Stoicism Fail

A wannabe Cicero, I’ve enjoyed thinking about and trying to apply aspects of Stoicism to my life ever since reading William Irvine’s “A Guide to the Good Life” four or five years ago. The ancient philosophy’s anti-materialist emphasis on tranquility and joy resonates with me.

Irvine thoughtfully explains how to apply the ancient concepts to modern times. One stoic insight concerns internal goal setting. Irvine argues that we often succumb to negative emotions—anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy—because we focus too much on things outside of our control.

Irvine:

When a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus is goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.

This weekend, at my first triathlon competition in 10 plus months, I learned how far I have to go to apply this more Eastern, process-oriented approach to goal setting. I’ve always really enjoyed competing at Hagg Lake, a large clean body of water surrounded by dense woods 30 minutes west of Portland.

There’s another Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run) race in Portland every June that draws four times as many participants probably because it’s flat. The 11 mile road that loops Hagg Lake has one 300 meter flat stretch across the dam. Total elevation on the bike is 1,500′. The run is up and down throughout as well. It’s a course that’s perfectly suited to me. The hills are our friends.

Check out my times from my three Hagg Lake races.

Swim T1 Bike T2 Run Overall Time
2004 23:17 2:54 1:17:15 1:24 44:37 2:29:27
2007 23:08 3:37 1:16:16 1:32 45:23 2:29:56
2013 26:21 2:40 1:14:28 1:24 46:29 2:31:22

Note that I forgot to race in 2010. My goals for this year were to beat my 2004, 42 year-old self course record. I thought I could drop enough time in the bike leg to make up for a slight loss of time in the swim and run. Pretty darn Stoic I thought, racing against myself. But then I wavered. I looked up some of the guys who pre-registered and I knew I was faster than them based on previous races. I thought I could win my smallish, oldster age group.

Then I raced to the best of my ability. Which, if I was any kind of student of Stoicism, would be the end of the story. But of course it’s not. I passed a few guys in my age group during the run and thought I was probably second. In the finishing chute a 33 year old, who I had been leap frogging back and forth with throughout the bike and run, sprinted past me to finish 1 second ahead of me. He was pumped. I didn’t remind him that my wave started five minutes after his and that I beat him by 4:59. Hey everybody, gather round. Watch Ron carom off the Stoic rails.

After a dip in the lake with the world’s best wife but worst race photog, I checked out the results. Damn. I got spanked by four fellow geezers and finished fifth out of fifteen in my age group. Forget that “best of my ability” bullshit, I felt like I had failed. Doubly, as an athlete and Stoic. Why dear friends did I let the computer printout alter my mindset so much? I lost touch with the fact that I’m really lucky to both have the resources and be healthy enough to compete in a beautiful natural setting. And I lost touch with just how inconsequential my triathlon performance is in the grander scheme of things that matter even a little bit in life.

In hindsight, fifth out of fifteen isn’t terrible, but after my excellent performance at Canada last year (14th out of 217), I started to get cocky. In Canada I rolled for almost eleven hours, what’s two and a half? It showed in my poor race prep. Pre-race I ran twice off the bike for a total of 7 miles. And this summer I’ve blown off as many swim workouts as I’ve completed. And my cavalier attitude culminated in me forgetting my wetsuit which explains most of the additional time in the swim.

Truthfully though, best case scenario, had I remembered my wetsuit and trained with greater focus and intensity, I could have gone four or five minutes faster, but I still would have finished third or fourth.

See that, still focusing on time and placement. I have even more work to do as a Stoic than I do as a triathlete.

Pre-race breakfast at McMennamin's the Grand Lodge. The GalPal gave me the bottom bunk.

Pre-race breakfast at McMennamin’s the Grand Lodge. The GalPal gave me the bottom bunk.

Perfect weather, calm, 60 degrees, lake was 75

Perfect weather, calm, 60 degrees, lake was 75

Rockin' the daughter's sweatshirt

Rockin’ the daughter’s sweatshirt

The failed Stoic post-race

The failed Stoic post-race

The High Cost of Win-At-All Cost

In 1972, when I was the scrawniest ten year old swimmer in the Midwest portion of the United States, I competed in a big YMCA swim meet somewhere in Ohio. According to the buzz on the deck, one guy I had to swim against was the top ranked ten year old in the state. I can’t remember the stroke or distance. All I can remember is his psycho mother hovering behind the blocks prompting him to swim fast enough to hop out, towel off, and throw some clothes on. In her twisted mind, posting the fast time wasn’t enough, he had to belittle his competition. He executed her maniacal plan to perfection. Having lost the mother lottery, odds are his adult life didn’t turn out too well.

Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a., ” The Blade Runner”, has me thinking again about athletic competition and character.

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Conventional wisdom is that athletic competition enhances character. But when win-at-all cost thinking prevails, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Athletes shouldn’t bare all the blame for “win-at-all cost” approaches to sport. Among others, corporate sponsors, insecure parents, and rabid fans are all co-conspirators.

