Recently I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Less is More.
This book gives me some hope about the world. Specifically, essays like “Simplicity isn’t ‘Voluntary’ Anymore” envisions what may begin to happen when our markets and ecosystems begin to evolve toward less for each human. The author, Ernest Callenbach, sees positive aspects in this evolution.
On the other side of adjustment lies a trio of self-reinforcing virtues that Callenback calls the “green-triangle approach”:
“As you look over your daily life, imagine a triangle whose points are environment, budget and health. It miraculously turns out that if you make a change aimed at improving one of those points, it will also help the others.”
This rings true to me, and it points to how each person can be part of an evolution toward a saner, wiser, more joyful, commonwealth type of society. Rather than top-down social programming, people begin to make the most of increasingly limited resources. In doing so, they wield power within their own spheres of influence and begin to temper environmental destruction, poor health during the prime years of life, and rising wealth inequality.
The part about looking over your daily life also speaks to me. It reminds me of stoic wisdom, the way Marcus Aurelius would scrutinize those things over which he had control in order to make the best decisions.
Contemporary life in America may be madness, but ideas like these offer some pleasing side trails. They may or may not lead to a better destination, but every thoughtful person should consider taking them.
Optimize this. Life hack that. Is optimizing soulless when it turns a blind eye to other people?
Yesterday my family and I stood in the Southwest Airlines boarding lineup (in the A group, having checked in within mere seconds of the 24-hour check-in window opening). Immediately in front of us were a middle-aged couple who were perhaps a nanosecond quicker with their mouse click or smartphone swipe.
“Lets sit on two aisle seats across from each other,” said the woman. The man nodded.
Meanwhile I’m thinking that my family of three might not have a chance to sit together. Luckily there were plenty of seats at the back of the plane. The seats we grabbed ended up being right behind the optimizing couple.
“This is a full flight,” announced the flight attendant.
The woman spread open a copy of the New York Times. The man glanced at his Daniel Kahneman book. More people boarded the plane, shuffling toward the rear of the rapidly-filling cabin.
Eventually a couple of solo-riders grabbed window seats, which left middle seats next to both of the optimizers. These only filled up when the attendant announced “there are no more seats in the back. If you see a middle seat grab it.”
It either escaped the attention of of the optimizer couple that their actions had lousy consequences (friends far back in the check-in queue had to sit apart), or they just didn’t care.
My guess is they just didn’t care. These people seemed pretty smart–putting aside their callous seat choices (yes, I’m judging here. I know I’m far from perfect) . They spent the flight passing NYT and New Yorker articles back and forth. The man was reading Kahneman. Many of the articles seemed to be about optimizing, like “how to be happy,” and “how to raise successful children.”
I imagined the couple’s home: a mansion designed to provide each occupant (probably just them) maximum space and convenience. Same mental picture of their daily commutes.
Meanwhile, they aren’t sitting next to each other. Nor are the folks they displace. And the world is burning up because we consume so damn much, in an optimized way of course.
I’m into optimizing too, as all people probably should be. However, my hope is for a bit more objectivity about my surroundings and what other people are going through.
Southwest Airlines, a company with many fine merits, must know that their seating system sets up a kind of game theory among its riders. The couple I observed are participants in the “prisoners dilemma” that undercut their competition (otherwise known as fellow sovereign souls) in order to get ahead themselves.
I’m tagging this blog post under the category “life improvements,” but really this is about life improvement beyond life improvement. We’re flooded with content premised on life improvement. Time for a bit more awareness.
Like I said, I’m far from perfect. For example, I eat fish during a time of fishery collapses. I’m putting myself first all the time, just like this couple. They were just so damn rude it woke me up to what is going on.
What does the 1969 film Easy Rider, which encapsulates the hippie era, have to do with running? It’s about time, man.
Wyatt and Billy the Kid (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) set out riding their choppers from LA to New Orleans. In the opening sequence, Wyatt takes off his wristwatch at a gas station and throws it away. Later in the film, Wyatt says “I’m hip about time…but I just gotta go.”
That’s pretty much how I feel about time when running. I’m hip about it, but I just gotta go.
We live in a biometric era, a time when our wearable technology can increasingly track our bodies’ performance, our heart rate, how many steps we take, how much we sleep, and, biggie-of-all-biggies for runners, how fast we go.
