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What entrepreneurs have to learn from extreme athletes

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race around Angel Island, summer 2013

Many of my patients know I’m passionate about ocean sports. It might seem weird for an entrepreneur healthcare provider to post about a personal sports obsession, but extreme sports have a lot in common with being self-employed. And the ocean is a particularly potent metaphor for the challenges of the business world.

I race outrigger canoes on the open ocean, and I run my own business as an acupuncturist. Before 2005, I did neither. I didn’t exercise much (a little running here and there), and I was a stay-at-home mom with my two boys. My life was very, very predictable and sedentary. I did not know about the sleeping giant within me that craves adrenaline.

I started my paddling career a few months after I graduated from Five Branches University and opened my private practice. Santa Cruz is a nice place for doing both of the above, if you have the right disposition. It helps to have a sense of adventure. And the stamina that endurance sports teach you: the ability to get obsessed and stay obsessed makes you better at anything you do. And the odd combination of fear, bravado and mental strength that comes with getting yourself into crazy conditions… and back out of them safely. But I’ll get to that.

Paddling outrigger canoes can be a tame, wildlife-viewing cruise… or it can kill you. Every year paddlers die in ocean conditions that are too extreme … in California, hypothermia is the biggest danger. Several years ago, in an incident well-known in the California paddling community, 3 very fit strong men died near the oil rigs off Santa Barbara. The outrigger on their six-man canoe came off 5 miles from shore, and the guys who swam for help were never seen again. The cold water killed them. But even in warm water paddlers drown when their equipment fails and rescue is too late. (Eddie would go, but next time he might do it differently.*)

So why do it? Passion for adventure and challenge … maybe a little impusiveness too. I have raced between Hawaiian islands four times (three times from Molokai to Oahu, where Eddie Aikau died, 42 miles; one time from Maui to Molokai). I have crossed the Monterey Bay four times (26 miles) and the Catalina Channel five times (28 miles). Some channels are treacherous (Molokai) and some are tame (Monterey Bay), but the races I thought would be the easiest were the ones that almost broke me.

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Hale O Lono harbor entrance, Na Wahine O Ke Kai 2012

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the 2012 Molokai Channel race (Na Wahine O Ke Kai) was the queen of all challenges. A freak early-season swell made 15 foot waves that closed out the harbor entrance at the race start. http://youtu.be/lPrB56hIqm0 Eighty-eight canoes, with teams of 10 women for each, had to negotiate the harbor exit, some with disastrous consequences. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. The real slap in the face was what awaited us in the channel: 8-10 foot swells from opposing directions that turned the channel into a giant washing machine that made staying upright a challenge. For eight hours, racing. You find out what you’re made of in conditions like that. Yes, I kissed the sand at the race end in Waikiki.

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the 50+ Kauai crew attempting to bust through, Na Wahine O Ke Kai 2012

Several things occurred to me in the middle of that race. Even when you’re in a canoe with 5 other people, you’re not talking much. There’s lots of time to think, get twisted in your thoughts, and fall down the rabbit hole. The ocean does a number on your brain, kind of like nighttime does. It’s hard to be very logical when you’re working at 80 percent of your maximum physical capacity, and bad thoughts can get out of control very quickly. Seasickness complicates the matter, and so does the challenge of adequate hydration and nutrition. A negative thought like, “I’m not good enough to be here” can quickly blow a hole in your performance. And that spills over to your crew, which gets into a sort of Vulcan mind meld in a long race. You need to stay on top of those thoughts and maintain pure focus to perform in a way that justifies six months of relentless training.

It was ugly. It was an eight hour wrestling match, post-whipping my demons over and over again. The demon called You’re Unprepared was followed by the demon You’re Not Strong Enough and then came You Really Made a Bad Choice. But the most potent demon was You’re Not An Athlete. Really? I said back. After years of training, months of daily workouts, you’re pulling that on me? Oh boy. I had to become a badass demon wrangler in less than a day, or I’d let myself, my crew, my coach down.

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mid-race, Molokai channel, Na Wahine O Ke Kai 2012

My crew, 10 women including myself, had trained for six months to do this race. Six months of daily workouts, pushing each other and ourselves to blend perfectly in our power and focus. Finding the balance of rest and nutrition to avoid getting injured. Anything less and you let the entire crew down. In the middle of the channel, if one crew member gets sick, injured, or cracks a mental, the rest have to pull her weight. In a crew, it’s not about you.So, I made the choice over and over and over again to be positive. That is the essence of stamina. The obsessiveness that led me to train like a  jacked-up chimpanzee became the source of the mental strength I needed. It was the crazy bravado side that had gotten me into this, but it was the calm, patient stamina that got me out. And, more importantly, served my crew well.

Do those demons sound familiar? They’re the same, whether you’re pursuing an extreme sport or starting a business. The difference is that a race forces you to focus in a way that daily life does not. Daily life allows you to give in to the I Can’ts in a subtle, insidious way. The pressure of performance crystallizes the need to squelch the demons. That is why I race.

