To-Do: Keep Dreaming

Every day when I get to my office I write a To-Day list. It’s like a To-Do list, but it’s just about this day. The practice combines my passions for planning and portmanteaus* and helps me stick to my schedule by putting a timeline on my tasks. Today, my To-Day list looked like this:

Keep Dreaming

It just struck me this morning that “Keep Dreaming” should be at the top of my list because I’ve been forgetting to do that lately and I don’t like it. I’m a dreamer–it’s just what I do. Or, what I usually do. I’m obviously getting rusty. Believe it or not, getting lost in my head keeps me grounded in reality; the future I see when I’m in that place requires real action, right now. I’d better put that action on my To-Day list if I want to get there! Let’s go and get that pie in the sky, kiddo! Boom! Motivated.

See, this whole PhD adventure/journey/struggle is about a dream–a big, scary future that I want to create and experience. It might seem like it’s made up of experiments and paper research and long meetings and coffee and whiteboards, but in reality I constructed it out of daydreams and unfettered possibilities and passion and naïveté. I’m here because I’m a brilliant fool and I love that! I don’t want to forget it, I need to practice this more.

So “Keep Dreaming” went on my To-Day list.

And when my experiment failed, I kept dreaming about that preferred future and in it found motivation to try again.

And when I received critical feedback on a report, I let myself dream about all of the critical feedback I’ll receive before I get that preferred future. One little bit didn’t seem so bad.

Let’s be dreamers. Let’s not forget our childhood sense of wonder, regardless of what that wonder motivates us to pursue. In fact, let’s practice it. Let’s accept the things we don’t know with the curiosity and possibility that are in our hearts.

Go get that pie in the sky, kiddo. Put it on your To-Day list for me.

-C

* – alliteration is another passion of mine.

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When Failure is a PR

Something was different the second time around. I found myself excited to be in the environment of the meet, excited to lift. In contrast, my first meet was preceded by a lot of anxiety. Then, I couldn’t help but frame the event as a performance and in that context failure has an exaggerated meaning. This time, though, it felt like I was just there to lift. It was just another training session and that’s something I do all the time. I rarely miss lifts in training. It just doesn’t make sense to do that; miss in training and you’ll miss on the platform, after all. So, when I stepped up to the bar for the second time, I was prepared to do the same I’ve done in training: make lifts.

And yet I still missed all three of my snatch attempts.

The missed attempts didn’t crush me as I expected them to–instead they made me hungry to make my next attempts. Again, this was in contrast to my last meet where there was no way I was going to be able to perform after a miss. Missing then made coming back to the platform feel like a lot of work. This time around, missing drove me back to the platform to do better. Even though I didn’t make any of my snatches, I came back to set a PR on my clean and jerk and a PR on my clean and I walked away from the meet feeling better about it than I did my first meet.

I often think about Weightlifting as a game of numbers. After all, the person who posts the biggest total wins. I need to be constantly reminded that, like any sport, it’s also one where you’ve gotta play the long game. Even though my second meet was worse on paper than my first, it was a long-game success in a couple of really big, important ways. First, I had my nerves under control. This was a major struggle coming into my first meet. I mean, I had trouble gripping the bar because my hands were literally shaking. I don’t even remember making my lifts, but I know it happened because there’s video evidence. The second time around I was excited to lift, not afraid of failure. Half of the battle with lifting is in my head, so this level of progress is big for me.

The second success piece is a little less tangible, but much more important in my opinion. Every moment I’ve spent on the platform since this meet has been intense, driven by a new-found hunger that I didn’t have before competing. It’s like I’ve tapped into some primal energy… or something. I think I’ve finally got a full understand of how much I want this and how much easier it is to do just do it rather than thinking about doing it. As a result my focus has shifted from building courage to not needing it at all. After all, courage, like motivation, is unreliable. When I stopped needing motivation to train, big things happened, so I’m very excited to be able to shed my reliance on courage and see where I can go without it limiting me.

Failure happens; when you push yourself in any endeavour it becomes a certainty. I’m very lucky to have had experiences that have taught me to embrace failure in the right ways and I’m grateful for the failure I experienced at my second meet. I may not have set a PR total there, but I did achieve two long-game PRs that are far, far more important.

Here’s to more failures in the future!

-C

On Accepting Vulnerability

Grad school might just be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I thought I’d come into this informed about the experience, that I knew what kinds of challenges I’d face and how to approach them as I navigated a PhD. I was wrong. And that’s okay.

