How much time have you spent outside today?
Hopefully, you’re outside right now. But if you’re not, I just want to say it’s more important than ever to get outdoors, breathe some fresh air, take a break and enjoy some sunshine.
But according to a survey by the EPA, the average American spends 93% of their time indoors, either in enclosed buildings or enclosed vehicles.
Connection to nature shouldn’t be something that’s seen as dispensable, something that we can have or not have. It’s an essential part of who we are.
That indoor air is stuffy and terrible. There’s a lot of off-gassing in cars, rooms, carpets, paints, things like that. And breathing that bad air can actually shave years off your life.
So, to help us sort all of this out and keep things in perspective, we’re here with one of my very good friends and former cross-country teammate from back in high school, Mr. Will McDonough.
Will is a dad of three, a runner, writer and teacher who never stops moving. And today he’s here to share with us the importance of systemization, letter writing, and getting outdoors.
On this show with Will McDonough, you’re about to learn:
- How to create time for your passions, even if you have 3 kids
- What it takes to write your first book or two
- How to run fast, even in your Tom Brady years
- The unique challenges facing the next generation of health nuts
- And tons more…
Let’s go hang out with Will.
Will McDonough: Pull-Ups at the Playground
Abel: Alright folks, I am so psyched to be here today with a dear old friend, hailing from the White Mountains of New Hampshire with pit stops in Vermont and Utah.
Mr. Will McDonough is a dad, runner, writer, and teacher who now calls Connecticut home. Will never stops moving.
He has three children who are 5, 6, and 8, has run hundreds of races from the 800 meter through 50K, is the author of two books, coaches cross-country, founded a summer camp in 2015 and teaches 8th grade English and World Cultures.
Will, my dear friend, thank you so very much for joining us.
Oh, thank you, Abel. I’m loving being here already.
Abel: It’s been a long time coming. There’s so much that we can talk about and we will, but let’s start with all the things that you do.
So many people use lack of time as an excuse, which is to some degree illusory, but also totally a real thing when you’re a dad of three and you’re teaching, you’re doing all these things, and you’re still running and coaching.
And you’re still a fast runner, even though we’re not spring chickens anymore.
So how do you do all this stuff and keep it all straight?
Oh man, that’s the question, that’s a question of our lives. We’ve got this finite number of hours in a day, and I’ve often felt from when I was very young, I just wished there were 4 more hours. I wished the day was a little bit longer.
I’m one of those people who, in my ideal world, I’d burn the candle at both ends, I’d stay up till 1 AM and then I’d wake up before the sun rises.
And I think acknowledging that I can’t do both of those things and still have the energy that I need in a day is really humbling, because then I need to prioritize.
Especially being a dad, thinking about the triage of my kids’ needs, my family’s needs are always paramount, always at the forefront.
But then also having a job and having my handful of students who I care about so deeply; I want to be present for them, I want to be there for them.
And then being a spouse and having someone that I need to attend to, and then myself and my own needs.
And so, it is hard. And I think the thing that I’ve learned to appreciate about myself is just that I need systems. I need ways of prioritizing my time that are written down and that I can follow.
I’m not someone who loves schedules, but I need reminders. I need index cards that remind me to take care of myself, that remind me that when I’m my best self, I’m capable of fitting things in.
One example, I knew that I needed a reflective process for my teaching, and I knew that I had this really high standard for myself. I knew that if I started a blog I would spend a month writing a blog post and never hit publish.
And so, I just had to create this system where every Thursday now, I spend 30 minutes writing and no matter where I am in the editing process, how complete my ideas are, I hit publish after 30 minutes, and I call it the “Thursday Thirty.”
And everyone who reads the blog knows that and knows that this is my process, and it’s a little bit incomplete and it’s kind of like writing a handwritten letter to someone.
It’s like, “Hey, here’s what I’ve got time for on a Thursday,” because on any given Thursday, I can fit 30 minutes in, and I know that.
Some days it’s at 9:00 PM. Sometimes if I know I’ve got a packed day, I’m setting my alarm for 4:30 AM and waking up and doing it. But it’s important to me and I’ve done it now for three years.
It’s one example of just being able to create these systems with what works for me to hold myself accountable, because I need that accountability.
I need to know there’s someone out there reading it, right?
Just like with my running, if I know that there’s a race on the horizon, I’ve got to be prepared for that race and having that accountability to set the alarm for 4:30 or to go out and get to the track or get to that hill workout after it’s dark, after my kids are asleep, it’s what I need to do to take care of myself.
Abel: Why? We’re in our mid 30s now, you know, we don’t need to be fast anymore, we’re not competing.
So, what is the carrot that’s kind of encouraging you to keep fit and keep your speed, and still pursue these things, even though you are ridiculously busy?
I often feel I’m kind of like a husky dog, where I need to be pulling something. I need to be doing something hard, and I’ve always loved that.
My favorite days are the days where I fall into bed exhausted from struggling through something, whether it’s chopping wood growing up and stacking wood, or whether it’s climbing a mountain or working at a summer camp.
I love that feeling of exhausting myself.
And I think that’s what really drew me to running sophomore year of high school, when I first started running cross-country. It just pulled me in. You were there.
Abel: Dude, I remember this. We were running at the same time…
The first race I ever ran, you passed me at 2 miles and blew by me, and I had smelled the burn…
Abel: That one time. It never happened again.
It never happened again.
Abel: Yeah. It started and I was pretty fast, because I ran in junior high and did track and stuff like that. But then I was doing too many things to be a super fast runner and what have you.
And so, I started to do it a little bit more recreationally, but I watched you just go from being kind of like an average athlete, I guess, to being one who was getting so much better so fast.