When I started my business, I subscribed to the admonitions of the You’re Not a Businessperson Demon. That was a hard one to recognize, because I didn’t see myself as a businessperson. I was a healer, helping people, who cares about the money? Moreover, I was an acupuncturist, and it’s not Zen to market yourself! This is why 80 percent of newly licensed acupuncturists don’t make it after 5 years. We are uncomfortable promoting ourselves, or we lack confidence in our new skills. Sound familiar?

The best business-take-home this rigorous team sport has taught me is this: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. In the canoe, you do not get to do whatever you want and still make the boat go fast. Blending your power with the others in the boat is what matters most, and timing – the ability to paddle perfectly in sync with your crew – matters more than individual power (most women seem to get this instinctively; most men take more time to arrive at this conclusion). In your business, it is the same. What you want is great, but your clients, employees, investors have their own version of what matters, and it’s your job as the leader to figure out how to tie it all together. Your performance hinges on your humility.

It took me a while, but now I get it. I learned, am still learning, to recognize those evil little voices that tell me I can’t. If I hadn’t learned to push myself beyond what’s comfortable physically by putting myself in extreme conditions, I might not be here to tell the story. At least this story. And I am a better practitioner for it: more humble, better able to help my patients with their own demons. And I’m pretty darn clear it’s not about me.

* Eddie Aikau was a highly respected big-wave surfer and lifeguard on Oahu who died in the Molokai Channel. His sailing canoe, the Hokulea, capsized and Eddie paddled for help. He was never seen again.

Supplements: Are You Wasting Your Money?

As a holistic health care provider, I am often asked for my opinion about supplements. My patients want to know if they are worth their considerable expense, and if they are even safe. With the publication of the recent article in New York Times magazine (www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/science/herbal-supplements-are-often-not-what-they-seem.html) the question has arisen again. Supplements are the usual suspects.

According to last month’s article, researchers at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario tested 44 different herbal products made by 12 different companies using DNA barcoding to identify the authenticity of the herbs. They found half the products had the herbs they said they did, but they also had herbs that were not listed on the label. Products were substituted in 30 of 44 of the brands tested, and only “2 of the 12 companies had products without any substitution.” (For a copy of the abstract, see http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/11/222/abstract). The researchers did not cite the brands or companies used in the testing, unfortunately for the consumer.

More troubling is that the researchers found evidence of toxic herbs as substitutions in some of the formulas they tested, or herbs that had medicinal effects not compatible with the intentions of the formula (such as senna, a strong laxative herb, being used as filler in a formula not intended for constipation). An older quality study on formulations containing the herb black cohosh found one quarter of the 36 brands tested contained no black cohosh at all, but an ornamental plant that may be toxic.

Like many acupuncturists, naturopaths and holistic MD’s I use herbs and supplements to help patients in my practice. Most of the herbs I prescribe have been part of the Chinese medicine chest for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and their effects are well-known. More and more lately, they are well-studied too, and we know more than we ever have about how herbs interact with people’s bodies. I have seen herbs change people’s lives for the better, providing relief for symptoms there are no drugs for, or without the perilous side effects. I know how powerful the right herbs can be, and I want to know the medicine I’m prescribing is what I think it is.

Supplement manufacturers, for better or for worse, are not highly regulated by the FDA. The DSHEA law passed by Congress in 1994 (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) beat back attempts to restrict the manufacture and sale of herbs and supplements. It was praised by herbalists and other advocates of alternative medicine who have a (healthy) distrust of the FDA and its pro-pharmaceutical leanings; it was thought access to herbs and their healing powers would continue to be assured with the passage of the law. The law requires supplement manufacturers to voluntarily comply with good quality control practices, and does not allow them to make “claims” about whether their products cure particular diseases.

Americans spend $5 billion a year on supplements. This is a huge market with ample opportunity for everything ranging from benign lapses in quality control to outright fraud. How do you know whether a product contains what it says?

Here are a few guidelines:

1. Get your herbs from a licensed practitioner. Brands that only sell to the practitioner tend to be higher quality. And practitioners are more discriminating than the general public, and harder to fool (generally speaking). And, you really should not diagnose and treat yourself, even with herbs. Find a trusted practitioner and have them write you a prescription.

2. Extracts tend to be safer. Especially standardized extracts, which are harder to dilute and cut with filler. Liquid formulas, and sometimes gelatin capsules, with a label that says “standardized extract” have verified quantities of the herbs listed on the label. (It is also true that most herbs need to be extracted to make their medicinal constituents available to your body. That means tinctured in alcohol or glycerin, or decocted in water. The herb is more often than not useless if it’s not extracted.)

3. If it’s cheap, it’s suspect. Some herbs are expensive and hard to procure, and if the formula you’re considering is a lot cheaper, there might be a reason why.

4. Is it third-party tested for quality? If a product is tested by by an outside lab and passes muster, chances are it is what it says it is. This is somewhat rare in the supplement world, with the exception of fish oil (which is often contaminated with heavy metals like mercury). But third party testing is a better level of scrutiny.

5. If it’s being pitched as a remedy for a symptom you’ve just googled on the internet, do your homework before you take the bait. An article about eczema, for example, that gives lots of information about the condition and then recommends a single remedy of a particular brand is, shall we say, suspect. Many of these sites exist to sell supplements, be wary!