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Eating Disorders, Divorces, and the Risks of Really Going For Something

June 13, 2018

 

 

Interesting Thought: Eating Disorders, Divorces, and the Risks of Really Going For Something

 

Earlier this week, my good friend Mario Fraioli wrote about eating disorders in the latest issue of his newsletter, The Morning Shakeout.

In short: as a post-collegiate runner trying to become a pro, Mario developed an eating disorder. From the outside, he was running fast and looked "fit," at least for an elite runner. But on the inside, he was broken. Eventually that inner brokenness led to outer brokenness. Mario suffered three stress fractures, degradation of his nails, bloating, and tooth-decay. His running career ended. He was lucky that the health repercussions weren't worse. 

Mario recovered. He now has a much healthier relationship with food and running. And yet my hunch is that if you asked him (and I have), he'd tell you that there's still a part of him that enjoys living on that razor's edge, that enjoys adventuring into the pain, pushing the mind-body where it doesn't want to go, and perhaps where it doesn't really belong.

Mario is not alone. This type of mentality can be part and parcel of an unrelenting drive to do whatever it takes to achieve whatever one considers "greatness." I'm not a therapist, so take this with a grain of salt, but it seems as if this mentality arises out of the combination of a personality-type that is massively driven and also at least somewhat insecure and neural hardwiring that loves dopamine and the thrill of the chase more than serotonin and the contentedness of an accomplishment. There's nothing wrong with any of this, I don't think. It just is. Perhaps I try not to judge it because a big part of me is it.

Anyways, following Mario's newsletter, on Twitter people commented that there's a fine line in athletic performance between what's good and what's OK and what's downright unhealthy—and that many are bound to cross it. I don't disagree. By definition, the way an elite athlete lives—and not just how they eat but also how they train and how they sleep and of course how they move their bodies—is abnormal.

There, I said it: Elite athletes are abnormal. Elite anything is abnormal. Otherwise, it's not elite.

Pushing boundaries in any endeavor requires taking big risks with the mind-body system. Sometimes these risks are healthy. Other times they aren't. When these risks become pathological, however, like in the case of an eating disorder, is when the person taking them loses the self-awareness that they are taking them in the first place. When trying to cut those extra few pounds or work those extra few hours is no longer a conscious decision, a well-calibrated risk, but instead an automatic compulsion.

The problem is only compounded when the pathological tendency gets celebrated because acute gains ("Hey, I'm super skinny and running faster and my coach is thrilled") overshadow chronic costs ("I'm about get a bunch of stress fractures and the flu, experience cardiovascular fatigue, and, if I'm a woman, lose my period and perhaps my ability to ever bear children if that's something I'd like to do."). 

This is serious stuff. What is good can easily become bad when unchecked, and it can happen in such a subtle manner that you don't even realize it's happening. 

There are no easy answers. It's one of those things that just is. Coaches and friends and managers and parents need to be super supportive of those in their communities, helping people see what they may be too involved in something to see for themselves. At this point, based on all the evidence I'm familiar with, support really is the best way to keep the hunger healthy—in the case of running and eating disorders, both figuratively and literally. 

The last thing I'll say is this: while I wrote this about running, it's pretty true of "really going for" anything. Once you lose self-awareness things can get ugly pretty quickly. You build the company but lose your loving marriage. You think what you've created at work will leave you whole but because you've burned all your relationships in the process and deep down inside you feel empty.

In psychiatry, crazy drive toward something improbable without self-awareness is typical of a personality disorder. Out in the world it's called being a fearless entrepreneur, a big-firm partner at the age of 33, or an elite athlete.  

It's worth reiterating: none of this is bad until it is. But that line between "none of this is bad" and "until it is" is a very, very fine one. If this sounds super serious that's because it is. But it's also super common. And I think it's worth talking about more openly and more often.

 

Coaching Corner: Millennials are ruining the world...or is that just our imagination?

 

A common and culturally prevalent story goes like this: "Millennials just don’t get it. They are lazy, stuck in their phones, don’t know what hard work is, need their hands held, and lack any form of resiliency. How am I supposed to work with, coach, and develop these kids?!”
 
Are some of these complaints true for certain individuals? Of course! But they are also true for individuals across all generations, from young to old. We’ve heard it all before. The world is doomed; “These kids just don’t get it” is an oft-repeated refrain. Yet, fast forward 30 years later and that younger generation is now repeating similar claims about the next generation. It’s a never-ending cycle. Each generation mocking and worried that the next is incapable of carrying the world forward in the way in which they did.
 
Sure, there’s probably a bit of generational pride that’s behind this phenomenon. But what it really comes down to is familiarity and understanding.

As humans, we have an incredible propensity to mistake familiarity with correctness. It's hard-wired into us. If we encounter something foreign or different in our environment, alarm bells go off. Our brain has an error detection signal that brings the discrepancy to our conscious awareness. If all is familiar, no signal is needed and we carry on oblivious to our environment. This inbuilt error signal is immensely helpful, but it also causes problems. It’s there to draw our attention to potential mistakes and hazards. Yet, if we don’t take the time to evaluate or consider them, we often make the jump straight from "something is different" to "something is wrong."
 
So when we complain about the younger generation, it’s important to understand that what is unfamiliar does not mean that it is incorrect. It’s different, yes, but so was your generation.

 

For example, take the laziness and distraction claim.
 
Maybe you didn’t grow up playing on your cell phone all day, but what was the attention grasper at the time? The original Nintendo or Atari gaming system? Or was it heading down to the local park for hours of playing baseball in the sandlot? Or going back generations, reading was seen as a worthless time suck, with parents lamenting of the generation who could idly sit with a book when much work outside needed to be done.
 
Yes, playing outside or reading a book is certainly healthier than sitting on the couch for hours in front of a TV, but that was an accident of history, not something your generation deliberately choice. When you went outside to play a pickup basketball game, it wasn’t to be healthy. It was because that was the fun activity that you did at the time with your friends in the neighborhood. If you were born a generation or two later, that sports game would be replaced by the latest video game, tv, or phone craze. That's not a generational problem; that's a cultural problem.
 
So what do we do? Do we lament the next generation's differences? Complain about their work ethic, drive, or ideals? Companies are grappling with this right now as millennials take over the workforce with a different set of goals and needs than their elder brethren.
 
One tactic is to attempt to force them into our already established way of operating. The other is to adapt and understand. Different isn’t necessarily bad. It’s an opportunity to challenge the way that business has always been conducted. Instead of lamenting the generation, perhaps it’s best to understand where they are coming from.
 
People all want to be healthy, happy, and successful. We all have the same innate drives that have been with us since the development of our species. How those are utilized is context and culture dependent. But if we can stop and try to understand why their values and motivations might be slightly different than our own, we will be in a much better place than in prophesying that the next generation will ruin the world.

 

I’m sorry, your generation isn’t that special, and neither is mine.

 

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