You Are Not Your Grad Program

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

I’d like to add to that list, “You are not your grad program.” My choice to enter PT school came after a brief career in engineering, so I had a sense of “this is it, I’ve gotta make this work” when I started PT school. During my first summer in gross anatomy, school was the sole focus of my life. I socialized very little. I did almost everything in relation to school-I focused on quality sleep, exercise and good nutrition to enhance academic performance. I had no real hobbies outside of school. During that summer, I occasionally visited my family to recharge but would otherwise go days without calling because I was “too busy” with studying and needed to focus. As I became more focused on school, my performance on each test became of utmost importance. Doing well on a test, meant it was a great day. Performing poorly, would mean frustration and angrily analyzing why I didn’t perform well.

Once anatomy was finished I picked my head up and realized how much I had missed that summer. I hadn’t really explored the new city I found myself in. I had missed great social opportunities. I had made no progress in the gym. Most concerning of all was when I visited friends back home. In conversation, I mostly just talked about PT school. Of course, grad school is a big investment of time, money, and emotional energy-but my identity had become centered around grad school. I looked ahead to the next 3 years of grad school and thought “I cannot just be a PT student for the next 3 years”.

So over the next year I started building up a life again. I actually said “yes” to social opportunities. I started strength training. I picked up sports like volleyball. And somehow my grades stayed about the same (and no I didn’t sacrifice sleep). I realized a few crucial things:

1. The difference between an 89.5% as a B and getting a 90.0% as an A really wouldn’t matter in the clinic after graduating.

2. Diversifying my identity put school in perspective and dramatically reduced the stress of each test, quiz, or project. Which ironically improved my grades, but with less time studying.

3. PT school and my career are long term commitments, so the only sustainable option to thrive long term is to maintain the other areas of life.

Going to grad school and/or having a career I care about is rewarding and an opportunity I am incredibly grateful for. However, career is only a single dimension of a meaningful life-there are parts of us that our careers will never fulfill.

 

The Seesaw of Serendipity and Drive

Confused. What better way to feel on a Friday after work. Coming home from work I didn’t know what to do. So, I started changing clothes for the gym. Next stop, the gym and then…

A sort of emptiness started filling my mind. I had no obligations that evening. I had achieved all I wanted to for the week. Larger recent life events: got my undergraduate degree, got a great job, and began work towards new dreams outside of work. My life is going in a direction I want. Yet the empty feeling persisted.

I have been known to get busy and “productive” to defer that empty feeling. That confusing yet strong feeling that I have diagnosed as PES (Post-achievement Emptiness Syndrome): the inability to engage in activities just for fun, often the result of focusing excessively on achievements. I didn’t want to work, but I had forgotten how to play.

So I started watching Youtube videos about business and fitness. After a few videos I thought about a trip I had a few months before…

My first trip to Spain reminded me of a forgotten attitude. The child’s attitude. That mindset of wandering with curiosity and embracing whatever happens. Travel and other non-achievement oriented activities are the perfect way to rekindle this mindset. I don’t mean traveling with a list of the “must sees” or packing each day full of adventures. In fact, I took the exact opposite approach on a recent trip and had one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

We were going to Spain after graduation. But I was poorly “prepared” for the trip. I knew about 15 Spanish words (10 of which were numbers), I hadn’t researched the “must sees”, and hadn’t looked into hotels (we actually had only booked 4 nights of the 14 day trip). A sense uneasiness set in as I boarded the plane with so much uncertainty ahead.

Upon arrival in Spain it was hard to get into that child like mindset.* When you have deadlines, meetings, and classes 7 days a week it can be hard to adjust to having zero commitments. It worried me slightly that we didn’t have all our hotels booked and that we had no planned activities, would this trip be a waste?

On a train out of Madrid we looked over cities to visit and impulsively chose Sevilla, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Sevilla has the variety of options typical of a city, while maintaining the hospitality and warmth of a small town. Also, it turned out the hotel had its own inexpensive bike rental service. And the city happened to have recently finished a tourist bike path. And the city is known for its amazing food. I didn’t even know this city existed until 2 days before we got there.