You were one of the few people on the team who really improved over the course of that season. It’s been so fun to watch you, what is it, 15+ years later now, maybe more than that.
Abel: Yeah. I don’t want to say it’s more, but it is. And now you’re still doing it and you’re still loving it, and I think that’s such a beautiful and rare thing.
Yeah. I think it is. I think what I found was a real sense of the emotional relief that it gave me, in terms of just kind of having a stress release and finding that with running I could almost just sweat my problems out a little bit.
Abel: I know what you mean.
And sometimes I worry that it sort of enables me to not actually deal with the problems.
That if I’m always running, if I’m like, “Ok, 10 miles will get these problems to go away.”
I haven’t actually dealt with the problems. So I do think as I’ve aged, and become wiser, I’ve realized, “Ok, I do actually have to either spend the time running thinking through these dilemmas that are ahead of me.”
But then also just recognizing that I need trustworthy friends around who I can bounce ideas off of.
Running can’t be my only way to run from my problems, you know?
Abel: Yeah. Now, let’s use that as an example though, because it sounds like you don’t always do it at the same time.
Especially living in the northeast, I remember running in the winter and colder seasons makes it especially hard to keep that fitness up and not get injured.
How do you keep this going, and make sure it’s in your schedule?
The injury part, I think, is one that I’ve really thought a lot about. I really have not gotten injured, substantially really ever.
I’ve never had the plantar fasciitis, I’ve never had IT band issues. I’ve had little things here and there, I’ll roll an ankle.
I ran steeplechase in college and fell and fractured my scapula. I’ve had some injuries that are like freak injuries that aren’t over-use injuries.
But I think a lot of it is the fact that I don’t stress about my mileage. I trust the process.
I think a lot of runners are on Strava and they’re posting everything and there’s this expectation that their mileage is going to build, and they’re really obsessive about rounding things up.
If they run 79.7 miles, they’ll go around the block a couple more times, right? They’re obsessed with these metrics and benchmarks.
But I’ve kind of found that being crunched for time has forced me to minimize, to say to myself, “What’s the least amount of running I can do to still maximize my fitness?”
And I know it’s something that you’ve talked a lot about on this show, that you can spend 7 minutes or 15 minutes working out. There are these ways you can do workouts to maximize your body’s ability to get fit, and be healthy.
And I think the same thing can go for being fast, that it really forces me to listen to my body.
What I tell people is, during my training on any given day, I’m going to run as hard as I feel like my body will let me for the amount of time that I have.
Like yesterday, I literally had 18 minutes to get a workout in.
It was after work, and I knew I had to be home. I was going out with a friend that night to catch up after a long time and I was like, “This is my workout.”
So on the way home I drove in my running clothes to the steepest hill in our town. It’s 520 meters up and it’s about a 7% grade.
And I just went and I ran as many times as I could, making it to the top in under two minutes.
I’m just doing that and I was exhausted, I fell asleep that night, like my legs hurt.
Abel: Yeah, 15 minutes is enough for hill sprints, that’s for sure.
Right. I always end my workouts with some fast feet no matter how tired I am, I just kind of pound it out.
It’s something I heard from an Australian Olympic runner.
That’s how you get fast, because your feet need to know what it’s like when they’re exhausted to pound it out.
Abel: That makes sense.
And so, I do 120. I’m just like, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 to 120. And my kids make fun of me.
As you mentioned at the beginning of the show, they are 5, 6 and 8. And they’ll come out with me at the end of my run and do fast feet with me.
Having that turn over be a part of the process, no matter how tired I feel, is a really important element of it.
But then I’m also always fitting in cliometrics, and whether it’s stretching, whether it’s doing squats.
If I’m at the park with the kids, I’m using the monkey bars to do pull-ups, I’m doing ab workouts alongside them.
I probably look a little goofy to the other parents, but I just know that that’s what I need.
For example, Monday was a snow day. I didn’t get a run in, but I pulled my kids around the house so many times in our sled in 13 inches of snow.
I’m out there in my boots and a t-shirt, because even though it’s 24 degrees, I’m getting my workout in. And I can’t post that to Strava, I don’t have my GPS watch on, but I know that it all matters.
Every step I take is putting me in this position where, when the race comes, or whatever that opportunity is, there was no sense of laziness on any of those days
And it’s protected me from injury. Because the over-use, yes, I’ll go for a 16-mile run. I ran 30 miler this fall and took a couple of days to feel better about myself.
It’s like, you have a hard time getting out of bed the next morning, or I do after a 30 miler.
But I also was running as hard as I could for those 30 miles. For what I thought I could do in that moment, right? And some days, I feel terrible and I’m running nine minute miles.
The other day, I raced my kids home. They were in the car.
We had gone to the track and we were flying kites and running around with the dog and everything.
And I was like, “I’m just going to run home,” and ran a 5:04 mile with some up-hills in there, because I knew that I was racing my kids in the van.
And my wife’s there and they’re like cheering for me. But whether I’m running a 12 minute mile and feeling terrible, or a 5:04 mile up-hill, I know that it’s all just my body being like, “You’re under slept, you’re overworked.”
“You’re stressed, you’re exhausted,” and not being injured is the most important thing for me, because I need to be able to run.
Honoring the Process
Abel: It sounds to me, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you’re not so attached to the results but you are honoring the process, every day on a small kind of daily basis.
Yeah, the results. I always kind of have that in my mind, because I did run competitively in college. I can turn on that racing mentality of caring a whole heck of a lot about the performance.
I have these times in my head that I always like to think, “Am I three or four weeks away from running that time in a 5K, a 10k, a half marathon?”
