Altitude Sickness

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. — Andre Gide

On one disturbingly-warm November Sunday, I realized that I can play basketball professionally. It wasn’t a fact, like the discovery of a new butterfly species, but a feeling, like a butterfly landing briefly on your forearm. I felt like a blind man receiving the gift of eyesight. For a brief few hours, I was euphoric, inhaling the world with a fresh vigor. At the same time, a fear crept in: the fear of losing this tremendous sense of motivation. So I grabbed an almost-finished roll of fake duct tape (note to self: pay attention when purchasing duct tape) and some paper, and plastered my room with signs. I started with four signs taped to the ceiling above my bed : “I” “Will” “Not” “Quit”. I continued with some more, from the straightforward “I will make it to the NBA” to the acclimatizing “I will get dunked on”. Those signs keep me company as I write these words, and only the universe knows whether I’d be here without them.

I recently learned the story of Yuichiro Miura, a man possessed by a drive whose origins I don’t think even he knew. And maybe that’s ok. Without knowing why, we can be.

A caravan of 800 people took off from Kathmandu. The procession was long and slow, as each man carried a 40 pound load on his back. For 185 miles, the caravan snaked through mountain ridges, alongside riverbanks, passed decreasingly populated villages, and finally emerged on a plateau elevated at 14,000 feet. Here most of the porters were paid and set off on the road back to Kathmandu, to seek another gig carrying a heavy load, barefoot, for wealthy foreigners. They were replaced by a leaner, more-experienced team of high-altitude porters and Sherpas. The ascent of Everest was about to begin.

The wealthy foreigner at the head of this expedition was the not-so-wealthy Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese skier sponsored by Japan’s government to attempt to be the first man to ski down Mount Everest. It was an extremely bold attempt. The part of the mountain Miura would ski down, the Southern Col, was sloped at 40–45 degrees. After six seconds, his speed would be over 100 mph. The top of the Southern Col is elevated at 26,000 feet, only 3,000 feet from the peak. Commercial airplanes cruise near this altitude. As does one of the jet streams, a current of wind blowing at 100mph. The pressure at this altitude is a third of what it is at sea level. Hypoxia, or diminished oxygen in the body, makes regular tasks such as walking and thinking difficult. This can be partly helped by use of bottled oxygen. Oh, and at the bottom of the Southern Col is a glaring crevasse with no visible bottom.

Six Sherpas died on the ascent, when four square miles of ice caved in on the Khumbu icefall (the first part of the ascent at 18,000 feet), burying the men. As Miura wrote in his journal afterwards,

“A shadow covers the expedition. How can I justify this adventure now? There can be no happy ending anymore, no matter what I do.”

The expedition went on. On May 6, 1970, Miura skied down the Southern Col. He decided to use a parachute to slow him down, unsure whether it would work in the thin air. It did. Miura skied 6,600 feet in 2 minutes and 20 seconds. He then lost control and fell… and continued falling for 1,320 feet. He finally slid to a stop, 250 feet from the crevasse. Bruised, but alive.

In 2003, Yuichiro Miura set a world record by becoming the oldest person to ascend Mount Everest, at 70. In 2013, he broke that record by ascending Everest at the crisp age of 80.

Human beings are the only known species to be aware of an inevitable death. We’re also the only species willingly inviting death ever closer, often in spectacular fashion. Miura wrote the night before his ski attempt:

“I try to write a letter to my daughter, to tell her about my dreams and my ambitions. But my mind wanders. There have been many summits, many adventures. But this is different. Something has happened to me. For the first time, I am afraid. I feel lonely and burdened. I worry about failing more than dying. I think of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Death would be an easy way out.”

I think I understand why Miura did what he did. It’s not about the adrenaline rush. It’s not about making life more interesting. It’s not even about escapism, of seeking a way out of a dull existence.

