Saturday, February 1, 2014

28 Days. (The Happiness Experiment, Part 2)

The Happiness Experiment, Carmel, California

What would you give to have one month in 2014 to do whatever you wanted?

What would you do? What goals would you set? What would you accomplish?

          In December, Erin challenged me to take on what she phrased “The Happiness Experiment”. Essentially, the Happiness Experiment consisted of getting rid of social media and avoiding news sites—basically anything that consisted of endless webpage scrolling. This included Twitter, Facebook and the cycling and triathlon forums I frequented on an almost daily basis. I signed my life away with the contract she drew up and braced for what I thought was going to be the looooonnnnngggest month of my life. Before I knew it, however, the holiday break was over and here I am today, sitting in class like I never even left campus.
          So, what happened during that month of no social media?
          Lots.
          I read 6 good books.
          I vacationed in sunny Carmel, California for a week.
          I ran almost every single day (including an 11-miler in a Santa hat on Christmas Eve).
          I finished another blog post.
          I opened some presents…and ate way too much.
          Of course you could argue that I still would have done all of those things with social media thrown in the mix—you’re right. The difference, however, lies in the simple fact that I was able to focus entirely on the experiences I was having. I wasn’t able to excuse myself from reading my books by checking Twitter every half hour, and I was able to experience Carmel, California without the interruption of my supposed “friends” inviting me to play CandyCrush Saga on Facebook (seriously though, enough is enough). Furthermore, I was able to focus on the people around me. Real. Live. People. Family. Friends.
          As you read this, you’re probably thinking something to the effect of “Jake’s gone Amish on us.” You may also find it ironic that I’m linking this blog post to every social media outlet I can find. I genuinely believe there is value to be had in social media, but the battle I’m having in my mind is whether or not my existence in social media is worth more than the real-life experiences I could be having without it. The impact that “The Happiness Experiment” had on my life in the span of just one month was, to say the least, eye-opening.
          This is where my opening question ties in to all of this.

          What would you give to have one month in 2014 to do whatever you wanted?

          Because of the positive experience I had with the Happiness Experiment, I’m keeping the momentum rolling into 2014. I decided to modify certain aspects of the original contract a bit, but the majority of it is staying the same. Starting today (Feb. 2, 2014), I’m renewing my commitment to the contract for the next year. You can see a copy of the contract on the right, officially typed and everything.
The Happiness Experiment          As you look it over, feel free to laugh at the “read a science paper” suggestion (it’s for my future haha) or the “sign and date” at the bottom of the page (I told you it was official!).
          One thing I noticed during my month-long experiment was that I had the tendency to find loopholes in the system—instead of checking for Facebook updates, I would start checking my email every half hour. That’s why I included the paragraph at the end to remind me that simply replacing old habits with new ones that are equally unproductive does no good—you need to find worthy goals to fill in the extra time.
          I totally admit it’s over the top, but while you’re still laughing, let me explain this whole “month of free time” concept and how it ties in to the experiment. I estimated that I spend an average of two hours a day browsing news sites, scrolling through status updates and checking trending topics on Twitter. I also feel that this estimate is not too far off from the average of most of my peers.
          Now for some math:

          Old me:
          2 hrs/day    x    365 days    =    730 hrs spent “logged in” each year.


          New me:
          5 min/day on news sites    +    2 min/day on Instagram    =    7 min/day
          (7 min/day    x    7 days/week) + 5 min/week on Facebook    =    54 min/week
          54 min/week    x    52 weeks/year    =    2,808 min/year    =    46.8 hrs/year
        730 hrs/year    -    46.8 hrs/year    =    683.2 hrs SAVED

          683.2 hrs    =    28.47 days

          There it is.

          A month.

          In the next year, I’ll be saving 28.47 days worth of time by not mindlessly scrolling through web page after web page. What’s more is the fact that those 28.47 days are really 28.47 24-hour periods of time. Factoring in sleep, those 683.2 hours extend out much longer than just a month.
          Think about it though. That 2 hrs/day is the equivalent of living your normal life for 11 months, and then saying “adiĆ³s” to the real world by staring at a computer screen for the entire month of December—no sleep, no work, no school, just you and a bunch of tweets and posts (most of which you don’t even care about anyway).

          What would you give to have one month in 2014 to do whatever you wanted?