And as long as I can keep my fitness so that then I can tinker and put in some really specific workouts, as long as I’m doing hills, as long as I’m getting to the track every other week or something like that, just to keep my fitness up and then getting a long run in every couple of weeks.
I’m like, “Ok, I can hit that mile time if I need to. I can do that in a couple of weeks with some tinkering.”
And so, I’m not trying to see, can I be the fastest I’ve ever been. But can I stay in a competitive mindset and have that in the periphery, so that if a race came up, if something happened…
If someone was like, “Hey, I’m running this race, you want to run with me?” I can feel, “Ok, yeah, I can get to the starting line in three weeks, sure.”
Abel: I dig that. Normally I hate questions like this, but do you see this happening 5, 10, 20 years from now? Like, are we 70 years old going for a run in the White Mountains together? What do you think, Will?
You know, I think people are motivated by different things. Some people are motivated by wanting success and praise from the world.
I think a lot of my motivation when it comes to my fitness is actually fear based.
When my dad was 41, he had a major stroke to the cerebellum.
He was a white water rafting guide out in Utah and out West. He was a ski instructor in the winter at Bretton Woods up in the North Country.
And he was a bike mechanic in the summer at the Littleton bike shop in Northern New Hampshire. Like, everything about his identity involved being active.
And all of a sudden, his cerebellum—which is balanced, it’s all of those functions that allow him to be active—was gone. And that part of his brain is dead now.
He survived the stroke, he recovered, and got a three wheeler bicycle—he rides a two-wheeler now and that was 25 years ago.
But I think I have this fear that now that 41 is close to where I am now, now that I’m a dad like he was, he seemed so invincible.
And he used to always say, “We’re all temporarily able-bodied.”
It’s the one characteristic about ourselves that can change so easily on our commute to work, on our walk on the sidewalk. Like anything can happen, and we take for granted that we are capable of walking up a set of stairs.
We take for granted that we can turn our heads from right to left. We take these things for granted.
So, I think deep down inside that little 11-year-old boy in me on the day that my dad had his stroke, knows that my dad was really lucky to survive that stroke, and a lot of that had to do with his fitness.
And so, I think for me when I think 20 years in the future, I want to stay fit.
I don’t think I want to be setting like the 70-year-old age record in the half marathon or something like that.
But I want to be able to climb the Presidential Range with my grandkids.
I want to be one of those people who as they age is still feeling fit and capable and all that. So I’d say yeah, that is the goal.
Getting Old is Awesome
Abel: I remember something you told me when we were back in high school, and I could be getting this wrong, because it’s been a bit of time, as we discussed.
But I think you had met someone who was this old man on the street, and you’re like, “What’s it like to get old?”
And he’s like, “It’s awesome.”
I remember you told me that with this big smile. And as I thought about getting older, over the past many years, that comes to mind, because you never hear that from people.
You never see someone saying, “Getting old is awesome, I love it.”
Abel: But some people do feel that way. You probably have to kind of force yourself to feel like that sometimes, but what’s your take on that?
Yeah, I mean, being an eighth grade teacher is really interesting. I know eighth grade teachers aren’t really hot on the podcast list. So I really appreciate being here.
Abel: Of course.
Kind of speaking to the truth of what it’s like to hang out with adolescents all day. I’ve taught eighth grade now for 11 years.
At the school where I am, I like to think that I get wiser every year, but they stay the same. Every September, they’re coming out of seventh grade, the world around them is changing, but developmentally they’re still the same.
And so, I do think it’s different than having my own children who are aging as well and constantly changing. But I’m able to reflect on what it’s like to age and become wiser around them.
And both in teaching and the craft of being an educator and caring about young people. But also just in my own awareness of what to get stressed about and what not to.
And kind of what the biggies and smallies of pressures are, and what’s non-negotiable and where to be flexible and how to meet my students’ needs.
I think the same thing is true with aging. I think it is cool, it is awesome. We’re not quite middle-aged, but we’re…
Abel: Getting there.
Right. As you think about being halfway to somewhere, it’s like, “Oh, man… “
“That’s kind of interesting.” Like, do this once more and then, I’m 70.
Abel: Yeah. I said to my wife, Alyson, I’m just like, “Do you realize that we’re pretty much as close to 20 as we are to 50 now?”
And we were just like, “Wow, that’s something.”
Yeah. It’s kind of stunning when you think about that.
But I do think that it’s awesome, because the alternative to it being awesome, in terms of a mindset, it’s so crummy. Right?
It’s like, health is merely the slowest means by which you can die.
It’s not about finding the fountain of youth and figuring out how to live forever, but if you’re not enjoying it, then what are you doing, right?
If you think that your best days are in the rearview mirror, that’s a really crummy existence.
When I think like, “Where did I peak? What was my best year?”
My kids love asking that question, like, “Dad, what was your favorite age?”
And I’m like, “Oh man, I don’t think I’m there yet.”
How to Be Your Best Self
I’m looking forward to the next age, to that next stage.
And so, I really think that. And finding ways to feel young, I’m always talking to my students about their best selves.
“What would your best self do in a circumstance?”
And I try to convey to my students, we all know what our best self feels like.
When we feel like our best selves, when we’ve got enough sleep, when we’re energized, when we love what we’re doing, when we feel confident in the contributions we’re making to the people around us, when we’re feeling successful, when we’re standing up for things that we believe are right, when we have opportunities to be advocates, we feel so good.
When we have things to look forward to. There’s such a sense of satisfaction, and there’s always a sense that it’s energizing to be our best selves.
And so, I think reacquainting ourselves with, “Ok, what is my best self as a 20-year-old, as a 25-year-old, as a 30-year-old?”
We need to continually take inventory of ourselves, to better understand ourselves, because we do change.
