Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Pain is Temporary..." (It's Not About The Bike)

I just finished the book "It's Not About The Bike" by Lance Armstrong and Sally Jenkins over the weekend. Although I'd bought and had a copy with me for two years, I somehow wasn't motivate to read it until last week, after I realized Lance is also an INTJ (a MBTI type) like me. There aren't many INTJs I can choose to model after. After all, this is the rarest of all of the 16 MBTI types and I'm particularly particular about choosing a model.

I've tons of other books and things to read and do, but thought why not give this book a couple of minutes of reading and see how far I'd like to go. What's this guy's story? I already knew what Lance is all about: his survival from cancer and comeback to triumph in seven Tour de France championships. I knew the story in this book had inspire millions. But I'd never approach reading an autobiography from the angle of MBTI type, especially a fellow INTJ. This would be the first.

The first paragraph of the first page caught me instantly, which begins like this...
"I WANT TO DIE at a hundred years old with an American flag on my back and the star of Texas on my helmet, after screaming down an Alpine descent on a bicycle at 75 miles per hour. I want to cross one last finish line as my stud wife and my ten children applaud, and then I want to lie down in a field of those famous French sunflowers and gracefully expire, the perfect contradiction to my once-anticipated poignant early demise.
"A slow death is not for me. I don't do anything slow, not even breathe...."

...and with that I decided I'd never put down the book until I'm done with it.

The book didn't just inform or entertain me. Inspire would also be an understated word to describe it. I just needed a book like this for this particular time in my life.

First, a few words on INTJs. Not all INTJs are the same, but some of the typical INTJ traits are obvious: fiercely competitive (in a chosen endeavour), dead stubborn and determined (once we make up our mind on a matter) and we 'mastermind' our own outcomes and destiny (that was crucial for Lance's survival from cancer as we'll see). That would also mean we don't automatically respect authority for what it is. The right to lead and govern has to be earned by being competent, not by default. Respect should be earned by what you know and become, not what title or position you possess. So INTJs may be perceived to be aloof and detached, but we're never apologetic about that!

It does help for Lance to possess a gifted athlete's body, with a VO2 max (a gauge of how much oxygen you can take it and use) which is exceptionally higher than an average athlete (though there were a couple of other champion cyclists who beat him in this measurement). And his body could generate very little lactic acid (a chemical produced when your body fatigues, causing your lungs to burn and muscles to ache) than most people, which helps in any long endurance related sport. Basically, he was born with an average capacity for breathing and could endure more physical stress than most people. This is only the physical variable in the overall equation.

Lance (only child) was raised by his single mother, growing up with many odds stacked against them. They faced much pain in the early days, and his mom gave him two very important advices that would define him:
"Make every obstacle an opportunity. Make every negative into a positive."

"Son, you never quit".
When his mom remarried a guy named Terry Armstrong (that's where Lance got his name), his step-dad would ill-treat and abuse him. Those pains would go a long way to channel Lance's rage into explosive fuels for sports. He started as an triathlete (swimming, running and biking) and would later focus solely on biking. And he was so good at it...and enjoyed the pains and sufferings....
"What makes a great endurance athlete is the ability to absorb potential embarrassment, and to suffer without complaint. I was discovering that if it was a matter of gritting my teeth, not caring how it looked, and outlasting everybody else, I won. It didn't seem to matter what the sport was— in a straight-ahead, long-distance race, I could beat anybody.

If it was a suffer-fest, I was good at it."
He already made quite a name for himself as a cyclist when cancer struck. I guess the 'cancer part' of the book gripped me so strongly that I virtually felt 'pain' while reading.
"I THOUGHT I KNEW what fear was, until I heard the words You have cancer. Real fear came with an unmistakable sensation: it was as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction. My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices. Everything now stacked up differently: the anxieties of life— a flat tire, losing my career, a traffic jam— were reprioritized into need versus want, real problem as opposed to minor scare."

Lance couldn't believe it when he got testicular cancer. He thought he would die. He never felt fear and cry like he did on the first day of the diagnosis. Later he would discover that the cancer was in stage 3 (advanced), and had spread to his lungs and brain. As though those weren't enough, he learnt that he wasn't covered by health insurance as he was in the midst of a transition in changing employers-sponsors!