It’s about the pursuit of excellence. It’s about the very simple and powerful realization that one can be great. Greatness is an incredible abstraction. It exists at an altitude high above most other things, on a plane all by itself. It can comprise any discipline. One can be a great, truly great, dishwasher. One can be a great cook, a great parent, a great writer, a great healer. I think the door to greatness is opened when this turns from a vocation to a passion. The P word gets thrown around a lot these days. For the purposes of this note, I will define a passion as a thing that is done out of a desire to do that thing; in other words a passion is an end in itself, not a means to one.

I’ve thought often about why Miura said “I worry about failing more than dying.” Was he a diehard fool? Maybe. I think the only real way in which Miura could have defined failure is as the failure to try. Of getting cold feet and backing out. The failure to try weighs upon me daily. Defining failure defines success.

Coffeeshop reasons

Any impactful life decision is an onion. Somewhere deep inside is the core, a kernel of truth. That core is the answer to Miura’s drive, whether or not he ever knew what it was. I think in general it is very hard to fully understand what this is. The next few layers are tangential reasons that still stem from the core. And the outer layers are rationalizations. These are the things Miura would say if someone in a coffeeshop asked him why he’s going to Nepal to ski down Everest. These are my coffeeshop reasons.

There were two main realizations that I had undergone in the previous months that, after simmering in my subconscious for some time, bubbled back up to the surface of the conscious as the feeling-knowledge that I can play basketball professionally.

The first came after reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (TOOC). This book is an incredibly insightful analysis of human history through a fresh lens: consciousness in humans did not appear until about 3,000 years ago. It sounds kooky, but to me this lens makes much more sense of history than any other perspective that I have ever encountered, and I’ve studied history my entire life, including college. This new perspective on humans led me to an understanding of freedom in a completely new way. Freedom as a term is used most often in a geopolitical or a socioeconomic sense. I think this is only a derivation of a more primal, purer sense of the word. And that is the internalization of the fact that we, humans, are truly free to do whatever we want. Any limits on our actions are self-imposed. There is always a choice, as hard as it can be to make.

Arriving at this formulation of freedom was not a direct path. But it is now a central part of my understanding of the world. So I will try to retrace the steps.

Square one: we are on a rock that is hurtling through space. We are surrounded by nothingness on a scale that our brain cannot natively fathom, despite what we may think. We live in a stochastic universe. In other words, given the quantum nature of the layer of reality that thus far is the most basic layer that we have uncovered, everything that happens is to some degree probabilistic. Entropy is a constant agonist, tearing things apart into vast nothingness. Against tremendous odds, the rock we are on has somehow won the battle against entropy, and accumulated enough matter, and the right kind, to allow life to appear. How it has won that battle can surely be debated. Whether it was through sheer mathematical probability or by a wave of some higher being’s hand I think is not relevant. It is not relevant to the same degree that it is not relevant whether we live in The Matrix or not. Whenever I think about free will, the conclusion I keep returning to is that it doesn’t matter whether we objectively have it or not. As long as we think we do, we do. The steak tastes good whether it’s real or not.

Square two: given all of the above, the fact that you and I are, simply are, is staggeringly impressive. We are a conglomeration of atoms that magically is imbued with sentience. There are a few billion other such magic conglomerations. And that seems like a lot. Which makes us jaded and desensitizes us to the miracle of it all. Because our brain cannot operate on a universal scale. If it could, our constant thoughts would be “Holy shit there is absolutely nothing for trillions of miles around me but right here within a few thousand miles there are a few billion miracles with whom I can have fulfilling interactions if I choose to.“ On the universal scale, a few billion is a tiny number, one to cherish.

Square three: the removal of divine power from the equation. I was raised in a household with Christian values. I don’t know whether these reflect reality or not. I think that, similar to the Matrix, it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is how it shapes our perspective of life. It took me a very long time to realize how these values had shaped my life. In retrospect, the idea of being a good person in this life in order to go to Heaven took me completely out of the present. I wasn’t living. I was existing so that once this existence is over, I could hit up that real dope block party in the clouds. My entire life was a means to an end. It was also convenient, because I didn’t have to try hard, because this life doesn’t matter.

