“For most of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student. The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.“ (Natural Born Heroes)
Author: Christopher McDougall
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 2015
Origin/Intention: I enjoyed McDougall’s previous book, Born to Run, and extracted from it some neat fitness and performance insights; I hoped to get the same from Natural Born Heroes. A secondary motivating factor was to enjoy a bit of a break from the deeper stuff I’ve been reading lately, which has mostly focused on the gradual demise of capitalism and the recent rise of various autocrats.
Summary: Natural Born Heroes is two books in one: the first is a barely believable real-life caper from the days of the Nazi occupation of Crete – the kidnapping of a Nazi General by a rag-tag bunch of rebels; the second is an examination of natural movement and fitness methods and traditions that harken back to human evolution and early civilization. The two are linked by McDougall’s exploration and examination of the physical conditioning required – but naturally possessed – by the Cretan rebel forces as they drove the occupiers absolutely nuts.
The kidnap escapade can be summarized thusly: the rebels kidnapped a General from smack-dab in the middle of an occupied stronghold and had to transport him across Crete’s unforgiving terrain while being pursued relentlessly by a war criminal known as The Butcher, who was accompanied by a few tens of thousands of Nazi soldiers.
The natural fitness arc explores a range of subjects, including:
- heroes of antiquity
- the only-just-now-becoming-partially-understood role of the body’s fascia in our movement and performance; Fascia power is described by McDougall as, “an egalitarian and almost undepletable resource”
- Georges Hébert‘s la méthode naturelle and its modern practitioners
- Fat adaptation, Phil Maffetone and The Maffetone Method
- Martial arts, particularly Wing Chun
- The dear old English gentlemen, William E Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes
- Nutritional needs
- …and much more
My Take: Until reading Natural Born Heroes, I didn’t know of the crucial role Greece – and Crete in particular – played in helping the allies defeat the Nazis (the Cretan resistance ultimately delayed Hitlers’s advance into Russia, which caused his armies to get stuck in winter, and we all know what happens when you get stuck in a Russian winter…).
So hey, thanks Crete!
On the fitness/performance side of things, I found the content compelling enough that I’m seriously considering trying out some of it; in particular, reminding my body how to run on fat reserves rather than sugar. Since finishing the book (last night), I’ve been reading up quite a bit on the subject, and I think it’s worth a shot and holds little downside or risk.
Now, for the slightly critical stuff…all-in-all, I preferred Born to Run – it just flowed better as a story, while I found Natural Born Heroes a bit jerky, in that it bounced around between the two narratives. In the acknowledgments section, McDougall says, “I couldn’t choose between two different book ideas – one about Natural Movement, the other about a crazy wartime adventure on Crete.” I’m not certain he was able to strike the right synthesis, as the combination felt a bit forced at times. Don’t get me wrong – both pieces were really neat – it’s just that the transitions weren’t aways seamless.
Nevertheless, I got what I wanted from Natural Born Heroes – a nice break from some heavier stuff, in the form of an amazing World War 2 tale scattered with important insights into human performance.
Read This Book If: …You want to be useful.
Notes and Quotes
- p12: “For most of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected, then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student. The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.”
- p23, on the amygdala, and why I’m a real wimp for jumps on my mountain bike: “The amygdala accesses your long-term memory, scanning whether anything you’ve done in the past resembles something you’re about to attempt in the present. If it hits a match, you’re good to go: your muscles will relax, your heart rate will stabilize, your doubts will vanish. But if the amygdala finds no evidence that you’ve ever, say, climbed down a tall tree, it will lobby your nervous system to shut down that operation. The amygdala is what causes people to burn to death instead of stepping onto a firefighter’s ladder, or drown by refusing to release their grip on a lifeguard’s neck.”
- p63: “Every guerrilla band, they discovered, relied on the same cheap and devilishly effective weaponry: doubt. Create enough uncertainty in your enemy and you can paralyze him.”
- p64, on Sykes and Fairbairn: “By the time World War II began, Sykes and Fairbairn were nearly sixty years old; their hair had gone white, and their sharpshooting eyes now needed spectacles. Still, Gubbins wanted his first class of dirty-trickster recruits to see the old-school stuff in action, so he invited Sykes and Fairbairn to a training camp he’d set up at a hidden estate deep in the Scottish Highlands. ‘We were taken into the hall of the Big House, and suddenly at the top of the stairs appeared a couple of dear old gentlemen,’ recalled a recruit, R. F. ‘Henry’ Hall. The recruits watched, aghast, as their would-be mentors stumbled and fell, ‘tumbling, tumbling down the stairs’ … and then sprang to their feet in a battle crouch, each with a dagger in his left hand and a .45 in his right. The ‘dear old gentlemen’ had gotten the drop on an entire roomful of aspiring secret agents. Pit-pit-pit – a few squeezes of the trigger and the room would be full of corpses. ‘A shattering experience for all of us,’ Hall admitted.”
