I made a series of t-shirts last fall to experiment with some design ideas and share some of my personal messages. I’m happy to say that I got a really positive reaction to a bunch of them – and so this February I decided to produce a second series. I showed up here in Mexico City on my way back from Oaxaca and I was surprised and delighted to see that my friends Florian and Nicky were in town. Thx Instagram! We met up for dinner and Florian had the good sense to wear the NATIVE shirt that I gave him when we met in Brazil in November – and so we got to capture a side-by-side of the two versions! I’m wearing NATIVE #2 on the left and he’s wearing NATIVE #1 on the right. Stay tuned for more designs from series 2!
I’ve spent too much time trying to make decisions. And you know what – deciding isn’t really any fun.
I’m always happier when I flow through life using my intuition. I’d really like to be making zero decisions and living intuitively all the time.
“…we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking…”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
This led me to ask myself, how do I get better at living intuitively? How do I train my intuition?
To jump ahead for a moment, the simple answer is: you get better at what you do often. You can train your intuition by acting intuitively, by using your intuition in any way at all really. But I was kind of stuck, I was used to making decisions – or trying to make decisions – and I was out of touch with my intuitive self. I needed something more specific, a usable, understandable technique that would improve my intuition in a noticeable way.
At the same time that I’ve been thinking more about intuition – over last few years – I’ve also become more and more athletic. I was always very active but until recently I didn’t pursue anything with goals or training, or even on much of a regular basis.
“To realize the body’s potential for flow is relatively easy. It does not require special talents or great expenditures of money. Everyone can greatly improve the quality of life by exploring one or more previously ignored dimensions of physical abilities.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness
And here’s the thing: once I started being more athletic, I started to notice an improvement in my intuition. The more time I spent doing things with my body, especially authentic physical activities that get me into flow, the more I noticed this effect of improved intuition. I started to think about what the connection is between athletics and intuition – how does being athletic improve our intuition?
This is the answer that I’ve come to: When you’re engaged in authentic physical activity (especially outside), your body is responding automatically – intuitively – to the environment, to the situation as it comes. As you practice this intuitive movement, we train our physical intuition, simply by being active outside.
And then – here’s the magic – the mind observes this, sees the body doing its thing, sees physical intuition happening, sees that the body goes where it needs to go without having to be told where to go, and learns that this is possible. Our mind learns how intuition works – and that intuition does work – by observing the intuitive movement of the body.
“…wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.”
― Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity
If we are active and in flow on a regular basis, the mind has plenty of opportunities to see that spontaneous, effortless action of the body leads to good results. It just works, all by itself, without having to make decisions. The next step is that the mind sees this and says, “hey, that seems to be working for moving the body, let me try that for myself. Let’s try some spontaneous, effortless thinking and see if that works just as well.” And (for the most part) it does go well, which reinforces the mechanism, making it more likely that the mind will allow itself you to go in that direction in the future, to allow intuition to happen, instead of going into more of an analytical, decision-making mode.
We can train and improve our intuition by being physically active (outside). The connection between athletics and intuition is so powerful that I now see that as the central theme of my work.
Human-powered, self-directed, challenging, outside.
We all know that physical activity is good for us. Exercise ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though. It’ll certainly help keep you alive longer, and many people love their workouts, but it’s called a routine for a reason, right? I think there’s a better model, and I’ve come to call it authentic physicality. To get in flow, to feel good, I have to be engaged in AP at least once a day. If I really want to feel great I need to do a double, or stay in AP for more than a couple of hours, and I know I’m really putting awesome in the bank on those rare days when I can get into AP in three or four different ways, for several hours at a time.
Let’s break down what I mean:
First of all, you have to be doing something human powered. If you’re not moving yourself, you’re not really moving. This is part of why I gave up riding motorcycles: it’s super fun, it’s self-directed, challenging, and done outside, but it doesn’t really provide any physical exercise, and it requires using an engine. And – even if you’re moving yourself, if what you’re doing requires external power as an intrinsic part of the activity, it’s not going to be as fulfilling – and it will likely be more expensive and energy intensive. Human-powered activities are also, very simply, simpler. We don’t need any extra complications in our world. Another thing about motorcycles that I realized at some point was that I no longer enjoyed having the machine and all of the process and tools required to keep the machine alive. We pay rent on everything that we own, and especially with machines – our machines own us as much as they require us to maintain them.
