By Nico Pitney
That Jamie Metzl has completed nearly 50 extreme endurance events, including Ironman Triathlons and ultramarathons, is not mentioned until the very final line of his personal biography. It is, apparently, the least notable of his accomplishments.
More prominent highlights include senior roles with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department, and the National Security Council, a JD from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. in Asian history from Oxford. Metzl has served as Executive Vice President of the prestigious Asia Society, testified before Congress on biotech and genomics, and written a history of the Cambodian genocide. He’s traveled the world, run for Congress in Missouri, and advised the government of North Korea on economic reform.
He is also a twice-published novelist. His new book, “Genesis Code,” is a thriller about human genetic enhancements in the context of an intensified future U.S.-China rivalry.
I spoke with Metzl about happiness, death, what he’s learned from his endurance competitions, how he writes and how he sleeps, the books that impacted his life, his love of ballet, and the downsides of being such an overachiever.
Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling life?
Jamie Metzl: Part of happiness comes from doing things in the world, and part of it comes from connecting with the people we love in our lives. As I’ve gotten older, the balance between those two has definitely shifted.
I think when you’re younger, you want to achieve, realize dreams and aspirations. But as you get older, you get a little bit jaded. I’ve come to realize — and to really appreciate — the essential role of relationships. We’re social animals, and we’re people who, at our best, deeply connect with others.
Your accomplishments are numerous and in diverse fields. Can you comfort us lesser mortals and share the downside to all that success?
Many of us are on these escalators. We start really young in school, and then you take one job, and that job leads you to another job — everybody is afraid of getting off the escalator. So you keep going, and it’s good to keep going because you have more opportunities, you have more knowledge that you gain along the way, and bigger networks.
But the escalator also has its shortcomings. It’s really easy just to think of yourself as the escalator, think of yourself as the bio. Everybody is doing propaganda for themselves, whether it’s through their websites or Facebook or Twitter. We’re all kind of building the brand. I’m certainly no different from that. But there’s a real danger of confusing yourself and your brand.
I thought a lot about this [when running for Congress], because the me that was The Candidate — it wasn’t that that was some other person, it was just the idealized version of myself. Nobody is out campaigning saying, “Well, I’m a pretty good guy, I try to do my best. But I have all of these shortcomings. And some days I wake up in the morning and wonder if I’m on the right path.” I was very mindful that I wasn’t just The Candidate. But you could really see how easy it would be just to occupy your persona and to live a life as your persona.
You are the things that you do and the way that you project yourself into the world. But there’s a real you that’s not part of that, that’s just who you are when you wake up in the middle of the night, or how you connect with people, or, if you’re on a toll way, how do you treat the person who’s collecting change?
What did your parents do that many parents don’t do that you look back on and appreciate?
Oatmeal. No, just kidding. There is no one thing. My father was born in Austria, and his family were technically Holocaust survivors, although nobody was in a camp. So I grew up with a real sense of the randomness of survival and existence, and of the responsibility that comes with just being here.
From very, very early on, I was kind of a pain in the ass, always asking a lot of questions. I just always have been obsessed with the questions of why and digging deeper and trying to understand things.
Can you point to any experiences that led to that mindset?
Who knows what part of that is nature and what part of that is nurture, but when I was younger, I went to the Hebrew Day School in Kansas City, which I absolutely hated, although now it’s a really wonderful school.
In Talmud class, there would be some idea that was presented or some passage from the Talmud. Very early on I realized that if you just kept asking questions about these unanswerable Talmudic questions, you could blow the entire class. So they had these questions — if a cow walks into your neighbor’s yard and falls into a hole, who’s responsible? I remember as a little kid being relentless with all kinds of variations on this theme of the cow and the wandering [laughs]. So it could be that I thought I was just going to blow this class and get out of here.
As I got older, there were these existential questions, which for me, the onset of those angst-ridden existential questions was actually relatively early. I went to a wonderful school where I just started reading philosophy and literature, and I just was just so obsessed with those kinds of questions. And it’s always been such an important part of how my mind works.
What role do the endurance events play in your living a fulfilling life?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more of a solitary athlete. For me, the sports that you mentioned — Ironman, ultramarathon, and marathon — are all about this thing that’s really important for me, which is looking under the hood, kicking the tires, whatever the metaphor is. My belief is that we all have these capacities that go untapped in life, whether physical or mental or otherwise. At a deep level, I love the idea of pushing it and seeing what’s possible.
