autobiography

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!

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Shoe Dog

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc., opens Shoe Dog with the description of a morning run. With that, he instantly connects with the average runner; a sense of camaraderie sets in, and lasts till the last page of the memoir. He’s up at an ungodly hour, laces up, stretches, feels his muscles groan and wake up, and hits the road; basking in the inimitable runners high. On his run, he consolidates his thoughts on what will turn out to be the most important decision of his and scores of runners’ lives, down the years. He decides to talk to his father, his only financier, about starting a company for running shoes. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Phil Knight’s partner was the legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who coached Phil at University of Oregon, as well as several Olympians, including the great Prefontaine. The company was built on the sweat and blood of shoe dogs, people who are passionate and borderline obsessed with shoes. About running shoes.

For years, this company that Phil Knight founded in 1963 was called Blue Ribbon. The story of the change of name to Nike and the design of the logo, the Swoosh, are parts of the memoir that are best left to the reader to enjoy afresh. The company was, essentially, an importer of running shoes from Japan. Onitsuka (ASICS today) was the manufacturer of these shoes. They were, however, conceptualised in America by Bill Bowerman, and later, Johnson, a salesman par excellence, with the help of many a running enthusiast, including stars and rookies in university tracks.

The path to self sufficiency in manufacturing shoes is studded with supply troubles and manic enthusiasm of the coterie that formed the core team of the company. It is safe to say that this team that nurtured Nike through its initial days, was built around the onslaught of liquidity crunches and multiple court cases, all of which were life-threatening to the company. For instance, Onitsuka sued Nike in Japan, and Nike sued back in America for breach of contract and trademark infringement. Daily affair for huge companies today, but it could have broken everything that Phil had built. The bad times at Nike went so far as to be notified to the FBI for fraud. This brush with law enforcement was cringe-worthy for anyone rooting for the company (or just for running shoes).

As a leader, Phil is disparaging in his take on his role, as he recounts his non-response to enthusiastic members of his team even when they demonstrated utmost dedication to the cause of Nike. Some of them maintained a ledger of the likes of customers, and also went so far as to not cash-in their paychecks. Phil is deeply grateful, though, through negotiations, court cases, and the biannual meetings called Buttface (thus christened to establish how non-conforming to the then corporate standards they were). It would have helped the reader to surmise the same had he described their lives more in depth, though.

Of the people that helped to make Nike possible, the role of Phil’s wife, who was their first accountant, is greatly underplayed. She is portrayed as a Mary Sue, with no say whatsoever in any matters. Also, due, in part, to this lack of regard for her part in Phil’s life, or for that matter, for the role that his family may have played, it would be apt to categorise this book as an account of the company, Nike, rather than as a memoir of its founder.

In the last chapter, Phil writes about why he wrote the memoir. After all, who really wants to know about the birth and growth of a company that sells “sports stuff”? In a candid couple of pages, he writes that his life’s purpose that has been somewhat realised through Nike, which he sees not as a profit making enterprise, but as a movement towards excellence. The memoir is thus meant to inspire people to start up, believe in their maniacal desires, pursue a calling, and the like. The everyday and the epic in the book, like the daily and personal struggles of the team members, or the geometric year on year increase in annual revenue, prove, surely, that pursuing one’s calling is the the most worthy thing to do.

The book gives us the tale of Nike from 1962 to 2006. Some years, however, have unfortunately been brushed over. Today Nike is worth much more than the $8000 annual turn over in 1963. In a way, it’s the story of a do-gooder capitalist, who stands as testament to all that’s well with free markets. One of the most saddening parts of the book, though, was the narration of the “so-called sweatshop” controversy, regarding the abysmal condition of Nike factories in China, Bangladesh. It is outrightly disregarded with deep contempt, rather than acknowledging the humanitarian issue that needed addressing. Nevertheless, since, Nike has risen to become the gold standard of factories in the East. A good comeback, that.

As the audience to the book, the slightly more initiated was given far too little to chew on. This is not a quintessential book for runners. Indeed, what would a shoe dog not have given to know more about the shoe designs, or to skim through pictures of the earliest prototypes and products! Neither is the book one for biography buffs. Though the fashionable modernist writing style of writing aided its readability and added to the spark of the book, it felt like it nourished more sound-bites than material.