Wyatt’s character would likely agree with me about this: we lose something important when we watch the clock. Over long periods of time, we are just quantifying our own slow decline. PRs, I’m convinced, are good short-term motivators but long-term torture devices. Time is just one dimension of a run’s quality, and for me one of the least important.
Far better, I think, to run “free and easy”—to steal a line from Crosby*, Stills & Nash—outside of time’s constraint. With head up and ears free, I can notice the trees and gather energy from birdsong.
Rather than an easy rider, economists would probably label me a “free rider,” because I don’t pay for benefits I derive from most of my running friends who wear the high-tech Garmin watches that beep every mile. I’m not opposed to asking them how fast we’re going, or how far. I’m not a purist. My advantage is that I don’t care that much about time while running. Since I don’t own a watch, I’m not incentivized to start caring.
So what about competition? What about prepping for the big race? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about that. Time has motivated me in each marathon I’ve run. I’m not fast. My best time in a full marathon is 4 hrs 08 min. But here’s the twist: I’ve run my best marathons when I mostly forget about time and focus more on the energy of the crowd and how each ‘distance down and still feeling good’ is like money in the bank.
This hippie-like mentality was inspired in part, ironically, by a very competitive runner in his day: Jeff Galloway.
A bit more than a decade ago, when I first started running, I lucked out when my aunt’s brother-in-law recommended to me Galloway’s Book on Running. I picked up a copy, which influenced how I think about running ever since. Early in the book, Galloway gives an overview of distance running’s history. Running’s massive popularity, which incidentally began during the 60s/70s hippie era, came about in part due to the discovery of slowing down to cover longer distances. Later, Galloway defines the “runner” as someone who has evolved past the competitive stage and is motivated mostly by running’s intrinsic value.
Reading this book, I thought to myself, why not take the short route to enlightenment—go straight to runner: run slow for pleasure and physical benefit. I pride myself about not giving much of a damn about time. The relative who recommended the book to me also served as inspiration. He started entering the Marine Corps Marathon in his 60s and ran a couple of them pretty well. Here I was in my 20s, and I thought to myself, damn, I’m slouching. There must be something to this wise way of running.
Galloway is a major figure in the running world, mostly known for coaching running to take walk breaks early and often to obtain a better performance/time overall. He has good arguments for this. To return to the theme of time, I think the walk break point to how time is tricky. Everyone knows the story of the tortoise and the hare and how it ends. That’s not what tends to happen in marathons. My money is still on the Kenyans. But in terms of enjoying a marathon, I think tortoises can take pride in smoking a whole bunch of hares that need to walk the last five miles.
This is undoubtedly the ode of the middle-of-the-pack runner. If I were one of the Kenyans, I’d no doubt sing a different tune. But if you take away the reference point of competition, what does it matter anyway? Running is a simple joy. It takes work, but it’s much more exhilarating than staring at screens all day. I get paid to do that, so why not be free from screens—including the small kind that track pace and distance—in the off hours? Most people haven’t considered the question.
So why can’t more of us just be hippie runners? We live in a materialistic world. When Peter Fonda throws away that Rolex, he’s making a pretty strong anti-materialist statement. Most runners, particularly beginners, aren’t coming at the discipline from a position of strength. They may feel they are weak and need plenty of motivators such as Garmin watches and MP3 players. When I talk to someone who says “I can’t run without music,” I think to myself, “Really? Have you tried?” The running industrial complex is happy to sell thousands of dollars of gear per annum to such runners. And why not? Although I agree that buying some running gear is a good investment in terms of preventative medicine, I also wish more people would kick their watch to the curb and run like a hippie: more nature, more conversations, less biometrically-fueled ego.
Take my advice or leave it. It won’t make you faster, but it might bring you some peace and decades of running.
PS- for a great hippie anthem that references long distance running and fire breathing dragons, check out the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” below. Happy trails!
*David Crosby reportedly was the inspiration for Billy the Kid’s character.
This interview with Jack Bogle, produced by the Motely Fool, is a good introduction to one of America’s greatest citizens. Bogle created the first index fund on New Year’s Eve, 1975. Since then the company he founded, Vanguard, has lived up to its moniker by proving that ultra-low-cost passive investing wins the loser’s game being played in the Wall Street casinos. I just finished reading Bogle’s Little Book of Common Sense Investing, which backs up his simple investing philosophy.
