Thursday, May 6, 2010

What I do

Welcome to my blog and thanks for visiting!

Hopefully I’ll find more interesting things to blog about later, but first I want to brag about how cool I am by telling you about what I do and why. Below is an intro into my paradoxical reality in pursuit of negentropy.

Sometimes I used to trick myself into believing that the essential truth and beauty in both medicine and rock climbing was problem solving. But what problems are there really to solve? In climbing the rock is obviously the problem. A skilled rock climber solves the rock by getting her body on top of it. Once this is achieved the problem has been solved. Great success! Various opinions exist regarding the methods available to climbers in order to claim a legal ascent, but most climbers, agree that the core element of the solution should consist of utilizing the forces generated by one’s own body to propel upward motion. Yup – pure beauty! The goal of medicine is to solve other people’s problems. I’ll talk about that process some other time, but it’s definitely just as easy as getting on top of a rock. It’s early in my medical training, but I’ve already been solving rocks for 12 years, so patient care is going to be easy.

Ok fine – you probably saw through my jumble of lies. Now I know that it’s all just insecurity. Think about it. Have I actually ever solved a problem? What is so problematic about a rock? Sometimes I guess they can get in your way, or if small enough, you could trip over one and break your knee. In these cases its you that’s the problem. Of course, no rock climbers actually think a rock can impose any problem that directly threatens our human experience. But we do use the metaphor of solving a problem to describe the process. I think we tend to take the term pretty seriously. Bouldering is the name for a form of climbing in which the climber gets her body on top of small rocks. The rocks are so small she doesn’t even need a rope to safely ascend. To descend the small rock, she can usually walk down the other side or something. A boulderer is assigned a specific path, which she must take to ascend the small rock. The assigned path is called a problem. The sequence of moves is the climber’s solution. The climbers who solve the hardest problems are the best climbers.

Since the best climbers solve the hardest problems, one could be tempted to posit that the best climbers are the most intelligent. While intelligence is one factor, there are several other factors determining which climbers make it to the top instead falling to the bottom on their faces. Physical fitness, conditions, and various ways of cheating such as unapproved equipment also play important roles. There is actually a specific climbing shoe called the Solutions designed by La Sportiva to help dumb climbers figure out the answer. I heard that Matt Wilder, mathematician and climber extraordinaire, wears these shoes when he solves the rubiks cube in 10 seconds with his eyes closed. More recently Matt pleaded guilty of Cheating Reality while in the Flatirons outside of Boulder, Colorado. Vasya Vorotnikov, la Sportiva athlete and PhD candidate in chemical engineering, wears the Solutions while he invents alternative energy sources. But I don’t think these shoes actually work for many applications outside rock climbing. One time I had a problem in a relationship so I slipped on my X’s pair of Solutions. I was not impressed with how they performed. However, Neil Mushaweh is a really smart friend of mine who has used the Solutions for their intended purpose, and his been able to understand difficult concepts such as the Parallel Universe in Rumney, NH, Planet Earth. That’s cool, but Neil didn’t ever prove the Parallel Universe was problematic, so I don’t know why he felt inclined to climb it.

Peter Mortimer’s brilliant climbing film, The Sharp End, is a documentary about climbers who spend most of their lives visiting the worlds rarely traveled places, establishing ground-breaking first ascents. Those guys devote their lives entirely to solving the world’s unsolved mysteries. Bad ass! He asks a bunch of climbers why they climb. I even had the honor of offering my opinion “I don’t know, I guess maybe its just another pathology… another addiction”. Doh! I think I meant to say, “It’s about solving the world’s unsolved mysteries, each time bringing a logical solution to the human condition”. That’s right. But none of the other climbers said anything along those lines either, so maybe not. My really smart friend, Dr. Chris Lee, told me that my response was like the second best shown in the movie. He said the best one explained that climbing is about finding something that seems impossible and doing it. I think he’s right. But what does it mean to do something impossible? Are we becoming better people in order to do something that was once impossible for us, or are we just proving to ourselves how stupid we are for ever believing it impossible in the first place?