Like an INTJ whose back is against the wall, what did Lance do? He researched long and hard, and gathered all information and knowledge he could find (books, magazines, Internet etc.) on cancer. He was determined not to be a helpless and passive patient, but would master the subject and overcome the illness. Together with his mom, they would read on everything from diet to yoga to all kinds of medication and treatment. He basically wouldn't lie low, he would fight, and determine to get rid of what was invading his body and life. It became his new race, the race for his life! He even taunted the cancer in his body.
"THERE WAS A disquieting intimacy to the idea that something uninvited was living in my head. When something climbs straight into your mind, that's way personal. I decided to get personal right back, and I began to talk to it, engaging in an inner conversation with cancer. I tried to be firm in my discussions. "You picked the wrong guy," I told it. "When you looked around for a body to try to live in, you made a big mistake when you chose mine.""
Lance had been perfectly acquainted with pain and suffering, they were nothing new to him.
"The physical pain of cancer didn't bother me so much, because I was used to it. In fact, if I didn't suffer, I'd feel cheated. The more I thought about it, the more cancer began to seem like a race to me. Only the destination had changed."

Lance would ask every opinion he consulted "What are my chances?" He'd had surgery on his testicle first. And later carefully chose his surgeon that would open up his skull to invade his brain. And his choice on how he wanted to proceed with chemo not only saved his life, but his biking career which was virtually over. His doctor gave him 50% chance of living, but would reveal (much later) the truth was actually only 3%! Sometimes a good doctor lies. He'd always engage (even challenge) with the doctor and nurses on what they were doing to him and why. He'd even analyse all the stats of the results and tests. He became a student of cancer, not a victim. He'd take responsibility for his life and well-being.

Of course, he didn't know whether he'd live or not. He made a deal with the cancer...
"I tried negotiating with it. If the deal is that I never cycle again, but I get to live, I'll take it, I thought. Show me the dotted line, and I'll sign. I'll do something else, I'll go back to school, I'll be a trash man, do anything. Just let me live."
And we all knew what was the outcome: he kicked the cancer's ass big time. The authors did a great job in describing the long and painful recovery process in great detail and how he connected with other cancer patients, which would later set the stage for his own cancer foundation. He also had to deal with all his fears and nightmares about the cancer creeping back into his body. and all the doubts and phantoms he was struggling with in his head.

While sick, his team that signed him had written him off as a 'dead man' and cut off his pay considerably except a small amount, for charity sake. But his sponsors like Nike, Oakley and Giro stuck by him and never terminate his contract, which they had the right to. He later pledged his loyalty and vowed that he'd be their athlete for life. I thought this was a typical INTJ trait. You see, we never forget....the good and bad guys....we never.

Then there was that infamous, big comeback.

Lance was born again....but he was a wreck at first. Lance was fortunate to have close friends and people who believed in him, his ability to make a comeback after a life-threatening disease, and rediscover his winning self again. I thought he was really blessed to have people who dared to challenge him, even conspired to bring him back when he had decided to quit cycling. You see, if an INTJ makes up his mind, it's futile to confront his decision directly. Instead of meeting him head on, they cleverly plotted and "tricked" him.....and the final thing that re-ignited the fire, was to provoke him back into action. INTJs never turn down a challenge, but it has to be raised intelligently, and they have to perceive the challenge as worthy. I feel that's the key!

I never knew Tour de France is such an interesting race because I never understood it, until I read this book. The peloton (formation of a group of cyclist) interests me most and all its varied strategies. Lance put it 'like a high-speed chess in action'. He described the various terrains and stages in Tour de France and their challenges, his meticulous preparation and training regime details, his team mates, their individual specialties and team strategies, and his bike, its technology and race equipments. Lance participated in the Tour before his cancer but never won the whole race, only stages. This time, Lance is back leaner, meaner and fearless, after the cancer which ate away the excess part of his being which he didn't need to carry anymore. He trained like there's no tomorrow. I was hooked to this part of the book like I was addicted to drugs!