That said, Shoe Dog is an entertaining page-turner for anyone that is willing to engage in a passionate memoir. It widens our understanding of today’s corporate giants. The book is at once the story of the company that tells us that there is no finish line, and a story about winning – with clinical precision and an enduring belief in one’s calling. Just like a professor of the jungle.

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.

Queen of the Court

This is a review of Queen of the Court, Serena Williams’s autobiography, penned with Daniel Paisner. She gives us rare insights into her childhood, training regimen, among other curious details in the life of a champion. The book was published in 2009, when she had “only” 11 Grand Slams to her name. Today she holds a record whopping 23!

When I picked the book up, the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew very little about what Serena Williams is made of; what kind of person is she? Is she as tortured as Agassi was, as hard on herself as Nadal, or as perfectly naturally athletic like Roger Federer? What is it about her, the sinew and guts, that make her the Queen of the court?

Legend has it that Serena and sister, Venus Williams, were born because of some happenstance by which their father was watching the 1978 French Open on TV. The announcer mentioned that the player, Virginia Ruzici, had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play, more than Serena’s father earned all year. He was stunned and inspired. The story goes that he went up their mother and said, “We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

They made tennis their life. The older Williams girls were trained along with the young potential protégées. In their household, every little game was about tennis, and every day, needless to say, was spent hitting balls, or practicing form, or watching a game. This tennis regimen involved a lot of homework for the parents, especially their dad, who was their coach in the formative years. For him, training the girls included learning the game, the tricks involved, game play, coaching methods and juggling his day job with the tennis-life. The focus with which the girls were brought up, and the up keep of that spirit – with love and respect for the game – is commendable to say the very least.

The Williamses’ dedication to the sport, bordering on religion, is almost unthinkable, given that they literally practiced in courts while next door there raged gun violence. They hopped from public court to public court, with an old car loaded with balls, racquets and brooms to clean the court (of dry leaves, if they’re lucky, and drug paraphernalia, if not). The girls themselves were driven and passionate, with abundant conviction and confidence, from the beginning, that they would be tennis stars one day. Their father kept the improbability of that away from them, though.

As a child, Serena sees herself as the spoilt brat in the family; the youngest one who is spoiled with love and affection, the one who hides under the shadow of the big sisters, and the one that gets away with all sorts of mischief. One such mischievous act got her career as a professional tennis player started. When Serena was 8, her sister Venus entered a professional 10-and-under tournament, as per her father-coach’s plan. Serena, who always wanted what Venus had (and who believed she was ready!), demanded that she be allowed to play too. Her father felt she was not ready yet, and so turned a deaf ear to her. Come tournament day, the family travelled together as usual, and Serena was tagging along with Venus and her father. When they reached the courts, however, Serena slipped away. Her father noticed, only a little later, that she had wandered off. He asked one of the referees if he’d seen Serena (who was a known face, there, being dark skinned and being a part of the Venus entourage and all). “She’s playing her match, out back in court number..” he said. Apparently, Serena had taken the liberty to enter the tournament by herself! And she proved her father’s fears wrong.

This spunky young lady, though, is besotted with self-doubt. But, due to the criticism of the nay-sayers, who had pinned her down to forever be no more than “Venus’s little sister”, or despite it, she rose through the ranks and held her own. She suffered through injury, the loss of a sister to gun violence, vicious hatred and racism on and off the court, and still came at the top of her game.

Although the book was a quick read, it dwells on many aspects of Serena’s life, from childhood to adulthood. It touches upon many facets too, from family to training to sponsorships to fashion. It also has some family pictures and some entries from her journal, which make the memoir all the more personal and stirring. (Although I would have liked very much if the textese were corrected.)

