The Key to Memorable "Really Living" Vacations? Fear and Suffering

The Key to Memorable "Really Living" Vacations? Fear and Suffering Sound counterintuitive? Perhaps. If the goal of a vacation is to eliminate all stress, then cocooning safely by the pool for hours on end with a cocktail and a book might be just the thing. But from an Art of Really Living standpoint, such vacations are like setting a torch to your most valuable commodity: time.

Do you want to go on unforgettable, time-stopping vacations that create an indelible stamp on your memory? There is one guaranteed way: design in some form of fear and suffering.

Sounds crazy? Counterintuitive? Consider this: think back to some of your most memorable vacations as a kid or even as an adult. Almost always the best and most primary memories have incidents of suffering involved that in the moment were a crisis or a struggle, but with the patina of time and under the golden gloss of memory have subsequently become the highlights of those stories you tell. The endless drives across the country with motion sickness. The time you left your sister at a gas station. Getting lost in a foreign city. The time your car overheated driving up the mountain pass. Getting arrested for skiing out of bounds.

This, then, is the key phrase, "the stories you tell." Narratives without trial and suffering essentially have no plot - and without a plot you don't have a story, and without a story, you won't create meaningful memories.

Need more evidence? Consider the "Monomyth" or "Heroes' Journey" first popularized by Joseph Cambell, which many would argue is the basis of any successful narrative. Think Star Wars, the Matrix, Avatar… virtually any blockbuster movie or novel follows this basic 11 step journey, and core to these narratives are trials, fear and crisis.

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Here's a short video analyzing "The Matrix"

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AG4rlGkCRU]

If we accept that the human brain is wired for stories, and that the heroes' journey is the archetype of the most basic narrative pre-wired in our brains, then it follows that any adventure - particularly on vacation - that follows this narrative is bound to be remembered. A lazy-on-a-beachchair-with-a-cocktail vacation might sound like the perfect idyll, but from the perspective that "life is short and actively getting shorter," such a vacation has no narrative. As such, it is time lost. Time wasted. A vacation you will forget.

So… how to design a truly memorable vacation? There is no direct prescription, but in a series of coming posts we will demonstrate through stories examples of "really living" vacations that slowed, expanded, or even created time.

Narrative One: An Adventure in Playa Del Carmen. 

Last year my daughter and I flew into Cancun and were whisked to a resort on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen for a conference where I was giving a keynote speech. We had a couple of days to relax prior to the event. Considering it was March, we were eager to get out to the beach the moment we arrived to the hotel. It was then that I spawned the notion, "Hey Kat - how about we walk the beach to Playa Del Carmen, get dinner in the town, and then take a cab back." (1 - call to adventure)

Her response, "sure - how far is it?"

We asked the man at the front desk. He didn't know, seemed confused by the question, so we just set out with a hand drawn brightly colored not-to-scale map of the coast as our guide. (2 - assistance) It was about 3:30 and the sun was still bright and warmed our skin as we began our journey. (3 - departure)

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We navigated bays and shallows, marched in each other's footprints, investigated tidal pools and peered into ritzy resorts full of pale-skinned sun worshipers.

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As we progressed south, the beach became more rugged and the hotels disappeared. We had been walking for about an hour and a half when Kat started asking, "are we almost there?" I looked at the map. "I think so - maybe a couple more bays." This pattern was to repeat itself several times over the coming hours.

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We were now away from any development but oddly the bays and estuaries were full of people - Mayan families with naked babies splashing in the shallows laughing, dozens of grills and campfires with blue smoke of delicious smelling grilled meats. The sun was dropping, and in the chiaroscuro light it felt like we had entered another world - one hidden from the lights of the resorts - of real people experiencing the simple joys of the sun and the sand and the waves, droplets in the air like diamonds from the splashing of the kids. At several turns we were offered food and greeted warmly, we these tall other-worldly strangers traversing their alter-world.

