Saturday, May 18, 2013

Where is the limit?

I first came across Josef Ajram in the same moment that I first learned of the Ironman, in a free video that came with my Power Breathe device. I've always had a small amount of curiosity to see what the latest "locura" he has come up with is - be it completing five Ironmans in 5 Hawaiian islands over 5 consecutive days (the Epic 5) or an Ultraman - but my own resistance to falling into that trap of having your goals determine you rather than the other way round made me hesitate to buy his book. The shop assistant in the tiny airport in Asturias told me that "it was very popular" and that was enough to tip the scales in favour of it being my inflight reading material for the flight back to Madrid.

The philosophy behind Josef's brand "Where's the limit?" is very simple. As he has tattooed around his neck: "I don't know where the limit is but I know where it is not". Contrary to what I imagined, neither he nor his book is all about going further, longer or harder than before but rather a way of life which I found I could relate to. In fact his book is quite unlike similar "adventure" books in the sense that it actually recounts what some people would call a failure, but which Josef absolutely refuses to label in such a defeatist way. As he puts it, to call something a failure is to stop there, wallowing in self-pity, to limit yourself. Instead it is an opportunity to learn - like my much less glamorous experience in the Lisbon Half Ironman recently - and, in this way, he shows that you can always redefine the scope so that the limits are never reached. Just because he had to pull out of his third consecutive Ironman in his bid to complete 7 in a row, it doesn't mean that he has found his limit because he can (and I'm sure will) always try again. By this token, the only real limit is our own mortality. Perhaps in Josef's case, the only limit is the space he has left on his body to tattoo his achievements.

"The limit is definitively your next challenge, be it sporting, professional or personal... Having a goal is what makes you enjoy it. If it weren't for this, time would just pass with no particular purpose. Will I manage to find my limit? I am sure that I will NOT. Finding it would mean having no objectives and having to live an existence based on inertia."

This really resonated with me. I believe that, in order to be "happy", we have to have a purpose (or several purposes) and to use every minute of our time to try to move forward in accordance with that, even if that means lying on the sofa watching a film as a rest from training or learning something new. I've not read any of the books on the subject but I suppose this is the concept behind "Mindfulness". By contrast, I sometimes think of a case study written by the neurologist, Dr Oliver Sachs, in which a man reached such a level of "enlightenment" that he would inspire people just with the inner peace that he transmitted via his beautific smile. He even started to look like Buddha: his hair fell out and he became so large that he couldn't get out of his chair without help. It turned out that he had an enormous brain tumour, the size of a golf ball, pressing on his frontal lobes. He had effectively been lobotomised. If happiness is related to the successful pursuit of goals, the answer is not to circumvent frustration and disappointment by making those goals easier to achieve. If that were the case we would end up like Dr Sach's "Buddha".

At first sight, Josef seems like an anomaly, with tattoos that would look more at home on a DJ than a broker and an equal passion for competing in ultra distance events as for playing the stock market. I actually don't find it that much of a surprising mix, only that you have to be very authentic and self assured to get away with it. The stock market and the stopwatch are both completely objective masters which you either beat or get beaten by; there is no room for interpretation or excuses and, what is most important, it is just down to you and no-one else. All my life I have also been attracted to goals that are indisputable and, for example, much preferred Maths at school to English as I knew how good (or bad) I was and didn't depend on someone else to tell me. Goals like running a Marathon are a good metaphor for real life objectives and I have no doubt that many of the values carry over. But in real life, things are much more complicated and depend on lots of people, responsibilities are diluted or confused and not everyone agrees on what the objectives are or even whether they have been met. There is a temptation to either invest only in those indisputable objectives or to try to convert fuzzy objectives into indisputable ones. This second option is clearly the best alternative but, taken to extremes, can sometimes pervert the objective too far from its original cause. I don't think Josef can be criticised for hiding from the real world because he has managed to make a very successful brand out of his way of life as well as earning a living from it. As far as I am concerned, that is what I consider his most impressive achievement.

Josef is understandably a bit prickly when it comes to people who don't know him criticising him and by effectively making a brand out of himself, he is a very easy target. He is the first to admit that he is not the best in any one thing he does but that is exactly what makes his book interesting reading. How much can we learn by reading the autobiography of some outlier: an athlete, entreprenuer or artist who has been blessed with qualities in the tails of the distribution for which we might make up the mean? Josef seems much more approachable, more human because of the mistakes which he openly admits to, his outbursts of frustration and because he chooses not to hide behind a celebrity smoke screen. But make no mistake, this is exactly what makes him an outlier in what he does in fact do best: being Josef Ajram.

Its worth looking beyond the tattoos, beyond what seems like a selfish and perhaps pointless pursuit and beyond the images of someone who makes a living from "day trading" and giving this little book a chance.

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