Also, I now knew Tour de France is a team event and how it works. The grueling race lasts three weeks and will push the cyclists to their utmost limits, as individuals and also as teams. His team mates laid down their lives for him.
"Anyone who imagines they can work alone winds up surrounded by nothing but rivals, without companions. The fact is, no one ascends alone."
But there were times when his team fell away and he was all alone and vulnerable from his rivals, for many hours. But that suited Lance perfectly, as INTJs excels as an individual more than in a team. We find strength and resourcefulness in our inner world. And of course from provocations from rivals.
"My mother told me...if you're going to get anywhere, you're going to have to do it yourself, because no one is going to do it for you."
His heroic comeback was sealed as he won the 1999 Tour de France and he defended his title the following year. At the time of writing of the book, he had also secured bronze in the Sydney olympic, after another heroic mini-comeback from a broken neck suffered in an accident. And we all knew he would write more books and won five more Tour de France, retired and then made another comeback to raise cancer awareness and then retired again recently in February 2011.

Other significant and interesting parts in "It's Not About The Bike" include his love life and how he had his first child through IVF.

My conclusion after reading the book is, there's nothing to model after another fellow INTJ, because we already have what we have within (although each is unique). But I can take courage that if it's possible for Lance to overcome all the odds in the world, then it's also possible for any fellow INTJ to triumph in their personal battles.

My one word or theme that I choose to describe Lance is COURAGE. From now onwards, whenever I seek for the voice of courage, I'll search for Lance's. And it'll help by remembering more quotes from the book. These are among my favourites:

"Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?"
"For most of my life I had operated under a simple schematic of winning and losing, but cancer was teaching me a tolerance for ambiguities."  

"I wanted to live, but whether I would or not was mystery, and in the midst of confronting that fact, even at that moment, I was beginning to sense that to stare into the heart of such a fearful mystery wasn't a bad thing. To be afraid is a priceless education."

"I believed in belief, for its own shining sake. To believe in the face of utter hopelessness, every article of evidence to the contrary, to ignore apparent catastrophe - what other choice was there? We are so much stronger than we imagine, and belief is one of the most valiant and long-lived human characteristics. To believe, when all along we humans know that nothing can cure the briefness of this life, that there is no remedy for our basic mortality, that is a form of bravery. To continue believing in yourself...believing in whatever I chose to believe in, that was the most important thing."

"THE TRUTH IS, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father."

"We each cope differently with the specter of our deaths. Some people deny it. Some pray. Some numb themselves with tequila. I was tempted to do a little of each of those things. But I think we are supposed to try to face it straightforwardly, armed with nothing but courage. The definition of courage is: the quality of spirit that enables one to encounter danger with firmness and without fear."

"The one thing the illness has convinced me of beyond all doubt— more than any experience I've had as an athlete— is that we are much better than we know. We have unrealized capacities that sometimes only emerge in crisis."

"So if there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it's meant to improve us."

"I am very firm in my belief that cancer is not a form of death. I choose to redefine it: it is a part of life. One afternoon when I was in remission and sitting around waiting to find out if the cancer would come back, I made an acronym out of the word: Courage, Attitude, Never give up, Curability, Enlightenment, and Remembrance of my fellow patients."
"But if there is one thing I don't want to hear, it's that I can't do something. Telling me that is the best way to make sure that I'll do it."

 "I had learned what it means to ride the Tour de France. It's not about the bike...."

 Thanks, Lance Armstrong. You're an INTJ legend!

1 comment:

Mirza Ghalib said...

This book has been written with a very very frank attitude.
The name says it all - MY JOURNEY BACK TO LIFE !!!

1)I got a Huge, Extraordinary, Inspiration from this LITTLE book.

2)The book has lucid language, nothing to worry about that.

3)Life is a game, you either PLAY or QUIT.but SON, YOU NEVER QUIT!


4)It's always GOOD to get back to LIFE;but it's always BETTER to be back at LIVING!

mind you, this sentence will BE DRILLED into your mind FOREVER.

5) this is for those-

who UNDER-ESTIMATE themselves and always RELY on other people's OPINIONS. It's your life make it large !

What i personally felt after reading this is

We all have the required PHYSICAL strength BUT what matters most is the MENTAL strength...and LANCE ARMSTRONG is A LEGEND in this!