What I respect about Bogle is that he calls out the greed that robs average investors. He set up his company to be investor-oriented rather than profit oriented. The result is that everyone can be rewarded. The interview is great because it’s being conducted by a stock picker, Tom Gardner, who nonetheless lionizes Bogle the anti-stock-picker.
It’s a good training run because it balances inclines (there are four good hills long enough to feel a bit of burn), descents, and flatter areas, and because there are only three intersections where cars can cross the route. I run it all the time, and love it.
If Rockville Town Square is your point of reference, warm up from there by walking north on Washington Street (walk past Dawson’s Market from the square and turn right on Washington). When you get to the post office on the corner of Washington and Martins Lane, you are at the start point.
There are just a few turns on this 4.6ish-mile loop.
From the start, run up and down the hill on Martins (which eventually turns into Nelson).
Turn right on College Parkway (the beauty of this run is that it skirts a large wooded area, so it’s more peaceful than some other parts of Rockville. This turn is where you start running around the woods).
Turn left on Yale and go all the way to the end. Just as you reach a wall of trees, you will see a trail heading to the right. Take this trail up to the Millennium Trail.
Turn left on the Millennium Trail. There is a nice long downhill stretch here for cooling down. Then the trail begins to climb.
Just before you get to a big bridge spanning I-270 (if you get to the bridge, you’ve gone too far), turn left where the trail forks into the Rockville Senior Center campus. You’ll see the Senior Center and a playground. There’s also a funky statue made of boulders and branches right where you turn.
Turn left when you get to the Senior Center can run in front of it onto Carnation.
Turn right on Aster Boulevard, one of the nicest residential streets in Rockville.
At the end of Aster, turn left on Nelson, which will take you back to the start/finish.
The end of the race has three good hills in succession. By now you are warmed up for them, and they are a great way to finish your workout.
Hope you enjoy it. Leave a comment if you do. If you know of an even better route, send me a link.
Reading ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius does not require a classroom setting, nor a professor with proper academic credentials. Those elements add value, but the Stoics’ ideas can grab us immediately. I think three Stoic classics in particular are worth reading:
Seneca’s letters, collected by Penguin Books as Letters from a Stoic and filled with advice on the good life, are marvels of clarity and humor. I’d recommend them to anyone.
Epictetus’s manual on the art of living is as simple as it is powerful.
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations record Stoic advice he gives to himself as emperor of Rome.
Anyone with the slightest amount of responsibility in life would benefit immediately from the elegant but stern challenges and goals Aurelius sets for himself. Just one example:
“Stop letting the guiding principle within you be tugged around like a marionette by the strings of selfish impulses,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).
When I read passages like the one above–and the three famous Stoics’ works are full of such gems–I’m struck by how they apply to life here and now. We are marionettes tugged around by marketers, forces indifferent to us as moral beings. Our selfish desires are inflamed by well-paid experts in the arts of persuasion. We have the chance to do what’s good, and in stoicism the moral good consists in helping others, but we squander our opportunities on destructive trifles.
One passage doesn’t do justice to the wealth that can be found in these old classics. They are all worth reading in translations of the original Greek (Epictetus, Aurelius–both Romans who wrote in Greek) and Latin (Seneca). Reading them in the original would no doubt be fascinating, but I have no intention of putting in the requisite years of study. As the Stoics would advise, and Socrates and Plato would likely concur, I’ll take the shortest route to the goal. Marcus Aurelius puts it emphatically and eloquently:
“Don’t live as if you were going to live for ten thousand years. The inevitable is hanging over you. As long as you are still alive, and as long as it is still possible, become a good man,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).
Not everything by these three writers can be digested by readers who don’t know much about the ancient world and its philosophical context. So while I think that all three are powerful and comprehensible enough for any reader to start reading them directly, some things require expert untangling. A good framework for understanding the more enigmatic passages of the Meditations is Pierre Hadot’s classic book The Inner Citadel, which cleared up some things I found confusing.
Hadot is adept at identifying the framework of Stoic thinking: their way of viewing life (destiny and accepting what life presents with serenity), its purpose (serving others and the moral good), and the need for each person to exercise a cohesive guiding intelligence (stripping away the noise of life to find the objective signal).
I hope to write more about the Stoics as I read more from them, and compare them to the Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who formed much of the basis for their worldview (and that of Western civilization). Thus this blog post is just a point of departure.