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Are you a genius or a bozo?

by Frank Forencich on April 22, 2015

Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity fleeting, experience delusive, judgment difficult.

Hippocrates

 

In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner famously speculated that people have more than on kind of intelligence. In his classic book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner identified 7 forms of intelligence: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, and naturalistic. He later suggested that existential and moral intelligence might also make the list.

Gardener’s theory was interesting in its own right, but it also gives us a platform for further speculation. Might there be other forms of intelligence that go beyond Gardner’s original list? In particular, health advocates might be inclined to wonder if there’s such a thing as lifestyle intelligence or lifestyle IQ. Many of us have been coming to grips with public health problems of the modern age: lifestyle disease and diseased lifestyles are epidemic. And if there’s such a thing as lifestyle intelligence, we might even imagine that some of our friends and colleagues are lifestyle geniuses while others are lifestyle bozos.

Of course, we are quick to jump to cartoons. Many of us will simply assume that the lifestyle genius eats all the right foods, does all the right exercises, follows all the best stress-relieving practices and lives according to the latest discoveries of health science. The lifestyle bozo on the other hand, eats a diet of junk food, lays around on the couch for months at a time, stresses about everything and generally ignores the state of his body. But as we’ll see, it’s not so simple. The fundamental problem of human experience and lifestyle is that the world moves. Seasons change, people come and go, jobs change, bodies transform, values and priorities shift. Our lives are intrinsically chaotic; no person inhabits the same river twice. This is why rigid formulas and recipes for healthy living tend to be ineffective, impractical and even irrelevant. This is also why lifestyle intelligence – the application of wisdom and judgment in the face of dynamic conditions – is such a vital aptitude.

With this in mind, consider the lives of two characters. On the one hand, Bob is a lifestyle bozo. He happens to be in pretty good shape at the moment; he’s muscular and fit, but as you’ll see, his condition is not sustainable. Bob is obsessive about his sports, his health and his fitness. He works out on a precisely periodized schedule, maximized and optimized to his individual chronobiology and epigenetics. He researches, plans and organizes every detail of his exercise and diet regimen. He counts his miles, his reps, his laps, his carbs and his protein. He’s got a before-workout meal and an after-workout meal. He checks his heart rate several times each day, logs his sleep and tracks it all with a FitBit. He makes damn sure that nothing interferes with his optimized way of life. For Bob, it’s all about sticking with Plan A.

bozo

For Bob, all goes well until his idealized, utopian program comes into contact with the dynamism of real world. When conditions threaten his perfect plan, Bob becomes stressed, angry, unhappy and boorish. He tries to force conditions back into whatever box he thinks they belong. In the process, he creates friction between himself and the world. He just can’t cope with any kind of sub-optimal training environment or sub-optimal nutritional conditions. He’s highly adapted to his training regimen, but he’s not adaptable to change. His body may well be strong, but his lifestyle is brittle, fragile and maladaptive. His long-term prognosis is not good.

In contrast, Julie is a lifestyle genius. She’s active and she cares about her health, but she cares about other things too. She knows the basic fundamentals of health, diet and exercise, but she knows that life is messy and that compromise is essential. In practice, Julie is a lifestyle opportunist. She makes good choices and prefers the healthy path, but she’s not surprised when circumstances change. Instead of resisting conditions, she makes the most of what’s she’s got. For diet and nutrition, she follows an 80-20 program. That is, she’s attentive to high-quality food 80% of the time, but she’s not a zealot about it. She favors nutritious foods, but she’s not about to let a little bit of gluten ruin her day either.

Likewise, if she misses a workout, it’s not a catastrophe. She trusts her body to take care of itself. If a class is cancelled or it rains on her outdoor workout, she finds some other kind of movement to keep her body happy. In general, Julie has a great relationship with ambiguity and has no problem with Plan B or C or D. Frustrations and complications are not enemies to be vanquished; they are the very stuff of life. She’s fluid.

Julie’s lifestyle intelligence and adaptability reminds us of a practice called bricolage. This French word refers to the act of creating from a diverse range of available things. The bricoler isn’t locked in to any one set of materials, tools or methods. Rather, she uses whatever she’s got on hand to create the effect she’s looking for. Scraps of this or that, spare parts, stray bits of material, odd moments in time; it’s all potentially useful. Instead of waiting around for the perfect conditions, she uses whatever she’s got to make her body happy.

 

bricolage654logo

 

This is the vital difference. Lifestyle intelligence isn’t really about the particulars of diet and exercise. Rather, it’s about creating health out of whatever conditions we encounter. Sure, our health tends to improve when we choose good food and good moves, but this is only a starting point. Life is always throwing monkeywrenches into our schedules and our plans. We can fight back against this fact or we can practice some improv. Ultimately, health is a series of judgment calls; the sooner we get that through our heads, the better.