          Erin originally named this project “The Happiness Experiment,” because at the time she designed it I had been feeling unproductive, unsatisfied and underwhelmed with the progress I was making in life. You could say it was my conscience telling me there were higher peaks that needed climbing, but I was too focused on the screen of my phone to even notice!
          If you decide you want to try something similar, I seriously want to hear about it. I promise Zuckerberg won’t be offended. Tell me what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and keep me updated along the way. Shoot me an email or send me a message on Facebook. If you choose the latter, don’t expect a response until Monday. :)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Into the fog.


Road Cycling, Fog, Metaphor for life
Image courtesy of bicycling.com
          Ever since I started this blog, my workouts have turned into a game where I constantly pick apart different aspects of my ride or run in search of new analogies for my next post. Often times I’ll think of some aspect of my workout—shifting gears, coasting, the constant repetition of pedaling—but won’t be able to correlate it to a principle of life worth writing about. Even though my experience with this blog is relatively amateur, the past few months of writing my thoughts and ideas have taught me that often times life lessons don’t appear right away. This was the case with this post; I knew there was something about riding in fog that I wanted to pursue, but the right analogy hadn’t come along until this past week. 
          Before the temperatures plummeted and the snow began to fall, I made it a weekly routine to ride the Alpine Loop every Saturday on my way to work in Pleasant Grove. The payoff for waking up at 6 A.M. on a Saturday morning to ride my bike up a mountain was the chance to be alone on a usually busy canyon road—just the sound of my breathing and the gears of my bike quietly humming along as I made my way up to the summit.
          One particular morning, the fog rolled in as I started the ascent near Sundance Ski Resort and I found myself pedaling along in a “bubble” of visibility of about 20 feet. I thought there had to be some sort of analogy I could play around with while I rode through the fog, but nothing came to me at the time. I kept pedaling, thinking, pedaling, thinking, yet no ideas ever materialized in my mind. As I dropped over the summit and made the descent down American Fork Canyon, my thoughts shifted towards the thrill of the descent, and any thoughts of blog posts slipped away with the fog.
          Fast forward four months to the final weekend of Christmas break and here I am, finally writing this post. Spurred by some books I read over the break as well as some extra time to think about things other than homework, I finally found an analogy that I feel applies well to the act of riding in the fog.
          In short, I have come to the conclusion that it is smart to believe in things you can’t see.
          So, how does this relate to riding in the fog? And probably more importantly, why do I consider it smart?
          Let me explain.
          First off, my ride in the fog taught me that as long as I continued to pedal, the road ahead would open up to me. What was originally hidden in the fog would soon reveal itself as a new turn in the road, a new panorama of fall colors, or a previously unseen canyon view.  As long as I dared to keep moving forward into the mist, things that were previously invisible to me soon became part of the world around me.
          What would have happened had I stopped moving forward? As simple as it sounds, I would have had no way to know what was out there for me to discover; my world would have consisted of the mere 20 foot bubble encircling me—a few rocks on the side of the road, a couple trees, and the lines on the road. The power, I discovered, of moving forward into uncharted territories lies in the following fact:
          The world becomes a LOT bigger when you venture into the fog. Just because the fog limits my visibility does not mean that the world around me doesn’t exist. The minute you begin to move forward, however, the world might as well be yours.
          This is precisely why I believe it is smart to believe in things you can’t see. It opens up opportunities that never come to the people who stay put. For example, as an undergrad working in a cancer research lab on campus, I recently had the opportunity to be first author on a journal article detailing some of the mechanisms behind metastatic behavior in cancer. My experience performing this research over the last three years has taught me that cancer is really complex—more so than I ever imagined before I began studying it. While I think it’s highly unlikely there will ever be a one-drug-fits-all cure for the disease, I do believe there will come a time when a cancer diagnosis will be seen more as a temporary (but fixable) inconvenience because of available treatment options. In order for that to happen, however, there have to be researchers who are devoted to venturing into the fog—exploring new areas of research, putting new ideas to the test, etc. Believing in what hasn’t happened yet and the subsequent search of solutions for how to get there is precisely the environment we should all seek if we are to reach heights once deemed impossible.
