Feeling Ambitious

As January comes to a close I thought I might provide a fitness update.

After reviewing my 2016 stats on Smashrun.com, I decided that, since I came in under 1,000 total miles last year, I ought to try for over 1,000 miles of running this year. That works out to be about 2.75 miles per day, which feels pretty reasonable to me. If nothing else, I need only have a year similar to last year, but without a big gaping break in June.

Reasonable goals are nice and provide good satisfaction when you reach them, but ambitious goals are even more fun.

I had a rather ambitious idea shortly after coming up with my 1,000-mile goal: What if I were able to run for 100 consecutive days, without taking any formal rest days. If I needed a rest day, I could just run very slowly or very low mileage, or both. Given how much I run, the challenge for 100 consecutive days of running is not physical, per se. I won’t find it physically daunting to go out for a run every day for one hundred days. On the other hand, ensuring that my schedule remains free and open such that I always have time to go for a run is quite another story. Keeping my will power attuned to a goal like that is also a major challenge since people like to take days off every once in a while. On a nice and sunny day, or a cold and stormy one, it’s easy to let the workout slide and go do something else. In short, running one hundred days in a row is a challenge that is more mental than physical.

It’s been going well. By the time most of you read this, I will have run twenty consecutive days, a fifth of the way to my endpoint.

Ten days into my project, however, there was another development. My wife because a Beachbody coach and subscribed us to Beachbody On Demand, the company’s streaming video service. It is essentially “Netflix for exercise videos,” if you will, and it comes with the ability to stream the world-famous P90X program. This is something I have always wanted to try, and having it “on tap” in my own home proved to be too great a temptation to resist.

As a result, I am now waking up at four o’clock every morning and working my way through a 60-to-90-minute P90X workout. And that’s in addition to my continued progress toward a hundred days of running.

Today I’m ten days into P90X and twenty days into my running goal. If all goes well, I’ll finish both initiatives on exactly the same day and I will have accomplished two reasonably difficult fitness goals at exactly the same time.

Ambitious? Yes. Will I be able to do it? I’m not sure. But if I do, it might be the most difficult physical undertaking I’ve ever managed. Wish me luck!


Narcissism And Truth In Politics

These guys are becoming an easy target these days, but in this case they happen to have saddled-up one of my hobby horses, so it's time to comment.

The topic du jour is "post-truth" and journalism. If you're committed to taking the written world only ever at face-vale, as the Sweet Talkers seem to be, then the question is why don't facts matter so much in politics? Why does the mainstream media so often publish lies?

The question not being asked - the question that actually contains the answer - is Why do I keep reading all these articles, even when the majority are ideologically slanted, many are factually incorrect, and the rest don't tell me anything I don't already know?

Well, here's a five-year-old explanation for you. It's got everything we're still talking about today: fake news, ideological polarization, and one important fact about the news you read:
It's easy to guess that the target demo for Fox & Friends is white women over 55 who have to get their teenage kids off to the methadone clinic and are perfectly content with a flip phone. "I don't need a touchscreen to fellowship with the Lord." Fair point. Gretchen Carlson is a standard example of what that demo calls a "well put together woman"-- heavy foundation, dresses that fit easily over Spanx and the hypercoiffed hairdo preferred by men who first ejaculated in the 1970s. I just got the shivers. Fun fact: Michele Bachmann was her babysitter back in the day. "Michele who?" Exactly. Remember how you were told she mattered, and you believed it? Kept you out of the game for 2 years 11 months, well done. Assange was right, the internet does make it easier for us to think for ourselves. 
What's not easy to guess, yet importantly true, is that the other target demo for Fox & Friends is everyone who viscerally hates that first demo. Do you think it upsets Fox that their footage is making The Huffington Post a lot of money? All part of the plan. The battle isn't Red v. Blue, but Purple v. You. You lose.
Post-truth means we have entered an era in which truth is literally unimportant to people. See for example here, which should give you just a taste of the overall argument against Scott Sumner's Rorty-ish tendency to say anything and everything as long as it advances his narrative.