I’m really great at any kind of challenge that requires having a strategy and disciplined implementation of that strategy. Show me that situation, I will be ecstatically happy, and I’m pretty confident that I can do great on it. But if there are challenges where you have to completely let go, you have to accept the universe as it is and that’s the way you do this thing, I am absolutely terrible at those things.
But then I think, what’s my strategy for letting go? What’s my strategy for when I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and want to go back to sleep rather than go and start writing? And it’s like, oh, I’m going to have a strategy for relaxation, a strategy for letting go.
I have so much respect for people who can just really like be the Zen master, the internal Zen master. I’m not very good at it.
You seem like someone who’s got a daily routine or some regular productive habits.
I do, yeah. Well, my general view on health is that everybody should, if you can, exercise one hour a day; eat healthy food and don’t eat crap, unless it’s crap that’s going to make you so ecstatically happy that it was worth it; and try to keep as positive an attitude about life as possible.
As far as I can tell, those are the ways to do it. But whether you run marathons or do yoga or whatever… our bodies are designed for activity.
What did you do differently in your twelfth Ironman that you didn’t do in your first?
There are two things: One is I had more wisdom about how to do it, and two is I trained less. I have this secret strategy, which is if you keep doing these sports and you stay the same speed, say your times are the same, you’re actually getting faster in relative terms. So my goal is to age — well, that’s not my goal, I hate aging, but I’m doing it unfortunately — and just to kind of stay where I am.
You learn a lot. There’s the mental part of it, there’s nutrition and all these other things. You can make up for a little less training with a little more wisdom.
What sorts of wisdom?
Well, I have a few things: one, count calories — 300 calories per hour constantly.
The regularity of it is important?
Yeah, because your body has a certain absorptive capacity. If you do more than that, you can’t absorb it; if you do less than that, you run out of fuel and you feel like crap. The other thing is, it’s like other things in life, it’s conservation of energy. What’s the maximum output for the essential minimum input?
It’s [about] staying calm early on in runs and bikes and things like that. In some ways, it’s a metaphor for life. If you’re going at it for the long term, then you need to think about pacing along the way. And I’m not a very good pacer, to be totally honest, because for me, I sometimes I feel like I’ve got two speeds, which are on and off.
I always think about this: when you’re in your highest moments in life, life is a sine curve. So by definition, the down is coming. And when you’re at the down point, by definition, the up is coming.
Everything looks great from a distance. But every human, because we’re human, we have ups and we have downs. The downs are connected to the ups and the ups are connected to the downs. We also have this society where we’re totally comfortable with ups, but we’re not comfortable with downs.
People go through these natural downs, and then everyone freaks out and we feel like we can’t allow ourselves to be down. I know for me, after my [unsuccessful] campaign in ’04, a month later, I’d given so much energy to this thing and then I felt like shit.
I remember feeling such shame that I felt like shit. Two months ago I was in parades with all these people with my name on their shirt and chanting my name. And now I just feel like all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch four movies in a row.
But it comes back to what I was saying before, about being careful not to occupy our personas. There is variability in our humanity, and I think it’s better to accept that.
What’s a book that has had a profound impact on your life?
I love a lot of the Japanese writers. [Yasunari] Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize a long time ago. Yukio Mishima, who’s kind of a mashugana [laughs], and Haruki Murakami. What I love is this idea, and it’s kind of a Zen idea, of paring our thoughts, our emotions, our beings down to their essential essences and finding the essence of an idea, the essence of a personality, the essence of a character.
When I was in college, I think it’s a requirement of going to college, is to go through the This one is kind of funny. I was writing it, but I didn’t have a rhythm. I’d pick it up and I would put it down. When I had a draft, I gave it to a close friend and she said, “You know, you really have a lot of recaps.”
Somebody would say, “Hey, Joe, how are you?” He’d say, “Well, this happened, and this happened, and this happened.” Every chapter [laughs] that would happen. It was because I was reminding myself everything that had happened up to that point. So I had to really edit out a lot of that.
When I wrote the sequel, “Eternal Sonata,” it was much more concentrated. I think the best way to write a draft is to become so crazed and obsessed that you can’t leave the world that you’ve created, that you’re just there. For me, that was how I felt. I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to brush my teeth, I just wanted to get this thing out.