          In my opinion, this same idea can be applied to most aspects of life. Unfortunately, many of us resign ourselves to our current “bubble” of visibility (totally guilty here). We trick ourselves into believing that the world around us exists only of what we see—we forget that there are roads to explore, trails to hike, and peaks to climb if we but only pedal onward.
          Taking this analogy further, there have been numerous times on my bike when I’ve taken a road which I thought would lead me to my destination, only to run into a dead end a few minutes later. When this happens, it’s second nature to turn around, backtrack, and then look for new roads that will take me where I want to go. I would be downright foolish if I reacted to the dead end by stopping my bike, falling to the side of the road, and crying out dramatically “There’s no way out! I'm doomed!!!” Yet this is EXACTLY what many of us do (me included) whenever career paths or relationships don’t work out the way we expected or desired.
          Take for instance my pursuit of medical school. After about a year or so of mulling over what I wanted to do with my life, I decided the pre-med track in school was right for me and I immediately began taking classes that would prepare me for the MCAT and med school applications. Fast-forward two years later and there I was, registered not only for the MCAT, but also for a dang expensive prep course to boot. Everything was still rolling along as planned; I would be taking the MCAT on May 23rd, with my applications being submitted the following week. My wedding also happened to be the day after my applications were supposed to go in; suffice it to say I was looking forward to the honeymoon.
          With only two weeks to go before the MCAT, however, I realized I was completely, utterly miserable. To say it was a confusing time in my life is an understatement—after all, I was about to marry the girl of my dreams, so why wasn’t I happy? Turns out it had nothing to do with the wedding (fortunately). My parents drove down from Provo one Sunday afternoon, and together with my soon-to-be-wife, had what you could call an “intervention” of sorts. They helped me realize that I needed to take a step back, focus on enjoying the last month of the engagement, and reassess my career choices once the wedding and honeymooning were over. This, of course, meant postponing my pursuit of med school for at least another year. It also meant looking into other career paths, something I hadn’t even considered in all my angst to be a doctor. So with only two weeks to go before I took the MCAT, I cancelled the test.
          Boom.
          A whole three years of planning my life around that day, and I had just clicked “Cancel.”
          Why did I have to go through all the stress, prep courses, test fees, and study sessions late into the night, only to realize that it wasn’t the right path for me? Couldn’t I have just seen beforehand that it wasn’t the career I really wanted to pursue?
          The answer? I honestly believe there was no other way for me to find out except by actually doing it. Had I not pursued this career path as rigorously as I did, I would never have known that it wasn’t for me. Furthermore, I would have always wondered whether or not I should have taken this road—now I knew for myself.
          This is precisely the magic of hitting dead ends that we all too often fail to see. They give us valuable insight and real, hard-earned knowledge. They take the wondering out of the equation, and replace it with the blessing of experience.
          To sum up my thoughts, I am more convinced than ever before that believing in things I can’t see (or can’t see just yet) has the ability to alter the trajectory of my life for the better. Furthermore, the dead ends we encounter in life should never be seen as a failed attempt—more often than not they lead us to bigger and better opportunities, equipped with the confidence of knowing we’re headed away from something that wasn’t supposed to be. As we renew our efforts to pedal onward, may we view the uncertainty of the fog around us as an opportunity to expand our understanding of the world, and may we embrace the dead ends we hit along the way.