But the book didn’t fully satisfy the curiosity that I picked it out with. Now I know what she wrote in her little Match Book, one that she leafs through during matches, like, “U will not be afraid. It is not in your vocabulary. It is not in your nature. It is not in U, period. NO FEAR!!!” I also know how much she loved fashion and thrived on the looks she created for each tournament. I know, too, that she was moved by her visit to Africa (a Roots-esque visit, I’d say). But I don’t know how she really battled her poor self-image, how she remained efficient even as her haters grew louder, and I don’t know the little details of her practice and cross training, or diet, and I am fully blindsided on her childhood outside of the tennis courts, which, I reckon, made her into the tough lady we see on court.

Also, since the book was written in 2009, I had no way of learning about her journey since (duh), which has only been more inspiring than not.

In 2017, she won the Australian Open when she was in the first trimester of her pregnancy. What wouldn’t I give to know what she wrote in her Match Book for the finals? Here’s a picture of the Queen at the 2017 Australian Open –

serena.png

One of Serena’s Post-it mantra for success: “Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Smile.”

For someone who plays tennis, Queen of the Court is a must read. 5/5. For the rest, who hope to learn how to hit a top-spin, the book is no good. For a tennis or sports fan, the book is worth a slow weekend. 3/5.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

(Queen, Killer Queen)

Lean In (or be pushed in)

This is my review of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.

I ought to start with a disclaimer- I have a whopping 14 months of experience in a full-time job, so it’s entirely possible that my youthful optimism (ha!) is influencing my opinions on this book.

I’ll start with the good:

  1. Sheryl Sandberg is unquestionably a very successful woman. She has proved her worth in more than one leadership position. Any kind of advice she gives is definitely invaluable to anyone looking to climb the corporate ladder.
  2. She is open about her flaws and the compromises she has made to get ahead of her career- how many mothers would admit that their kids are more attached to their nannies than their parents?

Now for the criticism:

  1. Most Several of the obstacles she describes facing are, quite honestly, first world problems. She describes being late for a morning meeting when pregnant because of the long, slow walk from her car to the office. She then walked into the CEO’s office and demanded that special parking spaces be assigned to pregnant women- a request that was immediately addressed. Maybe it’s my third world mentality, but this does not really seem like a problem- it was an inconvenience that was removed promptly, without any sexism involved. Most women in the world face much bigger struggles, ones that cannot be so easily overcome.
  2. She is frequently condescending. She wants her mentees to be like a patch of sunshine in a busy day- think about how that would sound coming from a middle aged man. Creepy, no? Yes, being mentored by someone as successful as Sandberg would be an amazing opportunity, and she is definitely not obligated to spend time guiding clueless 22-year-olds. But if she does, it seems wrong to expect anything but gratitude in return.
  3. She expects everyone to make the same sacrifices as she has. I have no sources for this apart from my own observations, but there are lots of women out there who have different family structures. Their husbands may have demanding careers. They may have lower earning potential than their partners. They may be single moms. They may need two incomes just to make ends meet. They may not want to miss out on their children’s formative years. There are dozens of very valid reasons why a woman might want to ‘Lean Out’ or make different choices, but still she urges all women to put their careers first.
  4. While women have their share of societal pressure and constraints to deal with, men aren’t exempt. It is less ‘acceptable’ for them to seek a work-life balance or take time off to bond with family. They are inherently expected to shoulder financial responsibility. They are under-represented in certain careers like nursing and teaching. The list goes on. Women cannot always play the victim card.

All in all, this is a good mix of anecdotes and statistical analyses of gender bias and the Glass Ceiling. It also provides some insight into how the people at the top get there- and what they are forced to give up. As someone just starting out in a tech career, I think this was a worthwhile read. As an Indian woman, it was frustrating to read about the privileges some people take for granted. We’ll get there…

2/5

Happy New Year!

Hello again! After reading American Psycho last month, I detox-ed my (very traumatized) head with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young second generation immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. It fit the bill perfectly- cheerful (for the most part), uplifting, inspiring- but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a preteen girl. Even then, I’d point you to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl instead, for more hard hitting and realistic content. This gets a 2.5/5 from me.

Now that the trailer’s done, on to the review of the day/week/month!

The Gun Seller- Hugh Laurie

Some people read to improve their general knowledge, broaden their worldview, and become acquainted with world culture. I read for entertainment. That’s probably why I liked this book. It provides laughs without demanding much investment of time or intellectual effort. I would place it at a 7 on the laughter scale (with 10 being PG Wodehouse and 1, Khaled Hosseini).

