What Life Asks of Us

Carlos’s Note:

This article first came to my radar from one of the Martial Arts blogs I usually follow and how the idea of respect applies to the traditional Japanese Ryu (classic martial arts).

The more I think about it the more I realize that the applications and implications of this kind of thinking are essential wherever there are teams and a collaborative effort.

January 27, 2009

What Life Asks of Us

A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

The rules of a profession or an institution are not like traffic regulations. They are deeply woven into the identity of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to her sport, a farmer’s relation to her land is not an individual choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. Her social function defines who she is. The connection is more like a covenant. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out.

In 2005, Ryne Sandberg was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Heclo cites his speech as an example of how people talk when they are defined by their devotion to an institution:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.”

Sandberg motioned to those inducted before him, “These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It’s disrespectful to them, to you and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

“Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect ... . If this validates anything, it’s that guys who taught me the game ... did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do.”

I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution.

Second, institutional thinking is eroding. Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like “Mary Poppins.” But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.

Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity.

But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.

Something that made me think today

Rush (Presto)

If I could wave my magic wand 

I am made from the dust of the stars
And the oceans flow in my veins
Here I hide in the heart of the city
Like a stranger coming out of the rain

The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light
I look down into a million houses
And wonder what you're doing tonight

If I could wave my magic wand
I'd make everything all right

I'm not one to believe in magic
But I sometimes have a second sight
I'm not one with a sense of proportion
When my heart still changes overnight

I had a dream of a winter garden
A midnight rendezvous
Silver, blue and frozen silence
What a fool I was for you

I had a dream of the open water
I was swimming away out to sea
So deep I could never touch bottom
What a fool I used to be

If I could wave my magic wand
I'd set everybody free

I'm not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I'm not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Don't ask me
I'm just improvising
My illusion of careless flight
Can't you see
My temperature's rising
I radiate more heat than light

Don't ask me
I'm just sympathizing
My illusions a harmless flight
Can't you see
My temperature's rising
I radiate more heat than light

I Did It!!!!

Debbie (Runing Partner) and I at the end of the 5k run in SF

Debbie, my running partner and I at the end of the race

I made it!!! I ran a 5k race!!! I did it in an awesome time (at least awesome for me) and, the most important part, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

33 minutes 09 seconds may not seem like a good record but when you consider that all the running I’ve done so far has been indoors and that I beat my best time indoor by almost 5 full minutes, you can start to see how much of an accomplishment it is for me.

I’m psyched and motivated to train even harder. I really learned that physical limitations can be overcome if you’re willing… where there is a will there is a way.

Now the bike on Wednesday and Friday… I think I’ll take it easy tomorrow and need the bike repaired before I try the Menlo Park ride.

I’m stoked 😀

Almost don’t recognize myself… and that’s good

I hit three milestones. One yesterday, one today and one tomorrow.

Yesterday I was able to bike 10+ miles and then run. I couldn’t run the full 5k (3.1 miles) but it’s a start considering that I was at almost 3 miles when I stopped.  It’s starting to pay off… all the sweat, tears and frustration is starting to show results… Those of you who live in the Bay Area might have heard me scream when I got to Palo Alto and then when I got back home 🙂

Today I’m having to stop myself from riding again. You may not think that’s a milestone but you it’s very hard for me to stay motivated enough to work out and to commit to doing something long-term.  It’ll continue being a struggle but now that the weather is starting to be nicer, I can motivate myself with going outside to bike and run.

Tomorrow I’m expecting the official confirmation that I’ve lost 30 pounds!!! This is perhaps the most important and satisfying of the three because it means I’m only 9 pounds away from being able to reapply for personal health insurance… and 20 pounds from my ideal Dr. weight of 215 and 36 pounds from my personal objective of 200 pounds.

I can now understand professional runners and tri-athletes who spend hours and hours on the gym and on the road. I’m nowhere near their levels and I’m already spending 3 to 4 hours in the Gym Monday through Friday and however long my mini bricks take on Saturday.  I guess not having a job does have its positive side 😛

Think about this when training

Taken from: http://www.active.com/triathlon/Articles/11_Tips_for_Triathlon_Success_from_a_Navy_SEAL.htm

Triathlon Training/SEAL Mentality

Training to be a Navy SEAL is far more challenging than training for an Ironman. Given his experience as a SEAL, and his recent Ironman success, I asked Keith to give triathletes some tips for success. Here is what he said:

  1. Eliminate self-limiting thoughts. More often than not, people have preconceived notions about what is possible for them to achieve. They sell themselves short. Abolish thoughts that hold you back from achieving your true potential.
  2. Optimize your skills. Everyone begins at a different place and each of us are dealt a different set of genetic cards. Use that to your advantage and optimize your assets.
  3. Be willing to spend the effort and energy to be successful. Anyone can succeed if they are willing to work at it. Too many people want to reap rewards without the sacrifice that is necessary to achieve any goal.
  4. Enjoy the journey. If you can enjoy the pursuit of excellence, you've got it made. Aiming to enjoy only the end result makes it impossible to endure the necessary sacrifices to achieve any goal really worth having.
  5. Be a student. The more you understand about what it is you're trying to do and how to do it, the easier it is to be successful. Be a student of your passion.
  6. Persevere. There are many things that can get in the way of successfully achieving any goal. You have to be willing to figure out how to get over, under, around or through those obstacles. Keep trying.
  7. Develop mental toughness. It is not the physical challenges that keep men from successfully surviving the SEAL training, it is mentally giving up. You need to start believing that you can do it, you can be successful. Others have been successful before you, you can do it too.
  8. Be prepared to suffer. When you are training for an event as large as a 140.6-mile triathlon [or any endurance event], it is a long haul. There is going to be bad weather, aching body parts and times when you are just plain tired. Know that some stress, followed by rest, will make you stronger physically and mentally.
  9. Take strength from others. This tip is particularly valuable for race day. Right when you are thinking things are really bad for you, look around. You'll see that others are suffering too. Knowing you're not the only one and that other people will suffer generates energy, if you're willing to accept it.
  10. You must want success. Doing something that is difficult requires that you want to be successful with every fiber of your core. The intense desire to succeed helps you overcome obstacles that crush other people.
  11. Avoid over-training. It is easy for highly motivated people to over-train. Achievers are often rewarded for doing more and working harder. While you must work hard and do the prescribed work, you must also rest in order to reap the benefits.

Carlos Comments:

It’s the one who thinks he can accomplish a goal who will do it.  I think this is perfectly distilled in these lessons.

Time to get serious


Weekly Training Schedule
  Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat/Sun
Warm Basketball Indoor triathlon


Outdoor Triathlon


Long Distance Run


Long Distance Swim


Race Event



AM Workout
(3.1 mi)
Bicycle (6.2 mi)
(3.1 mi)
Bicycle (6.2 mi)
No run or bike
PM Swim Naginata Swim Rest Rest

I think it’s time I get serious about training specifically for the Triathlon I am entering in June. The above schedule has been blessed by my trainer and I think it’s pushing enough energy around to take into account where my weaknesses are (swimming right now) and the need to start some sort of outdoors workout soon. It also accounts for things I don’t want to stop doing like Naginata 🙂

My trainer and I made a few changes to make sure that I have at least one day off during the week.

Getting there

It just dawned on me how far I’ve come in my training. Yesterday I did my first indoor triathlon: I swam my 500 yards, biked 10k and ran 5k without much pain and with only having to sit down for a while.

My swim needs work at getting the whole distance in one swoop. Other than that and making sure I don’t reset the treadmill I was very happy with the result yesterday, specially after having helped a friend move in the morning 😀