And if we’re not, we’re kind of following these patterns for a long time that don’t really make sense anymore for how we’ve changed.
And just like when you go a long time without seeing someone, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’ve aged.”
Or when we’re kids, it’s like, “You’ve gotten so big.”
When we see ourselves in the mirror every day, we forget how we’ve physically changed.
But then emotionally, we’ve also had experiences that have changed us.
Abel: And that applies in so many different ways, and this was true for myself, as well.
Especially as an athlete, as a runner, or someone who’s just out there chugging and burning through calories.
At some point, it’s not appropriate to stuff your face at the cafe bar anymore with as much as you want to eat like we did in high school, when we were on the cross-country team.
At some point, you’ve kind of outgrown that and your body has, too. And you have to, to your point, take that step back and admit to yourself like, “Well, 20 years have passed, no wonder things are a little bit different,” you know?
But it does take that conscious step back. You have to do that in order to re-evaluate where you’re at. And ask yourself if these daily practices or habits are still serving you, because oftentimes, you don’t realize the things that are or aren’t serving you.
It’s just all kind of automatic, because we’re all so busy, we’re caught up in our things that we’re just doing it and executing.
So, to go back to your earlier point about setting up these systems. One of the most useful and encouraging things about that, even though it’s kind of painful to set up sometimes and it certainly takes intention, is that once you do you just need to go on your run that day.
Like, if you know that your run is going to be at 5:30 in the morning or at night, or whatever, then you just have to execute.
You don’t have to wonder like, “Am I going to do it today? Am I going to not do it? Am I going to go for 30 miles or 5?”
But if you just get one step ahead of yourself that way, it’ll be like, “What is the life that I actually want to create for myself?”
I would imagine being a teacher kind of forces that upon you because you can’t ignore the fact that every year is going by. Because you get this whole new set of seventh to eighth graders.
Yeah, totally. And I think as you think about what it is that you need, it goes into everything that you talk about on this show.
You have all these experts, all these people who have these experiences and perspectives and have done tons of research and you need to figure out these different types of eating and different types of exercises. You can’t do them all.
My wife bought running shoes yesterday, and she had tried to call me and be like, “Hey, what should I do?”
And I was busy and didn’t answer, and she’s like, “Hey, so I bought running shoes without asking you.” And I was like, “Ok, cool.”
She’s never run a race in her life.
She was a dancer and a musician, and she does yoga and is very fit.
And she signed up for an all-women’s race in a couple of months and it was just on a whim.
One of her friends was like, “Hey, I’m doing this Run Like A Mother. You want to do it with me?”
She was like, “Yeah, I do.”
And she’s like, “Oh my gosh, Will, what did I do? I signed up for this race.”
A Journal… for your Shoes?
And so, she went and bought herself a new pair of running shoes. And she got a pair and I was like, “That’s awesome. I’m glad you got a pair of running shoes and you like the way they look, and you like the way they feel.
But you should take some inventory, like journal about your running shoes each week, how do they feel?
Because there’s so many different kinds. You can have shoes with tons of cushioning, with tons of support, you can have really minimalist ones, you can have all these different types.
So this is one type, you’ll be running in these for the next 500 miles or whatever, however long that takes you, but take inventory.
Because then next time you can say, those ones that were minimalist, my achilles really hurt, they hurt my knees, my hips hurt, my feet were really sore afterwards, and then try something else.
Try those on, try some with tons of cushioning, the maximalist model. Then maybe try something in the middle.
Because I think asking ourselves, “What do I like? What are my preferences? What works for my body, and my feet with everything, whether it’s running shoes, whether it’s eating?”
Caffeine intake, like, how many cups of coffee? Sometimes you need to have that extra cup to be like, “Okay.”
And then there might be a day where you’re like, “I don’t know if coffee really works for me. Maybe I need to try tea.”
And you see this in people around you and they’re like, “So, I gave up coffee. I gave up eating mammals. I gave up whatever the thing is.”
People try things, but then if you’re not getting that feedback loop of “how am I feeling?” That’s tricky.
Because you’re not actually learning anything about how that’s changing you, you’re just responding.
Abel: And you’re also not as aware of the alternatives out there, right?
Like, as you mentioned, there are so many different kinds of running shoes, and I tend to go for the minimalist most of the time, but not all the time.
I’ve run 30 milers in very cushy shoes.
Abel: And you have to, I think challenge yourself to take those risks, don’t you?
Like, for your wife to sign up for that race, maybe she needed that to get the shoes and then kind of set up those other habits.
Because if you don’t have that thing that you’re shooting for, or that’s pulling you towards, then maybe you don’t do those other little incremental steps, like lacing up your shoes and walking out the door and going for a run, right?
Well, right. I mean, nobody wakes up one day and just becomes the person that they want to be, whether it’s running a race or something else.
It is those incremental steps in moving the needle of the compass one degree.
Because one degree on the compass on day one, you can look to your left and see where you started yesterday.
But two years later, one degree on the compass, you’re in a totally different place than you would have been otherwise.
And I think in going back to the aging question, I had a friend who turned 40.
And she said, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about being halfway to 80. And I asked myself, who do I want to be when I’m 80? Like, what are the values that I want to have?”
And she was like, “I don’t want to care what my body looks like when I’m 80. I want to be one of those women who’s just like, “Hey, this is me.”
“And I want to know everyone in my neighborhood when I’m 80. I want to be that lady who sits on her front porch as an 80-year-old and talks to everyone and everyone knows her.”
And she said, “But I’m not going to wake up the day after my 79th birthday and suddenly become those things, I need to start as a 40-year-old thinking, what am I doing today to ensure that 40 years from now, I know all my neighbors?”