It comes down to the reason people advance a narrative today. It used to be that the narrative was intended to persuade. Now the intent is somewhere between magical thinking (take, for instance, Trump's claim that God made it stop raining for his inaugural address) and quasi-religious team cheer-leading (take, for example, a "women's march" that has no clear policy objective).

Stripped to its essence, "public discourse" has gone from making claims to swearing allegiance to groups who make claims. That's identity politics for you. Note well the difference between "I believe in women's rights" and "I am part of the group that believes in women's rights." The first statement gives you something to talk about; the second statement is... well, I'd use the phrase "a mask," but others would use the phrase "moral grandstanding" What good is it to make claims and support them with evidence if you don't genuflect to our collective sense of identity?

Post-truth means that advertisers and politicians are the same people now. See how many SEO specialists write for think-tanks these days. It's not about the issues anymore, it's about branding. What's your brand? People don't vote according to their party, but according to their brand. That's why you've got Silicon Valley techno-libertarians and "libertarians for Trump." You'd think a bunch of people committed to principle - that is, you'd think libertarians, at least, if anyone - would be able to understand and sympathize with those who voted the other way. But that's not what happened. Why not? Branding.

To be sure, we all want facts to matter. But we just want them to matter. That doesn't mean they actually do. In the end, all these discussions are about branding, which is one reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the importance of results over theory. Political theory in the modern landscape is a "vanity project." It's not about what you believe, it's about how you believe it. Lew Rockwell and Roderick Long are both anarchists. Why does the first name make fans of the second name bristle, and vice-versa, if they're both committed to free market anarchism?

All anyone really cares about is their brand. It's a modern problem.


It's The Person, Not The Object

Suppose you’re trying to lose weight. You grab all the potato chips in the house, and you throw them in the garbage can, thereby ridding yourself of the temptation. You can’t eat what’s not in the house, after all, so you just rid the house of potato chips and that takes care of the problem.

On one level, this isn’t bad advice. If you have trouble overcoming temptation, then the next best thing is eliminating temptation. All the diet gurus recommend doing this. And maybe all you need to overcome your temptation in the first place is to go a few weeks without indulging in it. After that, the thinking might go, your cravings will disappear and your mind will recalibrate to a potato-chip-free lifestyle. Here’s hoping.

The fact of the matter is, though, that throwing the potato chips out doesn’t solve the underlying impulse control problem. It might help you lose weight, and it might help your palette adjust to new norms, but it won’t help you overcome your urge to seek instant gratification over long-term happiness. The only way you can beat that problem is by teaching yourself to abstain from potato chips even though you want to eat them. You’ll have to practice mindful self-deprivation. It’s not the potato chips’ fault. It’s not the fault of the mere presence  of temptation. It’s your fault. You’re in control. You’re steering the ship.

I was thinking about this in reaction to an interesting piece I read at OutsideOnline.com. In it, author Sam Robinson laments what the Strava app has done to his love for the solitude of running. Ordinarily, I would be inclined to agree. I, too, love the solitude I experience while running. Unlike Robinson, however, I do not allow my smartphone apps to interrupt that process. I don’t check my apps while I run. Even though they are social networks, I don’t allow the fact that people can see my stats to interrupt my thoughts as I run. Running has always been about solitude and meditation for me. Now smart phone app could ever change that.

But it’s not the app doing all this. That’s silly. If you’re so distracted by Strava that you can’t get a good long run in without feeling “connected,” then that’s a personal problem. If you can’t walk away from an internet argument, that’s a personal problem. If you can’t view Facebook without feeling bad about your life (as is true of many people who browse Facebook), that’s a personal problem.

We hear a lot about how technology is making our lives worse, but that’s a big of a ruse. What’s making our lives worse is our complete and utter lack of impulse control McDonald’s doesn’t make you fat, eating too much makes you fat. Facebook isn’t making you depressed, your jealous, envious narcissism is making you depressed. Strava isn’t taking away your solitude, your inability to forget about social networks for the 45 minutes required to get your run in is what’s taking away your solitude.

