Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 53 - Randi Griffin - FIND YOUR OWN WAY - Part 3 of 3

I mean, we definitely see it in the US where it’s like, people will, you’ll get I’ll say like, I don’t think this has happened, but say, we had like somebody in the modern pentathlon, and they were the best ever like, you would have people rallying around them, even though they have no idea what the five sports are in modern pentathlon or the rules or how it works.


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JESSE: I mean, we definitely see it in the US where it’s like, people will, you’ll get I’ll say like, I don’t think this has happened, but say, we had like somebody in the modern pentathlon, and they were the best ever like, you would have people rallying around them, even though they have no idea what the five sports are in modern pentathlon or the rules or how it works.

Just because like, yeah, Team USA and there’s something like about the Olympics that I don’t know what to call it like a Zeitgeist maybe, or some just something in the air where it’s like you somehow automatically develop pride for your country no matter what they’re in. And US being so sport centric, you could almost say, yeah, it’s just a US thing. But I feel like you do see it, just from countries across the board, no matter what it is.

RANDI: Yeah, for sure. It definitely brings out everyone’s national pride. And it was cool. It was actually, I found it very endearing. When the Olympics were starting to come around, like we would be playing these exhibition games, just to kind of practice and like the arena would be completely packed. And it was like, very obvious that the fans had no idea what was going on.

They were cheering every time the puck went towards the other team’s direction even vaguely, right, cheer. And it felt so weird, but it was also so endearing because it’s like they have no idea what’s going on. But they’re just here to support us and they’re excited that we have a team. And they’re clearly very passionate and I appreciated it. It was cool.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. So, your Ph.D., you’re working at Duke. Please correct me if I’m wrong, ecology, and evolution of primates. So, we’ll have to get to this in a minute, you jumped to data science. But when you’re working on your Ph.D., what was your focus? What were you doing your dissertation on?

RANDI: Yeah. So, my dissertation was kind of one of many projects. I was a bit of a generalist in grad school because I was interested in the data modeling side, I kind of jumped onto lots of people’s projects because it’s like a sort of technical support, almost. My dissertation ended up being on the evolution of the skull. So, I put a lot of monkey skulls into CT scanners, get these scans, and then you kind of, once they’re digitized, you can put these little landmarks.

And so you get like the 3D Cloud that’s like the shape of the skull. And then I was trying to do statistics to model how the skull shape has changed across primate evolution, and what kinds of factors have driven different types of changes in the skull. So, that was my dissertation. And yeah, it was a bit of a, something I kind of fell into, to be honest. There was just a really cool data set, and a guy in my department who was like, “Hey, this would be an awesome dissertation.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” So, yeah.

JESSE: So, maybe that answers my question because when I read that, I always like to play devil’s advocate. And I just wanted to ask you, okay, so we’re looking at changes over time with these skulls, who cares and why does it matter?

RANDI: Well, okay. I mean, fair enough. So, I think the most sort of practical answer, which you could also still follow up with, okay, who cares about that? Is that paleontologist when they find something in the ground, it’s like a bone, right? They want to know something about the animal that had this bone. They want to know like, what it ate? Did it live in social groups? Like what was its ecology? How is it interacting with his environment? What can this tell us about the history of all life on earth?

And in order to do these kinds of reconstructions of behavioral features that don’t fossilize, you need to have models that say, okay, if the bone looks like this, this animal probably walked like that, probably ate these thing, whatever. And so we try to build these models using data on species where we know both what their morphology is, but also what their behavior is. And basically, we try to extrapolate them so that we can make these inferences about things where we only have the heart tissue. So, yeah, I think it’s a piece of a bigger puzzle of trying to put together what happened in evolution in general.

JESSE: Yeah, I mean, that kind of answers my other question. It seems like I always like to hear what you have to say. But it seems like you’re kind of going towards the idea of it’s us trying to answer the impart, where do we come from? How do we get here, you know, one piece of that?

RANDI: Yeah, sure. If you’re focused on humans, yes, that is the question. I think in general in evolutionary biology, the question is much broader. It’s kind of like, I guess the us is not just humans, right? It’s sort of like, all of the life, right. You know, how did it get here? Why is it like this? How inevitable was it that it would be like this and not like something else? These sorts of questions.

