Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll

IMG_2628Perhaps no other contemporary memoir has shaped my life — in behavior, in attitude, in understanding — as much as Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra. I originally experienced the book by shuttling a series of CDs in and out of my car’s stereo during an 11-hour road trip to Asheville, NC in April of 2014. From the first disc, I was hooked.

Finding Ultra, originally published in 2012, documents the life of a now 50-something attorney-turned-triathlete who transformed his life after grappling with the alcoholism that plunged his twenties into a blur of blackouts and the fast-food habit that took alcoholism’s place in his thirties. From the ages of 38 to 48, he immersed himself in nothing short of a metamorphosis.

I find Roll’s story compelling for several reasons:

First, he readily admits that he is still doing the necessary internal work to maintain his sobriety and to make healthy lifestyle choices daily.

Second, his professional focus relies on service; he works as an advocate for exercise, healthy eating, the environment, and proper mental self-care because he believes that only by meeting others’ needs can he find purpose in his career.

Third, his rallying cry has become a mantra for admirers from many walks of life. He wants us to “uncover, unlock, and unleash our genuine, most authentic selves.” In other words, Roll desires that we realize our fullest potential and honor our uniqueness in the process.

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Journaling played a part in Roll’s transformation, and it continues to serve him as a vehicle for introspection and creative expression.  In the revised edition of Finding Ultra (2018), he explains that he rises early and then “devote[s] some precious morning time to quiet reflection – meditation followed by journaling” (p. 224).  As the day dawns, he takes what bubbles to the top of his mind and “before that enthusiasm wanes, capture[s] it on the page. Because pen and paper hold magical powers. It makes it real.” He encourages readers to “build on that entry daily.”

For Roll, who believes that we can veer off-track when we repeat inaccurate stories (to ourselves) of what our past was like, time spent with the journal “hold[s] the power to change this story we tell ourselves about ourselves” [emphasis is my own] (p. 236). He continues by asserting that “the job begins with understanding that certain past events or memories only have the power you allow them to have” (p. 237). Those troubling past moments he refers to as “knots.”

Roll’s prescription is this:

“At the top of each page, write down one of those pesky knots. Underneath each, explain how this aspect of your identity undermines your sense of self and impedes your growth. Then spend time ruminating on the knot’s validity. It’s hard, but do your best to be as objective as possible. Broaden your aperture. Dig deep. Go way back. And don’t rush it. Every time you stumble upon a memory or experience that contradicts the veracity of that knot, write it down. Build on that list, until its falsity is undeniable” (p. 238).

How does Rich Roll actually perform this part of his morning routine?

“[O]n the page. But never the keyboard. Writing longhand forces me to slow down. And somehow (again), it makes it more real. More potent. Sometimes it’s just ten minutes spent jotting down random thoughts. An idea for a blog post. A podcast guest I’d like to book. An emotion I am struggling with. A list of things I am grateful for” (pages 240-241).

If you are interested in learning more about Rich Roll, I highly recommend his podcast, which will soon eclipse 400 episodes.  I have listened to nearly every one of them since discovering the plant-powered triathlete during that road trip to Asheville, NC in 2014.

Note — The image in the center of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

Quiet, by Susan Cain

In a category of its own, Susan Cain’s Quiet (2012) has done more to promote the understanding of introversion than any other popular work. Its blend of historical analysis and contemporary psychological and sociological research explores topics that have been traditionally ignored or pushed aside: the benefits of solitude, the challenges of shyness, the value of individual effort in education and business, and the often-overlooked creative strengths of those who are quiet. Cain’s book should be required reading for teachers, coaches, CEOs, and community leaders. I cannot recommend it more highly. My copy is filled with notes.

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Additionally, Susan Cain’s TED talk, which is entitled The power of introverts, is nineteen minutes long and well worth your time.

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To learn more, please the Quiet Revolution website. Note — The image of Cain featured above was obtained from that site.