I was on a moral pedestal. I saw myself as a bastion of integrity, a lighthouse of dignity in a sea of depravity, burdened with the noble task of keeping the torch of rectitude lit amid the storm. At the end of the day, I was boxed in. My life had boundaries, and they were set by the canon of Christianity. These normative values defined my life, me, and my limits.

TOOC broke down these walls. There are about 400 pages of historical evidence and arguments that accomplished that; I won’t go into details. At the end of that book, I saw those self-imposed boundaries clearly for the first time. And they made no sense to me, given the perspective on the universe and humanity described above. Like the vacuum of the cosmos, life is a darkness. The mind is a flashlight that can shine a beam on your path. You can tune the luminosity of that flashlight by thinking about the world, creating your own set of rules and guidelines. That beam of light is a little brighter now than it was two years ago. I may not like everything I see, but I know for a fact that I’m seeing it in its true, undistorted form.

This is the sense of freedom that I mentioned above. It’s at the same time disorienting and enchanting.

COROLLARY #1: This view does not come with a moral corollary. I’ve thought often about the blame that seems to need to be handed out for the Holocaust. From this perspective of freedom, all those who perpetrated the suffering while following orders, had a choice. They did. They could have rejected the order and gotten shot for insubordination. If enough did so, perhaps the entire regime would collapse. But that’s irrelevant. Humans are human. That’s an incredibly difficult choice and I understand why most people in that position did not make it. The point is that the choice existed, and will always exist. Life itself is a choice once one learns of the ability to end it.

COROLLARY #2: This view is also not an endorsement of anarchy or nihilism. Rules are important. Societies set rules. We enter into a social contract with our government. The U.S. constitution is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Social rules are important. Family rules and values are important. Institutional rules and values are important. They provide stability and glue society together. But they are the outer layers of the onion. They are abstractions built on personal rules. The framework that a person sets up for herself is the foundation of her life. All other rules are built on that foundation. You can choose to follow these rules, or not follow them and pay the penalty. Sometimes, you may choose to follow rules, e.g. not commit murder. Other times, you may choose to break these rules, as Rosa Parks did. Not stealing, walking off a cliff, being kind to your wife, making dinner for a friend, these are all choices. You can choose to do it, or choose to not do it. The point is that it’s a choice, not an automatic event.

The second realization came after reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, whose main thesis is that all skill/talent is insulation that wraps neural circuits. Every human skill, from baseball to writing, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse. Myelin is a fatty substance that wraps these fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits the right way — by practicing that baseball swing or putting our thoughts into writing — our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more speed and skill. The key, then, to all skill acquisition, is to properly stimulate myelination of the right neural circuits. And that can only happen through practice, and the right kind of practice. This led me to realize that the fundamental thing (regarding basketball) separating me and Steph Curry is the amount of myelination in our basketball circuits (of which there are many, ranging from ball-handling to shooting, court awareness, passing, moving without the ball, running plays, and many more). This difference, while substantial, is purely physical. The only pertinent mental qualities are those that lead to the greatest myelination of those circuits.

This may sound like a dilution of an art form to a string of scientific facts. It’s not. I’ll be the first to admit and admire the artistic beauty of what individual players and teams achieve on the court. Watching the Spurs in particular is like watching a well-executed Broadway show. Everyone knows his line, where to be, and what to do. It’s glorious. However, art is an abstraction that is predicated upon something tangible. In this case, that’s the collection of myelinated neural circuits that makes basketball possible. This is but a different lens through which to observe the same reality.

Am I delusional? I recognize that statistically, I am extremely unlikely to succeed. There are many factors not in my favor. I’m 24, and the peak age for basketball is 28. I’ve never played organized ball. I simply don’t have that much time to practice and myelinate those circuits. And the time that I do spend doing so won’t be as effective as if I had put in those same hours 10 years ago, since our rate and efficacy of myelination decreases with age.

But I still think there’s a chance. So I’m only mostly delusional.

