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    Tuesday, September 15, 2015

    Rich Roll’s Extreme Flow

      Rich Roll is not one to do things in moderation. His story is the stuff of legend. Roll (link is external) swam competitively at Stanford University, attended Cornell Law School, and became a high-powered corporate lawyer. After years of being unhappy with this choice, struggling with alcoholism and eventually obesity, Roll decided at age 40 to become an ultra-endurance athlete (link is external).

    Switching to clean living and a plant-based diet, Roll became a top finisher at the 2008 and 2009 Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, and in 2009 Men’s Fitness Magazine (link is external) named Roll as one of the top 25 fittest men in the world.

    Then, in 2010, Roll completed the Epic 5 Challenge (link is external), which entailed completing five ironman distance triathlons on five islands of Hawaii in less than a week. Roll followed that accomplishment in 2012, when he became a No. 1 best-selling author with his book “Finding Ultra (link is external),” which chronicled his path from addiction to being a top athlete. And now with his book “The Plantpower Way (link is external),” Roll continues his work as a wellness expert who helps others find their path to health and well-being.

    Leading by example, Roll has demonstrated that there is a path that exists whereby one does not need to be “moderate” in order to have balanced life. In fact, for many of us, the balance is in the “extreme.” But if we are mindful and focused — in a state of “flow” — these extremes can cohere into a healthy and happy life.

    Roll recognizes that for many people, “health” is equated with “moderation.” But for Roll, this approach does not necessarily resonate. “It’s complicated, and it’s nuanced, this life of being ‘ultra,’” he said, “the idea of being, for lack of a better phrase, out of balance in the interest of pursuing something great and reconciling that against this conventional idea that the healthiest way to be is, all things in moderation.”

    What perhaps allows Roll to engage in these seemingly more extreme behaviors is that while he is doing various activities, he is mindful and focused — in a state of “flow.” Flow is a state of “effortless concentration (link is external),” a complete immersion in experience. Flow can happen in anything we do — whether it’s working at our job, playing music or having a conversation. During this state, people are less conscious of a sense of time and also less concerned about failure.

    Roll explains how “flow” helps him balance the various activities in his life. “That’s a juggling act that requires finesse and requires balance. And so for me, I would say that I am, in the micro sense, in the day-to-day or hour-to-hour sense, I’m very out of balance,” he explained. “I’m somebody who doesn’t multitask. I like to immerse myself in one thing and be extreme in that. But then I pull myself out of that and go to the next thing. So, in a macro sense, when you look back on my life over the course of many months, or a year, or years, my life very much looks like it’s in balance. But I would say it’s probably not in balance on the day to day.”

    One of the key steps that Roll took in his path towards finding his own sense of balance  was recognizing that happiness is an important aspect of health and well-being. And for Roll, part of the reason why he found happiness to be so important was that he allowed himself to live without it for so long.

    “I think that one of the aspects of health is happiness. My whole life, I had never really asked myself what makes me happy, or what do I want to do,” he said.  “I was just playing this game of pursuing the illusion of the American dream for lack of a better word. Study hard. Get good grades. Get into the best school. And so what’s the next thing you do? You get into the next best graduate school. And what’s the summer associate’s job that’s most prestigious? And show up early, work late. Climb the corporate ladder. All these things.”

    “Of course, implicit in this is this promise that by pursuing this, not only will you achieve prosperity and a sense of security, but also happiness.”

    Roll’s insight on the importance of happiness in health is consistent with a broader recognition in the health field that mental health is a crucial part of overall health and well-being. In fact, according to the World Health Organization and World Economic Forum (link is external), mental illness represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world, costing $2.5 trillion in 2010 alone. This burden is projected to cost $6 trillion by 2030, with two-thirds of these costs attributed to disability and loss of work. Further, positive psychologists are recognizing that happiness is not simply the absence of depression, but rather a state of being that can be nurtured and learned like a skill.

    And through focus and hard work, Roll achieved all of the things that he was told would bring him happiness. “And here I was on the cusp of achieving all of that. I was on the partnership track of a prestigious law firm. I had a Porsche in the driveway,” he said. “My wife and I were building the home of our dreams. Everything on the outside looked fantastic. And so if you were to be somebody peering in on my life you’d say, ‘This guy’s got it made. He must be very happy.’”

    “But it wasn’t making me happy.”

