Three Cases Where “Defying Your Limits” May Be a Super-Bad Idea

I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.

When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.

As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.

Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable

Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.

Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.

The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.

Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense

People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.

However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.

And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.

But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:

There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.

Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better

Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?

Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.

Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:

Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.

So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.

On Discipline and Satisfaction

The thing about discipline is that it’s got this connotation of being just this tedious, repetitive, mundane activity that only bores, bureaucrats, and the anally retentive will get any measure of satisfaction from. Discipline is about restraint. It’s about lines that you’re not supposed to cross, or color outside of, or deviate from. It’s about rules that will, supposedly, hinder you or another in some way or another. And that’s not cool, man. Like, totally not cool.

We NEED Structure

But what a lot of people don’t realize (or maybe, what everybody doesn’t realize most of the time) is that discipline is what builds the framework around which we build everything. It’s the trellis that vines grow around. It’s the highway systems and railroads and trails that you follow as you backpack through Europe. It’s the pentatonic scale that your voice bounces along on as you attempt to hit those runs on your awesome rendition of “And I Am Telling You” or “Let’s Get It On”.

So when someone says that discipline is not their thing, and they’ll have nothing to do with it because it hinders them as an artist, or otherwise interferes with whatever inexplicable energy-based, mood-dependent activity or creative endeavor that they are pouring their passions out into, it might be good to remind them that hardly anybody starts off being great or a genius. You don’t just pick up a guitar, then feel a magical connection based on its feeling “just right” in the crook of your arm, and suddenly come out with this great, tear-jerking cover of “Let It Go”, your fingers plucking the strings as if they were red-hot, the chords ringing out like bells in the silent space formed around you by a spontaneously generated, awestruck audience that whip out their smartphones, taking videos of your feat and uploading it onto YouTube, where it gets like 999 million hits, and then turns you into a star overnight (whether that’s the time it takes before you become a star or the duration of your stardom, it’s anyone’s guess, but if it were mine, I’d guess the latter), and you are happily crowned as the miraculously musical prodigy of your generation.

Pleasure without Pain? Dream On

You know what the more statistically likely scenario is? It’s that you won’t get it right the first time. Or the second time. Or the third. It’s going to be an ego-crushing, humiliating, why-the-hell-am-I-doing-this marathon that will never seem to end, during which time you will continually question the sanity of going back and doing it over. On that score, the complainers probably get it right; there’s very little satisfaction to be gotten during that grind, that place and time when no matter what you do, it hardly seems to get any better.

But that’s the thing about satisfaction: more often than not, it’s delayed. Gratification that comes without effort is a myth, I think. Or, more likely, when you find yourself gratified with hardly any effort on your part, it’s because of the effort of other people who are carrying your hedonistic, McHappiness-seeking butt.

Behind every superb meal is a team of chefs, sous chefs, sommeliers, and other professionals who spent years learning about every nuance of the food that you’re about to consume, and you’ll probably have no more intelligent comment on it than “This is pretty good”.

Every great movie that tugs at your heart and fires up your soul is the product of thousands of man-hours spent by talented and creative workers (whose talent and creativity are honed, not inborn), more than nine-tenths of which will never be seen on the silver screen, left as nothing more than cellulose acetate ribbons on the cutting room floor, or dormant MOV/AVI/MP4/name-your-format files on some no-name videographer’s hard disk drive, never to be found or even sought out.

Every “miracle” drug (I put “miracle” in quotes because drugs don’t just happen) comes from millions of dollars and hours’ worth of research, quality control, regulation, administrative cost, failed experiments, and sleepless, coffee-fueled nights in the laboratory spent by people in lab coats who spent decades of their lives learning what they know, and earning the right to learn more about things that you’ll never even wonder about.

My point, I guess, about discipline, is that it’s a necessary cost. There are no miracles. There is no sorcery. There’s only input, work, and output.

What’s Your Discipline? Go and Find Out

So whoever you are, whatever you’re doing right now, I suggest you go out and find that discipline that will give you the most satisfaction. Find that one thing that you won’t mind mindlessly pouring weeks, months, and years into. Find the grind that will sharpen you rather than wear you down. Recognize how much it will take from you, and be prepared to pay for it.

If you’ve already found your discipline, kudos to you; you’re better off than I am, and probably 99% of the world’s population.

And what if you haven’t found yours, and probably never will or can?

Well… condolences, and welcome to the club.

I Feel Cheated, but I’m Not Sure I Was

So yesterday, I read an article on about former Philippine President Joseph Estrada defying age through stem cell therapy. The exact title is “Joseph Estrada defies age, shares how he did it: Stem cell therapy.” Having had a background in life science, I read the article, skipping to the section about the treatment. Here’s what it said:

At the prodding of friends, the 75-year-old Estrada flew to Frankfurt, Germany, last month to undergo fresh cell therapy (also known as stem cell treatment), an innovative albeit controversial procedure where fresh cells from donor animals are injected into the human body to treat diseases or reverse the aging process.

Fresh cell therapy operates under the principle of “like heals like.”

The fresh cells from a donor animal’s organ are infused into the human counterpart.

… Estrada said he received 14 shots of blood from unborn sheep in his buttocks during the visit.

