Doing Nothing As Learned from My Kenyan and Mathematician Friends.

I have said it many times that the reason the Africans are better than the American runners, is they know how to rest to recover. Americans will sometimes try to simulate Kenyan training methods and conditions in Colorado. But the Americans that have been successful at doing so incorporate one key ingredient: lots of Kenyans. Its not that the Kenyans train harder, or that their high altitude environment is superior to Colorado, or American effort. No, they bring an attitude. Bob Kennedy, the first USA or “European” tern to break 13 minute barrier in the 5k, was one of the first to train with them. He would describe their method as doing nothing but running. They would lie around all day, eat and run. No chores but washing their few clothes in the creek on Saturdays.

It has been said that their culture values being lazy. Their culture allows them to accept “doing nothing” most of the time. But I would disagree. If you know them and have made friends with them, they value socializing a great deal. They will work extremely hard, running 3 times a day and often run through injury and hardship that would make most westerners nauseated on hearing or seeing the gritty details.

The Kenyans I’ve known are great friends. They work very hard at it; at a level most westerners would find exhausting.

I first became good at running in grad school, where I was hanging on academically by the skin of my teeth at Virginia Tech. I was studying my hardest, and running just as hard, putting in 100+ mile weeks for months on end.

Many of my more exclusively athletic focused and more gifted running friends, in college, would put in harder workouts, but couldn’t achieve the volume or consistency that I was able to.

Since I was a math student amongst Phys’ Ed majors, my peers would ask how I could work so hard on my studies. To them math was a major effort.

But on the reverse side, many of my math friends put me to shame in their studies. Almost all in my class had a much better undergrad math curriculum than I did, most had more talent also. But only half the class made it to their second year.

Most, especially those that did not continue to their second year would rarely if ever put forth any physical effort. Many would ask how in the world I could run 100+ miles a week and study. Many of the professors were proud of my track accomplishments, proving by exception a math geek could excel in sports. A few Profs, however, would ridicule my dedication to running and use my borderline grades as evidence that I was not willing to put in the hard work and question my dedication to math and grad school.

There were of course even worse math professors, ones the university did not even trust near students, due to their social difficulties and their unbalanced mental state.

Those professors, however, that I admired once I got to know them did have some physically demanding hobby or pastime. The mental demands of their positions required many restful moments; they let their mind do nothing while their bodies worked hard. These professors not only related well with the students, in my opinion, their published works were much more interesting than the esoteric works, extremely complex but of trivial worth,  of the more imbalanced professors .

As Mr. Sogi suggest the key to winning often is doing nothing. But the best of them have really mastered the art of defining what “nothing” is.

Nigel Davies comments:

Interesting post Russ. Coincidentally I'm currently thinking about these issues myself and am in the midst of a book by the interesting authoress, Chin-Ning Chu entited 'Do Less, Achieve More'. My sense is that our Western 'work ethic' often leads us to need to appear busy, even when activity is likely to be unproductive. And there would seem to be many applications of this same concept in all walks of life.

Michele Pezzutti responds:

"My sense is that our Western 'work ethic' often leads us to need to appear busy, even when activity is likely to be unproductive. "

I agree on your comment. However, some cultures are less prone to it, especially in the north of Europe. In a phase between two project I was managing, activity was quite low as we were completing tails of the old one and waiting for the new one to reach full speed. I did not feel at ease in this situation. But my manager at that time gave me the following advice: "Recover your energy during these periods because soon you'll need a lot of energy again". And he meant it.





Speak your mind

5 Comments so far

  1. Don Chu on April 24, 2009 3:46 pm

    “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”
    -Lin YuTang

  2. Mike Olds on April 24, 2009 3:57 pm

    Doing nothing? Or not doing?

    Doing nothing, is, of course, impossible. I suggest that the wording reflects a misunderstanding of the issue and therefore the likelihood that the benefits are also lost. Perhaps there is even damage as in a car attempting to move ahead with the break on.

    The idea is that when presented with an opportunity to ‘do’ one consciously, intentionally does not do that.

    Bo Keely, some time ago, wrote a thing about Buddhism in which he cited as a criticism the sitting still of Buddhist monks as being an unhealthy practice. I suggest that what he saw/sees was/is ‘doing nothing’. If the Buddhists Bo saw were following the technique of Gotama the Buddha, which is very rarely the case, they were not-doing. Not-doing, when faced with wanting to do or an impulse to do, is every bit as strenuous a job as doing. Think of it as doing in reverse which can also be seen as exercise in reverse, and the net effect is that in stead of expending energy, one allows energy to return … and if one is alert enough, and has an adult system of thought to which he can upgrade his impulses to act, not-doing is light years ahead of sitting on a couch with a Freudian analyst … that is, the conjunction of the impulse to act with the intent to not do is an exact parallel to the catharsis and can be used in the same way to benefit the person.

    My say.

  3. Adam Kretschmann on April 24, 2009 7:37 pm

    A couple of good books on doing nothing are “The Lazy Way to Success” and “The Four Hour Work Week”, both of the blogs are good too.

  4. Mean Mister Mustard on April 26, 2009 7:25 am

    This post is great. I have encountered similar ideas from Art DeVany, Nassim Taleb’s economist friend and promoter of a theory called “Evolutionary Fitness”. Basically, DeVany feels that our energy expenditure should have much more kurtosis in it than modern life typically has and that brief, extremely intense efforts need to be variously incorporated with periods of profound rest. As far as I can tell, it works great, both for mind and body. The problem is that it seldom fits with contempory Western Civilization’s expectation that you can engineer everything for optimization by ‘cutting the fat’.

  5. Victor Niederhoffer on April 26, 2009 6:22 pm

    Of doing nothing should be augmented by Albert J Nock's piece "snoring as a fine art " in it he reviews the lessons of the memories of the general Yevtushenko I believe who snored and went to sleep while the enemy froze and used up their supplies during the Crimean war. It is a lesson one should learn often in the markets when the best thing to do is nothing and wait for the adversary to weaken herself.


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