Option B, by Sheryl Sandburg

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After her husband of eleven years, Dave Goldberg, tragically lost his life while exercising during a vacation in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg entered a state of shock. In the wake of her husband’s unexpected passing, the successful Facebook COO felt her life unraveling. At the age of 45 she became a single mom to her two children, adopting a host of new responsibilities at home while trying to maintain her bearings at the social media giant. Sandberg found herself pulled in multiple new directions while simultaneously trying to grapple with the grief that accompanies the unexpected loss of a spouse.

Option B documents the days and months following the tragic death of Sandberg’s beloved husband. In the memoir, which she co-wrote with friend and Wharton business school psychology professor Adam Grant, Sandberg explores the trials and triumphs that defined her life during an exceptionally challenging period of loss, reconciliation, and rebuilding. Grant, whose non-fiction bestseller Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016) I highly recommend, provides scientific commentary to explain the mechanisms behind Sandberg’s personal and professional struggles as she and her family strove to re-direct their lives in the disorienting wake of tragedy.

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Among the strategies that Sandberg adopted to deal with her grief, uncertainty, and fear was journaling. She declares, “Journaling became a key part of my recovery” and “[it] helped me process my overwhelming feelings and my all-too-many regrets” (p. 67). Option B features a half-dozen pages on which she surveys research about the psychological impacts of journaling, and then documents the actual techniques that she used — with both a computer and a notebook — after her husband’s death. Based on her commentary, she maintains at least one of these techniques today.

Sandberg cites research by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, who found that college students who journaled about traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes a day for only four days realized better emotional and physical gains than did a control group who wrote about general (i.e. non-emotional) topics (p. 62). In the book’s endnotes she comments that “research [from a range of scholars from the past twenty years] also suggests that journaling works best when we write privately, just for ourselves, and describe facts and feelings; that men tend to benefit a bit more from journaling than women since they’re more likely to bottle up their feelings; and that people with more health problems and a history of trauma or stress show the greatest benefits” (p. 194).

In addition to citing scientific research, Sandberg also shares stories of other individuals who have used journaling to help themselves work through struggles and rebuild after hardships. One of those people is Catherine Hoke, a venture capitalist turned social justice activist and entrepreneur. After a painful divorce and an unrelated scandal that devastated Hoke’s advocacy work with adult prisoners in Texas, she entered a period of personal and professional crisis. To her surprise, writing became an outlet — and a form of salvation. Sandberg quotes Hoke as saying, “Journaling isn’t exactly meditating. But it helped me quiet myself and reflect. I was able to put words to my feelings and unpack them” (p. 62).

Putting words to feelings — and words to experiences — helps us better think about them and, hopefully, understand them and their power. Adam Grant shared two journaling techniques that Sandberg adopted and found very helpful:

  1. Write down three things that you have done well each day. These experiences do not need to be large. In fact, as Sandberg describes, her three things often seemed minor — even trivial — like making coffee or getting the kids out of bed. But, as she continues, even these tiny steps matter. They compose what psychologists refer to as “small wins,” and they add up to boost our senses of control and confidence (p. 68).
  2. Write down three experiences that provoke joy each day. Sandberg explains that “when something positive happens, I think, This will make the notebook. It’s a habit that brightens the whole day” (p. 101). She then cites studies by several scholars — including a 2004 Journal of Research in Personality article by Chad M. Burton and Laura A. King — that found that “Writing about joyful experiences for just three days can improve people’s moods and decrease their visits to health centers a full three months later” (p. 102).

Using these techniques and others, Sandberg asserts that “Journaling helped me make sense of the past and rebuild my self-confidence to navigate the present and the future” (p. 67-8). I, for one, feel the same. Journaling with consistency and a sense of purpose helps me understand confusing experiences from the past, adapt to the challenges of the present, and prepare for the necessary uncertainties of the future.

For more information, please see the Option B.Org website.

Note — The image of Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was obtained from an article about their collaboration on Inc.com.