JESSE: I mean, I think about it in terms of like, so I ask that kind of question of anytime I get anybody in academic field on because you can see these academic papers and if you’re not used to reading at that level with that kind of syntax, it is taxing. It’s taxing for me and I even try to read through that kind of stuff semi-regularly now with people on the show. So, it’s like, you definitely get the very glossed over look on most people. I’m sure you’ve tried to explain to me like, this is the research I’m doing. And then they’re like, “Oh, that’s nice. Okay, that’s good, Randi. You’re a nice person so I’ll continue to listen, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But just one of the things, it seems like a lot of academics are about no matter what we’re working on is like, sometimes there are patterns and models that can be cross-disciplinary, like we see things emerge in one field and somehow they’ll kind of morph their way over somewhere else. So, it’s like, even if the collection of data seems esoteric at the time, it may prove important later. Just because I know some people will argue, well academics is a waste of time. Like we’re not developing anything. And I love applied stuff.

I talked to Dan Feeney, a former pro triathlete last week, he works at a company called BOA Technology. And he is basically the scientist on staff that helps figure out how to make like shoes better for performance and stuff. Like I love that stuff. And obviously, it impacts people directly, but there’s a whole bunch of theoretical stuff that came before it to get into that place. So, it’s always nice to hear when people have done the research can explain why it’s potentially useful.

RANDI: For sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely I think, knowing how directly impactful your work is or how relevant it is to kind of human society immediately is a question I’ve struggled with and it’s kind of related to why, you know, I think I did want to do something that was a little bit more practical and applied, which is why I made this transition to data science. I’m working in industry now. But yeah, I think there personally is enormous value to allowing scientists to follow their nose, give them the space because they’re not asking for much money to do it either.

So, give them the space to explore what they think is important. And these types of things like deep evolution, it definitely can be hard to come up with reasons why we really need to know about this. I think like, I guess I would say two things. One is almost just philosophical. It’s like, we have to care about how life on Earth got to be here, right. This is a really important question just for like understanding our place in the cosmos. And so I think there’s value to thinking about it from that standpoint.

The more practical application I think could be like climate change, right? Like looking back in deep time and being like, okay work with the geologists and figure out what was going on in the environment at this time, and then What impact did that have on the environment? And when something catastrophic happened, how was the environment able to recover? How long did it take? Right?

Like, these are things that are not sort of short term practical for any application in human society. But I think they’re definitely important to thinking about these long timescales and like, what kind of impact we’re having on the planet and ecosystems. So, yeah, that’s my plug for evolutionary biology. I think it’s important.

JESSE: No, I’m totally on board. I’m absolutely on board. Before we got going, it seems like if you just kind of look at your CV and you go, okay, we went from evolutionary biology to data science, it seems like, well, how the hell did you make that jump? Like, that doesn’t seem very intuitive. But after you said, okay, well, I was on a bunch of different projects and was kind of interested in the data and working the data in different places. I’m like, okay, well now, the jump seems like less broad. It’s more like, okay, it’s more like a natural leap. So, you did a fellowship in data science before moving the industry.

RANDI: That’s right. Yeah. So, that was called Insight Data Science. And that was a program that was very specifically designed to help people in some irrelevant academic field transition into doing something in industry. I think the cynic in me would say that the term data science is really just like a branding term to [??? 10:02] smart people from academia into industry, because now you can still call yourself a scientist versus a business analyst, which like no academic wants to be.

But it makes the connection that you know, on a more abstract level, the types of problems that you’re dealing with, and like, the way you solve them is actually very similar. It’s a little bit of coding, a little bit of statistics, right. So, it translates to a lot of things.

JESSE: Well, I mean, data science is a relatively new field if we were to think about careers. I have had one other data scientists on and as you mentioned, even that name, it’s like a marketing term because it encompasses so many different things. I think it was Episode 31, John Kelly, he’s one of only 15 people to finish the Barkley Marathons. He works in cybersecurity, yeah, for an insurance firm. But it’s like what he had mentioned, he’s of a similar age to us.

And he had mentioned when he started in college, like it wasn’t even a thing. It wasn’t this thing that you’re like, yeah, I’m gonna go into that field. It’s like it’s that new. But there’s so many sub fields that it’s like, if you say you’re a data scientist, and he says, he’s a data scientist, you can probably talk, but you’re not doing the same thing at all, you’re not working on the same project.

RANDI: Yeah, it is definitely true. And I think the field is sort of maturing so that there is a lot more, I don’t know, like additional descriptors that people add to their titles. And some companies are also kind of breaking down data science into like multiple subdomains. But I don’t know I think it’s like a lot of things like I don’t know that that’s unique to data science, right. Like you could pick any of this kind of like, corporate titles and in different corporations that title mean something else, you know, what’s a product manager? Like there’s a lot of stuff like that. So, I don’t know, it is a little confusing, though.

