On Heart

Running, Research, and Perseverance


During middle and high school, I participated on my school’s cross-country team. It was not an intentional act on my part - after one PE session when we had to do some running, the teacher suggested I talk to the cross country coach about joining. (It should be noted that at this time I was the kind of kid who did not do sports - I prefered reading to running.) However, my parents encouraged me to try out and see what would happen. Looking back, I am extremely grateful they pushed me to expand my comfort zone.

On the race course, kids like me stuck out pretty obviously - taller and larger than most of the other kids out there, I was easily noticed. I competed against kids who were smaller and, ostensibly, faster than I.

After my first season, I decided to join the track team in the spring. I had fun running cross country, and could do the mile and two mile runs on the track. Again, it was obvious to pick out kids like me - we usually were sprinters or throwers, not long-distance runners.

Over the course of the next six years, I would continue to run. I would continue to practice. And, surprisingly, I would continue to do well. If memory serves, I would go to the state meets in track and cross-country during the entirety of my career. (I never did win the races, though, but did put on a respectable showing.)

What I find strange about this is that there really was no reason why I should have done well - I was physically larger than most, meaning it took a lot more energy just to cover the same distance. I do not think I trained in a substantially “smarter” way than my competitors.

So how come I ended up where I did?

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

Winston Churchill

At its core, running is a sport of endurance - how long can you keep going? How much distance can you cover before you stop? Running is a sport of the heart. That much is obvious in the physical sense (why else do people associate it with “doing cardio”?). I also think it applies in the spiritual sense, as in the phrase “having heart”. For me, this means possessing a willigness to keep pushing forward when all you want to do is stop. Or slow down.

In competition, there is little incentive to quit outright. (There’s the explicit “shame” in quitting, not to mention the fact you would probably have to walk back to wherever your team was camped out.) I do not think I can remember hearing about anyone who actually stopped the race and left the course. But I do know that many would slow down and drop back. This was especially true for those who would sprint out ahead at the start of the race. That was never my style - I preferred to start out at a good pace, let people get out ahead of me, and then, as the race went on, start passing.

Besides the fact that having people in front of me was a great motivator, the truth was it is a lot easier to acquire the lead than to maintain it. It’s lonely being out front - you have to rely solely on your ability to keep moving forward and to prevent the people behind you from catching up. Starting from behind, I would gradually work my way up to the front; upon reaching it, there was usually just a little bit of the race left to run, and so maintaining that lead was easier.

What separated a great runner from a good one had a lot to do with having heart, of being willing to push and push and push. Sometimes the race did indeed feel like hell (particularly when there were hills involved!); all you could do was keep going.

Keep moving forward.

Robinson Family motto, “Meet the Robinsons”

As mentioned in a previous post, I really like the Disney film “Meet the Robinsons”. It sends a great message to both kids and adults that the thing to do in the face of adversity and failure is to keep moving forward. Thinking back to my running career, I suspect the reason things turned out so well for me was my willigness to keep moving forward and to have heart.

Research is a lot like running. Both require time, patience, and training. Both demand you keep persevering and moving forward. Both require heart.

I do not think these facts were at all obvious to me upon entering graduate school. Similar to how classes at Caltech would be vastly more difficult than I could have conceived in high school, doing research is an entirely different thing than taking courses.

As seems obvious in retrospect, if you are trying to learn or discover something that has never been learned or discovered before, you have to go pretty far out to the edge of human knowledge to do so. Once you are there, all you have is the knowledge you’ve acquired thus far and your willingness to push on that edge as hard as you can, until it yields and you discover something. Of those two traits, I would say the latter is far more important, though the former helps you get to those edges faster.

If Ph D comics is to be believed, all graduate students seem to have the same general attitude and trajectory through the course of their degree. We all have similar hopes and fears. What I wonder, though, is whether we are learning to have heart.

This lesson is one I encounter again and again in the course of completing my degree. Whether it is trying to figure out how to write some new code, or debugging existing code, or writing a talk or a poster, the only way to do great research is to run right up to that edge, hit it, and push. Most often, the edge pushes back - you have to change your thinking, try something else, go back and recalculate or refactor - and you try again. And again. And slowly, progress takes place. Puzzles are solved and results are shown. And then you hit yet another edge. And you have to keep moving forward.

But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.

Rocky Balboa, “Rocky Balboa”