    Roll then began to examine the “disconnect” between his external life and his internal experience. “I think what happened with me was that when I got sober, I started to grapple with what is my place in the world, and what am I doing with my time? And I was starting to experience a little bit of an existential crisis,” he said. “I was a practicing corporate lawyer, but I had no love for the law. And for the first time, I was starting to wrestle with spiritual notions that I had never really pondered for myself.”

    “And the more I did this, the more discomfort I began to experience with just living my life in this ‘Matrix (link is external)’ way that I had been.”

    Roll found that he would seek out alcohol to soothe that discomfort. For him, the alcohol served a very specific purpose — that of helping him regulate the negative emotions that arose from a negative self-concept. Roll’s experience is consistent with research demonstrating how, for many people, alcohol serves a crucial emotion-regulation (link is external)function.

    “But I will say that as far back as I can recall I had — and you will hear about this from anyone who’s in recovery, will say something similar — a sense of not feeling comfortable in your own skin,” he explained. “And I was a kid who was very awkward and who had difficulty making friends and who was a loner and an isolator. And generally insecure, and feeling like everybody had things figured out except me. And I think from the very first time I drank, there was a very palpable, visceral sense of this being a solution. Suddenly feeling comfortable in your own skin for the first time — like an answer that would resolve all those questions.”

    “But I didn’t even know I had, because I’d never felt any differently. And so it agreed with me in a way that is distinct and different from a normal person. And so I drank to excess the very first time that I drank. And it was always to excess, and I was always the guy who was the last guy to leave the party and the most drunk and all of that.”

    For Roll, the anxiety-reducing effects of alcohol made his initial experiences with drinking very enjoyable. “And it wasn’t a conscious sense of being unhappy, it was more like I was having fun. I finally found something that allowed me to talk to a girl at a party and crack a joke, and feel somewhat self-assured, albeit medically enhanced.”

    This positive experience changed as alcohol started dominating his life. “And that worked for quite some time, until it stopped working. It was all fun and games, and I was having a great time in college partying,” he said. “But it was a slow progression that started to monopolize my interest, meanwhile eroding other aspirations I had in my life. And so it became paramount, and just monopolized everything that I was doing.”

    “As they say it works until it doesn’t work anymore.”

    It was then that Roll began to examine his life in more detail, and examining whether his pre-existing notions of happiness were working for him. “It didn’t happen overnight. For the first time, and now with some sobriety under my belt, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ And I was starting to really have a hard time with this notion that I had this career that I couldn’t stand. And for the first time saying, ‘What is it that I want to do?’”

    And the first thing Roll found was that exercise was a useful path. This choice made sense as Roll had already been a competitive swimmer in college. Research shows that exercise is one of the most effective methods (link is external) of improving physical and mental health. But as time went on, Roll took his exercise to the “next level.”

    He explained: “And I think that my launch into the world of ultra-endurance was a way of me struggling with that question and using that as a vehicle for trying to answer those questions for myself,” he explained. “Through the crucible of physical pain and almost in this you have to walk through the flames and burn the residue off to get to know yourself better. And in a very real way, that’s what that experience was for me.”

    It was at that point that Roll came to understand another central principle of his well-being — understanding his sense of purpose. Specifically, just as happiness is crucial to his health and well-being, finding a sense of purpose was critical to Roll’s happiness.

    “And the equation of happiness, for me, depends a lot upon pursuing my passion and feeling fulfilled and feeling like I’m making a difference and having an impact and testing the outer limits of my capabilities. That brings me happiness. And I think, in turn, that happiness fuels a sense of health for myself,” he said.

    Research suggests that a sense of purpose is associated with improved health and well-being.  One research study from the Midlife in the United States (link is external) (MIDUS) data followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years, with more than 500 dying during the course of the study. Those who died were less likely to have a sense of purpose. Another study that followed 900 older adults over seven years found that having a sense of purpose (link is external) resulted in lower risk for Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline.

    Accordingly, research (link is external) suggests that older people who have a sense of purpose are more likely to engage in preventive health care and less likely to use costly hospital services.

    More, Roll’s purpose was to help others on the same path of self-understanding that he’d traveled. “I think I’ve emerged from that with a greater self-understanding. And I think that experience gave me a sense of purpose in the sense that, because I was successful in my field, I now have certain things that I can speak to, whether it’s diet and nutrition or repairing your health or trying to unlock that more authentic version of yourself,” he said. “These are themes that I have experience with. And I realize now through the books and the podcasts that people resonate with that message. And so that’s the sense of purpose that excites me and gets me up in the morning.”