Right? It starts when you’re 40 with introducing yourself, with baking a pie, with going over, with helping someone shovel their driveway, whatever it is.
You don’t wake up one day and just become that thing.
But we all think like, we have these great ideals of what we want to be like when we’re 70 or 80.
But we need to start acting now in a way that we’ll get us there.
Abel: And for you, how many people out there who are listening right now want to write a book in their lifetimes, at some point?
You’ve already done two.
Risk-Taking and Mistake-Making
Abel: I would imagine that, especially hearing you talk about the blog post, it’s like, it’s never perfect, right?
You’re never ready to publish it, you’re never ready to start writing it, you’re never ready to do any of these things.
So can you explain how you take risks like that? What is the process?
Yeah. Our school, we have a phrase that we’re a risk-taking, mistake-making community.
Abel: That’s cool.
And it’s a pre-K through 9th grade school. And so, we often think about presenting opportunities to our students to take risks, but also to make some mistakes.
And I’m very much someone who when there’s a challenge, or an opportunity, or sometimes a brainstorm, I like to jump in with two feet.
At the swimming pool, I’m not the person who gets their towel all set up and puts on the sunscreen and does everything and then gets in the pool.
I’m like kicking my sandals off and throwing my shirt off as I’m running to the pool and diving in. And I’m fine with that shock of the water and that it’s cold.
I like taking those risks. And I’m open to them.
And you and I had so many adventures as teenagers, where it was those types of things, where it’s like, “Yeah, I’m up for that, let’s go do that. Sure.”
Abel: I just remembered getting that old VW Jetta stuck in snow banks so many times, just going out for a drive for no reason, just hanging out with Will.
Abel: It was great, man.
What does it feel like to have a car fish-tail underneath you on an icy road?
Like, all those sorts of things that are like, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen?”
And then talking ourselves out of it and being like, “Well, that’s probably not going to happen anyway.” Like, that is the worst, but that won’t happen, right?
Pushing shopping carts into a lake or something like that and going off the pier.
But when you think about taking those risks in terms of doing something like writing a book, I think I really take to heart the idea that you never actually finish a piece of art. You never actually finish something creative, you just abandon it.
And it’s about, when am I going to say, “You know what, this is good enough?”
For a long time when I was struggling with my own perfectionism, I had a little sticky note on my desk, and on my computer and next to my bureau in my bedroom.
And it said, “You do enough. You have enough. You are enough.”
And those three reminders were so important to me as I was coming into adulthood and being a young dad, and providing for my family.
Southwestern Connecticut is a wealthy part of our country. And thinking, “Okay, I have enough.”
What does it mean to have enough?
It feels in American culture a lot of the time like, no one has enough, right? And everyone kind of says, “Well, if I just had 20% more…”
And everyone thinks that’s kind of the American dream. It’s like, a little more than I have now would be the perfect amount.
Because that would enable me to do X, Y, Z, and then they get there, and then they see, “Oh, just a little bit more.” Right?
But realizing, I do have enough.
And I think, you know, I have some impatience with the publishing process, so I self-published and told some people. And then I’ve really relied on word of mouth for people to learn about things.
And I think knowing why you’re doing something is really important.
People who want to write a book, who might be out there listening, can really kind of journal or even expounding upon that question.
Ask yourself, “Why do I want this? Do I want this because… Is it fear-based, is it success-based? Do I want to make a lot of money off this book? Do I think I have this novel idea to share?”
What’s the motivation behind it?
Because once you know your motivation then you can think about who’s going to read it. Because you can’t write a book that everyone on the planet is going to love.
And you need to know, “Who are my readers, and how can I connect to them?”
And so, when I wrote this book, my motivation was that I wanted to create a final exam review packet for my World Culture students, that they would never throw away.
I still have all those papers from classes we took in high school. I saved everything. I have boxes with my notes.
Abel: That’s so cool.
Because I loved those teachers, and I loved those classes and I held onto it. And I think probably deep down I knew I might use this again some day.
And so, I find myself as a teacher flipping back through those papers with notes from those incredible teachers that we had.
Abel: We did have incredible teachers.
We had incredible teachers. And I find myself saying phrases that they said.
And so, I wanted to create something that my students wouldn’t throw away, because it just pains me to see all these incredible conversations in a course like World Cultures that I had with these 14-year-old kids, and then to see them just taking the stack of papers and being like, “Whew, glad we’re done with that.”
I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no, this is far too important, the stakes are way too high because you’re going to become an adult some day, and these things we talked about matter. It wasn’t just for that test.”
And so, what I ended up coming to was writing this book for them and I was like, “You can’t throw this away, because this is a book that’s dedicated to each of you and it’s a letter to you, but it’s also your final exam review packet.”
And so, that was my motivation. I never wanted to make a penny off of it. It wasn’t about being on Barnes & Noble’s best-sellers list, because it’s not written for them.
It’s for my students. it’s called, The Things We Shared and the Time We Had: A Letter to My Students, and it’s very much a love letter to the experience that we shared in this one year.
But also, it’s why I love being a teacher. It’s why I care about my students and why it’s easy to have empathy for them.
And so, that was my motivation there, and I think because I knew that it became easy to move forward with publishing it and saying, “Gosh, I need this done by final exams, so that’s my cut-off date.”
Abel: And it’s so unique. I mean, it may be for your students, but I’ve certainly had a lot of fun reading through it.
It’s so unique that you can kind of do whatever you want, and you realize that a book… I’ll just hold this up…
You’re even playing with the spacing, on every page you’re having fun with it. It’s a space for you to play and a place for other people to learn.
And I’ll just share one of these quotes that stuck out to me. There’s a Japanese saying that means, “Above up there is always something above up.”