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Kat's feet began to hurt about 3 hours in. (4 - trials) "Almost there" I told her as we traversed yet another bay and then rocky shoulder, lights finally appearing in the distance beckoning, but not growing any closer. (5 - approach)

It became dark, but still there were lots of people and fires and we had a flashlight we used to traverse the tricky estuaries and rock outcroppings. We were now both tired and had stopped talking, just endless tramping on the sand. We were both starving and also dehydrated having run out of water hours before. Kat was on the verge of tears I was getting very anxious -I began thinking about trying to move inland to find a cab but the dirt lanes leading to these unidentified beaches didn't seem to lend themselves to public transport, and groups of rowdy and aggressive younger males drinking beer in pickup trucks were starting to become more prevalent. (6 - crisis)

One more bay and rocky outcrop and then, there it was, the long stretch and brilliant lights of the Playa Del Carmen main beach. We were ecstatic. We took the first side street up and entered the pedestrian zone of cobbled streets, upscale restaurants with outdoor seating, and a diverse mix of incredible people watching.

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We lost our tiredness and began fantasizing about shrimp ceviche, lobster pasta, seafood pizza, and steak tacos. (7 - treasure) Finally we settled into comfortable chairs of a gorgeous restaurant overlooking a plaza surrounded by palms and proceeded to eat and eat and eat. We were giddy.  It was 9pm - we had walked 5 hours straight, but now the reward was here, food had never tasted better. (8 - result)

When we returned to the hotel, (9 - return) we ran into our main sponsor. "How was your evening" he asked. "Great," we said simultaneously - "we walked to Playa for dinner."

"Walked??" He exclaimed, "Playa is 12 miles away - that must have taken…"

"5 hours - yes yes it was quite the adventure." The concierge, overhearing said, "Wait wait, you walked to Playa - in the dark?! It is very rocky near the north side…."

Kat said, "oh it was fine - we had a flashlight." It became a story repeated all over the complex not only by our conference group, but by the hotel employees. I could tell Kat was secretly proud, and in subsequent trips, her resilience and willingness to try new things significantly increased. (10 - new life)

Now, a year later, we remember that trip not for the fancy resort, not for the amazing meals, not for the gorgeous pools. What we remember most was the suffering / joy of the long excursion to Playa and the otherworld we entered in the gloaming of the evening where few other tourists had traversed before. Not even para-sailing (a first) was more memorable. (11 - resolution)

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Design for Resiliency: Why Almost Dying is Also “Really Living”

Why almost dying is also often “Really Living” As mentioned in the last post, time expanding “really living” moments tend to have a set of consistent characteristics – either they are truly unique, or feature a sense of extreme beauty. They may be physically intense, or emotionally deep, or feature moments of “flow” where you utilize natural strengths to their limits. Occasionally all five of these aspects converge into the same place at the same time and in the magic of that moment create they create an “event horizon moment” where the gravity of the event is so powerful that time stands still and you remember it forever (often “as if it was yesterday.” Often moments such as these feature contrasting emotions of courage out of fear, joy out of pain, beauty out of ugliness, happiness from sadness.

ELEMENTS AND CONTRASTS OF REALLY LIVING MOMENTS:

  1. Unique/Mundane
  2. Beautiful/Ugly
  3. Physically invigorating/exhausting
  4. Emotionally deep (Love/Courage, Hate/Fear)
  5. Flow State

Below is the story of event horizon moment from my life where I suffered and nearly died, but instead thrived and survived, laughed and loved, all wearing only a silver and pink spandex suit….

An “Event Horizon” moment of “Really Living.”

I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. Gray streets, gray skies, gray buses, gray people. Mundane. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.

After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.

I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.

First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. I had no money so... ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand. Unique.

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Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.

Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”

I told them.

“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!” Joy.

I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny). Love, comaraderie.

Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission. Fear, despair.

My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’

A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.

I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible? Exhaustion.

I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.

This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.

I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab. Joy.

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I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” – the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.

The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination. Unique.

“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.

I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.

Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.

Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.

I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.

4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.

The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.

Translation. “Get out.”

That’s what all that meant…

So I got out.