I write a lot about defense mechanisms on my blog, and this is one more to add to the pile. We lament the things we have trouble saying “no” to; we seldom lament our own inability to say no. Don’t focus on the objects, though, focus on your own shortcomings. You have to – that’s the only way to begin the hard mental work of change.


The Narrative Must Advance

There’s a concept that comes up at TheLastPsychiatrist.com: “writing your story toward an ending.” I like this concept, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

The Last Psychiatrist, of course, frames his blog posts in the language of narcissism. He advises people to write their stories toward an ending because a narcissist tends to feel that he or she is the “central character” in a story about himself/herself. When I think about this concept, on the other hand, I tend to think of it in slightly different language: the language of narrative. We all craft narratives about the important things in life. For example, I met my wife at a friend’s house party on Canada Day. When I think back about that party, I think of not as a Canada Day party with my friend, but as “the time I met the woman who would become my wife.” That’s a narrative.

Another example of a narrative is the way we explain our life’s circumstances. Suppose your roommate left some dirty dishes in the sink last night and you had to clean them up in the morning. There are a couple of narratives that might play out in your head. One is, “Argh, my roommate never does the dishes and I always have to clean them up!” Another might be, “My roommate must have had something come up last night; I’ll help out by doing the dishes.” What’s important in this example is that the narrative you choose in a particular situation can have a big impact on how you feel about that situation.

That’s why I always encourage people to craft positive narratives for their lives. Maybe it’s unfair that your roommate didn’t do the dishes last night, but you’ll certainly leave the house happier if you believe you were helping your busy roommate than you would if you believed your no-good roommate never helps out. If you want your roommate to get better at doing the dishes, you’ll have to talk to him. That conversation will go a lot better if you go into it asking how you might help your busy roommate so that the dishes can get done, compared to an antagonistic intervention in which you accused your roommate of being lazy.

Narratives matter, because they influence our reactions and the ensuing series of events.

But life also moves on, and sometimes our narratives – even the good ones – don’t keep up with the changes we’ve been through. Suppose your roommate got a lot better at doing the dishes after your chat. If you don’t take the time to notice that your roommate seldom leaves dirty dishes in the sink, then the next time he does it – even if it’s the first time in months – you might react negatively: “Again!? We talked about this!” But in that example, your roommate will have done nothing wrong. It’s your narrative that’s the problem, not your roommate’s one-off dirty dish.

The key point here is that the narrative must advance. If this sounds familiar to you, it might because I’ve written extensively about a special case of advancing the narrative: The Myth of the Perpetual Beginner. One challenge a lot of novice runners have is that they never figure out how not to be novices anymore. The years go by, but their relationship to the sport stays constant. They never improve their form (to prevent injuries), they never vary their training (to prevent fatigue and stagnation), and they never get beyond the same old routes and group runs. To get to the next phase, where they might enjoy fewer injuries and have a more fun time running, they must learn to advance their narrative, and become “experienced runners,” or at least intermediates.

This concept, of course, goes well beyond the relative trivialities of roommates and running. The Gottman Institute has identified the narrative surrounding a couple’s relationship as one of the most important aspects of a marriage. It can go both ways. If your narrative is all about how your spouse leaves dirty socks everywhere and doesn’t appreciate you, your marriage will deteriorate. If your narrative is all about how you two have a legendary romance that thoroughly enriches you, the two of you will make more of a point to come together (“turn toward each other,” in Gottman’s language) during harder times. But, of course, if you happen to have accidentally created a negative narrative and you want to turn it around, the narrative must advance. You must work on creating a love story between the two of you, and allowing that narrative to become the next chapter of your lives.

It’s easy for relatively stable and established adults to have narratives that get “stuck.” You wake up, you go to work, you come home to family responsibilities, you go to bed. Repeat. Then on weekends, you fill your time up with hobbies, yes, but hobbies don’t always have narratives, unless we infuse them with on. If you like to write, you should work on a writing project, and finish it, and move to the next one. If you like to run, you should train for something, and then do it, and then train for something new.

In all aspects, our narratives must advance, or else we will never really experience the forward progress of a life well-lived. Or so I’ve been thinking lately.