And to me, that kind of sums up your personality a little bit, Will. Ever since high school, you’ve been like this.
At least from the outside looking in, you’ve been able to see the magic of life instead of just slogging through it.
Because life becomes very mundane, especially if you just follow what you’re told as you enter adulthood. And then you get older and all this stuff, and you do need to challenge yourself, not to slog, to find that up, that above up.
Tell us about that a little more…
Yes, when I present that, when we studied Japan and we’re coming up on that study with my students right now after spring break.
Abel: Oh, cool.
I’m excited to share that expression with them. But my students always look at it two ways.
One is, they’re like, wait, does that mean you can never be the best? Or do they mean constantly strive, like press on regardless?
And is it about resilience or is it about failure? And I tried not to answer that question for them.
I say, “Well, let’s look at the other things we know about Japanese culture.”
Let’s look at these elements of the Samurai code, the Bushido code.
Let’s look at the things that are valued in the way that they respect their elders in Japanese culture. The way that things even like timeliness and punctuality matter, and their public transportation system, right?
And the levels of perfection that culturally the Japanese hold themselves to. What do you think? Let’s look through that lens.
But then also, what resonates with you?
Once someone says a quote or has some proverb or some expression and puts it out there in the world, someone writes a book, it’s not theirs anymore, they’ve lost ownership of it.
A song that’s misinterpreted by thousands of people, a chorus that everyone’s singing along with without realizing what the song writer intended.
Abel: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Yeah.
Right, exactly. It can totally change things.
And so, I always turn it back on them. But I think I love the quote, because it is this constant reality that we’re all amateurs.
We’re all constantly reinventing ourselves and thinking deeply.
One of the people that I talk to my students about when we study this is a runner named Nick Simmons. I don’t know if you know Nick, but he’s an 800 meter runner.
And he went to a D3 School out west and he didn’t have any offers for scholarships for college.
He had been a multiple-time state champion in high school, but he wasn’t built like other distance runners, and he kind of calls himself the bison. He’s got big shoulders and runs with his arms out like this. And he decided that he was going to go to a D3 school and he ended up becoming multiple time All-American.
And then made two Olympic teams in the 800 meters, and went to two Olympics. But he also always believed that there was a ceiling that he hadn’t reached.
And so, he was running for Brooks at one point in his career and he put his foot down saying, “I don’t want to be forced to be on the U.S. team that’s sponsored by Nike, and have to wear Nike apparel.”
And he said, “I’m going to boycott the World Championships and not go as an athlete, because I believe that this is the right thing to do.”
And he didn’t go and he put his foot down.
And so, just thinking about above up, there’s always up. He looked outside of the scope of performance and said, “There’s something that I believe in that I want to put my foot down on. I’ve already achieved. I’ve made two Olympic teams and I’m going to forgo this because I believe it’s right.”
And he’s someone who then retired from running and founded a company that I absolutely love called Run Gum and it’s a company that looks to caffeinate athletes in a way that doesn’t put liquid in their stomachs.
And so, he was a biochemistry major in college and an athlete and was like, “How can I combine these two things to get a better delivery method to boost metabolism, to get some B vitamins in there, some amino acids and give athletes a caffeine boost, either during or before performance?”
And so, he’s someone who I share his story with my students, because I’m like, so here he is, he could have just settled to be one of the best 800 meter runners in the world.
He was a medalist at the World Championships, made two Olympic teams, for many people that would be enough.
But then he said, “Okay, what am I going to do next?”
Thinking in those lateral ways of what are my connections, what have I learned from this experience that can vault me into another area and how can I leverage that?
And so I think that’s the way I think about my writing, my teaching, my running, my parenting. It all kind of becomes this one philosophy and mindset that is interconnected.
Abel: It puts you back into beginner’s mind, doesn’t it?
Abel: And you need to go there.
Like for me, one thing that I’m working through right now is, I’ve been playing guitar for 25, 30 years at this point, and I get really bored and feel like I’m plateauing and all of that.
So I’m learning jazz piano and it’s kicking my butt.
I’m starting with a couple of teachers who are just kicking my butt. Like a personal trainer might if you were out of shape.
And that is so humbling and so fun and I’m learning more that way than I would be if I were playing guitar 6 – 10 hours a day right now.
But it does take that, “Well, maybe I’m going to go to piano where I’m weak and vulnerable, and where I don’t have the speed, and I can’t take everything for granted.” You know what I mean?
So like if you broke your foot, for example, it’s like, I doubt you’d still be running obviously, but you wouldn’t be stopping either. I’m sure you’d find that next challenge, whatever it is.
Tethered to Devices: Teaching Kids not to Consume the World
Right. Yeah, totally. I think that we would. I think that’s one thing about working with young people, especially in this day and age, where they’re so tethered to devices.
For me, I’m barely in that age and you probably feel the same, where my phone is a tool. That I rely on heavily, but it’s still a tool.
For my students, it’s really an appendage.
I see in them, even though they’re not allowed to have those devices out during the school day, unless a teacher is saying, “Hey, pull out your phones.”
They know where it is at every second of every day.
But I still have times where I forget my phone somewhere, and I’m like, “Ah, where’s my phone?”
My students do not ever ask that question.
They always know where their phone is.
Abel: By eighth grade this is true? Probably even before that, right?
Totally, before eighth grade.
And so, reminding kids there are things you can learn. You don’t have to just consume the world.
It’s not just about posting and having the social network be a back and forth relationship, but it’s also not just about consumption.
It’s about creation, but also just your own exploration in yourself.
And so, we talk a lot about writing letters. And what does writing a letter do for a young person that’s different than sending a text message? Or even an email?