What else could I do? Fear.

I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.

I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp…

Then, location: where was I?  Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.

I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.

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Thank you Timmons.

Now what?

As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.

The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.

I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.

Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.

As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.

As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. Terror. My jaw was still chattering though.

I began again – but back towards the light.

I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.

So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.

Enduring.

My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.

Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.

At some point I began to realize that I could die.

Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind… Despair.

It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.

Unbelievable! Hope! Joy.

Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.

My despair reached new levels.

3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?

No one.

I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.

So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..

After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…

Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.

I resolved to follow a row.

I followed that row.

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It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe  I could…

I stopped. I turned around.

I saved my own life. Hope.

I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.

First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…

What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.

Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.

Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.

Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.

I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.

I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks. Invigorating.

Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.

I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath.  I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.

It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.

I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.

Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm!  I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?

When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday. I was in the middle of a gorgeous golden field glistening w/ the crystalline residue of the rain. Beauty.

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I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through. Joy.

It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’

The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon. Fear.

Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and looked ahead and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.

Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.

Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a combine collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…

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I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.

The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its open-mouthed astonishment – I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.

I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the silver hood – overtop the other 2 suits.

So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…

And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and silver…

Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…

And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!

I began to laugh.  Joy. The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my scarecrow stubbled jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.

I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session. I told them the story in my broken German and we laughed the whole trip. I couldn’t have been happier…

Beauty, Fear, Despair, Joy, Exhaustion, Invigoration, Flow.

An Event Horizon of Really Living.

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Everyone Dies, Not Everyone Really Lives

Everyone Dies, Not Everyone Really Lives. What is a Really Living Moment?

At the heart of The Art of Really Living is the notion of a “really living moment” and its extreme, the “event horizon moment.” This blog post is an attempt to explain, “what does that mean and why does it matter?”

A “really living moment,” is simply this: any event, activity, moment in time, or memory that leaves a lasting impression – creates a “dent” in your perceptive memory that expands your sense of time in the temporal past. Perhaps it is easier to describe the opposite: the inverse of really living moments are the mundane hours, days and weeks of the routine – of life on “autopilot,” where these same days and weeks disappear in memory and leave swaths of time unaccounted for. In these cases it is as though you never really lived at all. From my experience, and from the research on cognitive perceptions on time, here are a few descriptions of time expanding “really living” moments.

    1. Uniqueness: Eye opening unique experiences that take you well beyond your current experiences: Examples: entering a convent in Greece during vespers, walking the markets in Beijing the first time, trying Pace (sheeps brain stew) in Albania, viewing the birth of your first child.
    2. Beauty: experiences (be they aural, visual, tactile, gustatory or olifactory). Examples: standing atop a karst in Thailand as the sun sets, the smell of jasmine in the evening, the last bite of a plate of Vietnamise lemon grass chicken, the first glimpse of the emerald waters and white sand of perfect Caribbean beach, hearing a line of poetry that resonates with you.
    3. Physical Intensity (adrenaline) intense physical activities – often with some risk associated. Examples: the last lap of a criterium bike race fraught with possibility (and crashes), skiing the steepest chutes in Colorado or Utah, completing a 500 lb. one-legged squat from lower than 90 degrees while leaning over at 72 degrees balanced on a 1mm wide 18 inch blade, traveling 31mph directly at a wall on ice (short track speedskating), eating a trinidad moruga scorpion pepper, splashing into the 34 degree Black Sea with friends.
    4. Emotional Intensity (love, desire, fear) intense emotional connections – often with some fear or risk associated. Examples: watching your daughter put her heart into a close basketball game, the first kiss, falling in love, the first “I love you,” exposing your true feelings about something important to someone close to you, the perfect father's day of "really living" adventures with your daughter.
    5. Flow State: strengths-centered activity relying on the myelinated circuits in your brain. These activities are recorded with a high speed camera – time disappears in the present but our brains record more data, more memories. More memories = more time. Examples: any activity (sport, hobby, relationship, music, etc.) that transports you into the hyperfocused state of flow. For me it is bicycle racing, skiing, exploring, writing, music, traveling, deep conversations with people smarter than me, creative dialog and wordplay.