I think that mostly it’s not about glory. I’ve accepted reality, which is that if I ever do get to the NBA, it will be on the strength of my shooting, and I will be used by teams for a tactical purpose. I will not be a jack-of-all-trades Mr. Triple-Double perennial All-Star. You’d have to be a real NBA fan to know my name. And that’s fine. I will be competing within a pantheon of athletic and mental ability, surrounded by greatness, soaking up all I can.

I think the journey here will be just as valuable as the outcome. Whether or not I make it to the highest echelons of basketball, this will be the greatest adventure I’ve set out upon yet.

I think the dictum “Know thyself” is one of the hardest requests made of man. This journey will push me to my physical and mental limits. Like a cartographer mapping an unknown land, I hope to emerge with a better understanding of my own nature.

The NBA is one of the world’s greatest meritocracies, which is an especially impressive feat given the amount of money it makes as a business.

As a player, you can’t talk your way into the NBA.

You can’t network your way into the NBA.

You can’t market your way into the NBA.

You can’t buy your way into the NBA.

You have to be able to ball.

Really, really ball.

That’s amazing.

Worst-case scenario analysis says that it’s worth the risk. If I quit my job, spend the next two years hustling around the NYC league circuit, and fail miserably, I can always return to a very lucrative tech market given my skill set as a software engineer.

There’s a cost to leaving my job. Over the last year it has redefined my conception of what a workplace can be. I love the people I work with. My work leaves me fulfilled at the end of the day. While this cost is non-negligible, it is one I’m willing to pay to chase a childhood dream.

There’s also a personal cost to this undertaking. It will make my relationships difficult, including the most important one. Not impossible, but difficult. I hope to not lose six Sherpas on the climb. If I do, there will not be winning. But there will still be not failing.

Digression: failure is another word that gets tossed around a lot, especially in the startup community.

Embrace Failure.

Failure is an opportunity in disguise.

Fail often, learn always.

All are useful concepts. Perhaps we need another term for personal failure. Because I don’t think any of these concepts apply to personal failure. I will never aim to fail often personally. Each such failure comes with a high cost.

I suffer from a warped, egotized version of survivor’s guilt. I had been absurdly fortunate to be given a chance to get out of Russia. Some of my family is still there, trying to survive within a broken system. Over the years, the guilt over having been given that chance degenerated into both a sense of grandiosity (I have been very clearly destined for some as-yet-unnamed greatness) and a pressure to not squander the opportunity. This predestination manifested itself by granting me a seat on the high-horse. From atop this moral pedestal, I schemed of ways to release my talent and greatness upon the world, and in the process of completely selflessly helping the world, leave my indelible, undeniable mark on it, and inadvertently get written into the annals of history, for generations of youth to be inspired by and emulate.

Although I’ve made progress, I have not fully locked this Titan in its cage. I am not doing this purely out of the love of the game. The grand stage on which basketball is played at its highest echelons attracts me. I don’t know if I will ever sequester my self from my ego enough to pursue something truly selflessly. I think that’s ok. Humans evolve, as does everything else. Which, I shall digress here, is why I respect Kanye. He has evolved tremendously as a human being, and we non-Kanye humans get an incredibly rare lens into this evolution courtesy of all of his albums. Every single one of them reflects his genuine self at that moment in time. He doesn’t try to hide the ugly parts and put forward his best foot. He doesn’t try to stick to a formula that sells records and put out the same type of album again and again (sup Usher). He has made the inner clockwork of his soul translucent, like the back of a fancy watch, for us all to see. The lifetime opus of any artist in any category can only aim for such continuity of authenticity.

Perhaps this is my EP.

Twenty-first century America is an incredible sliver of spacetime. For many reasons. One of them is that our government has found a way to arguably meet the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for the majority of its population. Yes, a significant portion of Americans live below the poverty line. If we zoom out to a long-term scale for a moment and look at the last 50 centuries of societal human existence, meeting the first level of the hierarchy has been the chief raison d’être for the overwhelming majority of humans. Simply having food, water, and decent health was a struggle that defined the essence of the human condition. Today we as a society have covered this for even the lowest socioeconomic rung of our society. And for a significant portion of the society, we have covered the second and third levels of the hierarchy.