    Roll chose his purpose well, because research suggests that helping others has long-term health and wellness benefits. For example, studies suggest that people who are more altruistic are healthier. One study (link is external) of 585 people examined the independent relation of altruistic attitudes, volunteering and informal helping behavior to well-being. All three independently related to increased life satisfaction and positive mood. Further, a meta-analysis (link is external) of 17 cohort studies shows that volunteering is associated with lower depression, improved life satisfaction and well-being and that volunteers have lower mortality rates over time.

    For Roll, as he honed his new sense of purpose, exercise was still a prominent part of his life, but a bit more in the background. “I still train, and I love the physical aspect of riding my bike and running and all of that. But I don’t feel like I have anything to prove there. Now I’m doing that for the love. And really what I am trying to do is impact the most number of people that I possibly can. And try to experience greater meaning and health in their own minds,” he said. “And so, the excitement that got me up in the morning in 2009 to get out on my bike is now channeled through the content that I’m creating online.”

    For Roll, one of the main ways that he is helping others is by showing the benefits of a plant-based diet. Research suggests that a plant-based diet (link is external) can have positive health effects, including reduction of obesity and improved cardiovascular functioning.

    Roll recognizes that many people view veganism or plant-based diets through the prism of deprivation. But he views it as something that he’s gained, rather than lost. “I think it’s natural for people to see it as a deprivation-type protocol. I tend to see the world through the prism of recovery and the tools I learned in sobriety, and I think there are a lot of analogies there between sobriety and a vegan way of life, in the sense that you could make the same argument about saying, ‘I can’t do drugs anymore. I can’t drink. So I am just going to have to mark the rest of my life with that sacrifice. I’m being deprived of that opportunity,’” he said.

    “And of course, the great irony is that by giving those things up, I’ve been given a life. The trade is not even worth talking about, because by deciding not to have those things as part of my life anymore, my life’s gotten so much bigger.”

    “And so, in a similar way, by giving up animal products, I feel like — not to put too much of a New Age, mystical, spiritual spin on it — but I really believe that by changing the vibration of what you take into your body, it changes your energy and your perspective,” he said. “And that impacts everything: how you interact with other people, how you perceive your world, how you approach your career, how you interact with your spouse and your partner. All of these things are impacted by the foods that we’re eating. Sometimes in a tangential, and sometimes in a very firsthand sort of manner.”

    “And so I don’t look at it as a deprivation, because by adopting this lifestyle, it’s had such a positive impact on everything from my sense of vitality to the energy level that I have to restoring my health to my sense of treading more lightly on the planet and living more compassionately. All these things have changed me. It’s that weird inverse relationship that by seemingly giving something up, I’ve been given something.”

    Roll’s work also involves challenging stereotypes of masculinity that sometimes keep men from healthy, plant-based diets.  “It brings up bigger questions of our gender identity and masculinity and how our food choices are culturally reinforced to inform how we feel about ourselves as men. Somewhere along the line the idea that we build muscle and, therefore, we are more men than others that don’t, is really this kind of strange idea, when you think about it. Really, the only way to overcome that is not through words but through athletes who are making a different choice and doing extraordinary things,” he said.

    Roll is one of many people who are challenging the notion that plant-based living is not “masculine.” Former National Hockey League player Georges Laraque (link is external), who was considered the toughest player in the league for years, mixed martial artist Mac Danzig (link is external), power lifter Patrik Baboumian (link is external), and hardcore singer John Joseph (link is external) are all prominent vegans involved in stereotypically “manly” pursuits who challenge these stereotypes.

    “For me to be a long-distance endurance athlete — that’s not necessarily associated with the alpha male in a masculine context. But when you look at some of the UFC fighters, some of these guys when you look at what they’re doing with strength and agility and speed athletes — when you look at the whole and all these athletes doing different things, I think it’s really helping to deconstruct that paradigm and help people see it differently. I think it’s exciting and interesting right now how that’s happening,” Roll said.

    For Roll, the key to change is finding ways of translating desire into concrete action. “In the new book, ‘The Plantpower Way,’ it’s a cookbook, a lifestyle guide. It tries to take diet beyond the kale, as we like to say, and more lifestyle-oriented guidance about how to transition to a healthier way of life. My focus and my interest and everything I do is about how to try and figure out ways to help people transform; to bridge that gap between information or knowledge or self-knowledge into a tangible, attainable action. Trying to solve that equation or find a key that will help people tap into that,” he said.

