In pursuit of failure

“Fail forward” is a sort of mantra in the startup world. (Or, that’s how it seems, watching that world from the outside.) The idea, as I get it, is that you have to fail often and fail fast, as long as you learn from your failures and get up meaner and leaner for your next adventure.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I guess that what I mean could be called muscle failure. But I think it’s more than that.

Back it up a bit

I guess that today’s The Obstacle is the Way chapter on Building Your Inner Citadel got me thinking about something that haunts me periodically: my own troubled relationship with willpower. And, perhaps, my weird linking of willpower with manhood.

This will be a disjointed blog post.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know if I’ve ever reached muscle failure. I mean, I’ve collapsed after a set of push-ups. But, as I stood back up, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I might have been able to do a few more push-ups, if I’d really tried. After all, push-ups seldom are connected to any real consequences.

Fun random aside:

One of my father’s favorite stories from the Army was in some training camp or other where he was the platoon leader, and there were only enough truck to transport two of the three platoons back to the barracks. One platoon was going to have to march.

The way the seargents on the scene decided to allocate the trucks was to have the platoon leaders compete doing push-ups. “I knew I didn’t have to win,” my father always says in this story, “I just couldn’t lose.”

According to the legend, he did over a hundred push-ups in this story. I’ve never done that many push-ups, and I often wonder if I would have the mental fortitude to really push myself, if I had to.

So, I wonder, is there a way I can engineer my own muscle failure. Can I set myself up to try hard at things and fail, knowing I’ll come away stronger and wiser? (Or with a reinforced Inner Citadel, whatever that means.)

I don’t know.

The Army Combat Fitness Test

Part of what’s got me thinking like this is the news that the U.S. Army is introducing a new physical fitness test. Up until I stopped doing sit-ups (word on the street has it they’re bad for your back) I’ve been silently measuring myself against the existing Army Physical Fitness Test. After all, my first encounter with the idea of ‘minimal fitness’ was with the Army, and it’s nice to know (or think) “I could check all those boxes. I am fit.”

The new test may or may not be an improvement over the old test. What it is, though, is a departure from the days when I could do the exercises at home and say “Yup, that was enough push-ups.” or “I smoked my old two-mile run time.”

Conclusion

I don’t know if there is a conclusion. The point is, I wonder about my ability to push myself until my body simply doesn’t have more to give. I get that I’ll probably never need to do that.

But I want to know that I can. And I don’t know how to teach myself that.

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Build Your Inner Citadel

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, I’m writing on this chapter of the book.


In another chapter that provides a great tip, but doesn’t explain how to follow through with it, Ryan Holiday begins this chapter of The Obstacle is the Way by referening my (sometimes) favorite American president, Teddy Roosevelt.

[speaking of asthmatic, weak young Teddy] One day his father came into his room and delivered a message that would change the young boy’s life: “Theodore, you have the mind but you haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”

You’d think that would be lost on a child, especially a fragile one born into great wealth and status. But according to Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, it wasn’t. His response, using what would become his trademark cheerful grit, was to look at his father and say with determination: “I’ll make my body.”

I love Theodore Roosevelt for a number of reasons, but I think his relationship with manliness is problematic. (I read an article that suggested he may have driven a son to suicide with his expectations.) Still, his determination is enviable, at the least.

Moving on philosophy, Holiday talks of developing “mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body,” and matches this to what stoics called their “Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.”

Then, the narrative returns to Roosevelt:

To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.

And all that is great… but that’s where the chapter winds down. (There’s one last quote that I’m saving for the end, as seems to have become my tradition.)

And, as a guy who flirts with an obsession with fitness, it’s easy for me to think that I’m moving down the right path. But, I don’t know. Holiday doesn’t end the chapter with his list of “Ten Things You Can Do Today to Become the Architect of your Own Inner Citadel” and I’m left with a list of questions:

  • Should I invest more energy in meditation?
  • Do the things I do to practice practice help?
  • What about cold showers: they certainly demand willpower, do they also strengthen it?
  • Does enduring voluntary adversity help when involuntary adversity comes knocking?

There aren’t answers, and I’m left reaffirming my commitment to fitness and “making the most of my time.” (Whatever that means.)

However, I did mention that there is one last great quote. It’s as close as Holiday comes to direct advice in this chapter, and I like the first sentence enough to maybe write it on my wall:

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.