These elements are all “stackable” meaning that they can all take place simultaneously. Occasionally when this happens, time itself can feel like it stands still and “event horizon moments” are born. Rather than a dent in your memory, it is an expansive experience that actually creates a sense of time from nothing. Often these moments have aspects of both positive and negative emotions associated with them. Eugene O’Kelley described it best in his great book Chasing Daylight where he described these wonderful / terrible moments when he had to say goodbye to loved ones – forever – due to brain cancer, but in so doing, created “perfect moments where time stopped.” Event Horizon moments are rare, they are intense, but they are made of life itself: of love, fear and the act of creation.

What are your “really living” moments made out of?Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.39.26 AM

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Arrival in Vlore - the emerald sea

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the one picture I waited the whole trip for: the Black Sea Plunge

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A day of "really living"

An Event Horizon Moment: Guest Post by Neil Sprackling

A Moment of Really Living I grew up with an undying passion for soccer and in particular my team Crystal Palace FC, the club where I was born and raised in South London. This has everything to do with my father and my obsession seems to have become greater the older I have become.

Fast forward 40 years and I have a son of my own, Julen, born and raised in Australia and now living in the United States. No reason at all that he should either like soccer or be a blossoming Crystal Palace FC fan. Fortunately for me he is both (which might have a sneaky bit to do with me).

As his loyalty with the club increased, I realized I wanted to do something special for him that I never did at his age: be a match day mascot. Now of course when I was 11, being a mascot was not the experience it is today. So on the eve of the 2012/13 season I called the club to inquire about Julen becoming a mascot. I was told that as long as I wasn't looking for a game in the coming months, it would be no problem. So I chose a game towards the end of the season, mindful that I would need to organise a weekend and flights to London for the occasion.

I waited for a special moment at one of our traditional family Sunday evening roast dinners to tell him. I wasn't even sure whether he knew what a mascot was but on sharing the news of our impending weekend, his face said it all as he broke out into a huge beaming smile. I'll never forget the moment.

Fast forward a couple of months to our weekend together in London. I was intent on making it a weekend we'd never forget so on arrival in London, we spent the afternoon at the Natural History museum and then caught a sci-fi movie. The next day we did an open top bus tour of London, visited the Tower of London and finished the day with my brother and best friend at the theatre seeing Beatlemania. We spent so much quality 1:1 time together, just chatting about anything that came to mind.

We saved the best for last of course. On Saturday April 13, we headed to Selhurst Park, South London, home of my beloved Eagles. We got there 3 hours before kick off to be greeted at the players' entrance and taken to the VIP lounge for lunch. Julen changed in to his full Palace gear  and was shepherded away to meet the team in the dressing room (the only part I couldn't join!). He returned beaming from ear to ear, with the white T shirt we had bought (that said "Love Palace, Love Football") signed by all the players and manager.

I had also arranged for my Dad and my brother to join us on the day and they arrived as Julen disappeared back into the dressing room to prepare for the team's pre-match warm up on the pitch. I was allowed to go pitch side to take photos and much to my delight, I was even given permission to stand by the players' tunnel with my video camera as both teams entered the stadium. As Julen came out hand in hand with the club captain, I had tears in my eyes.

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It was a wonderful game that finished 2-2 and the icing on the cake was that Palace went on to the play off final that year, won the game and got promoted back to the Premier League. The stuff that dreams are made of.

On our last day in London we met up with my Dad and step Mum and they took us on a mini road trip around the area of South London where I was born including the town where my Dad was raised . This was made all the more special by stories from my Dad about growing up in London during World War 2

On our return to the US, I had his signed T shirt framed together with photos from the day and the ticket stub. It was a day that neither of us will ever forget and was truly a "moment of really living".