“The recruits watched, aghast, as their would-be mentors stumbled and fell, ‘tumbling, tumbling down the stairs’ … and then sprang to their feet in a battle crouch, each with a dagger in his left hand and a .45 in his right. The ‘dear old gentlemen’ had gotten the drop on an entire roomful of aspiring secret agents.”
- An interesting thing to try at home, p70: “Steve roots around in his pocket and comes out with a rubber band. ‘Put this around the fingers of one hand, right up there near the fingernails. Now spread your fingers as wide as you can. Really fight it. Good. Close them and open again.’ It’s so easy I’m getting a little embarrassed for Steve, and that’s when he pulls his big reveal. ‘It would be stupid to throw an arrow, right?’ he says. ‘Better to use your muscles to pull back the string and let the string do the work.’ He tells me to strip off the rubber band, drop to the floor, and get ready for push-ups. But instead of lowering my chest to the floor and straining my way back up. I’m to reverse it: I’m supposed to spread my fingers as wide as they were with the rubber band, mash my palms into the floor, and pull myself down. When I do, I surprise even myself when my elbows straighten with barely and effort. ‘See?’ Steve says. ‘You tightened the spring on the way down, then it popped you right up.’ I try again, and it feels like I’m being sprung from a toaster. I’m not sure how it’s working – I’m not even sure if Steve knows – but those were the easiest twenty push-ups of my life.”
- p79: “You can’t fight natural instinct, [Fairbairn] decided. But you can make natural instinct fight for you.”
- p82: “But wait – wouldn’t mixed martial artists later claim that 90 percent of all fights end up on the ground and win bouts all the time by bringing the action to the mat? Very true, Fairbairn would reply – and if you find yourself inside an octagon with a cushioned floor and a Brazilian in surf shorts, then go ahead and grapple. But in a real fight – with no rules, no ref, no tap-outs, no guarantee the other guy doesn’t have a weapon – the ground is where you go to die.”
“If you find yourself inside an octagon with a cushioned floor and a Brazilian in surf shorts, then go ahead and grapple. But in a real fight – with no rules, no ref, no tap-outs, no guarantee the other guy doesn’t have a weapon – the ground is where you go to die.”
- p83: “As a rule of thumb, performance aberration in a basic skill is a good way to evaluate whether it’s natural to a species. When you spot a giant ability gap between ages and genders, you know you’re looking at nurture, not nature.”
- p153: note to self
- p227: “Suddenly it made sense: we’re weird-looking for a reason. Strip us naked and humans look more like insects than animals, what with our spindly legs and gangly arms and fat, round heads swiveling on top of peculiarly inflexible spines. We’re slow and weak and can barely climb to save our lives, and we lack all the really good stuff like tails and hooves and fangs. We’d be helpless if we couldn’t do three things hunt, gather, and share. Period. That’s it. Those three occupations have been the human career path since the dawn of time, and we’re still at it today.”
- p265, on our bodies and fat: “There’s no pussyfooting around. Your body loves fat; it’s a treasure your system would rather hoard than burn, so if it senses there’s any other fuel at hand, it will use that first and convert the leftovers into more fat. To free himself from the sugar-burn cycle, Stu would have to go cold turkey: he could stuff himself silly all day, but only on meat, fish, eggs, avocados, vegetables, and nuts. No beans, no fruit, no grains. No soy, no wine, no beer. Whole dairy like sour cream and real cheese were in; low-fat milk was out. That was part 1. Part 2 was even more basic: Slow down. When you sprint, Phil explained, you jack up your heart rate. Your body interprets a hammering heart as EMERGENCY! so it goes looking for those gas-soaked rags. It wants the fastest-burning fuel it can find, and that means sugar. But once you’ve conditioned your body to rely on fat, you’ll be able to run as fast as ever – and much faster.”
- Well, I don’t look forward to this experience, p291: “‘Oh, and another thing,’ Maffetone added. ‘Don’t be surprised if you feel a little bit, um … awful.’ When your body is denied its sugar supply, it can get grouchy. Ugh. I saw what he meant about four minutes into the first run. Fatigue kept washing in and out like waves; I’d be clipping along easily, then suddenly feel like I was coming down with the flu. It would pass after a few minutes of woozy walking, only to come roaring back shortly after I started running again. It was the eeriest sensation, like being yanked back and forth by a tug-of-war inside my own digestive system. WE NEED SUGAR! Shut your pie-hoe, we’re fine. Onward.”
- p310 quotes Yiorgos Pattakos, who assisted the rebels in moving the General: “When you live in a place like this – small, by itself – you’re brought up to give help, not wait for it.”