It doesn’t matter which is the reality. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali points out in his book entitled Flow, it’s all about the flow state. Flow is that feeling when you become so engaged in doing something that your entire attention is focused on the present moment. For some reason self-consciousness disappears. I’m pretty sure that’s the reason that anyone who has ever experienced flow describes it as a highly enjoyable state. It easily explains why I’m addicted to climbing. Csikszentmihali argues that the flow state is actually the optimal human experience. He also says that personal growth takes place within that state. I like that idea. I’ll keep climbing because its how I become a better person and win at life. The funny thing is that in order to achieve the flow state, you have to find something so challenging that it demands all of your attention. So you have to kind of suck in the first place. That makes sense though because if your really dumb, you don’t have any brain cells left to be self conscious while your trying to complete a task. It’s pretty easy for me to flow in climbing because I’m weak, my arms are short, and I can’t fly. I could also be dumb, but no one has proven that yet.

My advisor in medical school suggested that I probably am motivated to climb because of some deep insecurity. He is another really smart person, and I think probably also the most correct about why I climb. I assured my advisor that I climb just because I love it. I wasn’t lying. I do love climbing. But it has definitely been motivated by insecurity. In fact, I climb the best when I’m feeling completely insecure. For example, a few years ago I signed up to go to medical school. I convinced people at Haaaarvard that I was an acceptable person so they decided to let me in. At that time, I didn’t know much about medicine or Ivy League stuff. This made the prospect of competing with a bunch of smart kids in learning how to save people's lives pretty scary. I felt that starting school with this much insecurity would suck. I had to either prove to myself that I could hang with those folks, or make myself better so that I could hang come Fall 2007. I did the obvious thing that any sensible climber would do.

There was a route in Boulder Canyon that had been on my mind for a while. China Doll was a well-known crack climb that was still an unsolved problem. I had actually done all the moves so it was theoretically possible for me to send it. The thought of trying it was kind of nauseating, but really all I had to do was put the time in to learning it, and go up it one time without a single bumble. Until then, I had convinced myself that the fitness and concentration required was beyond me. But if I was gonna go to Haaarvard, I would have to stop being a bumbler. Next thing I knew, the day came when I got on the route and climbed it differently than before. I entered some sort of flow state through the bottom section as usual and got to a rest where I came out of the flow state and pondered ten million things like I always did. I continued on towards the high crux with some anxiety. I placed a piece, and then recognized a pattern evolving within me. I was going to continue towards the crux listening to my anxiety, which was going to tell me to pull a bumble maneuver. I had been lying to myself, hoping I could continue paying attention to my own anxiety while climbing through the crux. So I gathered all my doubts, put them in the center of my soul and handed it to the route. The route accepted, swallowed my offering, digested my pathetic consciousness back into the flow state and handed back my doubts in the form of confident humility.

I waved goodby to my insecurity and marched off to med school with my head held high. We had to announce who we were during the first week. Let me tell ya - I was the man. We were asked to explain how we got there and stuff. Other students talked about things like the time they helped discover a cure for some disease in the laboratory and then learned 10 languages so they could help implement the treatment in developing countries. I was like “yeah well I sent China Doll! Have you done that? ….. I didn’t think so. It’s ok. I’m the only one in the world who has been able to do that.” They were mad impressed, especially the ladies.

That’s why I have to climb. It helps me gain confidence and contentment with my forever insecure and inadequate self. Who cares if it’s a matter of self- improvement or self-realization which both just mean you must not have been God when you started. It’s finding negentropy in the entropy and I think its cool. I plan to climb until I’m 80 years old, which means I’ll have to keep finding things to be insecure about. Until then it seems boring to stop searching.

Sorry if I made you think I was going to talk about medicine. I was just going to do the same thing and attribute that to my insecurity, but just the climbing part took a while, and I figure there’s a good chance you’re a climber. That means you have ADD and your attention span is likely expired in the previous sentence. Don’t worry - I’ll save the medicine stuff for another time and end this here just for you.