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LOVE = SPEED (of connections)

Friendship (Love) = Talent (Strengths) = Electricity (Speed) Every once in a great while, that magical rare occurrence happens when you sit down with someone and instantly connect, the conversation lights up with electricity and time flies. You look at your watch a half hour later, and realize it has been three hours... Conversely we often sit down with acquaintances or business partners and an hour or two later into a plodding forced conversation realize it has only been 20 minutes.

What's the difference? As it turns out it is sometimes you have a natural talent for people: and that talent is predicated on speed: the speed of the neural connections begin triggered in your interaction. The good news is you can develop a "talent" for just about anyone. The bad news is it can take a lot of time and effort and it all has to do with the science of myelin:

The field of neuroscience is filled daily with new discoveries. One of the most important in recent years is that of myelin – a mysterious substance in the brain that with practice or focus actively wraps itself around select neural circuits with multiple layers. The more practice and the greater the focus, the greater the number of layers of myelin wrapping the circuits. Myelin then acts as an electrical insulator, causing those neural pathways to accelerate their ability to send signals to other parts of the brain by up to 1000 times faster. Myelin is the gray matter of the brain and was previously thought to be “inert” and in many ways it is, but through this act of wrapping axons it is now known to play a major role.

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Here’s where the brain science gets interesting. Myelin exists in the brain in two forms – 1) Naturally accumulated and insulated circuits formed from an early age which are quickly labeled “natural talent” (which may in itself be a combination of genetics and exposure to certain stimuli during childhood) and 2) Myelinated circuits developed and accumulated through “diligent practice” – any repeated activity where the brain’s attention is focused.

Here’s the thing - a myelinated circuit is a myelinated circuit - it doesn’t matter how it is formed, it shows up the same way: as a strength or “talent” - the ability to process and understand a complicated set of inputs at incredibly high speeds. In particular, one common factor of highly myelinated circuits is that they operate at speeds significantly faster than the functioning of the neo cortex or “rational brain” which is where some of the mystique comes from. When we are able to do something without “thinking” we consider it talent, a strength.

Myelin explains many things: it explains how professional baseball players who have watched 1000’s of fastballs can know exactly where a fastball will land by looking at the stitching of the baseball before it ever leaves the pitcher’s hand. It explains how athletes or musicians who practice 10,000 hours or more have the opportunity to hone high-speed circuits that allow them to be predictive of the next move on the field or play notes with such synchronicity that only milliseconds separate them from the average skilled player.

Developing a talent for people: I think Myelin also explains something much more near and dear: the nature of our love affairs and friendships. I believe that the same process of developing a talent for a skill or sport through the accumulation of myelinated circuits exists in the relationships we build with people. Sometimes we have a naturally occurring “talent” for people in the form of pre-myelinated circuits that creates an instant resonance, and sometimes we develop those same circuits over time through “diligent practice,” in this case through repeated exposure to these people in an environment that requires you to learn their ins and outs. Sometimes we light up with electricity when we meet someone new and time flies and we operate at light speed in their presence and sometimes it is the opposite: it starts via a tedious and mind numbing learning process to get to know their ins and outs… BUT eventually, if forced together through circumstance long enough, and intense enough, we reach the very same place – a place of high speed intuitive understanding, friendship, and love. For example:

Diligent Practice --> Friendship. Exhibit A: Steve Shoemaker. Steve is one of my oldest friends and now one of my best friends. Foisted on each other in 9th grade in a carpool arrangement, and finding ourselves attending most of the same classes, we began spending large amounts of time together. Steve and I couldn’t be more different. Steve craves predictability and stability, I’m more of an adventurer and risk taker. Steve’s a bit of a Luddite and likes to tinker and fix old things. I love new technology and when something stops working I sell it or throw it away and buy a new one. Steve is an avid and knowledgeable collector of antiquities and has a house that is like a museum full of dozens if not hundreds of green bank teller lamps, brass portholes, early American oil paintings, and guns amongst other things. I care nothing for things and have collected close to nothing worth keeping except my bikes. Steve travels to the exact same places at the same times of the year and does the exact same routines year over year. I never vacation the same place twice and avoid routine like the plague. Steve’s father was the president and dean of a religious university and Steve is a theology professor at Harvard teaching grad students how to look to the past for universal guidelines about how to live today. I am an innovation consultant and a professor as well, but I teach grad school students how to explore the infinite possibilities of the future based on the innovative capabilities of man.