I find self-directed activities more interesting. This means figuring it out yourself, for the most part. Having a mentor or a leader is great, but if someone is holding your hand every step of the way, it’s too easy to lose awareness of what is happening and what you are doing. Americans love guided activities. Get a guide if you need one, but don’t just follow; work with the guide, and only as long as you absolutely need to. And then try leading something yourself. We’re all capable of leadership, and it’s far more fulfilling than otherwise.
Note that I mean self-directed, not alone. For mean this usually means doing individual activities like kitesurfing with other people. Climbing falls somewhere in the middle as it’s most often done as a pair activity. Team sports can also require a lot of self-directed activity.
How to use this criterion? I went on a short river rafting trip last year that was human-powered, challenging, outside, and definitely not a ride, but we basically just paddled when the guide told us to paddle. The activity felt good, but I don’t think it fully qualified as authentic physicality.
Doing something that isn’t intrinsically at least somewhat challenging is simply boring. Same if you’re doing something that you’re already so expert at that you can do it with your eyes closed. However, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out in Flow, it doesn’t have to be – in fact, should not be – something so hard that you simply can’t do it. In fact, completing attainable goals, achievable challenges, is a key part of getting into flow. It feels great to level up, and it’s good to do that as often as possible. Progression is great. If you’ve mastered something, find a way to introduce a challenge again, and/or start teaching others (which is itself a challenge).
Being active outside and in the natural environment is so important. Most of us live in cities and we certainly get some benefit from being outside even in urban environments, but nature is far more stimulating and inspiring. As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.” Another reason, also cited by the same author, is that a “wealth of details leads to inner peace.” We need the fractal detail of natiure to occupy and inspire our minds. So: running on a treadmill in the gym is better than nothing, running outside on the sidewalk is better, but trail running in the woods is far superior and provides multiple benefits to the body and the mind.
A note on “extreme” sports
Some people think of some of the things that I do as extreme sports. I don’t use this term. The word is vague, subjective, relative – and overused. It’s also not relevant – authentic physicality is most often not extreme at all. Most sports that might be called extreme are complicated, required a lot of gear, and can only be done in very specific locations (and this require a lot of engines/fuel).
The back story
I’ve always been highly physical. Although I grew up in the city of San Francisco, my parents were outdoorspeople who took me backpacking for the first time well before I could walk. I was never attracted to team or ball sports much, but I enjoyed hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, sailing and skateboarding from a young age, and did a lot of those things plus snowboarding, mountain and road biking, windsurfing, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing and trail running through my 20’s, 30’s and into my 40’s. In recent years my primary sports have been kitesurfing, paragliding, and open-water swimming – and it’s only in recent years that I’ve pursued any sport with enough regularity, dedication and aspiration to feel like anything of an athlete.
As I’ve become more athletic, I’ve stopped doing some things that I used to enjoy: snowboarding, riding motorcycles, sailing boats, river kayaking, CrossFit. As started to think more about why I gravitated towards certain types of activities and away from others, I began to develop the idea of authentic physicality. There are too many activities masquerading as sports that lack one of the key qualities of AP . Hooking yourself into a zip-line might feel challenging for a moment, but it’s not active, not human powered, and not really physically challenging (unless you’re catastrophically unfit). At the end of the day things like zip-lining are rides, not sports, and you won’t get fit or into Flow by taking a ride. I don’t think anyone – not even a child – is really using their time well on a ride.
The easiest and purest way to do authentic physicality is trail running. Other great AP activities are walking, hiking, backpacking, open-water swimming, rock climbing, cycling (especially trail or mountain biking), paragliding, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing, xc/backcountry skiing, and skateboarding. There are lots more – get out there and let’s hear em!