Obstacle or opportunity?

challnge

This post has been ruminating for some time now and has been inspired by conversations with my kids, some great feedback I received a few weeks ago from a fellow blogger and, believe it or not, the latest Chris Rock special on Netflix.  Chris has this riff about how bullies provide an essential part of kids’ educational experience.   It’s funny, of course, and like all great humor it’s 1 part exaggeration to 1 part truth.  It’s an old idea that periodic bursts of stress promote the most growth.  It’s the major principle underlying strength training as well the inspiration for that famous Orson Welles quote in “The Third Man”:  “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Habitual readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with 2 injuries for the last few months.  As an athlete, the correct response to being injured are rehab, analyze how  you injured yourself and, finally, continue to train those movements that you can safely do.  In my case, I haven’t been able to do a low-bar squat for 3 months now, and have only been able to start dead-lifting again in the past few weeks.  So I have spent the last few weeks refining my competition bench technique and training to a level that would not have been possible if I had to also concentrate on heavy squats and deadlifts.  At the same time I’ve come to rely on, from sheer necessity, a number of accessory exercises (safety-bar squats, belt squats, glute ham raises, etc) that I should have used in my training previously but never did.  Now that I am, very carefully, dead-lifting again my training is focusing on technique, technique and more technique.  As I will only doing benchpress in the next competition, I can now afford focus more on improving my technique and strengthening the main-movers of the dead-lift.  I’m not so focused on pulling the most weight for the next competition.  Improved technique, more experience in important accessory exercises, an appreciation for prehab and mobility training and a stronger bench press – I’m not saying I want to get injured again, but it can (if you have the correct mindset) teach you some important lessons.

I’ve always said that boredom is an essential parenting tool.  Yes, allow your kids to get bored or create situations (camping weekends without cell phones) that force them to rely on their creativity and curiosity.  Boredom is a subliminal teacher that teaches you lessons on the sly.  The smarter a person is, the lower their threshold for boredom, and that’s a good thing.  If you are bored, you will be forced to provide stimulation to your brain.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids these days besides the fact that we, their parents, allow them non-stop access to smartphones, streaming video and video games.  Without a doubt, boredom is what saved my high school career and what allowed for my subsequent success in university.  I grew up, not rich, in a 3rd world country in somewhat special circumstances.  The phone didn’t work half the time, we didn’t have TV (even if we had, there were only 2 channels which only played a few hours) so my only forms of entertainment were sports, hanging out with friends and books.  And did we ever have books – of all kinds.  My mother got her doctorate at Harvard so we often her schoolmates/colleagues visiting us.  So many people left behind books – all of which I devoured.  History, social sciences, politics, physic, philosophy, etc.  So I was not only reading these books, but was able to discuss them with my mother and her friends.  It’s obvious when I describe it this way that I was learning, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.  I simply had nothing else to do.  Later in my high school career I shot myself in the foot scholastically with bad attitude/partying, etc – and the only thing that saved me was this base of knowledge I had accrued.  My classmates were often amazed that the “less than model student” often had the answers to difficult questions.  Once, I famously entered a school essay contest because the prizes were all expenses paid week-long trip to a student congress type deal in Washington, DC.  We had to write about government.  My essay won first prize and my buddy’s essay (which I wrote for him) won 2nd prize.  Predictably we had a good time in DC as well as a few minor disciplinary problems.

The country where I grew up was, and sadly remains, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.  It also has one of the strongest, most vibrant cultures I’ve ever encountered and, like Renaissance Italy, absolutely radiates creativity and “thinking outside of the box”.  People are poor but find a millions forms of expression and, hopefully, a way out of their situation.  I am not singing the praises of abject poverty, not by a long shot.  Too much stress with no periods of respite break a person.  Also, countries where poverty and boredom abound but intellectual curiosity and expression are discouraged are volatile and unstable.

Motivational speakers love to cite, to the extent that it’s become clichéd, that the Chinese word for “crisis” signifies both “danger” and “opportunity”.  Some things are too good to be true as this appears to be a poorly interpreted translation.  A closer translation is apparently “a point where things happen or change” which decidedly more neutral.  Which I think is more logical as, in my experience, how you react to stress or obstacles is like billiards, a game of angles.  If you get the angles right you in billiards, you will sink your balls while positioning yourself to sink the remainder.  If your shots are just a little bit off, good luck to you.  So stress or obstacles can serve stimulus for growth if managed correctly.  This increased strength will set you up for further success when opportunities arise, provided you play the angles correctly.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_word_for_%22crisis%22

 

Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.