I was confused. In all the time I learned about human stem cell treatments, I was aware of only two types: autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplants. Basically, one involves stem cells taken from the injured person himself, and the other involves stem cells derived from another person. Both procedures involve putting human stem cells in an injured or diseased human.

But here, we have an article referring to fresh cell therapy, where fetal cells from a sheep are taken and introduced into a human. It further states that “fresh cell therapy” is also known as “stem cell treatment.”

While I’m not familiar with developments in medical biotechnology that have happened since I graduated, I’m pretty sure that the term “stem cell treatment,” as discussed in the news, currently broadly refers to human-to-human transplants. To illustrate, a related article in the same issue of the online publication discusses “stem cell therapy” without referring to animal-to-human transplantation. If ever, I’m fairly certain such a process would be called “xenogeneic stem cell therapy,” which, if I remember my science nomenclature right, would correctly indicate the process of taking stem cells from a creature of another species.

To be fair, though, the term “stem cell treatment” itself specifies only the use of undifferentiated cells for treatment purposes; strictly speaking, if one reads that phrase alone, the question of where the stem cells that are used came from is left unanswered. But given that the context of discussions surrounding “stem cells” nowadays is centered around human-derived stem cells, could we say that there’s been a case of misleading writing here?

I can only speak from my experience: I read “stem cell therapy” in the headline, I expected to read about human stem cell treatment, and I instead read about sheep’s fetal cells being used. Personally, I feel cheated. I learned from the article, sure, but it wasn’t what I expected at all.

What do you think? Am I being a prick about it, or do I have a right to feel like it was unfair?

Pretty trumps Powerful?

So a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I stumbled upon The Voice UK, and how I wanted to follow it as much as I can. Went on YouTube, clicked onto my favorite account for The Voice UK clips, and saw this:

Vince Freeman is a powerhouse, a very strong singer. He has an awesome moustache (had to point that out), and a voice that sounds as solid as an oak tree and as powerful as the hurricane that will be necessary to bring it down. Bo Bruce is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum; to me, she sings as if she’s in tears, and every time I hear her, I feel a tug of something that’s somewhere between sympathy and heartache. Her voice sounds beautiful and hurt, and she has used that to great effect in her performances.

Why Danny set up this match, I’m not sure; it’s always a messy business, comparing apples and oranges. But he did, and what we got was a great duet. Beautiful counterpoint, complementation of totally different flavors, lending different tones to the same lyrics. Vince sounds like indignant, fiery bitterness, but delivers a beautifully tempered performance. Bo sounds like a cracked gem that, in spite of the damage, casts the most beautiful light.

The clip concludes with Danny saying this (I could be wrong, what with Danny’s slight accent):

“I can only put one person through… the harsh reality is, great voices… I think one’s gonna sell more records than the other, and… I’m tonight with Bo.”

A lot of people were angry about that, and said that Vince Freeman was robbed. It sounds certainly like Bo was chosen because she would be an easier sell.

But based on what I saw in the clip, and what I understood, Danny didn’t say that he chose the one that would sell more records; he said he based his decision on that.

With that, I’m choosing to understand it as Danny seeing how awesome Vince is, and how he doesn’t need backing from a talent-show record label to get a following and, hopefully soon, get signed. Vince Freeman can still win, in my opinion. With a voice like his, he doesn’t need a singing contest to win.

Worse than Thieves

I saw a news article regarding an unconscionable scam. Some people, seeking to exploit the heartfelt sympathy the world feels for Japan, have set up fake sites claiming to be collecting funds to send to the disaster victims.

This is an act of twofold theft. First, obviously, comes from the fact that money meant for the victims never reaches them. Second, however, comes from the fact that well-meaning people are discouraged from donating altogether, thinking to themselves that their money will likely be stolen anyway. One bad apples spoils the bunch; one ersatz fund-raising site discredits the honest ones. Ones that are well-established may have no problem–surely everyone knows about the Red Cross–but if there are websites set up by con artists who claim to be collecting proceeds on behalf of said organizations, then there is an equally possible, if not greater danger of deception.

I wanted to learn more about these incidences, and came across this article warning people not to be fooled. One recommendation it makes is to check whether the charity meets certain standards for accountability set by the Better Business Bureau. I’ve never even heard of that organization before now. The thought of having to read a set of 20 standards and comparing a charity to said criteria before feeling secure in making a donation is disheartening. It must be equally disheartening for honest charities, who then have to focus part of their attention and resources on assuring sponsors of their good faith and intent. It just makes the donating process confusing, and likely causes some delay in getting the donations to those who need them.

These scams are being implemented so easily because of the power and convenience of the Internet. Anybody can set up a website, and they do not have to make it traceable to themselves. They can claim to provide certain services, using online users whose glasses are tinged with the idea that global connectedness necessarily leads to altruism and a shared desire to lend a hand. Faceless and nameless, they can set up a stage to divert the financial aid of countless cyber-samaritans into their own pockets.

I have no numbers on how many people are doing this. I have no idea how many such sites are up right now. But I’m struck dumb by this harsh reminder that it is not just familiarity that breeds contempt: anonymity does too.