Some Coding Goals

Setting my own goals

It was not a super-productive summer for me, coding-wise. However, as I get away from ‘vacation-mode’ and back to ‘real life,’ in addition to improving as a teacher (more on that in another post), I want to improve as a coder.

Here’s the thing: There are a million ways to improve as a coder. And, I’m sticking to the ‘hobby coder’ label, so I don’t feel compelled to even try an know everything about coding, or even a specialization under the ‘coding’ header.

My task: is to be able to do the things I want to do, nothing more, but also nothing less. (To be honest, it will always be something less — I have an active imagination for what’s possible.) Now though, what I’d like to do is to make the things I make seem more like a ‘web application.’

What’s a web application?

The short answer is: it doesn’t matter. As a language teacher, I’m a big fan of the idea that words only mean what you and the person you’re speaking to understand. And, when I say web application, I mean it in contrast to a ‘web page.’

To me, a web page is static: Some guy (me) writes a bunch of stuff, takes a bunch of photos, makes a video, maybe, and puts it online. The web page is your chance to interact with what I’ve made, on my terms.

A web application, on the other hand, is magic. Sure, some guy (me) made it, but it’s a tool that I get to pick up and use how it best fits in my life. A web application is my chance to take something algorithmic I’ve made, and let you run with it.

Don’t you already do that?

To be fair, yes, I think that Dynamic EFL already qualifies as a web application. But, it doesn’t feel like it yet. It feels like a series of web pages that the user moves through, ending with a PDF, the most static document format of all time.

It’ll always end with a PDF, because the whole idea is that it’s supposed to be hidden. The learner isn’t supposed to know you used a ‘tool.’ The learner might hear the word ‘tool’ and think ‘shortcut.’ The whole idea is that the learner thinks “wow, the teacher invested time in me. I’m getting my money’s worth.”

So, maintaining the PDF format at the end, the way I see to make it feel more like an application is to make better use of transitions between pages and modals (the ‘foreground’ pages that open ‘over’ the rest of the page — logins are often done in modals).

The best web applications — gmail, Google calendar — don’t feel like pages at all. It feels like you enter an address into your browser, and then you interact with an application. That’s what I’d like to do.

A good argument for it

First, I rationalize it would help make what I do clear in comparison to what teachers are already paying for — static resources presented on web pages.

Second, it’s a sales point. Done smartly, the transitions and ‘web app experience’ simply feels more ‘modern.’ It helps to explain why I’m taking money.

A roadmap

I don’t have a roadmap in the traditional sense. That’s where this little goal-setting exercise breaks down. I’ve started experimenting and I’m finding it pretty hard. I have used JavaScript to dynamically change content on a web page, but I haven’t made the animation part of that work, and I haven’t been able to load a new django view into one <div> of a page.

So, I guess I have my work cut out for me.

The plan, now, is to leave Dynamic EFL how it is as I begin attracting beta testers. Instead, I have a new project idea that I want to start from scratch as a web application (using Google APIs, no less!) (more information on the actual project in a future post). Then, when that’s working, I’ll be able to apply lessons learned to Dynamic EFL.

Wish me luck.

Seize the Initiative

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, this is the chapter I chose to write about today.


This chapter was short and basically boiled down to “when life has you on the defensive, go on the counter-attack.” But, there were a few quotable moments, beginning with the opening quote:

The best men are not those who have waited for chances but who have taken them; besieged chance, conquered the chance, and made chance the servitor.

-E. H. Chapin

Isn’t that great? I want to besiege chance.

Another great line is this, from Ryan Holiday himself:

If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.

Aside from the truth of it, I would probably love any sentence that threatens me with ‘falling short of greatness’ and encourages me to be something more than ‘merely sentient.’

Something I like about this chapter is that, aside from the stories (Barack Obama’s campaign and the WWII German general Rommel), there are examples of how this might work, and they aren’t simply “working through the pain.”

Ryan Holiday suggests looking at the catastrophes in your life and seeing what they offer. If a relationship has ended, you have more time to work on projects. If you’re in bed recovering from something, you can write. That sort of thing.

I’d like to think that I’m the kind of guy who does that. But, maybe I’m the kind of guy who plans to do that, but then just sinks into depression when life hits him hard.