These days Steve and I get along famously despite our stark differences, but it wasn’t always so: we had to “learn” or “practice” how to get along. Through carpooling, debate, dialogue, arguments and understanding we overcame our differences and found synergy in some of our similarities including a love for speed, love for the outdoors, and intellectual curiosity. We also found a host of complementary benefits from seeing each other’s perspectives. In time we overcame the dissonance of our different approaches to life and now joke about and even admire our “eccentricities.” Said differently: through our brain chemistry, Steve and I have developed a “talent” or strength for each other by wrapping myelinated circuits to weave connections over our years together.

It’s like riding a bike. One of the magical indications of a true strength or talent, is that those talents reside perpetually even when un-activated. Once you know how to ride a bike, you always know how to ride a bike. Myelin sheaths never unwind so as soon as those circuits are reactivated, the skills and speed of the connections resume. I can (and have on occasion) spent nearly a decade without seeing Steve but like all true friendships when we see each other it is as if no time has passed and the conversation picks up without losing a beat. When we are together in the flow of the moment, time does that interesting counterintuitive thing: it both speeds up and slows down. Immersed in the rich present of the conversation time seems to stop, yet at the same time four hour dinners disappear in a flash. Always, though, afterward I’m left with a rich databank of memories and impressions, visual, verbal and emotional: of real, deep conversations about important things. This property – of time speeding by in the present only to expand in the past is another hallmark of these high speed myelinated neural circuits at work. When leveraging our strengths, when in a state of flow it is like we have a high speed camera recording the light, color, and sound.

My friendship with Steve is the “learned” talent gained through “diligent practice” talked about by Daniel Coyle in the “Talent Code,” Geoff Colvin in “Talent is Overrated” and Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers.” I liken my relationship with Steve to the very successful if unpopular construct of the “arranged marriage.” As it turns out, divorce rates for arranged marriages are lower than traditional marriages. In some sense it makes sense – a matched couple, over time, without high expectations, develops a skill, a talent, a “love” for each other through the development of high speed circuits that allow friendship, partnership, and yes, love to blossom. But..

But… but what about “native talents” – skills from youth as an athlete, musician, singer, dancer, comedian… that seem to exist from childhood. Suddenly one child excels in an area and begins to blossom. Again using construct of myelin what most likely is happening is that certain circuits in the brain were wrapped and accelerated either through genetics or through a form of adjacent practice and suddenly a child finds his or herself with an advantage in some field of life.

These kids, with proper guidance and support go on to become Olympians, play professional sports, become musicians or artists, or become the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of business. Does a corollary exist with relationships?

You bet – think about that time when you met a great friend or romantic prospect for the first time and talked for hours and hours and “connected” in an electric way – “like you had already known each other.”

I think that we occasionally have a natural “talent” or strength for other human beings and our pre-myelinated circuits begin firing at high speed. These sessions are noted for the following: 1 ) they happen organically and we don’t realize it is happening until.. 2) time suddenly simultaneously slows down and accelerates at the same time (flow), and the interaction starts happening at multiple levels and takes over all other stimulus and 3) at the end there is always moment of looking down at a watch or phone and suddenly realizing that 3, 5, or 7 hours have gone by it is hard to understand how so much time has passed so quickly. With the high speed circuits firing it feels like we are unwinding a river of deja-vus as the rational brain tries to catch up with the flow of the neural interactions.