Then, once you have it, editing is just so much easier, because once something is there it’s there. But getting from an empty screen or empty page to a thing, even though the thing that you have isn’t nearly as good as the final result, you get to a level of emotional satisfaction when you can let your guard down.
How do you sleep?
I’m like the world’s worst sleeper. If any of your readers have any ideas of things — I guarantee you, I’ve tried it, but I just feel like when I wake up at three o’clock in the morning, for like 10 minutes, I say, “All right, I’m going to count backwards from 100.” And then after 10 minutes, I’m pissed off, like, “Ah, crap, I’m up again.”
Then it’s like, “All right, I’m up. What’s the most I can do with these four hours that I’ve got while the world is asleep?” And then it becomes kind of enjoyable, like you’re in this thing, it’s your own little world.
You’re not married. Is that a conscious choice?
Someday I’m going to get married, and I recognize the value of getting married, particularly because I think it’s one way among many of having kids.
But having said that, I’ve lived this life, doing my own thing, going my own way, traveling around the world. And I feel — maybe it’s a false dichotomy and some friends say that it is — there’s a bit of a tension between this Emersonian self-reliant life that I’ve led and the constant presence in a place that may be required for kids and those other things.
But I recognize the value of it, and like I was saying before, I’ve no idea whether I’ve gotten this balance right.
Rich, the main character of your novel, remarks, “You can never quite figure out whether life is complicated or simple, whether all our concepts and words only muck up the few basic drives that actually give meaning to our transient existence.”
I’m so touched. That’s beautiful. [Laughs]
Does Rich’s statement reflect your thinking?
I struggle with that. I feel like we can make things so complicated, and life is complicated. But at the essence — others have called this ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity.’ At the end of the day, it seems like complexity has to be a path towards simplicity.
It comes back to these Japanese writers that I was talking about. It’s not that life is simple. It’s that life is complex, but that part of being humans is distilling whatever essences are most meaningful for us, and then living our lives based on whatever those essences are, which we have distilled.
At the end of the day, we have these basic human drives: to connect, to love, to be. And we have to get out of our own way in order to feel those things, to live that life. And in some ways, as you know, that’s what the book is about. At the end of the book it’s not about complexity. It’s about just this raw simplicity.
You are a big fan of ballet. For the uninitiated, can you explain your love for it?
I’ll answer this in two ways, the first is more entertaining. I have no idea why men aren’t banging down the doors of the ballet, fighting their way in. You go to the ballet and it’s like, God, there are all these women here. Aren’t there any guys in the world who enjoy ballet? Because what a great deal: you have unbelievably gorgeous women who are moving in such beautiful ways, and then you have men who are as athletic as the best wide receivers in the NFL doing these incredible leaps.
If you go to the symphony, you have to pay for the symphony. Here, you go for the dancing, they throw in the symphony for free [laughs]. It’s a great deal. You have to love movement, and love the body, and as I do, think about what the body is capable of. At its best it’s just so graceful, bringing together music and movement and athleticism and all these things that I really value. I find it magical. You’ve got to see it live. YouTube doesn’t cut it at all.
We’ve talked about life lessons, we’ll end with death. Do you think about death?
I do, for an appropriate amount of time [laughs]. I’m afraid of it. When I was younger, I thought of time as an inexhaustible and unlimited resource. As I’ve gotten older, I’m so mindful of time as a limited resource. There are parts of that that are good, I guess. But I really feel a pressure, and I ask myself every day, “Am I getting it right? Am I getting the mix right?”
And the answer every single day is no [laughs]. If the answer is yes, then I don’t know what you do. But the answer is always no.
I’m definitely mindful of it. I’m definitely afraid of it. I definitely feel like I’d better try to do what I can.
You don’t want to waste your life thinking about death. But you also don’t want to waste your time not thinking about not recognizing its preciousness as a resource, as the oxygen that we breathe. So I’m hoping to live the most fulfilling life as I possibly can. Some days I think I’m doing better. Some days I think I’m doing worse.
But while I do that, I’m really hoping there’s going to be some magical technological breakthrough and then we’ll be done with this whole business.
Is there any out-of-the-ordinary goal you’d like to achieve before you die?
Oh God. Can I sing it? [Sings:] “To love, pure and chaste from afar…” [Laughs]
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