1. Opening image courtesy of http://www.bicycling.com/sites/default/files/images/bicycling-in-fog.jpg

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Happiness Experiment.

Road cycling, the ultimate challenge, contender bicycles
Pedal…GASP…Pedal…GASP…Pedal. My lungs were screaming for air, yet no matter what I did, I was still losing ground. The bib number on the rider 300 yards in front of me was now too small to read. Watching the breakaway of four riders pull away from me, I was tempted to blame my bike for my inability to keep up. I started saying to myself, “I wouldn’t be falling behind if I had those nice featherweight carbon wheels, or that sub-900 gram frame.” This was the mental state I was in during the 2012 High Uintas Classic road race, an 80-mile ride through the Uinta mountain range here in Utah. Not exactly a winning mentality for a race like this.
Topping out at 10,700 ft. above sea level with over 5,200 ft. of climbing, the High Uintas Classic is a challenging single-day race that winds along one of the most scenic highways Utah has to offer. With thin air, amazing views and fast descents, it really is one of the more exciting races I’ve had the opportunity to race. Because this was my first year focusing solely on cycling races (I had been racing triathlon up until then), I was in the Cat5 group for the first time, having just received my cycling license.
road cycling, climbing
Elevation Profile of High Uintas Classic
The first 20 miles of the race are relatively flat, rolling hills that gradually turn into a monster of a climb—Bald Mountain Pass. As our group made our way toward the climb, I jockeyed for position near the front of the pack; I wanted to place myself in a good spot where I could react to any moves made by the other riders. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Rotating through the pace line, I got trapped in 8th position when four riders up front stood up out of the saddle and sped away. By the time I broke free from the rest of the group in an attempt to catch the breakaway, it was too late. Although I still finished a respectable 5th, I lost all possibility of catching the lead group the moment I started to place the blame on things other than my own physical limitations.
What I failed to recognize then, and what I’m recognizing more and more lately, is that “buying speed” is never a satisfactory substitute for training. I’m not saying that certain training aids aren’t worth it—power meters, for example, can bring about huge improvements in cycling performance if you’re willing to put in the hours training with one. What happens all too often, however, is that we fall victim to the “if only” phrase.
“If only I had those carbon wheels…”
“If only I had my dream bike…”
“If only I had a motor on this thing…” (slightly joking)
The problem with this phrase, in my experience, is that it’s insatiable. When we divert our attention away from hard work and direct it towards equipment “upgrades”, we enter a world where our appetite will never be satisfied. Trust me. I work in a triathlon retail store. I see all the new gear that comes through our shop, and it’s amazingly easy at times to justify buying “speed” rather than putting in an hour on the indoor trainer.
Another problem with this is that it completely changes our perspective on how to “get faster” in the sport—instead of our body being the thing that we try and improve (i.e. get stronger physically), it all of a sudden becomes a money matter—the only thing holding us back from a new PR at our next race becomes the lack of cash in our wallet.
This attitude is not just found within the sport of triathlon or cycling—it happens all the time in other aspects of life as well. Call it envy, a sense of entitlement, a lack of confidence, pride, lust—call it what you will—it has been my experience that we feel a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction whenever we start comparing what we have with what we don't.
In direct relation to this, I have also learned from recent experience that you should never ask your wife: “Why do I feel dissatisfied with life?” She’ll be quick to give you an answer, and in my case, she’ll write up a contract called “The Happiness Experiment” and won’t leave until you sign it. That happened this past month here in the Hoj house, but it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be; in fact, it’s done a pretty good job of reestablishing the sense of satisfaction I felt I had lost.
What exactly was the “Happiness Experiment?” Basically, no Facebook, Twitter, or browsing triathlon/cycling related sites without a purpose. She seriously grounded me! The only exception was on my birthday when I could post the obligatory “Thanks for all the birthday wishes” on Facebook. Well I’m two weeks in and am proud to say that I have kept my word (although I felt a little forced into signing it in the first place).
Oddly enough, my wife has been right (no surprise here). For example, this “experiment” helped me realize that constantly reading about the newest bike technology, run gear, etc. over on slowtwitch.com only makes me dissatisfied with the gear I currently have. In all honesty, I was extremely ungrateful; the things I owned became invisible to me, and all I could think about were the things that weren't yet mine.
            I know this whole thing probably sounds ridiculous, but I challenge anyone who’s been feeling any sense of emptiness to give the one-month “Happiness Experiment” a try. The holiday season is the perfect time to do it. Maybe you’re not obsessed with cycling gear like I am, so tailor it to your own hobbies, interests and desires. One thing that helped me during the first few days of the challenge was to write a list at the end of the day detailing everything I was able to accomplish without the distraction of social media and endless online information. It was pretty amazing to see! Not only did my ability to focus in school increase, but it started to change the way I felt. I no longer had to update my Twitter feed before every study session, and I was motivated to work. More importantly, the dissatisfaction seemingly disappeared, and was replaced with a stronger sense of gratitude. It's been great. Like I mentioned above, give it a try. If the experiment fails, no harm done. If it works, I’d love to hear about it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Life is all about making waves.

triathlon, swimming, mass swim start, triathlete

Life is all about making waves.