Natural Talent --> Friendship (faster). Exibit B: I met Matt Dula at work one day in my first “real” job at Omni Tech in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. We talked briefly in the hallway one day and hit it off so well he suggested coming over for a glass of wine that evening. I think it was a Wednesday. We sat down on the chairs on the stoop of his porch around 7pm and talked and drank some wine. The conversation gained speed and momentum and quickly we were making patterns and leaps and finishing each other sentences and each thread of the conversation was woven deeply into a tapestry of shared meaning and understanding. We jumped from literature, travel, philosophy, religion, training, discipline, and relationships… A short time later I looked at my watch in the dark and realized it was 5am. We had talked for 10 hours straight and had to wake up for work in less than 2 hours!

This is the miracle of a native “talent” or strength for another person. Once in a great while a pattern match emerges where high speed pre-myelinated circuits are naturally aligned and interactional dynamics – verbal, non verbal, intonation, content and context – are put into warp speed. These magic connections allow you to jump past all the normal “get to know you” artifice and skip right to meaningful conversations about passions, shared experiences, and vulnerabilities.

I would say half my strong friendships are of the “instant friends” variety and the other half were gained through time and practice. In time they feel very similar – no time passes between meetings, they feature high speed verbal and non-verbal exchanges, a deep intuitive understanding of who they are and what drives them. Interestingly though, NONE of my female love interests ever took the “time and practice” route, which is an interesting note I will explore in a future post.

One thing that is notable about cases of “natural” talent for friendship is that these cases present the possibility for a great deal more drama than that of the “learned” friendships. Steve and I had a series of minor conflicts through the years as we got to know each other, but we never had particularly high expectations of being lifelong friends and also never had any serious conflicts because the stakes were low.

Conversely, the instant connection of my friend Matt and my best friend Kevin who I bonded with instantaneously created a whole different set of dynamics and expectations. When so many circuits are firing at once and everything is high speed and synchronous, a different expectation is created. Suddenly there are a couple of factors and expectations at play, 1) We will be “fast friends” and 2) We (think) we truly understand each other.

Well, despite the synchronicities, no person can truly understand the true depths of another, so when the frissons in the relationships emerge, sudden and unexpected conflicts surface that tend to carry far greater meaning than the depth or length of our relationships would suggest. This pattern gets exponentially more difficult when the dynamic emerges in a male / female relationship with the possibility for love.

Matt and I had years of great connectivity until conflict between our spouses intervened, exacerbating some areas of difference. At that point we ended up going several years without talking. But when Matt showed up for my birthday last summer everything was back 100% full speed. We bonded over chili peppers, gardening, cycling, literature, and deep philosophical musings regarding the nature of man and the meaning of life. It was like “riding a bike.”

Kevin and I also had a series of falling outs in college before we established a true baseline of our friendship that usurped all the minor drama. Like my relationship with Matt, Kevin and I fired on all cylinders and every conversation had multiple layers of nuance. As the poet Laureate at Stanford Kevin was exquisitely gifted verbally and our salvos would span ranges of complex creative conversational calligraphy – emergent patterns of alliteration, consonance, puns and poetry flowing and then ebbing into some frenetic filigree. Sadly Kevin went missing a few years ago after battles with his own internal demons.

I miss you Kevin and look forward to our next bout of wordplay, hypknowcriticism, and “nice nights” when you heal and re-emerge.

In the end I believe all these relationships come down to the same simple word: speed. Speed of understanding. Speed of the intuitive response. Speed of the body language, presence, nuance, leaning in, leaning back, eye contact or thoughtful gaze. It is electricity and 1000 things happen simultaneously in an interaction with someone you love and most of it is captured by the high speed lens of your emotional camera and then reflected through the rational brain for explanation. With the lens of trust gained through longer term exposure, the assumption of positive intent guides intentions and interpretations and the relationships deepen and accelerate further.

LOVE = SPEED (of connections)

Leveraging the base of understanding that myelin gives us of neural circuits, In the next two posts I’ll examine the notion of quitting: specifically when quitting is good, and when it is bad: jobs, activities, sports and relationships:

PT 1: KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT: THE TWO YEAR RULE

PT 2: KNOWING WHEN NOT TO QUIT: THE PROBLEM OF NATURAL TALENTScreen Shot 2014-09-21 at 6.03.47 PM