Hardwired

My Fitbit begins to vibrate. The time is 3:29 a.m. I have one minute before the alarm goes off on my phone. This is about as gentle as a wake-up as I can get. Oh, and if I turn my phone alarm off in time, I won’t wake up my wife. Later, I will check my Fitbit app to see how I slept. If I am lucky, I will have gotten close to six hours hitting all the key metrics except for the stage the says “AWAKE.” That is if I am lucky, but chances are, I am not. Right now, it does not matter, I must get going. There is not a lot of time to waste, so I get dressed, drink water, and head to the refrigerator where I retrieve the cold-brew coffee I prepared the day before. The coffee is bitter and cold, exactly what I needed.

3:45 a.m. I am in the garage setting up. My heart rate chest strap is on and connected to both the Polar Beat app and to the Concept 2 rowing machine. The water bottle and the towel are both in their places. The program is set and now it is time. It is time to settle in and row.

Most days the program is set for one steady, keep your heart rate low, hour. I was approached by someone on Twitter (@jjtron83) about this regimen. It sounded different, so I did the research. The credit goes to the East Germans in the late 1960’s. I had big goals and no solid plan to reach it. “Why not,” I told myself. At the worst it could only cost me a couple of months.

Hardwired for Success

In the early days of giving this a try, my body gave me some excellent feedback. I had a few form issues I needed to iron out. The biggest one was one of consistency. One moment I would be sitting tall in the saddle like a seasoned fox hunter. The next moment I would be slumped over like a seventy-year-old lifelong desk jockey. But as I put in the hours, the better my consistency in maintaining my form and posture. Don’t get me wrong, I have a long, long ways to go before this is where I want it to be, but it is starting to improve.

Another issue I was dealing with was timing. What does one stroke every three seconds look like? And much like posture, this is all about keeping focused. It doesn’t take long for me to go from intentional rowing to a Sunday paddle in the virtual pond. If I lose my focus, which I do often, my stroke rate goes all over the radar and my efficiency begins to suffer.

When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient.

With practice, and this is certainly a practice, everything is starting to improve. Rowing is becoming a part of my fitness identity. It is becoming a part of my DNA.

Seeing Everything

Back to those first few sessions…

With this program, there was a lot to monitor: stroke rate (set at 18 strokes per minute), 500 meter splits (this is more about establishing consistency than it is about the actual time), and heart rate (no higher than 145 beats per minute). I had a hard time settling into a rhythm because my focus was everywhere. I also had the television on. I figured this was grueling work, and it would be nice to have a distraction. A distraction was the last thing I needed. I needed focus, a hyper awareness of what was going on within my body. I am reminded of the words of my favorite samurai/philosopher Miyamoto Musashi who said, “If you know the way broadly, you will see everything.” I was not paying enough attention, and therefore I was seeing too little.

The mind is no longer mired in the details, but can see the larger picture. It is a miraculous sensation and practice will lead you to that point, no matter the talent level you are born with.

Once again it comes down to practice. It is like the veteran race car driver. Every lap and all the small details are important. But if he cannot see the big picture and does not have a competitive car that can make it to the end, he is not going to be successful. You must know the way broadly so you can see everything. With practice, you can go beyond the minor details and move on to the big picture.

A Breathing Meditation

I was a bit afraid of the boredom and that was why the TV was on in the first place. But I found something worse than boredom, I found an unnecessary distraction. Boredom is a killer for many. We have trained ourselves to be always engaged. Remember when kids used to be bored when they had nothing to do? But these days, this is a rarity. Now they have their phones, tablets, games, and the latest streaming platform. They are always engaged. And it is not just them. We have trained ourselves to be always engaged.

My rowing buddy, who introduced me to this program, calls his early morning sessions a breathing meditation. Over the last few years, I have been making meditation a practice, one that I continue to struggle with today. Once again, it is not easy to quiet an overly stimulated mind. But this practice of meditation teaches us one important lesson. It teaches us to be in the present. No past, no future, only here, in the now. Rowing without distraction is exactly that. You are in the present moment with every stroke, every recovery before the next stroke, every breath, and every beat of the heart. Nothing else in that moment matters. It is a perfect meditation practice which can only help throughout the day to get past the distractions and get into mindfulness.

The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions -boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity…The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle.

We don’t always have to be engaged. Having nothing to do is fine. It is good to take a moment and do nothing. We can use that time to say a prayer of gratitude, feel the sunshine, and enjoy the present moment. We can be at peace in the present moment, free of regret (the past) and anxiety (the future).

Faith in the Process

I believe with every fiber of my being, that this program will make me a more powerful and efficient rower. I believe that the wisdom, courage, and discipline I develop through this sport will make me a better person in other areas of my life, where those virtues can be applied.

Faith in the process. It is another lesson I am learning that goes beyond the rowing machine. It is another concept I am bringing to life.