I recently read a book and watched a television series that powerfully illustrate the high cost of win-at-all cost thinking. The book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The television series, House of Cards, a Netflix original program.

On the Pad, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was 307 pages. The first 57 were decent, the last 250 truly outstanding. Billy Lynn is an 18-19 year-old Iraq war soldier. His Bravo troop is touring the United States following a widely reported and celebrated fire-fight with Al-Qaeda enemy combatants. Apart from a few flashbacks, the story encompasses about 48 hours, one day at a Dallas Cowboy game at Dallas Stadium and one day at Billy’s small-town Texas home.

Sometimes, when reading especially good fiction, I can’t help but stop and marvel at the artistry. Franzen’s Freedom was the last book that repeatedly stopped me in my tracks. The same with Fountain. “How did he do that?” I kept asking myself. Sometimes by “that” I mean how did he write a particularly beautiful sentence. More generally, I mean, how did he weave together details of soliders’ lives, the realities of modern warfare, the violence of professional football, class differences, family dysfunction, free-market economics, evangelical Christianity, and popular culture into a cogent anti-war argument? All of those sub-topics interest me, and I’m a dove, so it was as if Fountain set out to write a book for me, but if any of them interset you, I strongly recommend it.

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Netflix spent $100m to make 26 episodes of House of Cards, loosely based on a critically acclaimed 1990 British t.v. miniseries of the same name. The first 13 episodes are available to U.S. viewers. Netflix streaming costs $8/month. Think of House of Cards as a cross between The Sopranos and The West Wing. Kevin Spacey, the main character, is a phenomenally immoral, Machiavellian political heavyweight. The question isn’t whether should you watch it, the question is whether you can watch just one episode at a time. Long story short, Spacey, Francis Underwood, or FU, is the House Majority Whip who helped a Democrat get elected President. Underwood mistakenly expects to be appointed Secretary of State in return. Sent reeling, his immoral politicking is riveting stuff. Again, highly recommended.

Win-at-all-cost thinking is corrupting on athletic fields, on battlefields, in business, in politics, and in personal relationships. In every sphere of life. But we’re loathe to admit it because we loose perspective all too easily and are part of the win-at-all-cost problem.

If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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In Praise of Meghan Vogel

All the news isn’t bad. And maybe today’s youth aren’t a lost cause after all.

Sick and tired of big time college and professional sports? Knuckleheads running afoul of the law, the commercialism, the cheating, the excesses of competition. Then take a few minutes and read about how Ohio high school trackster Meghan Vogel (on the right below) recently stopped to help a fallen competitor across the finish line near the very end of the 3,200 meter final.

Maybe it’s an especially touching story because we mistakenly think competition is an elixir for all that ails us. Vogel’s decision highlights the power of cooperation. Her compassion and humble response to her fifteen minutes of fame inspire me. And the surprising decision by the meet officials not to apply the letter of the law and disqualify the two student-athletes warrants praise.

[But of course, all the news isn't good on the adolescent front.]

Vogel, “I just did what I knew was right.” Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

What’s Wrong With Me?

Here’s an email I sent two friends Monday evening after climbing Mount St. Helens on two wheels. 

74 miles, 6,590′, 4,562 cals, 17.2avg, 4:18:32. The only thing that would have made it better would have been watching the two of you pull away from me somewhere along the way. I can’t imagine better conditions, perfectly clear, 60’s, light wind. Large group, 18 I think. A group of 10 went first, then a group of 8 about 15m later. I was in the first group and we stayed together for 15-16 miles when I ATTACKED. Those capitals were meant to be a joke because I went from 8 mph to 10, but did pull away. I felt badly for the first two miles, dipping into Zone-OppsIwent toohardandnowtheresnowayIcanmaintainthis, but I did create separation and after two miles managed to find a sustainable rhythm. My advantage was having ridden 50 miles Friday-Sunday versus 200+ for alot of the maniacs in the group (J, G, R, J, KD, B, M, a few others). I glanced back on occasion and saw two people at a couple hundred meters and then no one. KD caught me somewhere around 25 in and we worked together downhill and at the start of the steep stuff near the top. I was losing a little touch, 20m, when my seat bag came undone. Took a minute to fix and that was it. She probably put another minute into me from there. So I won the men’s division and finished second overall. J and R were next, D, R, M shortly thereafter, in less than 15m, so I probably got 5th. J and M were further back, not sure why. Silly to think in terms of place, it was just nice to be alive and healthy in nature. 

Ron

The last sentence is my attempt to snap out of my western, hyper-competitive frame of mind. I’m 47, riding with friends on a beautiful Memorial day and I’m thinking more like a 27 or 37 year old in the Giro d’Italia. I want to adopt a more eastern, process oriented approach to competition, but I feel captive to my gender, peers, and history.