Authenticity in exhaustion

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When do you feel like your most genuine self?

During moments of praise or celebration? After achieving a victory, beating a fierce opponent? In the wake of reaching a long-standing goal? While experiencing an insight or stumbling upon a link between seemingly unconnected events?

Or, do you feel most authentic when you have reached your limits — when you have nothing else to give?

The man pictured above may be uniquely qualified to provide an answer, one that could reveal a fundamental (yet often ignored) truth about the human experience. And his answer might change the way you think about the relationship between the intelligence of your mind, and the wisdom of your body.

More than three weeks ago I listened to podcast host Rich Roll’s interview with former water polo player Ross Edgley (above), a 33-year-old British phenom known for extra-ordinary athletic feats. For example, he has…

  • run a marathon while towing a Mini Cooper
  • rope-climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in 24 hours
  • swum 100 kilometers in the Caribbean while dragging a 100-pound tree stump

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Google his name, and you’ll find more photographic evidence. The man’s accomplishments are incredible. And as you can see, he looks like a cross between a Navy SEAL and a magazine cover model.

But you would never assume Edgley’s unfathomable physical determination and athletic prowess by listening to his cheerful banter, which features a disarming English accent. His laugh-punctuated delivery and self-deprecating humor make him sound like a twenty-something sociology major living on his own for the first time in a London flat.

During Edgley’s conversation with Rich Roll, the Brit recounts his experience swimming around mainland England — a distance of over 3,200 kilometers (more than 1,700 miles) — in 157 days. During the nearly six-month journey, he never once stepped foot onto land. The closest he got to terra firma was the boat he slept on for six hours at a stretch before he got back out into the Atlantic’s frigid waters. This incomparable event was known as the Great British Swim.

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Rich Roll’s full podcast interview is available at “Ross Edgley is the Real Aquaman — Lessons in Fortitude From (Arguably) the Fittest Man Alive.” Even if you are not into swimming or endurance sports, what Edgley accomplished — and the struggles he faced while doing so — will blow your mind. He voluntarily subjected himself to unbelievable hardships, and he shares the insights he gleaned from those obstacles in his conversation.

Perhaps the most powerful remark from the cheerfully-boyish Englishman is the one that Rich Roll, who is himself an ultra-endurance triathlete and former Stanford swimmer, featured in the podcast’s promotional image:

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This is the line that — more than three weeks after listening to the full two-hour conversation — continues to reverberate in my head.

“You find the most honest version of yourself in complete exhaustion.” 

Every time I consider these words I acknowledge the wisdom that they contain. As more and more of us are spending our days seated at the office, riding elevators instead of taking the stairs, and stopping the car at the mailbox rather than walking to the curb, true physical exhaustion is almost never encountered.

Yes, many of us do work ourselves into stupors while leaning toward computer monitors for hours on end. And many of us do run ourselves ragged chauffeuring the kids to six different after-school activities every week. And many of us do frantically tackle every imaginable task in order to climb one rung higher on the corporate or organizational ladder. In these efforts, however, we become weary out of wear.

What about exhaustion caused by physical exertion for the sake of exercise? Or transportation (e.g. walking or bicycling)? Or gardening? Or the sheer joy of movement found in climbing a tree, navigating a playground, or scrambling up a steep hillside to catch a sunset? 

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Far too few of us experience the pleasurable fatigue of a body testing its limits, however modest those current limits might be.  

I don’t believe that a person needs to resemble Ross Edgley to benefit from the clarity of mind, sharpness of focus, and renewal of the spirit that complete exhaustion can yield. As a recreational runner — and a very slow one, at that — I regularly shuffle through one-hour workouts and feel physically depleted. But I also feel remarkably calm, centered, and capable. My senses of sight, touch, and smell become acutely sharp, and I am aware of subtle shifts in wind speed, humidity, and temperature.

Somewhere along my normal route, which features a long stretch of rail-to-trail hard-pack, my mind releases the worries that were churning when I laced up my running shoes. I’ll likely return to those stresses later, but during the slow cool-down walk to my apartment door I revel in the steady insistence of my breath and the reassuring prominence of my heartbeat. My limbs are tired, but also fluid and responsive.

The moments when I feel the most authentic — the most me — occur when I am physically spent. And maybe that is where we all can find our truest selves.

You don’t need to be Ross Edgley to do this, however.

  • Rather than tow a Mini Cooper through a marathon, what if you briskly towed your kids in a wagon for 26.2 minutes?
  • Rather than rope-climb the equivalent of Mount Everest, what if you climbed the stairs to your office every day next week?
  • Rather than swim 100 kilometers while dragging a tree stump, what if you swam several lengths of the local pool while pulling your doubts through the water?

In these efforts that exhaust the body, you just might find who you really are.

Instead of working yourself under, what if you worked your body out?

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For more about Rich Roll (pictured below), please see these blog posts:

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Note — The image of the map of the Great British Swim and the photographs of Ross Edgley were obtained from redbull.com. The only exception is the one of Edgley towing the Mini Cooper, which was located on the website of Littlegate Publishing. The publicity image for Edgley’s appearance on the Rich Roll Podcast (RRP) and the photo of Rich Roll were obtained from richroll.com. The photograph of the sunset was taken in Longmont, Colorado by the author of this blog post.

Dragons waiting for our love

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“And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” [emphasis is my own]

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Austrian poet and novelist

Source text: Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Considerations of Rainer Maria Rilke by John J. L. Mood.

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To read more of my thoughts about Rilke’s writing, please see the blog post Timeless Advice: Letters to a Young PoetIt features several passages that I recommend from Rilke’s correspondence with a student struggling to find his voice — and his place in the world.