So where does this musing about Spain and my eccentric Friday evening leave us? The recognition of 2 forces that must be balanced in life; drive and serendipity. We need drive to dream and work towards future achievements. However, we also need serendipity to wander, play, and embrace whatever experiences lie before us. The only problem is that in the modern world, drive is overemphasized to the point that we forget serendipity. Think about mainstream Western schooling. For 8 hours a day, enthusiastic children are forced to sit through a series of regimented learning activities. Even P.E., art, and music are highly structured classes. After school, many kids are ushered into sports practices. Finally, at night they do homework. Lunch and recess only offer a brief time to play for most kids. A similar pattern follows in most jobs. Now this is not say our jobs and school system are completely broken, but they need to allow for more wandering and play.

 Serendipity is not just important, it is necessary. This force helps us:

  1. Develop a childlike curiosity for the world, crucial to creativity and learning.
  2. Be inspired and infuse passion into life.
  3. Prevent burnout due to being in drive mode for too long.

So just play. Stare at the sky. Take a walk. Forget having a reason or purpose. Let the waves of life wash over you like when you were a kid at the beach.

*Note this is a repost from August 2015 from a previous blog I ran.

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Recommended Further Reading:

Leo Baubata’s The Place Where You Are

Charlie Hoehn’s Preventing Burnout: A Cautionary Tale

Why Eating Out is Healthy

Humans are social creatures. Think of the worst punishment that people reference in prison: solitary confinement. We NEED to be around people. I’ve always understood this intellectually, but I often lose sight of it by focusing on other areas like health and school instead. However, I’ve realized that mental and physical health depend A LOT on socializing, perhaps as much as food and exercise affect health.

For example, when I was into the Paleo diet and eating “clean” I rarely shared food with anyone because I was consuming a very limited diet. Yes, I was eating a “clean” diet but I was missing a huge aspect of socializing, which is sharing food with people. Only recently, I realized that there are so many health benefits to socializing that are worth the small intake of junk food.

Consider what is “healthier”: the perfect kale salad with wild-caught salmon and extra-virgin-blessed by a rabbi-organic olive oil eaten alone in your apartment OR a white bread sandwich eaten with friends with a few good laughs sprinkled on top? I would argue the sandwich is actually “healthier”. The sandwich with friends has a lot of benefits: laughing, walking to the café, getting outside, developing deeper connections, and other effects we haven’t discovered. I suspect scientific research will show these effects in the coming years. In fact, some research suggests that simply hugging may decrease levels of cortisol (a stress hormone).

Of course, you can always choose healthier options when eating out and suggest more athletic social activities. But if your filter for social activities is only what fits into the “healthy lifestyle” you follow, your activities will be limited. And unless you are a professional athlete (meaning your income depends on your athletic ability), it probably is not worth it. Basing all socializing on a fitness/health activity, such as Crossfit, means if you get injured, then your social life will be severely hindered. Plus when you meet people outside of that group, it will be harder to connect since you are used to only talking to people in Crossfit. An exercise group should just be just one of the many tribes you are part of.

So as much as eating well and exercise are part of being “healthy”, regular doses of in-person socializing are the supplement most of us need more of.

Why We Need Some Stress, But Not Too Much

“Much of modern life is preventable chronic stress injury.” -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nowadays stress seems to be as bad as sugar, inflammation, and gluten. It is something we need to “cure” with meditation? Or is there such a thing as good stress? And how much is too much?

I realized there is such a thing good stress after reading Nassim’s Taleb Antifragile. Taleb discusses show there are positive acute stressors which strengthen us and negative chronic stressors which weaken us.