I’m part of the fortunate portion of the population who have the first three levels taken care of by society. I think that for the foreseeable future, society cannot help one reach the next two levels. That’s a personal undertaking. I’ve had three years since graduating college to think about these two “needs”. I don’t know if at the top of Mount Basketball resides the Temple of Self-Actualization. That’s a string of letters. But the climb, besides giving me altitude sickness, may allow a glimpse of it. Snow leopards still roam the heights of Nepal.

I have never discovered my limits, much less pushed them. That’s because I have never given something 100 percent effort. It takes a rare form of motivation to give a task one hundred percent of your capability, whether it’s mental, physical, or both. I’ve come close to that sort of motivation only once, when two years ago I was hustling to get into the NYC startup ecosystem and get a job as a software developer. Even then, neither the motivation nor the effort were 100 percent. But I loved the journey, even though it was a lot of hard work and quite stressful at times.

This is my chance to give something 100 percent, to discover my limits, and to push them. A chance to do that is one of the greatest gifts of life.

The positive change curve describes a person’s emotional state when undergoing a change. It has been appropriated by the entrepreneurial community to also describe the mood/confidence of a founder during the early stages of a startup. I think it adequately depicts any learning experience, whether it’s learning a language, starting a company, or shooting for the NBA. The first stage, Uninformed Optimism, is key. One must believe that the task ahead is feasible. Often this requires an active or a subconscious suspension of disbelief. Without this confidence, the entire task is moot.

I’m now steadily sliding down the curve, somewhere still well above the Mood axis. I’ll probably hit rock bottom in the next 3–12 months, once I’ve quit my job and my game is nowhere near good enough to be competitive. I think there are two key facts to keep in mind to get out of this rut. One is to maintain a long-term perspective. Not the universal scale discussed earlier, but maybe a months-perspective instead of a days-perspective. The other key is to maintain a shred of that optimism. Whatever happens, it’ll be a trip.

The path inevitably traveled

The dreams of a young child are like hot-air balloons. The concept of them is graceful and exhilarating, lifting you ever higher to your elevated plane of reality. On that plane, 30,000 feet about ground, the air is rarefied, you are the Surgeon General, or the astronaut on the expedition to Mars, or the NBA superstar signing jerseys, and reality is a lovely place. As soon as you get over the concept, and try to actualize the dream, you realize that operating that balloon is a very tricky task. It takes patience, perseverance, and some luck to soar high enough to reach the altiplano of your dream-reality. But you also know that chances are you won’t; that by merely trying, you place yourself in a great position to crash and burn. Is that dream worth chasing?

My first hot-air balloon was going to take me to the inexorable future where I was an archeologist. I was eight, and had not yet seen Indiana Jones. Archeology was not cool in any sense of the word. I just wanted to find old things in the ground and make sense of them. I recruited my five-year old cousin to assist on the digs in the courtyard of our building. Apartment buildings in Russia were constructed mostly in the heyday of Communism in the 1950s-1970s, which may or may not explain why one of the designs is a snake-like nine-story building that wraps around three sides of a rectangle and has 10–15 entryways. If you imagine a left bracket, the building is the bracket, and the negative space “inside” the rectangle that the building creates is the courtyard. It was an adequate amount of unexplored land for an aspiring duo of archeologists. So we’d go around, find a sharp stone or stick, and start digging. Most of the artifacts we found were from a fairly recent stratum of soil, dating to the 1980s and 1990s, and comprised bottle caps and glass, and sometimes a syringe. It wasn’t glamorous. But I wasn’t in it for the glory.

At the much-more-mature age of 12, the hot-air balloon changed course, aiming squarely for the reality in which I was the Surgeon General of the US. I couldn’t tell you now why I wanted this. I wanted to go into medicine, I knew that. Somehow it seemed that the highest peak one can reach on Mount Medicine is this post. Maybe also because it sounded ambiguously militaristic. If you squint, you can just start to see the contours of my degenerate egomania taking shape.