And what is seeing someone’s handwriting and sharing gratitude in a text message with an emoji like praying hands or something to say, “Thanks” versus getting a handwritten letter from someone in an envelope that just very quickly says, “Hey, that meant a lot to me the way you spent time with me yesterday, thanks.”
Abel: Man, these kids need you, these adults need you, Will.
What are some things that adults are missing out on right now that they might be able to learn from the eighth graders in the World Cultures class?
Oh man, some things that they’re missing out on. I think that reflective process when we study Africa. I have all these words that I think are so important for my students to learn and a lot of them are in that book.
But one of them is a word from the Twi language of Ghana, and the word is Sankofa. And it essentially means: It’s okay to look back for what you’ve forgotten.
And I think that speaks to that reflective process of realizing that we’ve had wisdom spoken into our lives by people at different points, and we’ve had experiences that build us up.
But if we neglect those experiences and we don’t reflect back on them and remember that we’ve had them, it’s so easy to forget.
It’s so easy to get drawn into the next thing and to forget all of the things that we know and that we’ve learned about ourselves and about the world around us.
So I think that’s definitely one of them.
I think recognizing that there’s a collective responsibility in communities and in cultures.
There are so many books now about tribes and about rites of passage and things that are lacking in American culture.
And the ways that sports can feel like a tribe, that there’s a collective affinity for something and a purpose. But sports is also the opiate of the people, right?
We can forget that as a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan, or a New York Jets fan or whatever, that there is more than that. That we’re looking for these connections between each other, but really the connections that can keep us from asking deep questions.
Asking my students, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve done in the last week?”
And having them free write about that for 3 minutes and then talking without specifics, without requiring them to share, but about some of the general ideas that they find there is so powerful.
I think often that teaching them English, allows them to look in here, and teaching World Cultures gets them to look out there.
And I get to have the same students for both subjects.
Abel: That’s great.
It’s really cool. And then I think the other thing is just thinking about feedback.
I think about the feedback that I give my students a lot. So much of a teacher’s job historically has been to evaluate and to coach.
The coaching is where you’re teaching them how to do something differently or to develop new skills or things like that.
And the evaluation is, “So how did you do in displaying these things?”
But the affirmation and the building up of people around us is also so necessary.
Studies have been done that people, and young people especially, need 4 times the praise for every one piece of constructive criticism.
Abel: Adults too, I would imagine.
Adults too, right. In any of these things we’ve talked about, about our own personal explorations and growth.
And so, the way that I’ve worked that into a system is, I have on my desk right here, these little pieces of paper that just say “High five from Mr. McDonough.”
It’s gone through a bunch of different iterations, there’s different colors and I just color photocopy these.
And I’ll just write a high five to 2 students every day. It’ll be something that I’ve noticed is qualitative; it’ll never show up in their GPA or in their report card even, about the way they’ve listened to one of their classmates, about the way that they’re engaging with material.
We have buddies at our school where they have younger students that they’re mentoring, the way that they interact with their buddy playing four square.
It could be anything. It could be a cheerful hello that went beyond what was necessary, when they were kinder than necessary in some way, and just praising them and lifting them up for something like that.
Or something that they are working really hard on and then they have this tangible piece of paper to take home and put somewhere.
And the feedback that I’ve gotten from parents and from the kids themselves is so powerful.
Because all of a sudden you have this piece of paper saying, “I believe in you.”
Or saying, “You’re capable.”
And it means so much more than the 92 they get on a test in my class, or anything like that.
And emphasizing that. Because it’s so easy to just look at results right now, knowing what we know about college admissions.
And for a lot of my students, even high school admissions if they go into boarding school or competitive day schools around here.
Just thinking about that. And I think that coincides with letters, too.
They get my handwriting, chicken scratchy as it may be, but I’m prioritizing that and I know that it’s worth it. Even though that doesn’t fit in the triage of what I have to do by the end of the day, I know that writing two of those and taking five minutes to do so is always worth it.
Abel: I love that.
What are some of the challenges that are facing the next generation of athletes, or aspiring health nuts?
Or what are we facing now that we may not have been before, that’s right in your face?
I mean, I think that a lot of it is that element of consumption.
It’s so easy to forget that as athletes, as health nuts, it’s about our interactions with the world around us.
When we think about consumption, we think about both intellectual consumption and the things that we’re listening to, the things that we’re watching, the things that we’re consuming in that way.
As well as food and our relationship with food, and exercise and the way we move in the world around us.
The number of articles now being written about the benefits of going outside. We actually in the United States, it’s the safest time ever to be a kid and yet kids are protected more than ever.
Right? Just with the ability to monitor young people and their inability to go and play by themselves, I think is going to be a real challenge for them as they become adults. That not having that skillset of creating their own adventures.
We need these young people who are going to be coming into the workforce 15 years from now to love adventure.
Like, they are going to be solving all the problems that we’ve been causing, and for them to do that we need them to be creative. We need them to have a sense of empathy and compassion and read people, but also to be healthy, to be able to engage with the world around them.
And so, I think that is a really big part of it.
Abel: And consumption comes from so many different directions now.
I feel like when we were kids, we were just expected to entertain ourselves.Go out in the woods, and like you said, create your own adventures.
Now, even if we’re standing in line as adults, you see people playing Candy Crush and texting and just absorbing every last second of time.
When in fact, just by default, not necessarily because we wanted to, but we were reflecting all the time growing up in New Hampshire because there was nothing to do.
Abel: We had to create our own adventures, create our own little projects.
I created little radio shows on my tape player, and now I have a podcast. That’s because I was playing around when I was five.
And I love the outdoors, and it feels at home because that’s what I was doing back then.