This is a fast paced comedy/thriller book, set in the world of spies and industrial espionage. It starts off slowly, with more focus on witty puns and character development for the protagonist, before quickly diving into the twisty plot. It’s almost as if the author suddenly remembered that yes, stuff needs to happen here. To be honest, I lost track of the plot about three quarters of the way in (“So is she with the good guys or not?”). Luckily the conclusion considerately summarizes the story. Our hero defeats the baddies (terrorists/ gun runners/ drug smugglers, I’m not completely sure) and needless to say, he gets the girl in the end.

The spy theme is deliberately cliche, there are shootings and pretty girls in abundance, but it’s the brilliant humor that’ll keep you hooked. 3.5/5

If you liked this, you might like Plugged by Eoin Colfer (author of the extremely awesome Artemis Fowl series). It has a similar storyline- ex-military chap who finds himself investigating the murder of an acquaintance, all the while worrying about his premature balding.

PS: And yes, Hugh Laurie is the comedic genius behind A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder.

Rafael Nadal’s Rafa

“I don’t really understand his decisions and choices. It was weird for him choosing to play despite the pain, but he really gave all he had. He gave his best.” – Roger Federer, on Rafael Nadal playing at the Swiss Indoors, Basel, upon recovery from a wrist injury, but with appendicitis.

Rafa: My Story, Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

rafa

Rafa, the book, is moulded around the 2008 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. As for how close that match was, how thrilling, I can only tell you that as I watched it Live, my sleep-deprived young heart nearly failed. In Spain, Wimbledon was not a tournament that they wanted their heroes to go after. For the Spanish, Roland Garros was Sanctum Sanctorum, Davis Cup was their Moksha. But they didn’t see that this young man called Rafael from Mallorca would one day stand to be a serious contender of the Championship, not once but more than three times; and each time, the matches were juicy, adding to his glory.

Rafa is an awfully contradictory person. He is terrible at making decisions off court, but he nears perfection on court. He cannot function without his family off court, but will do everything in his power to isolate himself from reality and people, in the moments before a match begins in a bizarre ritual (during which he bellows “Vamos! Vamos!” in the changing room; and sprints up and down the cramped space). He works out in the gym with crazy intensity (“each and every time” – this is drilled into you by the time you finish one-third of the book), but he cheats on his diet by eating chocolate cake (his uncle, Toni Nadal, gives him hell for it).

Speaking of hell, Rafa’s training regimen is hell. It is so intense that the hard work he puts into it is relied on more than his talent, during a match. This insane hard work gets to him eventually, when injuries surface. He plays through pain, and he says so in the book in a disturbingly casual fashion. With a note of anguish, though, he says: “being a professional sportsperson is not healthy.”

The injury department is overcrowded. He has a rare condition in his left foot which forces him to “kill” the foot before he goes to play, because the pain is too great if he does not. Due to this foot condition, the sole of his shoes is an on-going experiment, so as to soften the blow his foot takes; and due to this continuous change in shoe sole shape, other parts of his body suffer injuries (his knee and back). But the guys who treat him make him invincible, despite these bodily failings and his mind makes him the Goliath on court. The book gives you an insight of this. In my opinion, the tenor of the chapters that explain and analyse Rafa’s moves on court at tough situations is the most captivating part of the book.

His team is close knit and is very close to Rafa. He is a person who simply cannot live away from his family and team (which he treats like family) for too long. Rafa’s biggest strengths are his parents, his team of physicians and friends and most importantly, Uncle Toni (he’s ruthless, partial against his nephew, crazy about his nephew’s constant improvement (constant vigilance!), and is often unreasonably critical of his nephew. But he’s immensely loved by this tennis great).

The book shows you how Rafa is a hard working, dedicated, and supremely disciplined tennis player. His modesty is explained the Mallorcan way in the book. His success is attributed to the Nadal family. This is a book for every sportsperson. It teaches you the best kind of lessons about discipline, perseverance, humility, love and hard work.

3.5/5