    “It’s like what’s the next action to take? How can I feel comfortable in my own skin? Having some base understanding of that is OK. But move forward with action. What’s the action that I can take that is productive to help move me forward?”

    In making changes, Roll encourages people to seek out social environments that are conducive to growth. “It’s a lot easier for people to change their behavior when you change their environment. So if they’re surrounded by positive people that are supportive of the change and the healthier or more productive choice is more easily accessible due to environmental factors whether they be personal or geographic or what have you, that is fundamental to helping people make a change,” he explained.

    One of the things that Roll sees as holding people back is a sense of fear. “When you say stress, what’s really behind that is fear. So when somebody’s stuck in a job that they don’t like, how much fear is keeping them from changing, and how much stress tolerance is keeping them stuck at that desk that they don’t want to be at,” he said. “How much discomfort do they have to be in? Or what is it going to take for them so they can walk through some of that fear that is making them from that change.”

    Roll also cautions against examining causes rather than solutions of problems. “I try not to spend too much time analyzing the ‘Why?’ — ‘Why am I an alcoholic?’ That’s sort of a rabbit hole you can go down and never emerge from and not really come out of it with anything helpful. So I don’t spend too much time trying to break it down,” he said. “I believe that I am an alcoholic, and I always have been an alcoholic. It’s not because my parents were bad people or anything like that.”

    Roll further also cautions against “inspirational” messages. “What I see, because I live on social media and so much of what I do is online, in terms of what’s not productive, is the empty inspiration.

    “You scroll through Instagram, there’s no shortage of people doing these quotes, rapid text over an image with some quote from some inspirational figure. And I find that to be really easy and lazy. People putting it out, and people on the receiving end of that. I think what happens is somebody reads that, they’ll have a flash of inspiration or they’ll feel good, and then they’ll feel like they did something. They feel like they accomplished something by reading that. When they actually didn’t do anything,” he explained.

     “I find so much of that to be really overrated. For me, I think inspiration is easy, and it’s action that’s hard. So I’m focused on trying to get people to take an action. Even if it’s a tiny action, to get out of some perfectionist mindset or overly ambitious mindset, and just try to get them to start small and begin. Whatever journey it is, just begin it. ”

    Roll recognizes that his life may not seem, or actually be, in balance at any given moment. But he also recognizes that his strong sense of purpose and enjoyment in what he is doing allows him to immerse himself in his life and find his “flow.”

    “So as somebody who’s now in recovery and somebody who’s balancing many, many things — a parent of four children, I’m married, I’m trying to be this wellness advocate, I’m trying to be somebody who still trains and races and all these things,” he said. “And I understand that in a very tactile way, going out and training 25 to 30 hours a week and doing these crazy, ultra distances and training and racing. That’s not necessarily healthy. And I’ve never said that it is in terms of physical health. There’s wear and tear that’s involved in that.”

    “But I think that if you look at health in a more macro, comprehensive way, pursuing these things has made me a healthier person, in that I believe it was something that I was put here to do. And in pursuing that, there’s something to be mined for my own personal happiness. And now to be of service to other people. So when I think of balance, balance for me is something that I’m always grappling with, and something that is very elusive for me.”

    “I was prone to extremes. My whole life, I was magnetized by being out of balance, and that’s manifested itself in good ways and in bad ways. I’m a recovering alcoholic and that’s a function of being out of balance with substances and going to the extreme with that,” he said.

    “And as a swimmer in my youth and through high school and college, I was somebody who learned very early on that I wasn’t the most talented kid, but I could bridge that talent gap by working harder than everyone else. So I was very extreme in my training as a young person, and realized I could make my way in the world and get ahead if I was willing to double down and do more work than my peers. And I realized success in that.

    “I realized success academically, and I realized that athletically. And so I think what was cemented in my mind is that in a ‘self will run riot (link is external)’ kind of way, to use the parlance of recovery, that being out of balance was a great recipe for me to excel in the world. And so I’ve banged my head up against the wall and gotten into trouble taking that to some very dark and negative places, but also to some successful places.”

    Roll recognizes that people will look to him for a pathway to change, and he is quick to caution that his pathway does not have to be everyone else’s path. “People will say to me all the time, ‘How did you do it? How did you make these changes?’ And I don’t necessarily have the answer to that.”

    “I think that pain for me has been the only thing that has ever motivated me to change my behaviors. But I’m also aware that it’s a choice. You don’t have to be in pain to make that change.

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    Item Reviewed: Rich Roll’s Extreme Flow Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Mrs. Chef
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