After reading Love Everything that Happens, I’ve got a lot of mileage out of thinking “this is what I wanted to do, I get to do this now,” whether it’s freezing cold campground showers or trying to do pushups to muscle failure. I think that, teaching myself to think, “this is an opportunity to go on the counter-attack” could be just as valuable.

Perseverance

Continuing my The Obstacle is the Way project, I picked this chapter based on its title. I felt like I needed a little reminder of the value of perseverance as I continue trying to work on the worksheet generator and spend time with the family.


This chapter begins with a reference not to a traditional historical figure, but instead to Odysseus of myth. It was a nice change.

Even more, than a change, I think it was a great choice to illustrate a difference. Determination, Ryan Holiday says, is Odysseus at Troy, trying one trick after the next in the attempt to get past the city’s walls.

Perseverance, on the other hand, is Odysseus surmounting challenge after challenge. (Weirdly, his seven years of sex on an island are considered a ‘challenge’ in this context.) Here’s how Holiday describes it:

If persistence is attempting to solve some difficult problem with dogged determination and hammering until the break occurs, then plenty of people can be said to be persistent. But perseverance is something larger. It’s the long tame. It’s about what happens nojust in round one but in round two and every round after–and then the fight after that and the fight after that.

It’s the idea of expanding the concept from “the obstacle is the way” to “the obstacles are the way.”

There’s a nice anecdote about Magellan’s greatest strength being his ability to endure hunger more than other men… and then there’s a tangent which criticizes Ryan Holiday’s generation for losing something that was once “uniquely part of the American DNA.”

I could go on about that topic, and I might at some point — because he’s right, we’ve lost a sense of perseverance that we all think we once had — but I think most Americans want to have something hard to work at, but society is changing and it’s growing hard to find the challenges we seek. Holiday quotes Emerson’s ‘counter-example’ to suggest what kind of people we should be:

Someone who is willing to try not one thing, but “tries all the professions, who teams it, farms is, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, lands on his feet.

The thing is, all the things listed above have a much higher barrier to entry now than they did when Emerson was writing that. You can’t even drive a team anymore and the modern equivalent — a CDL — runs for about $4,500 in my home state, not counting the fact that it’s a training program and you’ll have costs during the program. Never mind the cost of buying a farm.

So, I could go on here about society and the erroneous nature of Ryan Holiday’s accusations against his own generation, but the core of the matter: that each person is responsible for finding his or her own way with perseverance, remains true.

But when do you quit?

Here’s something to think about: I’ve learned a lot in these projects I work on. I’m thankful for the experience I had making my worksheet generator. But, as the umbrella of what that project is grows to encompass promotion strategies (and costs) I have to ask: when do you quit?

It’s easy to look at the example of Odysseus and say: never give up, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But, on the other hand, in the same story there is Agamemnon, who was basically a worthless King (you could write leadership manuals based on “don’t do what Agamemnon did”). He persevered and made his way home to be killed.

Even if the moral of the story is that perseverance will get you where you want to go, it doesn’t follow that it will get you where you need to go.

My answer

There are things I’d like to work on, but really don’t have the capacity to focus on. (See the stalled projects on my projects page for a list.) I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing now in ten years. But, I’m not doing now what I was doing when I started working on the worksheet generator.

The fact of the matter is that the EFL reading stories that I’m writing are a big help in my classes. Even if nobody else ever uses them, I’m glad I have them.

Additionally, just brainstorming on a blog for teachers has made me a better teacher, as I dialogue with myself and begin to see where I fall short of my own goals as a teacher. Writing the blog — to begin soon, I keep telling myself — will no doubt also be a help.

So, what makes my experience different from Odysseus’s is that I’m benefitting from the individual stages of it. (Maybe he did to — see the bit about seven years of sex.) Perhaps he felt smarter because he got to outwit a Cyclops. I don’t know.

My answer on when do I quit is simple: when I no longer sense a benefit from what I’m doing, I’ll move on to the next thing.

A headstand is also a burpee

This post could be titled “Burpee challenge, modified” and is inspired — like the whole burpee challenge thing, by a post on lifehacker. In this case, it was a post about getting a hundred burpees done.

How things are now

I still do burpees most days. Following my initial math, I worked up to sets of ten, by managing to get twenty done in two minutes.

The thing is, it’s not as fun as it once was, and I’m not seeing improvement. I get at least one burpee done (the old minimum) at least six days a week. And on one day, I managed seven sets of nine — in competition with my daughter who takes some liberties with form.

