The Physical Pains of Self-Disruption: A VC Learns New Tricks

Photograph by David Balhuizen/Gallery Stock

Every so often you or one of your friends will announce their embarkation on a bold new activity to better themselves. In Silicon Valley it seems like a daily occurrence to receive these pronouncements about running, biking, or maybe a new diet.

My workday is spent looking into so-called disruptive technologies. Assuming they actually work, these innovations may have a place in the future technology landscape. But most bold new plans—and this is true of self-improvement and startups—tend to succeed or fail over implementation, not innovation. How will this new thing affect what I already do?

Over the past several months I have decided to disrupt myself by attempting to learn wholesale new techniques in areas where I have multiple decades of experience: running and drumming. The short version: I succeeded in learning and implementing both but stuck with only one. Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks—even if the dog turns out to have enough willpower to override your cruel attempts at change.

About 15 million Americans are active runners, making it one of the most popular ways to jack up your knee, back, or neck quickly. Most running injuries, according to Dr. Taylor Rabbetz at Chiro-Medical Group in San Francisco, are linked less to bad technique than personal physiology. Knowing your body is more important than tweaking your style. Also, shoes. Shoes make a huge difference.

With a slate of previous running ailments, I thought it wise try my luck with the trend of barefoot/minimalist running. Technique-wise, this has you landing toward your forefoot and leaning in to go faster. It’s not a particularly natural movement and quite frankly makes you feel pretty spastic the first couple of attempts. The primary claimed benefits are improved endurance and reduced injuries as the shoes allow your foot to contact the surface more naturally. The major hassle is you have to be very patient with the process or your body will not react well.

My first day out in the barefoot shoes, I was pretty sure everything below my knee had disconnected from my leg. By the fourth week I was able to run a few miles—and found I no longer enjoyed running. The new movement, while potentially better, lacked the freedom I normally feel. There is also a comedic, centaur-like aspect to the style that I just couldn’t get past.

Overall, I learned the technique enough to know that I don’t like it. Dr. Rabbetz told me this is a fairly common outcome in adults: Our muscles can deal with new stresses but our brains are often not interested in that much disruption.

Winner: Old running technique

I started playing the drums some 30 years ago and studied with jazz great Sonny Igoe, a practitioner of the Henry Adler technique made famous by the legendary Buddy Rich. The method is very wrist-heavy and depends on a strong fulcrum between the thumb and index finger to garner speed and precision. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get my chops and jazz playing back together before heading into a world of lessons and hours of practicing.

When I showed up for a lesson at the studio of drummer and educator Tommy Igoe, the son of my former instructor, I figured I was golden. Sadly, this was not true. It turns out things have changed and drum technique has evolved. You no longer use much wrist, bouncing the stick instead and using the finger fulcrum to lever it back and forth. It’s about soft hands, which is a compliment and not an accusation you aren’t doing enough work in the fields.

For the first several weeks I felt even more spastic than I did when I attempted to run as half-man, half-horse. The difference was I could see where it would improve my playing, and in fact it has. Sure, it was annoying to relearn the basics, and I’m far from having mastered the new way, but the progression is clear.Tommy Igoe constantly reminds students to “embrace the boredom” of practicing technique because it’s the foundation of everything you do. I’m embracing the boredom and volume, much to the chagrin of my family and neighbors.

Winner: New drumming technique

The net result of disrupting myself is, at least, a clearer grasp of how hard it can be to implement anything new. Results can be skewed by users’ hard-worn predilections, and embracing change is no guarantee that the new thing will prove better. A few takeaways from my experiment:

Your body, it turns out, is capable of learning new tricks even if it can’t remember them. Muscle memory is a great thing, but as an adult you are fighting a lot of physiological battles that you may not win.

You must consciously pay attention to your technique to progress. Every musician and athlete wishes this were not true, but internalizing the need for technique and embracing the boredom goes a long way.

There is no substitute for actually doing something. Stop reading this and go outside and run or bike, or play guitar, or whatever. Don’t take my word on any of this.

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