The following image of Rilke is from a painting by Russian artist Leonid Pasternak (1890-1960) who, in 1928, created this likeness of the poet as a young man. The work is entitled Rilke in Moscow, and the portion shown below was obtained from the website of The Paris Review.

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Note – The photographs featured above were taken by photographers Thomas Despeyroux (upper) and Sharon McCutcheon (lower). They were obtained from Unsplash.com.

Podcast sound-check!

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The Podcast Team (aka Sandy and Brian) has emerged from the studio after its initial 30-minute session. Below is a 6-minute “sound-check” for you to consider. It is composed of a four-minute segment in which Sandy describes the items displayed above, followed by the final two minutes of our conversation. A musical intro and conclusion are provided.

Note — The transition between the two segments occurs without warning, but the sound quality does not change. You’ll likely notice a shift in topics around the 4-minute mark, but no audio interruption.

Please let us know your thoughts (either below or on Facebook)…

  • What do you think of the sound quality?
  • What topics and/or questions would you like us to address in the future?
  • How long should our podcasts be? Five minutes? Fifteen? Fifty?
  • How often (e.g. weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.) would you be interested in a new episode?
  • What should we consider naming the podcast? Sandy and I have some ideas, but we welcome audience input.
  • Should each episode feature a guest?
  • What do you think of the music? Does it fit? If not, any recommendations?
  • Anything else? Let us know. Thank you!

Finally, we would like to acknowledge the legendary American Army general and master strategist George S. Patton (1885-1945), who is widely credited with having penned these words: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” 

This sound-check is our good plan, not our perfect plan.

Many thanks!
Sandy & Brian

If you enjoyed this audio preview, please share it with a friend.

To see the rest of Brian’s website about writing and photography, ink sky, click here.

Ten Principles of Compassionate Education

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This book is dedicated to the young men and women with whom I shared my classroom. I am forever grateful for their willingness to lend me — and, more importantly, one another — their ears, hearts, and minds. Thank you.

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Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

- Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from "Song of the Open Road"

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One — The most important value in my classroom is humanity – honoring every individual’s inherent worth, unique selection of talents, and yet-to-be-realized potential. By upholding this value, my students and I remain dignity-driven.

Two — In my classroom, we are all people first. We are students and a teacher, second. If we lose sight of this essential dynamic, we must pause, reflect, and re-assess. Our respective roles drive our collaboration — but they do not dictate it.

Three — Despite the discomfort that it causes, I sometimes allow myself to be vulnerable because I want my students to feel safe to be themselves. I carefully lower my teacher’s mask at times, so that they may trust me enough to share what is real.

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Four — My students and I practice listening before speaking, because reasoned voices are more effective than reactionary ones. By doing so we learn that compassionate leaders are servants before they are guides, and that they exhibit humility — not hubris.

Five — My students’ creativity and my own are exercised regularly, so we feel justified in taking calculated risks. Occasionally, failure results. More often, though, we succeed because fostering creativity leads us to be flexible, adaptable, and always curious.

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Six — I invite others’ diverse ideas and opinions because the opposite signifies ignorance, and that is anathema to teaching and learning. At times of impasse, we can agree to disagree – a mature sign of respect. Intimidation, however, is forbidden; it breaches our shared humanity and violates the principle that we are all people first.

Seven — My students are not common, and neither are their futures. They are unique and evolving. Consequently, my instruction, classroom activities, and assessments are not common. Instead, they are innovative, rigorous, and customized to my students’ changing needs. As a professional educator, I am well-trained for fulfilling this responsibility.

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Eight — My classroom is expansive enough to hold a broad range of ideas, but one concept that has no place inside its walls is shame. Feeling disconnected, flawed, or lesser are not acceptable where we teach and learn. Each one of us is a part of our community, and my students and I watch vigilantly to ensure that no one feels apart.

Nine — As a teacher who earned an advanced degree in his content area and accumulated many years of experience, I make no apologies for my deeply-held beliefs about education. My convictions are strong. But they are also supple: they evolve in response to my students’ needs, my colleagues’ insights, and my ongoing education.

Ten — Service is my calling, and teaching is my art and science. But if I can no longer uphold humanity as the core value in my classroom – if data is privileged above dignity, and policies supplant people — then it is time to straighten the desks, push in the chairs, and turn off the lights. The open road extends beyond, and I will find my students there.

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“In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.” [Emphasis is my own.]

— Parker J. Palmer, PhD, The Courage to Teach (2007), p. 4


About the Author

A former high-school English teacher of 15 years, Brian is now designing the next phase of his career — or what he thinks of as Plan B. In the meantime, he works as a tutor and writing consultant at Bishop Writing Services, LLC, and he shares his photography and writing on the blog ink + sky. Brian’s former students, who are now out forging their own paths in the world, are never far from his mind. And he hopes that they are making every day count.


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The chaos of the middle…

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“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood.”

Margaret Atwood (b. 1939), Canadian writer

Source text: her 1996 novel Alias Grace.

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This newspaper photograph of Ms. Atwood, which was obtained from her website, was taken in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1967. She was 28 years old.

Note — The image at the the top of this post was obtained from Unsplash.com.

Fred Rogers: Leading by Listening

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“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

Fred Rogers (1928-2003), The World According to Mr. Rogers (2003)

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“But part of Fred Rogers’ genius was knowing that kids have an insatiable desire to make sense of the world. Unlike too many adults who prefer to deal with problems by pretending they don’t exist, children want answers. If answers aren’t available, they at least want their questions taken seriously.” 

–  Dr. Bruce Weinstein, CEO of the Institute for High-Character Leadership

Source text: “How Mister Rogers Can Make You a More Effective Leader” in Forbes.com

For more about Fred Rogers, please see Fred Rogers Productions.

Your path? It’s not what you expect.

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“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American mythologist and Professor of Literature; author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

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Note — These images were obtained from the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.