As I close out a very busy semester (hence the hiatus), I can’t help but reflect on what I’ve learned since September. I’ve certainly gained a few technical skills and (re)learned some things about people and building relationships. However, I think the biggest lesson for me has been that vulnerability is essential for success. In a lot of ways, grad school has been like going from high school to university all over again; I’m suddenly a little fish in a big pond with a lot of big fish and I haven’t been in this place in a while. Hell, I was even turned down for a scholarship for which I interviewed this year. That’s a lifetime first! It’s safe to say that I’ve fully left the ol’ comfort zone and we all know that growth only happens outside of that place.

I’d like to add something to that old cliché, though. You definitely need to go beyond what’s easy to grow, but you also need to accept the vulnerability that comes with being there otherwise you’ll find yourself both uncomfortable and without purpose. I think that’s where I was at some point (or many points) in the past academic year. I maybe, just might have approached this with a little too much hubris, a little too much confidence in myself. I like being a little overconfident; it gives me more space for big dreams and it’s always helped me get to the next big pond. But at some point this semester I realised that I needed to scale back and recognise how tough, ambiguous, and solitary this experience has been and very likely will continue to be.

That point in the semester followed a couple powerful conversations about vulnerability with the people I respect and admire. I saw them letting themselves be in this vulnerable state, even though they’re all rockstars in their respective areas and I saw them succeeding because of it. Obviously you can be a rockstar and vulnerable; sometimes I just need a reminder of the things I know to be true. With that in my head and my heart, I set the intention of letting myself vulnerable, of accepting the full experience of my current state and thereby letting myself learn from the challenge.

It’s been a while since I was in this place–a certain experience in the summer of 2011 comes to mind–and I’m out of practice. But it feels good to let it in and to share my vulnerability with the wonderful people around me. It’s already paying off in a few unexpected ways.

So, while grad school might be tough and surprising, I’m incredibly grateful for the learning I’ve had here–both technical and otherwise–and I’m excited to see how far it’ll take me now that I’ve decided to let it take me.

-C

On Busy-ness and Fulfillment

Though I’m only two weeks in, this semester is a stark contrast to the previous one, during which I spent the majority of my time dealing with the ambiguities of launching a research project and not a lot of time doing things that felt productive. One aspect about myself that I’ve known for a long time is that I need to stay busy–or at least feel like I’m busy–to feel fulfilled. I certainly didn’t feel either throughout the Fall and I think a lot of that had to do with the nature of PhD research: it’s ambiguous, there’s lots of self-directed learning to be done, much of the work you do leads to (valuable) dead-ends, and you’re constantly defending your ideas. All of these things together can really make you feel like you’re spinning your wheels without getting anywhere! On top of that, I wasn’t taking any classes and my TAship didn’t involve any actual teaching or interaction with students. I basically spent a lot of time reading papers, revising my proposals, and helping another student with her project.

This semester in contrast is busy already. My research has moved past the proposal stage, so I’m actively doing Science. I’ve got a TAship with lots of space for creativity, teaching, and mentorship. I’m taking two very involved, project-based courses. And I’m on the executive team for a Science Literacy conference. It’s amazing how my mindset has shifted now that I’ve got a lot on my plate; I suddenly find myself back to envisioning future successes and motivated to do the work to get me there. It’s almost as if I have no direction unless I’m busy.

It’s great to know these things about myself and to reflect on them. I think my need for busy-ness is a double-edged sword in a big way. I’ve burned out several times in the past because I’ve taken on too much at one time. The last time this happened, I needed four months of recovery to mentally get back to where I was before! I can’t let this happen again and I think the key to that, for me, is recognising two things:

  1. That fulfillment need not come solely from getting stuff done. I’ve gotten much better at recognising that self-care is a source of fulfillment, but I certainly have a lot of room to grow in that department. In particular, investing in relationships is another source of soul nourishment. I definitely have intentions of getting better at this and I have several wonderful role models in my life from whom I can learn in the near future (and in the now).
  2. That the true value of getting things done really depends on the things themselves. i.e. that I need to better prioritise my activities based on their outcomes and how important those outcomes are to me. Otherwise, I will certainly find myself running the rat race alongside my fellow members of the Cult of Busy. Purpose, not checklists, should give me direction.

This is just a start, really. For now, I’m letting these reflections stew in my headspace until they’ve cooked up into tangible intentions, behaviours, and practices. That half, as we all know, is the hard part about self-reflection. Though I’ve got work ahead of me, I’m happy that I’ve been able to take the space required to honestly observe these things in myself and to reflect on paths forward.

-C

Olympic Weightlifting: A Primer

Since my first ever Weightlifting meet is coming up in about a week and a half, I thought it might be a good time for a post on what exactly this sport is. I think this’ll be pretty useful, as there are often misconceptions when I talk about Weightlifting. If you actively participate in Weightlifting, this information will not be super interesting, but may be useful for explaining things to your family and friends.