The italicized words in this post come from the book Mastery by Robert Greene.  It is an excellent book that I highly recommend and will become part of my stable of go-to books to read again in the future. The following paragraph is from page 77:

When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient. Assuming your practice proceeds at a steady level, over days and weeks certain elements of the skill become hardwired. Slowly, the entire skill becomes internalized, part of your nervous system. The mind is no longer mired in the details, but can see the larger picture. It is a miraculous sensation and practice will lead you to that point, no matter the talent level you are born with. The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions—boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity. You cannot suppress such emotions—they are normal to the process and are experienced by everyone, including Masters. What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure. The frustration is a sign of progress—a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice. The insecurities will transform into their opposites when you gain mastery. Trusting this will all happen, you will allow the natural learning process to move forward, and everything else will fall into place.

I would like to thank my rowing partner Jean-Jacques (@jjtron83).  He introduced me to this plan and held me accountable by including me in his posts. He is a phenomenal rower and to me an insightful mentor/coach. He is a part of the good side of Twitter where positivity and uplifting others reign supreme.

Separation through Practice

The great separator will be practice. It will be the time spent mastering the skill. It is the difference between the hobbyist and the artist. One views it as novel, the other as the very meaning of life.

Generally, we are all the same. But the one who spends the most time in practice, that person will be the one that can overcome any lack of natural talent. Through practice we can become something better than what we were.

By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart. –Confucius

What is it that you are wanting to get better at? What skill do you want to master? Become the student. Learn. Practice. Repeat.

Talents and Mastery

Use your gifts faithfully, and they shall be enlarged;

What are my gifts? This is not a time to be self-deprecating. I have to take a moment and figure out what gifts I have been given. Are there any areas where I am naturally talented? It isn’t an easy question. I can easily see the gifts in others. I can do many things well, but really talented? Maybe my gifts are a smattering of a bunch of different things. If so, then this is where I will concentrate and faithfully utilize my smatterings.

What if I have no gifts? What if there is no natural talent bursting from within me? No worries. I must do what I can with what I have. If I am faithful in these little things, who knows, I might be able to see where my talents reside.

Practice what you know, and you shall attain to higher knowledge.

As Augustus Octavius said, “Practice, the master of all things.” A practice executed daily becomes second nature. Practice makes us better and makes the execution of difficult tasks much easier. Can we advance to more complex tasks without practice?

Running has always been a struggle for me. I had no formal training growing up. In the Army, I became faster and could run longer, but it was still a struggle. Over the last few years, I spent more time practicing my technique. I became more conscious of bad habits. Am I a great runner today? Not at all, but I am a better runner than I was when I was younger. In no way am I faster, but I can run longer. I enjoy it more, and the toll on my body is not as severe as they were back in those Army days. Why? Practice, the master of all things. The more I run, the better runner I become.

Running is not a gift, but it is something that can be practiced. If I can practice the hard things, how much easier will it be to practice the talents I have been given?

Train for Courage

Courage 12/12/2019

Those first two months in my new position at work was rough. Everything was new. My level of expertise was developed in a quick training plan. I had very little experience in the field to draw from. To present my work was daunting as well. What if I made the wrong call? It could have an effect on the livelihoods of my fellow co-workers.

But as the days went by, I developed a greater familiarity with the work I was doing. I continued to train on my own. I grew in experience. Now, I make calls with greater confidence and present those calls without fear.

It’s my theory that the better trained you are, the more natural courage you have, because you have a belief in yourself. –David Hackworth

What are the things you fear? Is it a rational fear, or is it something that you can conquer? If other people have found a way, then it is possible for you to find a way as well. Bring to light that which you fear. Become familiar with it. Train for the inevitability that you will have to one day face that fear. Prepare yourself now, so that you don’t shy away from it when the day comes. With courage you will be able to rely on your training and overcome the obstacle that stands in your way.

It Begins With Practice

This is the first in a 7-part series comparing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to youth wrestling and how we can apply these lessons in our own lives.

Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old put themselves beyond defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. –The Art of War, Chapter 4:1 Tactical Dispositions

It Begins with Practice

Alec is about to wrap up his second season of wrestling. With a month left to go in the season, I am amazed that he still only knows a few basic moves. At first I was frustrated. Why isn’t the coach teaching them new moves? Every week it seems like we go over the same fundamentals and rarely add anything new. How will Alec be able to compete against other wrestlers with so small an arsenal of moves?

Though I have good intentions for his future in wrestling, the last question was not a good one to ask. A better question would be to ask: Has he mastered the moves he does know? Unfortunately, the answer is no. He has not mastered them. Don’t get me wrong. He has made remarkable improvements over last year. But in terms of mastery, he still has a long ways to go. How can he hope to learn new moves, when the basics have not been perfected? He needs to keep practicing until they become a part of his nature.

Practice, the master of all things. –Octavius Augustus

The first way to put yourself beyond defeat: Practice the things you know until you have mastered them and can execute them without flaw.

