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Why Silicon Valley is addicted to adventure

It’s Friday, and while most of us are getting ready to coast into the weekend, maybe making plans to hit up happy hour later, Neal Mueller is setting out with three other men to become the first people to row across the Arctic Ocean. The quest — which was impossible until a few years ago (thanks, melting icecaps!) — will span 1,300 miles and take 30 days of nonstop rowing. Did I mention Mueller’s day job is as a senior product marketing manager at VMware (s vmw)?

Mueller’s adventure might be extreme, but for anyone who has spent enough time in Silicon Valley — and it doesn’t take long — it probably isn’t shockingly extreme. Everywhere you turn, someone is training for a marathon or planning a vacation to climb a mountain. Even Dennis Crowley (a New Yorker, I know) just finished a triathlon. They’re certainly not uncommon activities within VMware, Mueller told me, where he also works with someone who won an Olympic medal in tae kwon do.

Physical fitness is one thing (bicycling to work is commonplace, and I recently visited one startup with a weight bench, chin-up bar and tractor tire (for flipping) outside its office), but running 100 miles in an ultra-marathon like Nicira Founder and CEO Martin Casado does is something else altogether. Then there are the mad scientists, guys like self-proclaimed human guinea pig Tim Ferriss and quantified-self devotee Dave Asprey.

So what gives? Why are Silicon Valley’s best and brightest consumed by pushing themselves to their physical limits?

Average isn’t good enough

According to sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, who works regularly with Olympic athletes (and with a technologist, go figure, preparing to complete a deca-Ironman event), technologists are drawn to such arduous physical feats because they aren’t really used to doing average things. Success in the technology world means doing something no one has ever done before, and that mindset carries over into athletic undertakings. “It’s satisfying to see how far you can push yourself,” she said.

She appears to be onto something. PayPal Co-founder, man about Silicon Valley and avid cyclist Max Levchin told Men’s Health last year, “My natural behavior is to push myself over the limit every day. … [If] I wasn’t given this direction [from a coach], I’ll do this until I fall over on the bike, dead.”

Triathletes completing the swim portion.

For successful individuals, Dahlkoetter says there’s also a “constellation of traits” that are necessary in both business and endurance sports. These include having true enthusiam for what you do, or a “fire inside,” and the ability to break a grand dream into the individual steps necessary to make it happen.

Discussing his ultra-marathons with my colleague Stacey Higginbotham, for example, Nicira’s Casado said he knows how to pace himself, even run slower than he’d like, if it means he’ll finish the race. Levchin speaks about his obsession with data, monitoring everything every aspect of his rides and his own body to ensure he’s always improving.

There’s also internal motivation and self-direction, Dahlkoetter says, and the courage to keep working even when you’re tired and to see mistakes as learning opportunities. “It takes a certain kind of mindset,” she said, “where you feel like you have to be able to push yourself through the pain and work through all the adversity that happens.”

For Mueller, it’s about gratification

OK, so these things might be true for the CEOs — the guys who join Levchin on the Men’s Health list of “fiscally fit” men, or serial risk-taker Richard Branson. They might also explain why, according to Mueller, many companies in Silicon Valley are willing to give sabbaticals (VMware gave him two months) to employees who want to undertake such adventures as climbing a mountain or rowing across the sea. They like to foster these traits.

But Mueller isn’t a CEO of a large company, and he hasn’t sold anything to Google for hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet he has swam the English Channel and climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents (the 120th person to do). He summited Mt. Everest without a guide. (Zoom out on his adventure map below to see all he’s done.)

He thinks does these things in part because of the personal gratification they bring. When you’re working in large teams on complex problems, everything takes a long time and there’s not necessarily a defined beginning or end. And no matter how much code you contribute to a project, you know it’s going to be checked and double-checked by several people.

Mueller (far right) and his team.

It’s cool work, Mueller said, but “you have none of the personal gratification you get from climbing a mountain.” Aside from being the first team to row the Arctic Ocean, he said the gratification on this trip will be taking plankton samples from the freshly melted ocean so the University of Alaska, Fairbanks can find out where whales are and help protect them from Shell’s new oil-drilling efforts in the area. (This Los Angeles Times article on the adventure goes into detail on the science.)

The scientific aspect is Mueller’s way of actually giving back to a cause that he feels it’s easy to just pay lip service. Like most people, he recycles but still drives a gas-powered car to work most days. “It seems kind of two-headed to say you shouldn’t drill up there and then drive a gas-powered car,” he said.

Then again, as Dahlkoetter suggests, maybe it’s just about doing something very few people, or no one, has done before. Everybody in the Valley wants to be part of a first, “that’s where the spoils are,” Mueller said. “Not everyone is lucky enough to do it in business. … That’s what the Arctic row is about.”

Feature and Mueller images courtesy of Arctic Row; triathlon image courtesy of Walter Baxter.

2 Responses to “Why Silicon Valley is addicted to adventure”

  1. Kimberley Chambers

    Your article truly resonated with me. I’m an Experience Designer at Adobe in San Francisco and I’m also an avid open-water swimmer.
    The thrill of the adventure and the personal gratification of setting extreme goals and achieving them is unlike anything else.
    In September I will join 5 teammates in a 339 mile swim from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. 7 days, non-stop swimming, without wetsuits:) We’re hoping to set a world record and raise $500k for Semper Fi Fund.

  2. Derrick Harris

    I should add, at the behest of Neal, that another member of the team, Collin West, works for Correlation Ventures in Palo Alto. That’s the firm that uses analytics to decide whether to invest.