In Weightlifting (WL), there are two major competition movements: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Whoever named them did not predict that years later your adolescent maturity level would have you laughing at how sexual they sound, but hey, here we are. In the snatch, lifters move the bar from the ground to the overhead position in one fluid motion. That means no stopping or changing direction; once the bar has left the ground, it must go into an overhead position smoothly. Chad Vaughan demonstrates an efficient way to do this (and the way in which it is generally achieved).

The other movement, which is actually two movements in one, is the clean and jerk. Here, the lifter moves the bar to their shoulders in a front rack position, then moves it into an overhead position. Again, both movements must be continuous. Here’s Chad demonstrating again:

There are actually two different kinds of jerks that lifters use. In the above video, the split jerk is used. Its name comes from the fact that the lifter’s legs split when they move into the final position. Lü Xiaojun (-77 kg, China), who is probably the technically best Weightlifter in the world, uses the more efficient (though much more challenging) squat jerk.

You can see that he finishes in a squat position and doesn’t split his legs. This requires significantly more mobility than a split jerk, but is more efficient in that it engages the most powerful muscles in concert, unlike the split. It’s also just so goddamn pretty! Here’s Lü snatching, because it’s just amazing to see such a graceful feat of strength:

You can probably tell from these videos that WL is incredibly technical. It requires strength, a lot of speed, and metric butt load of coordination. The movements are explosive and happen very quickly. Weightlifters are constantly working to improve their technique because better technique means more efficient lifting. Efficiency is a key factor when you’re using your body as a literal catapult. In competition lifters will lift 6 times in total: they get 3 snatch attempts, and 3 clean and jerk attempts. The highest total achieved is scored against other lifters in the same weight class to determine who wins. In the case of a tie the lifter with the lower body weight wins. Some meets also give prizes for highest snatch and clean and jerk alone. Afterward, everyone goes and stuffs their faces together.

Like any weight class-based sport, many different body types are represented in WL. For men, the classes range from 56 kg:

to 105+ kg:

So there’s a huge diversity in bodies in the sport.

That’s usually the primary misconception I encounter when I talk about WL. It is not bodybuilding! Weightlifters don’t typically train their bodies to look a certain way; rather, we train movements which translate to the snatch and clean and jerk. These movements are generally focussed around developing strong posterior chains (the muscle chain from your ankles up to your trapezoids) and quadriceps muscles. We don’t necessarily have ripped abs or bulging biceps, but boy can we squat a lot. Of course, some weightlifters do look like bodybuilders:

klokov

Dmitry Klokov (-105 kg, Russia) is proof that you really can have it all if you work hard and believe in the power of friendship (also, if you grow up in a Russian Weightlifting training camp).

Another misconception that I sometimes encounter is the idea that Weightlifting and Powerlifting are the same/similar. In Powerlifting the competition lifts are the Deadlift, Squat, and Bench Press. Typically powerlifters don’t do any explosive movements (which makes the name “Powerlifting” a bit of a misnomer), whereas WL is all about explosive strength. The deadlift and bench press are used in some training systems in WL, but are not what I would call core movements of the sport. I haven’t done a bench press in about a year! The one commonality between the two sports is the squat. However, powerlifters do something called a low-bar squat, whereas weightlifters use the high-bar squat in their training. So, really, there’s not a whole lot that’s similar between the two aside from the fact that they’re both strength sports.

There we have it! Consider yourself primed. I’ll definitely be posting about my own training in the near future and I’ll certainly recap my meet, about which I’m very excited and somewhat nervous. Now you’ll hopefully be able to follow along with some idea of what I’m talking about.

-C

On New Year’s Resolutions

Before writing this, I figured I should make sure I have a good understanding of what it means to resolve. I found a particular definition that I think is rather relevant:

re·solve

verb \ri-ˈzälv, –ˈzlv alsoˈzäv orˈzv\

: to find an answer or solution to (something) : to settle or solve (something)

From Merriam-Webster, accessible here.

I like this because I think it gets at why most people make resolutions; we want to solve problems in our lives, whether real or constructed. It’s easy to talk about how often people fail to achieve their New Year’s Resolutions. I think enough of us have experienced the tidal influx of gym-goers and salad-eaters in January, followed by an inevitable ebbing back to the sea of so-called “bad habits” six weeks later to understand the phenomenon of the Failed Resolution. I don’t really care about the fact that in all likelihood most New Year’s Resolutions fail. I am, however, interested in why this happens (of course I am, I’m a scientist). I don’t have the answer and the majority of my own resolutions have failed. I do however have experience with some successful long-term changes in my life which involved solving some of my own problems. A good example is when I decided I wanted to “be fit*” just over two years ago. I went from sedentary to being an athlete in just one year and now I will lift until I can’t anymore.

