Monday, March 31, 2008

The Regular Guy and Nonlinear Progress

I'm just a regular guy. A regular highly competitive emotionally driven guy. And as I'm writing this blog, I am finally realizing that our extraordinary dreams progress nonlinearly (meaning the road to the top is not a straight line.) This is a big challenge for us regular guys. Do you have the mental stamina to make it through nonlinearities (ups and downs)? How do you stay focused and committed to the impossible goals? Most people give up before the rewards. But why?

We struggle with nonlinearities because our brains prefer to think in linear terms. For instance, if you train everyday, then you expect to get faster in proportion to the number of hours you put in. "But reality rarely gives us the privilege of positive progression." Often we train very hard for weeks, months, and years and may only see incremental improvement, if any. But then if you are not disheartened and continue to persist, suddenly you'll reach that tipping point, your payday. Malcolm Gladwell's ketchup bottle story simply summarizes the fundamental nonlinearity of everyday life: We tap the bottom end of a ketchup bottle, and nothing happens, we tap and tap..."None will come and then the lot'll." Just like in life, you try, and try, and try some more, and nothing happens. But if you don't become demoralized, and truly persist, then maybe you might be lucky enough to cash in!

But most people can't see it through the end (what ever the end maybe). I think the way our minds are wired makes a big difference. Some can handle nonlinearities better than others. There is a neural and success correlation.

A little more dope please? When failure presents itself we get less doped. I mean our dopamine system drops if our expectations are not met. Our pleasure brain system is somewhat like the stock market. It monitors how we do relative to the expectations. If we don't meet 'market' expectation then our brain produces less of the pleasure neurotransmitters and you end up feeling down. And it's even worse when you succeed early then the expectations become larger - (phenom challenge). The paradox of success is that it takes more and more success to fuel the brain and the inverse is true, failure is exacerbated. "Our minds are like inmates, captive to our biology, unless we manage a cunning escape."

I know of a friend who accomplished a lot in cycling in such a short period. She started racing after doing the Aids Ride and quickly got hooked. She upgraded to a Cat2 in less than 2 yrs. And for a while it seemed that success was linear. Then she got an expensive coach, made the commitment to train harder and longer, and made the necessary financial and personal sacrifices with the belief that if she puts in the work then she would be rewarded with a proportionate amount of results. Unfortunately, success maybe more opaque than we think it is. We know what we put in: hard work with our eyes firmly focused on our powermeters. But what comes out is not always clearly evident sensational success. After 2 years of spinning her wheels, frustrated, and demoralized, she quit racing altogether. It's a shame because I think she could have eventually achieved her goal. But like many of us, who've tasted defeat once too often, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay on course.

According to researchers who study hedonic happiness. "Making $1M one year, but nothing in the preceding nine, does not bring the same pleasures as having the total evenly distributed over the same period, that is, $100,000 every year for ten years in a row. The same applies to the inverse order - making a bundle the first year, then nothing for the remaining period. Somehow, your pleasure systems will be saturated rather quickly, and it will not carry forward the hedonic balance like a sum on a tax return. As a matter of fact, your happiness depends more on the number of instances of positive feelings than on their intensity when they hit. "

In other words, you need small wins consistently. But how do you achieve this when the path to the extraordinary is nonlinear? What do you suggest? I've thought about this a lot and read a lot on neuroscience ,psychology, and philosophy.

"When the little guy doesn't know he's the little guy, he can do great things." Unfortunately, the brain is not fooled too easily. Nonetheless, I believe that a regular guy can achieve great things if he can have the right mental model to deal with nonlinearities. I'm in the process of writing a book and I want to hear your stories of nonlinear progression and how you dealt with the ups and downs as you continue to chase your dreams. Email me at THANKS!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Maybe this is the END?"

That's what Mark, my mechanic friend, said to me immediately after I finished the scratch race in Denmark, where I suffered just to finish with a fever. Mark had me cracking up with this comment. And I needed it. It's a play on a previous quote, "Everything works out in the end. If it doesn't, you're just not at the end yet."

I asked Mark, "Why can't I just catch a break?" He said, "Maybe just being here is your break." He's right on both accounts. This is the end of my professional cyclist lifestyle, and this entire experience has been a break from reality. I've been living in a dream.

My 2 brains, the emotional and the rational, offer two different perspectives on the whole experience. Emotionally, it's sad and frustrating that it's all over and I didn't achieve my goal, however improbable. I desperately want another shot at goal. But, my rational mind can create a positive spin and see the silver lining.
I'm proud to have represented the the 87 million Filipinos against the best in the world. I was racing against the best professionals who are younger and faster than me and have been training full time and competing at the world class level for many years. My expectations were obviously unrealistic.
Actually, my coach Vlad keeps reminding me that I did great for a first timer and it's not possible to make the leap to the podium in the first year (unless you're a phenom like Phinney - a proof of genetics). So I asked him why the heck he didn't tell me this in the beginning. He just smiled back. BTW, my coach is an Olympic gold medalist and world champion and it took him 10 years of focused, relentless training to succeed at the World Cup level.

I guess it didn't matter what the odds were. I was still going to try. Logically, I knew I had no shot in hell. But emotionally, I wanted to stomp the competition and make it to Beijing. This delusion may have been partly due to watching Rocky I & II, one too many times. Anyhow, I know I'm just wired differently. I'm highly competitve and a dreamer. And so being a long shot are good odds. But the epistemic truth is that progress takes time. Progress is nonlinear. But my emotional brain wanted to believe in the improbable and linear causality. I.E that if I put in all this hard work and sacrifice, then I would be rewarded with an Olympic spot. In fact, getting to the Olympics is even more complicated that I had ever imagined. There are all these rules that limit the number of participants. Only the top 8 in the pts. race can go since the UCI gives priority to riders from the Top 8 Madison teams. It's a ridiculous, unfair system. It's not like the Jamaican bob sled days when every country could just go to the Olympics. It's now such a commercialized event that the entries are limited. I don't think there is an ASIAN country going for the pts. race - unbelievable.

My friend Robin told me that, "Life is lived forward and understood backwards." That's been the case with this entire experience. I was so caught up with the intensity and focus of the training, travel, and racing of the World Cup events that I may not have enjoyed the moments as they actually happened. But retrospectively, as I recall them, I have nothing but fun memories of the cool places I've raced and the great people I've met. And most of all, I'm proud that I was able to make a difference in the lives of impoverished children in the Philippines by raising money for the PCFA charity. If you haven't yet done so, please consider donating to: . Thank you for reading and your support! You've made this a truly meaningful experience.