grueling chore. My mind was filled with sabotaging statements at regular intervals.
- "Just turn around because your lungs can't handle it."
- "You don't have time for this - there are a gazillion other things that need to be done."
- "That pain in my leg is just going to get worse."
- "You'll never be the best runner so why bother?"
- "No amount of this will get you the body you want."

And the chatter went on.

Sound familiar?

Over time I found it wasn't my body with which I battled but rather my head. It felt like a war raging inside of me. My mind stayed on high alert for the least hint of pain or discomfort. It canvased the never ending To Do list in the back of my head. But what it boiled down to is that it WAS HARD, it TOOK TIME, and results didn't COME FAST ENOUGH.

I thought about all of this yesterday after my 13.31 mile run. A friend of mine is getting back into running after sustaining an injury six months ago. I had gotten into a bit of a rut with my own runs, and so we decided to challenge each other. Now, I don't like to admit that I'm competitive, but, yes, I'm deeply competitive. If someone teases me, doubts or says I can't do something, or issues a challenge, I'm probably not just going to take it on but instead try to one up even if it's just a little bit. This competitiveness is less about winning and more about deepening the experience of my routine so the positive experiences drown out the negative chatter.

Below I have a trip with pics in HipGeo that I took while on my run. Times for my run can be seen at if you're interested.

You don't have to take up running. The activity is not as important as the regular practice. If it is positive, it will make you feel more present with yourself and others and give you some sense of accomplishment. The more you do it, the less control the negative chatter in your head will have because it becomes reflexive. You just do it.

Change is big so start small. Pace yourself. Celebrate little wins along the way. It's been a while since I've run this far, and standing in my closet I almost talked myself out of it. I'd already showered and was settling into a lazy Sunday afternoon, but then I remembered Australia and reached for my running shoes. I would miss something if I tripped on this commitment to myself and the guilt would ruin my "lazy" Sunday.

At the end of it I whooped, laughed, and hugged myself. I was exhausted but euphoric. I'll take that feeling over guilt for not doing it any day of the week.

Glad my reflexes didn't let me trip.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Privacy and Sharing: How much is too much in a social world?

Have you ever had...

Political opinions
Someone sharing to the point of spamming your Facebook page with indignant, in-your-face opinions about their favorite political candidate and then not tolerating any opinion different from their own.

Another person regularly peppering your Twitter feed with weight loss opportunities when you're the last person who wants or needs such things.

A couple's constant stream of syrupy, too intimate flirty comments make you nearly blush or want to wretch.

We all have. 

It's a complete turn off that leaves us questioning why we bother to wade through a sea of TMI or CUI (completely useless info) just to find some truly helpful stuff.

So what happened to their social sensor? How can they not see when too much is, well, too much?

Or is it?

This morning in Fred Wilson's newsletter he shared Public Sharing vs Private Sharing which got me thinking (again) about how much is TOO much and how much is NOT enough in social sharing. Wilson makes a great point about this. I've summed it up in my social share:

Something with which I struggle: How much is too much. This article offers good reasons for opening up. Learn. Connect. Public Sharing vs Private Sharing #social

Research does show that anonymity in sharing actually generates more "honest" discussion, but I think the trollers, who are like hecklers at a comedy show or political rally, kinda ruin it for some people because it feels contrived and unkind. Also people who overshare seem too be self-involved, insensitive to others, or emotionally stunted so your average person shies away from being thrown into that pile. Unfortunately in a social world we see too little from people who could actually generate useful, meaningful dialogue, and we see too much of some people who have narcissistic tendencies or poor filter control.

Beyond butterflies and rainbows (a nod to my friend Greg Dunbar)
I do think we create opportunities when we are more transparent. We can form new connections, generate dialogue, and learn just as Wilson did with his post about the art he saw. I take and post a ton of pictures in various social media sites like HipGeo, and while the pictures are nice and get a few "likes" I recognize I'm missing opportunities to expand the experience with owning what I don't know and asking questions for the things I'm curious about.

An example is the picture of the rainbow I took yesterday afternoon. I don't know that much about weather and rainbows, and if I'd added a question about that for the pic I took below, I might have learned a few things from my community. I didn't so while it's a lovely picture, the opportunity to deepen the experience by learning from my network was missed.

I've struggled with content and transparency here in my blog and other social media accounts. At first my posts were quite "in the moment," and then I went down a rabbit hole with focusing on behavior-based project management. I love the subject, but I don't want to write and share about it all the time.

The intent of this blog and my overall social experience was to take top-of-mind ideas, experiences, and questions and share my thoughts while hearing the thoughts of others. I was doing that to an extent and then I went too vertical. I'm a "T" shaped thinker (horizontal and vertical - see earlier post) so this didn't fit with my personal approach to information and design, and it wasn't honest to the point of creating the kind of dialogue I crave with others.

Social media networks are not replacements to our "first"life, but rather an extension of it that creates opportunities to learn, expand, and grow through the observations, knowledge, experiences, and insights of others. When used with purpose and thoughtfulness we deepen our awareness and create the opportunity to help others with what we and our connections know. We connect the dots to something far bigger than ourselves.

Sit on the edge of discomfort
Don't be afraid to open up a little. If you put something out there, be open to what you get back. When you share, ask questions - seek to understand, not to refute. Let your differences with others be opportunities for sharing perspective instead of taking up turfs.

You might just be surprised by the good you enjoy and create for others. Social media, when used well, can contribute to making the world a better place beyond butterflies and rainbows.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pinterest images that tell the story of self

Si dipinge col cervello et non con le mani. --Michelangelo Buonarotti
[One paints with the brain, and not the hands.]

This image has been by far the most popular repin I have on Pinterest. It's been on one of my boards for quite some time, but I still get a notification almost weekly that it's been shared once again. 

When I first saw it, I lost my breath without really knowing why. I just knew it touched some deep place in me and does even now as I steal glances at it while I type. Of course, that got me thinking (again) about the value of images as reflections of our deepest self. I've been kicking around an idea to write an article about Pinterest as a personality and values assessment tool. I believe if we step back from the obvious in terms of things people "like" and "share" in social media sites and look at the information as a collection, we can infer things about ourselves (why we are drawn to it) and about others (why they share).

I know "likes" and "sharing" are simple to do and some question how transparent we really are with what we share, but we still are picking and choosing what we like and share because our time is so limited. This is why I think the information is useful as an assessment tool of personality and values. We build communities from content we are drawn to and share. Why couldn't that same content offer reflection points for ourselves. Often art is a reflection point of the artist and what they see. I think we can use the art, music, photography, etc that draws us in as sources of insight. 

Next time you see something that takes your breath away consider how you experience it physically and emotionally. 
- Does a memory pop in your head? 
- Do you recall a scent or a sound? 
- Do you feel changes in the pit of your stomach or heat reaching up through your chest to your face?
- Have you had a response like that before and when?