I’ve thought about this massive life change and as far as I can tell, this is why it worked for me:

  1. I wanted to address a real problem. By “real”, I mean that it was a problem that I had fully internalised. I think we often get caught up in problems that others make for us and it’s difficult to be motivated to solve these kinds of problems–they’re not ours, after all. In my opinion, the problem in these cases is actually our environment. It’s often difficult to recognise when an environment change will benefit us.
  2. I didn’t need motivation. I hate motivation. It has failed me too many times to count and I only have the slightest idea about what motivates me in any given moment. Instead, I had accountability on my side: I invested money in my resolution, I became part of a community, and I involved some of my family members and friends. Some days I was not motivated to workout, but I knew that I would be letting several people down if I didn’t.
  3. I changed everything all at once. It just so happens that when I was ready to make this change in my life I was about to move to a new city away from all of my close friends for an internship. I decided to leave behind all of the things that would stop me as well and I brought my changes back with me when I returned. I was lucky that my environment changed and I was able to capitalise on that change.
  4. I was ready to make sacrifices. Achieving change, for me, is a lot about saying “no” to things that won’t help me get to where I want to be. So that’s what I did. I think we often see a desired future, but forget that changing our worlds involves changing ourselves. Obviously we are not the people we want to be because of the thing(s) we’re doing and not doing, so those actions need to change.
  5. I didn’t wait, and made the most of “now”. It makes sense for us to look ahead to a new year and envision what that year will mean for us, but 1 January is an arbitrary delineation of time that you don’t need. When I was ready to change, I did. I also sat down and reflected on my situation to see which parts of it could be used to accelerate that change. There is never a perfect time, but there are always perfect opportunities.
  6. I embraced growth by focussing on outcomes (not outputs). My journey started with CrossFit and strict Paleo eating and now I find myself doing Olympic Weightlifting and eating to support my sport. I think I ran with my goal well by not stopping myself when I’d achieved my initial perception of its end, an output. The outcome (being fit*) remains, but my goals and actions have shifted. I think that’s wonderful, and it is keeping me in it, so to speak.

I’m not an expert on any of this! I can only use my own experiences to inform my actions. But this is my own model for achieving resolutions.

Maybe it’s time for you to look at how you can systematize your own behaviour change and apply it to your resolutions for 2015.

-C

* – I use the word “fit” here to describe a concept which I now feel is a lot more nebulous and problematic than when I initially constructed my goal. Part of my journey involved coming to understand that we have some really weird conceptions of what fitness is and what it isn’t. Another post about all that is forthcoming.

What’s In a Name

I think we all have a pretty intuitive sense that time moves forward, even if Physicists can’t really explain why. Moments pass from one to the next and hopefully we pass with them. I’m enamored with the idea that each of these moments, how ever we choose to delineate them, hold opportunity for growth, change, and connection. So, that’s what’s in the name of this space: the recognition of opportunity and an intention which drives change.

There was a relatively long period of my life when I loved the band Death Cab for Cutie. If you don’t already know them, please do a YouTube search when you feel like you might need to relive some teenage melancholy. Their song Brothers on a Hotel Bed was–for me anyway–their peak.

The song has a theme embedded into one its lyrics with which I’ve identified since my first listen.

You may tire of me as our December sun is setting because I’m not who I used to be

That’s it, isn’t it? We are simply not who we used to be. The inexorable current of time moves us from a place we once occupied to a whole new temporal (and often spatial) location. Though Death Cab codified this idea in what seems to be quite a sad way, I think that we can be empowered by embracing the continual death of old versions of ourselves. It’s about letting go and questioning our thoughts and all that jazz. You’ve heard it before, so I’ll spare you.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I’ve held onto these few words and now you’ll find them at the top of this blog. Of course I can’t promise that they’ll stay there forever. However, I can promise you a little glimpse into my life, the things I do, and the things on which I focus my thoughts. This may include (but is most certainly not limited to) Olympic Weightlifting, Yoga, Science, my personal growth, Feminism, queer stuff, and food. I can also promise a certain level of humility, which is to me a continual practice of recognising my own privileges and providing respect in the ways that it ought to be provided. And I’m committed to correcting my course should I fail to uphold that promise.

It’s going to get personal and maybe even a little emotional. It’ll probably be a little uncomfortable for us both at times, but I’m choosing to embrace that discomfort.

So, with that I invite you to see who I used to be, to follow these few moments I curate here as I, like you, march forward into a bright future.

-C