Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The List: Attaining Dreams and Making an Impact

Happy New Year! Well, it's 2013, the world didn't end, and here we are for another trip around the sun. Now is the time when people start making resolutions to improve their lives in the coming year, be it a plan to get in shape, be more successful in their career, or do more good for the lives of others. Of course, the cliché is that most people tend not to keep their resolutions, but I think it is nonetheless a valuable tradition. It's only a shame that most people do it only once a year at this symbolically fresh start, a sort of do-over now that we've reached the need for a new calendar. I'm a proponent of continued reflection throughout the year, and the last few weeks have brought that in various ways.

Throughout the blogosphere lately, or at least the realm in which I dwell, I've been reading a lot about two complimentary ideas, namely getting the most out of life and doing the most good. The former has included such ideas as selling everything and living a life of travel and adventure, or quitting your day job to replace it with one that you can do from anywhere at anytime and may not require much work at all. The latter has dealt with improving self and the lives of others and the greater notion of leaving a legacy. It's in the combination of these two concepts that interests me most.

On the Friday before Christmas, my two good ultrarunner friends Joe and Sam were back in town to visit family, and we managed to hook up for an awesome night run in the snow along the Kinnikinnick River in River Falls, WI. I don't often get the chance to run with friends, but a run with these guys produces rich conversation, with a flow and honesty that only a conversation while running can provide. We discussed relationships, deeper self-evaluation, future race plans, and interspersed it all with the typical humor that most male runners seem to share. All things considered, it was refreshing for the soul and a rekindling of passion for life.

Later that evening we shared a meal and more than a few beers, continuing our conversation. The three of us are all adventurers, aiming to "do cool shit" as Joe plainly puts it, but we got into the deeper repercussions of said adventure, particularly relating to ultrarunning. It's truly amazing to me still that people can run 100 miles continuously, not to mention at the paces some do, but it begs the question, "So what?" What does it truly mean, what is the value of it? In the grand scheme of things, I argued that in and of itself it doesn't mean squat, because it's not designed as a task you do to help others and improve the world. It's just doing something cool. That being said, on a more individual level it makes a huge impact: for the runner, for the crew and volunteers, and for the sake of human potential. Running 100 miles is a quest that challenges not only the body, but the mind and spirit as well, yielding huge potential for personal growth. It is, however, what you do with this growth that is important. Winning a buckle at Western States is a huge accomplishment, but if you do it just to say that you've run 100 miles in under 24 hours, it changes very little, in your life or others' lives. In Joe's case, he has used his knowledge as a physical therapist and experience as an ultrarunner to help numerous athletes as a columnist on iRunfar.com and through private coaching, not to mention his day-to-day job. Although I have not run a "hundo," my experience crewing for Joe at Western States in 2011 was inspirational to say the least and life changing to be more honest. There are many different angles in how we look at our impact on others, so long as we do consider it and make a concerted effort to be sure we're being a positive force in the world.

That brings me to a blog post I came across shortly after Christmas from a guy who quit his job, sold or got rid of most of his possessions, and is attempting to ride his motorcycle around the world. Rather than blogging about his travels, he blogs more about how to change your life for the better. The post that struck me most was on the notion of struggle. We humans need struggle. We need it to learn, grow, and create self worth. In contrast, we also seem to work diligently at making things easier for ourselves, thereby decreasing the actual struggle in our lives. It's a strange dichotomy, and for those of us who happened to be born in the right place at the right time into privilege of all sorts, our true struggles are very few, and so we create artificial struggles to overcome, to say that we too are strong, creative, intelligent, and worthy. It is for this reason that we see so many obstacle races popping up all over, like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, to name a few. Although the artificial struggles may seem a bit trite at times, they can have value and may also reap huge rewards for the individual. At various points in our discussions when Joe, Sam, or I would voice some kind of complaint or issue, one of the other two of us would simply utter, "first world problems." It's a quick jerk back into reality, to say that our problems are nonsense compared to those who haven't eaten in a week, or must voyage on foot across an entire African country in order to seek refuge from rebel killers, but if we recognize this difference, we can choose to make our "first world" struggles valuable when we put their effects and outcomes to good use.

So the question is, how can you lead the most kickass AND badass life possible, living life to the fullest and still making the greatest difference in the world? That is for each of us to decide, and that's the reason behind this post. I'm reminded of a quote by E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, that frames the issue quite well; "I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." It's a valid sentiment, but must it be so? Can succeeding in a self chosen "struggle" yield just as much joy and satisfaction as just "doing cool shit?"

Last Saturday my wife and I watched the documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was not only incredibly well done, but inspiring and thought provoking, to see ideal examples of what people are doing around the world, despite all odds, to make a difference in the lives of others. It is a two-part documentary reporting on six countries around the world where individuals or groups of people have set out to overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles such as sex trafficking, accepted gender-based violence, and unequal opportunities in education for girls. Some of the tales are harrowing, in which the individuals literally risk their lives to save underage girls from a life of rape and violence in brothels. Without a doubt it was a film to make me wonder if I'm doing enough, or if I'm doing anything at all. As a teacher, I can always say that I'm making a difference in the lives of young people, but I am a white male born in the United States, armed to the teeth with the weapons of privilege. Now is the time to contemplate if I'm using my weapons wisely and completely.

The final piece in this whirlwind of thought as of late was a post by Jason Robillard on his blog, detailing his new undertaking called the BRUcrew - a community of like-minded individuals devoted to improving themselves and the world around them by overcoming their fears and stepping up to more meaningful interactions and undertakings. It's a cool idea, although I wouldn't say totally unique. There are plenty of self-improvement strategies and groups out there, but this one found me first, mainly because he's a barefoot runner and ultrarunner and started the group mainly for training purposes, and is now expanding it to include more altruistic challenges. In any case, all of these thoughts and experiences lately have compounded to an idea I had (or stole) from my good friend Jen last summer while at her wedding in the Bighorn mountains of Wyoming. The officiant at the ceremony told several short stories about her and her groom, but one struck me as particularly simple, but brilliant. He explained that while inside Jen's apartment for the first time, he noticed a piece of paper on the fridge on which she listed all of her big dreams. They ranged from smaller, more easily attainable dreams, up to the huge ones that will be years in the making. Now, I've always been a visual person and also a list-maker. I have yellow sticky notes all over my desk and computer at work to remind me of various things, so this idea of a "dream list" struck me as a wonderful idea, to have a simple reminder staring me in the face every time I go for a glass of milk or post-workout beer. Thus I started two lists, in fact. The first list includes only names of people with whom my wife and I have pledged to have dinner or hang out. It will not only keep us on track, but give us something to look forward to in the coming months. The second list, however, is the Big One. I have titled it "The Dream is Reality List," and it includes mostly adventures so far, such as traveling to New Zealand, climbing Devil's Tower, and running at least a 50-miler. I hope to expand that list into one that will include endeavors to make a difference in others' lives, and Anna and I have already started discussing some possibilities, which is the first task. In seeking out answers to the questions posed here, we must first define a tangible and specific action that will be list-worthy.

Should you have similar feelings and desires at the turning of the new year, here are two resources to check out that helped - or will help - me flesh out the specifics better. Check out some of the links and/or additional posts by these gentlemen. They may not be mind-blowing, but they are a great place to start thinking, and better yet dialoging with others. Cheers!

Motovagabond - How to Find Your Passion
Building a Legacy Project: A Good Blueprint For a Life That Really Matters


  1. No mention of "meat sweats"?

    Great post, anyway! :-)

    1. Thanks, Joe! Well, I was kind of saving the "meat sweats" for its own separate post, because it's just such a rich and applicable topic.