For a brief few months at the age of 13, the balloon shifted course once more, this time a hard 90 degrees port. Destination: NBA. Path there: irrelevant. Reason: because I’m sort of really good at these mid-range jump shots and the NBA is the peak of Mount Basketball and it needs me.

Watching The Matrix was a watershed moment in the progression of the egomania. Neo made it clear that I was The One. Reality could not proceed in any different way. It was only a matter of time.

Inexorability is a great concept. It kills doubt. Like an expanding gas, it will fill any container it is given, until there’s no more room for doubt. I think childish perseverance is a result of this inexorability. This is only possible because the child has an imagination unspoiled by probabilities of reality. People over 20 have these probabilities branded into their subconscious like a number into cattle. We are rational beings, who understand the world objectively. We know that only 0.03 percent of all high school players make it into the NBA. We know that there’s a 40–50 percent divorce rate in the US. We know that the historical death rate on Everest is 2 percent. Why try any of these things?

To achieve anything great in adulthood, I think we need to awake again the dormant certitude that guided our childhood. Whether it’s starting a family, shooting for the NBA, or for the summit of Everest, one must believe, delusionally, that success is inevitable.

The only time I was in any way cool while growing up was in the 7th grade. I was laser-focused on school, so of course I was a goody-two-shoes nerd of galactic proportions. But the key was that I was aware neither of my nerdiness, nor of my Russian accent. I was fully confident in the moral and general rectitude of every action I made. Then, in the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went back to Russia to visit my grandma and my aunt’s family. After spending two months there and speaking only Russian, it took me a day or two upon returning to work my way back to English. What I realized on the drive back from JFK on that August afternoon was that I had a Russian accent.

It’s been all downhill from there. I had eaten the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. I could not un-know that I had an accent and sounded like a FOB. My self-assurance died an absolute death. It was not to rise on the third day. It was buried forever under the weight of the forbidden fruit. (The ego was alive and well, thanks for asking)

How did I proceed from there? Mostly like a blind man in a labyrinth of insecurities. I have not fully emerged from that labyrinth. But the self-growth I’ve been able to do in the past two years (which I attribute in part to not going to medical school, thereby removing myself from the conveyor belt that had been ferrying me passively from institution to institution, and providing me an opportunity to think for myself. That said, I do not wish in any way to denigrate higher education. I hope to pursue it again some day.) has been like a pair of wings that Daedalus fashioned for Icarus as a way of escaping their labyrinth. Walking through the labyrinth of insecurities will never lead to an exit. There is none. The only escape is orthogonal. Only wings can lift you from a two-dimensional plane into the third.

The core of the onion

Originally I didn’t intend to try and figure the core of the basketball onion in this piece. But over the course of writing, I started sliding down the positive change curve and into the land of informed pessimism at an alarming rate of acceleration. Which made me realize that I need this. When the shit hits the fan, when your legs are burning and your back feels like it’s about to break, and you’re stumbling down the court, hypoxic, because it’s the tail end of a two hour practice, so you can’t think straight, and there’s a chorus of voices in your head, each of them making an extremely cogent argument for why you can’t keep going, you need a voice to tell you why you can.

I may come back and update this section as I learn more about myself. Right now I don’t have a rational argument for why I can play in the NBA. All I know is that the people who did it are human. I’m human. Time flows at the same rate for them as it does for me. My work ethic can be better. My mental toughness needs a lot of work. Those are things I can improve.

I have amazing people in my life. I’m lucky to have the support of not just my peers, including my friends and my girl, but my family. They all have my back and their support carries me through the good times and bad.

Success at the highest levels is gestalt. You may have the ingredients, but more often than not, there’s an intangible quality, a secret sauce that binds everything together. The Warriors have that as a team right now. And each of them had to have that to get to the NBA. At this point I don’t know if I have that secret sauce. But I can find out.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. — Søren Kierkegaard