Friday, December 3, 2010

Potentially Great

A pickup truck sits atop a steep hill, its front end pointing downward, two large wedges of wood securing the front tires. It's going nowhere and it won't. It has tremendous potential energy, two tons of steel and gravity beckoning, but the energy will remain potential, forever.

A pickup truck rolling down a steep hill encounters two large wedges of wood without only minor, imperceptible change to its speed and direction. The wedges splinter into thousands of pieces. The pickup truck has lost a lot of its potential energy, potentially forever. However, it's doing what pickup trucks were meant to do. It's moving, rolling, turning and churning.

A cancer researcher labors in her laboratory til well paste 2:00 AM. She's received a large grant and is making the most of it. If she's successful, she'll improve the rate of recovery from the specific symptoms that she's investigating by 100%. She has money. She has support. She has facilities. Everyone is excited about her work saying, "Can you imagine? One-hundred-percent improvement!"

Her work is challenging. Her work is recognized. Her work is focused on something occurs less than zero-dot-zero-zero-zero-zero-one percent of the time, but no one has asked about that. They're so taken by the potential for 100% improvement.

A father decides to help his children by improving their diets. He'll eradicate the house of sugary and processed foods. Late one night he scours the cupboards for Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs, for nacho-flavored chips and cookies. He empties the freezer of Hot-Pockets and frozen burritos. He hauls garbage bags full of the stuff out to the garage.

The next morning, he replenishes the kitchen with organic this and sugar-free that, not seeming to know that agave-sweetened is not fundamentally different than other-sweetened, the sugar-beets are just an sneaky way to slip you an FDA-approved substitute for MSG, that organic white rice ain't a whole lot better than a bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios.

I woke up this morning with two or three concepts floating around in my mind, not knowing which I wanted to articulate, so I just started typing.

For me, having great potential is like having a large luggage rack atop your hearse. It's hoarding. And yet, so many people seem to be trapped by their own potential. Everyone can see what she could do or become. She may be lauded for her great potential. And yet, she remains potentially this or potentially that, the potential feeling more like a couple-hundred-pounds clinging round her midriff than a source of power. Trapped in her potential.

Potential never actually does anything until it ceases to be. Potential is easily squelched and squashed. It's takes little effort to keep someone with potential in his place. However, as potential energy begins to transform into kinetic energy, it become harder and harder to control, to stop. As the balance shifts from potential to kinetic, he gains momentum, and what could have been stopped with the push of a finger, becomes unstoppable, period.

The key is to start the transformation, not matter how small the effort may seem, to slowly build toward the tipping point, the point where the kinetic-energy topples the seemingly impenetrable forces of the fingers keeping it at bay.

So What?
My friend Jonathan and I work in the world of medical research and the FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration) and we often read the statistical results of recently concluded studies. The other day, we were looking at one study that boasted a 50% improvement in outcomes. 50% is a big improvement. If you're someone who's been given a 50% likelihood of recovery, a 50% improvement would mean that you're now going to have a 75% likelihood of recovery. Great!

However, as we read on, it became clear (due in no part to the writer of the paper) that the 50% improvement occurred in only 10% of the cases. In other words there was a 5% improvement overall. However, 5% doesn't get you funded. So what do you do? You recaste the context of your study in a way that makes sense (at least to the peer reviewers) and makes your numbers look better.

We call this the looking-where-the-light-is-best phenomenon in reference to an old joke about a drunk searching for his keys under a street lamp although he'd lost them somewhere down a long, dark alley. I've concluded from my purely anecdotal findings that 90% of all research is being conducted by hardworking people facing tremendous challenges that, if conquered, won't make a bit of difference overall. Give that a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5%.

Further, I would wager that this phenomenon is pervasive extending far beyond the realm of medical research into our everyday pursuits, that 90% of what we pursue vigorously as though it were imperative could stop or change with little long-term effect.

Okay, let's say it's only 50%, or 25%. The thing is we often cling to our pursuits and desired outcomes as though they were the most meaningful and significant activities on the planet (a side effect of momentum?). Perhaps they're not.

Changing Nothing
Over the last few weeks, we've been playing around with juicing and the eradication of sugar (another initiative inspired by Jonathan). As we looked at various juicers, we quickly came to the conclusion that you definitely want a slow-masticating one as it causes the least amount of oxidation (oxidation leading to the loss of nutrients). Not being able to decide between the two models that came to the top of our list, Jonathan purchased one and Iris purchased the other.

Every morning for the past week or so we've been juicing: carrots, celery, cucumbers, asparagus, broccoli, ginger (a lot for me and a little for Iris), and tabasco (a lot for me and none for Iris), and I gotta say that it feels really good. I keep waiting for our little juicer to say, "What's up Doc?" as it chews through the veggies.

The thing I've been wondering about is: Why is juicing effective? I've also been wondering: Is it effective or is it just a placebo effect?

I understand the basic notions: 1) the less time a vegetable spends as juice, the more nutrients it has, and 2) in a juice form, the nutrients can be absorbed directly through the lining of the stomach without needing to be processed by your intestines so you get the hit quickly. However, I have no idea regarding the quantifiable impact. How quickly does juice lose nutrients? Is it 50% in the first minute, the first ten minutes, the first hour? Is it important to drink the juice immediately, or can you take time to clean the juicer beforehand? Does it matter that the juice bottles preserve nutrients 100% better than their competitors if 90% of the nutrients have been lost prior to the bottle being sealed?

Haven't been able to find the answer yet, so we just juice and drink.

On the sugar side of things, we spent Monday night rummaging through Jonathan's kitchen and I was amazed at all the sneaky ways label writers (it's got to be a profession) have of hiding the fact that the contents of any package contain sugar and substitutes for MSG. They are so many ways of doing it and no one seems to notice (and no one objected). Were you to buy into all the hype, you could change everything and effectively change nothing, deciding over time that improving your diet didn't make any difference whatsoever, because you hadn't improved it, just changed it.

Well, that's pretty much what was on my mind this morning (or at least what I woke up with).

I'll leave you with three questions:
  1. What is your greatest potential and when are you going to pull out the wedges?
  2. What is the least-important, essential activity that you'll undertake today and what would happen were you not to do so? (Today, tomorrow, forever?)
  3. In what areas have you changed everything and yet perhaps changed nothing? (You know, wherever you go, there you are!)

Happy Friday!

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