Prior to getting into triathlon, I had ZERO experience swimming. Whenever I went down to the local rec center to put in a few laps, I wasn’t necessarily swimming as much as I was splashing. My typical swim workouts back then consisted of trying not to get beat by the 80-year old on a kickboard in the lane next to me. Fortunately my training has helped me develop a half-decent swim stroke over the last few years and I am happy to say I can post a semi-respectable swim split. Even with the improvements, there is still one thing that I am absolutely horrible at—having the courage to jump in cold water at 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s the worst; I try to pull off the whole “stretching-the-arms” thing at the edge of the pool, but that only lasts so long before the lifeguard catches on to the fact that I’m a total wuss. Sooner or later I decide to take the plunge and the workout can then proceed as normal (once the initial cold water shock dies off).
            Going along with this, my analogy today is really simple. It’s all about what happens when you take that initial leap into the pool—you make waves. In order for those waves to happen in the first place, however, you have to commit to that voice inside your head that’s urging you to get swimming. This whole process—listening to the voice inside your head, jumping in the water, and making waves by swimming—correlates to the big decisions we make in life. I’m not talking about decisions like choosing which restaurant to eat at this upcoming weekend; I’m referring to those decisions that potentially alter the course of our lives. Examples of such decisions include choosing a major, choosing whom to marry, or choosing a fulfilling career. We all experience these crossroads in life, and I would venture to say that with most, if not all, of these decisions there has been a voice inside your head urging you one way or another.
Another unique thing that happens every single time you jump into the pool is the fact that the waves you make (or ripples) extend outward. Likewise, it has been my experience that whenever we listen to the voice inside our head that’s telling us to take our lives in a certain direction, the impact we make once we take that leap of faith extends outward to positively impact the lives of those around us.
To develop this analogy a little more clearly, let me tell you about a good friend of mine named Mitch. As college roommates we spent a lot of time training for races in between classes and midterms. Even though we had completely different career paths (Advertising major vs. Exercise Science major), our mutual interest in triathlon pushed each other to compete at the highest level. 

Mitch and I looking stylish back in 2010
Aside from being an extremely talented runner, I also got to see firsthand how talented Mitch was when it came to anything advertising-related. His experience and creativity landed him a great job with an advertising agency in San Francisco shortly after graduation. Here he was, in arguably the coolest city in the world, starting a promising career with a lot of great opportunities still in front of him. Who in their right mind would abandon an opportunity like this? Mitch would—and he did.
I still remember the day I talked to him over the phone after just a few months in San Francisco and found out that he had decided to quit his job, buy a Volkswagen bus, and drive down to Southern California to write children’s stories (you can’t make this stuff up!). I remember him saying back when we were still roommates that his dream was to eventually write books for kids, but WHY NOW? Why, after such a short time with his new career in San Francisco?

The reason? He listened to that voice—that subtle nudge that prods and pushes on our heart whenever bigger and better things are just over the horizon. 

One of the attributes I admire most about Mitch is the faith he places in what his heart and mind feel. I have no doubt that most people, if placed in Mitch’s situation, would extinguish any thoughts of quitting a promising career and driving south. Mitch’s choice to act on that inner voice, however, has led him to an opportunity where he can positively influence the lives of thousands (maybe one day millions) of people—especially kids. Recently, Mitch published his first children’s book entitled Hey! Follow Your Dreams, an appropriately named book that urges kids to listen to that inner voice and commit to living big.

Mitch Stevens, dream press, dreampress, follow your dreams
Mitch has been traveling to schools to share his book since the day it was published.
Mitch metaphorically took that plunge and started swimming, and the waves that he’s been making ever since have been extending outward to the people he meets. The ripple effect that he has had in such a short time likely would not have been achieved if he had stayed with his 9-5 in San Francisco. The same applies to all of us; when we disregard the doubts (and the doubters) and act on the impressions and feelings of our heart and mind, we begin to make waves ourselves.
To close this post, I want to end with a poem entitled Hey! Scratch that itch from Mitch’s book; I feel like it describes what I’m trying to get across from a different angle. If you’re interested in getting a copy of his book for yourself, look here; you can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram with the handle: @heyunclemitch. His latest publishing project is just around the corner, too; you'll want to check it out here.

Hey! Scratch that itch

I went to the doctor right after soccer.
And said to him, What’s up doc?
I have this itch that’s been making me twitch?
And it’s been itching me ‘round the clock.
Bugs in your bed? A hat on your head?
Chickenpox under your chin?
A snake down your shirt? Grass in your skirt?
Or poison ivy all over your skin?
Those make me itch, but not like this.
This itch hasn’t turned red.
It’s more of an itch that turns on the switch
to the light upstairs in my head.
Cake on your plate? Staying up late?
Stuffed animals bigger than you?
Video games? Books with weird names?
Or things that can turn your tongue blue?
Close I think, to finding the thing,
the thing that burns in my heart.
It makes me feel like my ideas are ideal.
It makes me feel like I’m smart.
Hmmm, said the doc, it’s not as I thought.
It’s bigger than that it seems.
This itch that you’ve got, we don’t see a lot.
You’ve got a case of The Dreams!

Taken from “Hey! Follow your dreams!”



Beginning swim image taken from http://running-advice.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ITU_CROSS_2011_START_450W.jpg