Last week, we practiced defending the head and arm throw. It is a favorite method of attack used by other local teams. Because it is easy to defend, we do not teach this attack on our team. To teach the boys how to defend the move, we had to show them how to execute the move. It wasn’t until after they learned the move that we could move on to its defense.

This leads to the second way you can put yourself beyond defeat: Identify the things you don’t know.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. –Confucius

When you watch a football game on television, you only see the finished product. What you don’t see is the hours of watching film. The team is not only studying its own strengths and weaknesses, but it is also studying the other team’s. In essence, they conduct an analysis method known as S.W.O.T.

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats

The good fighters of old were courageous. How were they courageous? They practiced what they knew until they became masters. They identified their weaknesses and then practiced to correct those issues. They studied themselves. They studied their enemies. When you read the stories of the old fighters, you only read about the finished product. It was the years of preparation before the battle that put them beyond defeat.

Who is the opponent in your life? Who or what is the enemy? We may not have someone out there looking to do us harm, but we all are fighting battles. It would be foolish to think we can win some of these battles overnight. We have to put in the work. We have to build the right habits that will put us in position to achieve success. For those who want to move forward in life, keep practicing.

Grow in Confidence Through Experience

As a gymnast, Alec, is confident and daring. He doesn’t give a second thought to trying new tricks, because he knows based on previous experience, that he can eventually master them. At the age of six, he is the youngest and smallest Level 2 gymnast in his developmental class.

As a wrestler, Alec, is completely different. His years practicing gymnastics has given him an edge in strength and coordination, but he is lacking confidence. Even as he begins his second season in wrestling, he is still an only child getting used to an aggressive sport that puts a whole different type of stress on his body.

I want him to be more aggressive as a wrestler. I want him to know that not everything has to hurt. But as much as I want him to progress quickly as a wrestler, I also have to realize that it takes time. And for Alec, it takes experience. The more he practices and the more experience he gains, the greater his confidence will grow.

It is easy for us to have confidence that we will exceed in whatever endeavors we pursue. Why start them if we don’t think we can complete them? The greater your confidence in your own abilities, the greater the chances that you will succeed. But where does this faith in your abilities come from? It comes from experience. It comes from practice. Through work we can lay the foundation that will give our faith the chance to flourish. As the apostle James said, “Faith without works is dead.”  (James 2:26)

Your chances of success in any undertaking can always be measured by your belief in yourself. –Robert Collier

In the Forge

It begins as a lump of steel. It gets forged with heat, so that it can be shaped. Then it gets ground down, filed down, and cut down. It experiences extreme heat and extreme cold. The steel continues to get stressed until it is hardened. Once the blade has its shape and its strength, then it can be polished.

The sword arm starts out in a similar way. It begins as a lump of flesh and bone, but in time it can be shaped. On the training grounds, it can be stressed until it hardens. And once it has its shape and strength, it can be the weapon that is worthy to wield the blade.

Without a sword arm, the sword is useless and dangerous. It could be a decoration on the wall, or it could be a grotesque tool in a clumsy hand. The sword’s true purpose can only be realized by the warrior trained to use it.

The pen is mightier than the sword. –Edward Bulwer-Lytton

It begins as a jumble of words and ideas. Thoughts fluttering in the ether waiting to be caught. Moved to paper, they begin to take shape. They begin to become solid. In the forge, they get ground, filed, and cut. All the superfluities removed. In time, once the process is completed, the result may be something beautiful and polished.

Just as a swordsman must prepare for the day of battle, so a writer must prepare. Daily practice. Daily study. The mind has to be shaped, and it has to be strengthened. The writer will experience extreme heat from the critics and extreme cold from the disinterested. If the writer can overcome these trials, the message can indeed be mighty.

A pen, not used as a decoration, can also be dangerous in the wrong hands. A reader’s mind has to be strong as well. This too can come from practice.

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. –Proverbs 22:6

It was a proud moment coming home from work when my son showed me a large pile of books and a new library card. This soon-to-be six year-old has a voracious appetite for reading and his skills are really accelerating. It is truly exciting to imagine the opportunities if he continues to cultivate this super-power throughout his lifetime.

Bo's lasting lessons
Could this be when Alec first developed his love for books?

I loved reading as a child but fell away from it as a teen. It wasn’t until a very boring field exercise in the Army that I started reading again. Once that bug infected me, I couldn’t stop. I developed my skill as a reader through fiction in those early days, and it truly has helped in my ability to read non-fiction. It was in those Army days, that I first began to realize that I, too, wanted to be a writer. But in order to be a good writer, a writer, as Epictetus says, has to write. And back then, I didn’t have the discipline to stick with it. I was arrogant and thought it would come naturally. What foolishness. It is on the training ground that a warrior learns the art that prepares him for battle. Likewise, it is in the training of daily practice, that a writer can master his art.

Epictetus: Wanna be a writer, write.