Still, I’m feeling more and more like I’m plateauing. The number of burpees I can do is not going up. I’m not getting more pull-ups done in a single set. And, adding burpees to my runs (the kill-two-birds-with-one-trip-outside strategy) means that I seldom run much more than a kilometer without a ‘break.’ (To be honest, the running feels like a break.)

How I want things to be

I don’t have a clear answer. I want to get back to feeling like I’m getting stronger, to being proud of my workouts, rather than just getting them out of the way.

I genuinely want to feel stronger.

A good fitness memory

Here’s a thing we did not long ago that made all of this seem a little more worthwhile: getting the kids outside (one of my biggest summer priorities) we found an oak tree that had a lot of branches that we could reach. Of course, we climbed it.

I haven’t spent much time in a tree in a while — though that is a long-term goal — and was surprised to see how effortless it seemed to about using my arms and shoulders to support a lot of my weight. I wasn’t doing insane rock-climbing stuff, and there was still a lot of weight on my legs.

None of those caveats, though, takes away from the feeling I had — not much more than two meters in the air — of being somehow stronger than I was used to being. And being strong enough to help my kids climb.

I loved that.

You can bet we’ve been back to that tree — and others, though that’s the one that seems to need my arms the most — often, as much for my benefit as for theirs.

So, here’s what I guess I want: to continue doing workouts that impress me (without injury, I might add!) and to have more of those moments of relative strength.

The way forward

I don’t know what the way forward is. Often, I make these posts after I’ve come up with an idea I want to try. Instead, I wanted to make a record of how things stand right now.

There is one change I’m making now, as I look at how to continue this fitness adventure. And, unfortunately, it revolves around an experience I had in which I felt less strong: headstands.

There was a time when my sister and I had a competition to see who could do the longest headstands. I could count to twelve and back down while standing pretty reliably on my head (not, I should add, my hands). It was one of those things that made me feel strong.

And then back hurt and I got into planks, and from planks into burpees.

Then, recently, my daughter has become interested in headstands, handstands, cartwheels, the like. And she asked me if I could still do a headstand (she’d seen them)… and it was hard. I got my legs in the air, but not with the confidence I’d had before.

So, I guess I’m going back to doing headstands. And that’s okay. I’ve just rationalized that I’ll try to substitute headstands for burpees on those days when I’ve realized I haven’t done enough burpees.

Maybe I’ll join my daughter in her handstand/cartwheel goals.

 

In Praise of the Flank Attack

Continuning my The Obstacle is the Way project, a chapter on the underdog.


This chapter begins talking of George Washington. It points out that he never led large armies in masterful attacks against other armies, but instead specialized in attacking the British where they were weak, and withdrawing troops who would have been lost in open conflicts.

Of course, I’m reading this after listening to the Hamilton soundtrack so often that I can’t read anything by him in another voice. Still, this paragraph is good:

Never attack where it is obvious, Washington told his men. Don’t attack as the enemy would expect, he explained, instead, “Where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared and consequently there is the fairest prospect of success.” He had a powerful sense of whic minor skirmishes would feel and look like major victories.

Ryan Holiday’s point isn’t to belittle Washington, or even to “bring him off a pedestal.” Instead, he’s saying that the genius we admire about him was his ability to do what worked for him, not what worked for his enemies.

To me, this is prescient in an era in which we say things like “we have to sacrifice some civil liberties because the terrorists don’t accept liberties.” Or, less politically, “if you want to operate an online business, you have to track your customers or you’re going to lose out against the big companies who do.”

There’s something attractive to me about abandoning the idea that, to beat the biggest player in the ring, you have to do what that player is doing.

The chapter includes a few other examples, including a basketball superstar I’ve never heard of (me and sports, I guess).

Then, there’s something valuable towards the end:

The way that works isn’t always the most impressive. Sometimes it even feels like you’re taking a shortcut or fighting unfairly. There’s a lot of pressure to try to match people move for move, as if sticking with what works for you is somehow cheating. Let me save you the guilt and self-flagellation: It’s not.

All in all, I liked this chapter. Upon reflection, I don’t know that it said anything that wasn’t in the other chapters, but it was presented well and, as I get to work on the next steps in my own idea, I needed the encouragement to do something unusual.