For example, if you place 300 lbs on your back and squat 10 times and wait a week, you will be able to lift 302 lbs. The stressor of the added weight has caused you to overcompensate and be able to lift more than 300 lbs. However, there is a limit to how much stress we can take. If you take 3,000 lb and try to squat it 1 time, you will be crushed under the weight. So with acute stressors, such as exercise, the dosage must be right along with the recovery time. Unfortunately, recovery is under appreciated, but this is when the response to a stressor occurs! Consider, that many of the performance enhancing drugs used by athletes are meant to accelerate recovery so the athlete can train again, more intensely.

Acute stressors not only make us stronger, but when deprived of acute stressors we become weaker. Most people have heard that while in space astronauts lose significant bone mass, connective tissue integrity, and muscle mass. These negative effects occur because they lack the stress of weight bearing activity on Earth.

On the other hand, there are other chronic stressors, which gradually wear us down. These include daily traffic, exam pressures, and 24 hour negative news cycles.

So in general we need to 1. Eliminate the damage from chronic stressors, 2. Add healthy acute stressors, and 3. Enhance recovery from these stressors. 

We regularly need to experience acute stressors such as:
-Fasting
-Intense heat exposure, such as a sauna
-Intense exercise (such as interval training or heavy strength straining)

And reduce chronic stressors such as:
-Sitting in traffic
-Financial worries due to a high cost lifestyle (i.e. mortgage, fancy car, a boat, beach house, etc.)
-Constant consumption of negative news
Sitting excessively (this creates excess stress on areas such as the low back and neck)

And enhance recovery from stressors with methods like:
-Acupuncture, massage, or even self care tools like the Nayoya Acupressure mat
High quality, sufficient sleep-this is likely the most important recovery tool.
“Forest bathing”: this is a practice coined by the Japanese which is essentially taking a walk in nature. A 2011 study found that walking in a forest actually led to a larger decrease in blood pressure and stress hormones, than a walk in the city.

Management of stress is not just for today-it may be the most important tool to help us stay functional into old age. Although we may not be quite as sharp and strong as when we were in our 20’s, I am skeptical that old age must be a slow decay towards death.

“We observe old people and we see them age, so we associate aging with their loss of muscle mass, bone weakness, loss of mental function, taste for Frank Sinatra music, and similar degenerative effects. But these failures to self-repair come largely from maladjustment-either too few stressors or too little time for recovery between them”. -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is Convenience Always a Good Thing?

“Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. “― Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

We always seem to rush towards convenience, efficiency, and comfort. We like apps and devices that are more convenient to use. We like squishy, comfy sofas for watching movies. We like food that gives us a quick burst of energy and can be eaten anytime, anywhere.

But maybe we should ask ourselves “What do I need to be convenient?” Some things make us healthy, happy and productive when made more convenient. On the other hand other things make us sick, anxious, and lazy. For example, when healthy food is accessible in one’s house, you are more likely to eat it. But if highly processed, sugar laden foods are accessible we are more likely to eat this sort of junk food.

So we want to make health, happiness, and productivity more convenient, while making compulsive, unhealthier habits less convenient.

Do more of the following really make us more happy, healthy, and productive?
-Social media, email, and other distractions (I am not anti social media but constantly being distracted by notifications is not a healthy, happy, or productive way to live)
-Eating cheap, nutrient poor, processed food
-Passive input activities: web browsing, Netflix binge watching, and following a link to another link to another link…until an hour of life has passed and can never be reclaimed.

An important caveat, I am not suggesting that things like Netflix and potato chips are terrible! It’s just that they are very easy to use in excess and we tend to do so when they are more convenient. On the other hand there are things which take a bit more effort than unwrapping a package or opening an app. We don’t tend to do them naturally and will avoid them when possible.

So we should focus on making the following more convenient:
-Eating quality, natural whole foods (especially vegetables-almost nobody, including myself, eats enough of these)
-Intimate conversations with friends and family
-Reading time tested books like “Letters from a Stoic”
-Creative output: writing, painting, music, dance, etc.
-Physical activity and exertion (only 20% of the U.S. population meets the recommended amount of weekly physical activity )

Convenience, efficiency, and comfort are nice, but make sure they are applied to the right things.