How much can we do? How do we find out? Thoughts during my first metric century

So I rode my metric century today. That’s allegedly 62.137 miles (100 kilometers), but the actual Ramapo Rally bike route clocks in at 64.6. I rode a devilish 66.6 when you count a couple of brief wrong turns, and some stray mileage in parking lots and rest areas.

(When you’re my age, tack on a mile just riding to porta-potties.)

It was definitely hot, and definitely hilly (as advertised).

You and I rode the Rally’s 50 mile route together (I hugely enjoyed those rides, by the way, and miss them!). But this year, BTCNJ revamped their routes. They eliminated one of those scary Route 23 crossings you hated. However, they replaced it with a truly brutal hill in Butler. All in all, I think the 50 is tougher now, and the 62 adds another 800 feet of elevation beyond that.

Then, of course, it was also 90+ degrees today. (You know this: you were hiking seven miles in Harriman.)

So it was hard. But I did it. And while I was pretty exhausted, I was also pretty exhilarated.

0816151406a @Ramapo Rally 2016

As you’ve noticed, you don’t know if you can do something until you do it.

You and I and most people we know aren’t signing up to test ourselves in war; God willing, war will never come to our doorstep, a la Red Dawn. How do we discover the real outer limits of what we can accomplish?

(We know two things for sure. First, those limits are a lot further outward than we think. Second, when we do test ourselves and pass the test, it feels great. Better than almost anything else. We want to feel that feeling more often. Right?)

I was thinking about your summer internship experience, and contrasting it with that incredible New York Times article about life as a manager at Amazon.com.

While you were definitely tested (and totally passed) the challenges of life in D.C. this summer, it doesn’t sound like you were challenged much at work. That’s really too bad.

Then, in starkest contrast, there’s the Amazon life. Where people are pushed well beyond their limits… whether they’ve just been given birth, been diagnosed with cancer, whatever… where employees are routinely found crying at their desks.

What would make someone want to work there? It can’t only be the money. People who can get a job at Amazon could make just as much money at tech or financial services companies that are at least slightly more civilized.

Perhaps, for some, it’s the very idea that they will be pushed to their limits and beyond… will finally see what they’re made of… might be forged and annealed in Amazon’s furnace to be something greater than they were before.

And they might get to actually do something… even if it consists of finding a more profitable way to distribute Amazon gift cards. You and I and 98% of the Times’s commenters may find it a travesty to hand over your whole life to Jeff Bezos for a chance to accomplish something so meaningless in the scheme of things… but it is still something.

Biking through some of those towns way up north in Passaic and Morris counties today, you see a lot of death’s head Harley Davidson stickers and the like. We passed a tattoo shop called Seppuku, which I thought was just a wonderfully creative name (though it was hard for me to tell how much humor was intended).

Do you get more of this fiercely violent imagery when people don’t have enough power and agency in their own lives? We all know how much harder it is to be a non-college-grad white guy these days than it was 50 years ago… etc., etc., and all the class-ridden clichés and overgeneralizations that go with this line of thought.

Of course that’s what Obama meant when he talked about people “clinging to guns or religion.” (What Michael Kinsley will be remembered for: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”)

Maybe this need to connect oneself with immense power one can’t have in real life is why some young men get so obsessed with violent video games? Does it help explain Aztec sacrifice? Roman mystery cults? I don’t know, but it sure isn’t anything new.

I think most of us — even adults here in Ramsey’s comfortable, leafy suburbs — often feel insufficient power and agency in our own lives. It’s easy for me to notice what other people might be doing to (over)compensate, but what about me? Uncomfortable question!

Back in the day, sport served some of these functions of power and agency. Read the notorious stories of Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys, somehow surviving four-hour practices in 116 degree Texas summers, with no water, and non-stop abuse. We don’t want, won’t tolerate, that kind of stuff today; nor should we.

Even Marine boot camp seems to have softened a bit; drill instructors are banned from using profanity; recruits get a “family weekend.” (Though some of those allegations about boot camp do feel kind of reflexive. You know, the “why can’t things be the way they used to be/today everything has to be politically correct” stuff that we correctly wave off as nonsense in other areas of life…)

(BTW, and somewhat OT, notice that all these forms of accomplishment are ultimately social; even when they’re brutal. Others, not you, set the standards and determine whether you’ve met them. Matthew Crawford talks about this at length: the paradox that the only way to become a full individual is in engagement with, and by responding to, needs and standards and disciplines generated by others. This is something I think Crawford understands better than, say, Rand. Here on Earth, the more autonomy an architect gets in imposing his own unique vision, the more likely the building is to prove unlivable and unmaintainable.)

Anyway, the question is: how can we help people reach their fullest potential without brutalizing them? And maybe even help them do it in the service of something that matters? (Unlike, for example, college football… or getting a Frozen doll crosstown a bit faster.)

I think we can, but we’ll need to think more seriously about how. To begin with, it’ll definitely require some fierce (albeit polite and sane) accountability. Because too much coddling clearly doesn’t work, either!

In the meantime, there’s an even bigger question for you and I. Can we figure out how to help ourselves reach our fullest potential?

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