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Blinded by walls

by Frank Forencich on April 5, 2015

 

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever been part of a great human migration, a diaspora?

As you ponder this question, you might ask yourself about the great migrations of human history: our epic journeys out of Africa, emigrations out of Europe to the New World or the countless displacements of people fleeing war and environmental catastrophe. But in this wondering, you may well have missed the greatest and most troubling migration in all of human history: our move from the outdoors to the indoors.

Historians don’t even list this outdoor-indoor transition as a great migration, but the description fits. For the vast majority of our time on earth, the wild outdoors was our home. Our bodies, sculpted by thousands of generations in contact with nature, were finely tuned to outdoor conditions. But then, almost overnight, we traded one kind of habitat for another. We picked up our lives en masse and moved indoors.

According to a calculation by New Scientist magazine in February, 2015, the average human lifespan now stands at 78 years, and of that time an average of 70 years is spent inside buildings of one kind or another. In other words, we now spend 89% of our life experience out of contact with nature, insulated by walls, roofs, concrete and glass. In and of itself, this constitutes a tragedy in its own right; by locking ourselves in, we are missing the greatest show on earth. But even worse, we’re also depriving ourselves of an immense body of knowledge and experience that could be improving our health and understanding of how the world really works.

Obviously, indoor habitat has some practical advantages that allow us to do important, creative work. By going indoors, we no longer have to worry about the vagaries of nature: the wind won’t blow our papers around, the rain won’t soak our tools and machines, the heat and cold won’t distract us from our work.

But all this indoor living comes with a substantial downside. In the first place, it distorts our sensory experience. It replaces normal, natural sensation with sights, sounds and textures that are utterly alien to our bodies. Most conspicuously, weak artificial light tweaks the master clock in our brains (the suprachiasmatic nucleus), which scrambles our circadian rhythms and wreaks havoc with other biological clocks that are scattered throughout our bodies. This desynchronizes our physiology and in turn, our health. Not only that, there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that low levels of natural light even contribute to a world-wide epidemic of myopia.

cubicle

But it’s not just physiology. Indoor living takes us out of contact with the world that gives us life. We deprive ourselves of ancient, primal experience that literally makes us who we are. Because we live in boxes, we begin to compartmentalize our knowledge and our imagination. That is to say, we even think differently when we’re indoors. Our ideas, creations and solutions become increasingly linear, analytical, abstract, artificial and yes, dangerous. Walls and roofs make us blind to the very qualities that might well keep us whole, sane and healthy.

The obvious cure for our indoor incarceration is to simply spend more time going outside. In fact, an increasing number of public health officials and trainers are trying to persuade people to do just that. Increasingly frustrated with sophisticated health recommendations for diet and exercise, health advocates now plead with people to simply go outside for a few minutes each day. Surely that can’t be too much to ask.

But there’s more to this challenge than simply stepping outside for a break in the midst of a crushing indoor work day. What we really need is to immerse ourselves in the outdoor experience. Sure, many of us do in fact go outside, but we don’t really inhabit the outdoor world. We bring our phones along to keep our minds busy and we talk shop every step of the way. In effect, we don’t really go outside at all; we simply bring the indoors with us.

This is something that I’ve noticed when hiking the trails outside Seattle, Washington. On the weekends there are hundreds of people on the trails and it’s impossible to miss hearing their conversations. In the aggregate, they often sound like this:

“…posted on Facebook… and then I logged in…interface…venture capital…the download took forever…my cell phone…texted me…HTML…website…Android…so I Googled it…I’ve got this new app…stock options…new version…Macbook…you can get it on iTunes…network…

And on it goes, all the way up the mountain. It’s as if no one is really, truly on the trail. Even on the summit, the conversation is all the same techno-corporate rap of the working day. No one seems to notice the plants, weather, terrain, textures, colors, birds or animals. No one stops talking. No one is truly outside.

To have an authentic outdoor experience, we have to go all the way out. That means leaving the indoor language indoors. Just as walls make us blind, a Swahili saying tells us that “The tongue makes us deaf.” What we need is to re-inhabit our habitat. This means immersing ourselves in nature, moving and thinking at the speed of habitat. So slow down, go outside, pay attention to the qualities of nature and above all, stop talking and start listening.

cutthroat-pass

 

 

Note: Exuberant Animal will be in London, June 20-21, offering a workshop: “Health, Performance and the Human Predicament.” Sign up information: click here.

For books by Frank Forencich and more information about Exuberant Animal, visit the website

 

 

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