February 25, 2012

Follow the Leader

Follow the Leader

We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.
~ Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Ok – I wrote a very brief post yesterday about running in the cold.

What I did not write about was that I also went running with a friend. When I travel – which I do often for work – I am usually at medical conferences and it’s not easy to do anything alone. I knew if I went to the gym on in the hotel, I would probably not even get to run because it was likely there would be too many people there who wanted to talk.

Turns out, running outside, even in Utah, even in the winter, was going to involve company.

I have tried hard not to run with other people. I have not been doing this for very long and, as a self-conscious perfectionist, just thinking about running with someone else is daunting. Lately, the more people who know that I run, the more offers I get, so I suppose this was an inevitable progression.

In the end, it only took me a couple of minutes for me to get out of my own way.

The friend I ran with was a really experienced runner. He’s been running since his teens, and I think when anyone has done something for more than half their life they often have that kind of expertise that only comes with experience. It’s effortless in a way. Natural, some might say.

Before I started running, I knew nothing at all about running. Frankly, I have not spent any time at all learning about technique – mostly, I have done a lot of “research” on why runners run – and at that, primarily by talking to runners. I don’t know why it never crossed my mind that running with a runner would have extraordinary value.

Learning by experience and example is one of the most valuable ways that we as humans gain knowledge. We do this from birth. We model our parents, teachers, siblings, coaches. Later, perhaps, we seek out those with skills or expertise that we desire, and become smarter and more focused in how we acquire these skills. Right now, for example, I am at the Minimally Invasive Surgery Symposium in Salt Lake City Utah – every year at this meeting surgeons from all over North America gather here to learn through lecture, debate, skill labs, and personal interaction about the most cutting edge research and techniques in their field. Most anyone in medicine can tell you that the model has always been “see one, do one, teach one” – a simply stated recognition that simple verbal instruction does not impart expertise.

We start with follow the leader in childhood and we end up in a fellowship. It’s sort of all the same model.

While there are certainly types of knowledge that can be taught through traditional classroom learning, it’s hard to imagine that physical skills could ever be adequately acquired this way.  No child ever learned to walk by being given verbal instructions by his parents. They watch, they try, they fall, they repeat.

So I tried to look at running with a runner as an opportunity to really learn something  – something that he has acquired through years of hard work and practice…could I learn something by watching, by following, by trying myself?

Here is what I can say today:

  1. It was fun – I was completely unclear about whether I would like running with anyone at all
  2. It’s really useful to watch things like stride and gait – how does someone experienced in running (or any sport) actually move. This is really really different form reading about “proper” technique
  3. It was fun to try to see if I could follow along, model, move my body differently than it wanted to move naturally.
  4. I would definitely do it again.

For me the additional lesson here is that I sometimes stand in my own way. I have been running almost 8 months now and I have turned down countless offers to run with runners. Why? Because I am self conscious about what I look like or that I can’t run fast enough or that I might just do or say something stupid. In reality, I might be a better runner today had I taken the opportunity much earlier to model expertise.

Never too late to learn.

Happy Saturday to all from beautiful Utah.




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