So yeah, I think to your point, it’s so important to not get too caught up in how easy it is to consume all this stuff.
Because we can create more than ever now, right? Like, you could argue that now is the best time ever to create anything.
Yes, it’s saturated. But also, you’re in Connecticut, I’m at 8000 feet in the mountains of Colorado, and it’s working. People are listening all around the world.
It’s a time of opportunity.
So those were the challenges, some of the challenges that are facing the next generation, but what are some of the opportunities?
What are some of the things that light you up?
I mean, I think the things that light me up are connecting. It all happens with people connecting, right?
The Opportunity for Human Connection
It’s about helping people feel alive, because I feel alive when I’m engaging with other people and feeding off their energy.
I almost think of myself like a librarian of ideas. Where a librarian’s job is to find a perfect book for the perfect person.
It’s like, “I know you and your interests, and this book is for you.” Right?
And connect that person to the book to have an experience.
And I love doing that with ideas. I love connecting big ideas out there in the world or connecting two people with ideas to say, “Ooh! You have to meet this person.”
I get so excited sharing people with people because of their ideas and being present for that.
And I think helping people be reminded that it would be so easy if someone made a movie about someone’s life.
For so many people in our culture today, to be cast as like the third random brown-haired guy in their own movie, it’s like, this is their life. And yet, they’re not the hero.
That adventure, that action, feeling alive.
Nobody would say when they’re playing whatever game on their phone, “Oh yeah, I feel most alive.”
I wake up, my heart wakes up, my energy is high when I’m playing this game.
It’s like, no, it doesn’t. No one feels the most alive on their phone.
But I think about even in our adulthood when you and I have spent time together, whether it was coming to visit you, whether it was hanging out in the National Parks of Southern Utah…
It’s like, we were alive.
And even just the conversations we’re having in the car driving from one place to another with these incredible canyons around us, we’re alive because of the conversations we’re having and the caliber and the direction that they’re going.
Because it feels like anything’s possible.
Abel: Yeah. You’ve always rubbed off on me in that way, where you feel like anything is possible.
In many ways, you introduced me to the West. That was the first time that I had ever seen Moab and Arches and Canyonlands and all that, and now here I am living here.
I’m going to these places and actually meeting up with our old teachers and some of our old classmates. Oh, it’s so wonderful.
Where to Find Will McDonough
But anyway, before we go Will, can you please tell folks where they can find your book, where they can find your work and what’s happening next?
Yeah, so if you search my name on Amazon, Will McDonough, both my books are available on Amazon.
One is a collection of poems called Volcanic Love: Poems from a Flawed Young Dad Who Feels Too Much and Tries Really Hard. That one was really a collection of love poems to my family and to that struggle of being a young dad.
And then the other one is called, The Things We Shared In the Time We Had: A Letter To My Students. Both are available on Amazon. It’s the best way to get them.
And I mentioned Run Gum earlier. Run Gum’s awesome. You can find that at rungum.com. I use it all the time for my long runs half way through, and then for any races or fast work I’m doing.
And then also as a teacher we can’t have gum in school, but in between classes at the end of the day, if I need that metabolic boost, you know, that caffeine is awesome. So those would be my three plugs.
Abel: Right on.
And then, I mean, what’s next? I have so many ideas and so many things on my backburner of new book ideas, collaborations in terms of presenting at conferences and things like that.
But I will surely keep you attuned to all of those things and happenings.
Abel: And we’ll have to have you back on this show, because there is just a wealth of knowledge and magic behind everything happening in Will McDonough world.
Oh, thanks Abel.
Abel: So happy to have you on man, it’s such a pleasure to reconnect and please come back on soon.
Totally. Love being here, thanks for having me.
Before You Go…
Here’s a review that just came in from Yvonne. She says…
This podcast is one of the best in providing information on living my healthiest life yet.
As a psychotherapist, I appreciate the positive and upbeat nature of the show. Fat-Burning Man is my go to podcast for myself, my clients, and my family!
Thank you for sharing your inspiration with us. Cheers!
That really means a lot to me. One thing that I’m always surprised about is how many professionals, like you, listen to this show.
When I see you folks out in the world and you come up to me and you’re just like, “Hey, I’ve been listening to the podcast for a while.” You instantly feel like friends.
So I just want to say, even though we may not know each other personally, it’s so cool that you folks are listening to this show and have been for so long and connecting with what we’re doing here.
Because we really believe in it, and we hope that we can help with some of the misinformation that’s out there, help put things into perspective a little bit. Mostly because I’m kind of a nut, and I do live out in nature.
We do have a different way of going about things, and I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of wonderful teachers and family members who have passed things down that I really believe are essential to a healthy life.
But anyway, how are you doing? Have you had any luck with the Wild way of life? Or have you enjoyed anything you’ve listened to on this show?
Well, I’d love to hear from you. Just drop me a line in the comments below, or sign up for my newsletter and just hit reply to the email I’ll send to you. I read every one and try to reply to as many as possible.
You know, even though we live in the boonies up here in the mountains, I do hope that we’re helping to build some sort of virtual community with you.
Nothing makes me happier than hearing that multiple followers of this show who have gotten together in whatever place they’re living and started up their own little groups of health nuts.
So I just want to say to all of you professional health nuts and amateur health nuts out there, thanks so much for listening and supporting this show.
There’s a bunch of other cool stuff that we’ve been up to. For the past year and change, I’ve been secretly recording over 400 virtual reality videos that are all recorded in 360 degrees.
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We really have gone to so many wacky places, but there are a lot more coming. So if you’re into that kind of offbeat and adventurous type stuff, be sure to go to abeljames.com and you can find all of that without outside advertising or any nonsense.
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