JESSE: So, what are you actually doing a Kayak? Are you still working right now, maybe is a good question with everything going on?

RANDI: So, I’m very fortunate to still be working. You know, as you probably know, the travel industry has been hit pretty hard by COVID. So, there have been like big layoffs that have happened at all the big travel companies like Expedia, TripAdvisor, and most recently, Kayak, we had a pretty big round of layoffs last week. And we have stopped a lot of things like a lot of the day to day that we normally do, which is mostly related to like marketing is just not happening anymore. Like we’re not spending a lot of money on marketing. And so a lot of the people whose jobs were really in the day to day stuff, like they just didn’t have anything to do.

Those of us who are writing code, we do have stuff to do, because we can always build things that will be useful later on. And in some ways, being able to step back from the crazy day to day is almost nice at least for someone like me, because you can really focus on doing deep work on a project. So, we’re trying to just invest in the future and whenever travel comes back, hopefully, we’ll be ready.

JESSE: So, on the day to day, they don’t leave you kind of do your own devices to kind of work on a project, they’re like pulling you in to put out fires?

RANDI: Yeah, like normally we have a role called data science on call, which basically means we have these data pipelines where data comes in from Google and Facebook and all these other places. And sometimes those pipelines break and we have to go in and fix them so that we can get our data and do what we need to do. So, yeah, that kind of day to day stuff does happen and often takes you know, depending on the day, it could take 30 minutes or your whole day. And yeah, that kind of stuff is pretty relaxed right now.

JESSE: I wish I knew what it was. I saw, you know what I’m talking about when I say there’s the company masterclass, and they have all the masterclasses with…

RANDI: Oh, yeah.

JESSE: So, I saw an ad. I bought a masterclass with Hans Zimmer about film scoring, so I get all these masterclass ads. I saw this ad from an author and I wish I could remember her name. But she was talking about in the ad that interruptions are the death of creativity. So, she’s certainly in the context of writing, you need to find a time where you’re not going to be interrupted and you can let your mind kind of go to work. So, that’s what I was thinking about what you’re talking about, being able to step back and just kind of do your thing as you’re not having to go put out fires constantly, and then try to come back and refocus, like you can let your brain go to work.

RANDI: Yeah, exactly. There’s like a huge cognitive cost, I think, to task switching. And in general, I feel lucky that on my team, I think everyone knows that and so we try to kind of clump the meetings together, right, and like leave as much of that sort of uninterrupted time for people to work as possible. But it’s also a pretty small team. So, when a lot of stuff is happening, you have to get kind of pulled one way or another. But yeah, absolutely.

JESSE: Yeah, it’s one of the things that in the coming weeks I have somebody like a business person coming on, I’m hoping to talk to him more about the whole role of like batching tasks and task switching, because I think we don’t, especially because of like I have my phone here, which can be very distracting. We have the ability to be so distracted so easily even just sitting at a computer doing work, I can have 100 browser tabs open, notifications coming in. It’s like, how do I get anything done? And that applies to more than just like business people, although he’s gotta really be conservative with his time. So, do you have any tips on how you figure out how to keep yourself focused in a world basically, where we’re constantly being distracted?

RANDI: Yeah. So, one thing I do, which I know some people like my partner drives them nuts is I just put my phone away. I just don’t look at it for like hours. And that means sometimes text messages go unnoticed for a while, but I find that I have to because I also find that even if it’s just a text message once I open my phone, there’s no way I’m not going to like also click a couple other things, right? So, I have to just have it completely out of sight.

And then you know, I’ve taken some measures I think particularly with the working from home and COVID I think it’s especially hard not to kind of get sucked into like news or social media. So, I just make sure I remove that stuff from like my work computer so I don’t have my eye messages popping up, right? I just tried to make it hard for myself because I find that just adding like a couple steps to do something can make a big difference. And yeah, another thing I’ve done, I don’t know how helpful this is. I do this thing on my phone, I don’t know if you can see this. I put all of my apps– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Inside of folders?

RANDI: Yeah, in these little folders. And for some reason, it makes a huge difference for me mentally because like, the folder like aggregates up how many notifications you have, but you don’t know what app it’s coming from. So, it’s not like oh, check Facebook, check this, it’s just kind of like all these numbers piling up. And I know a lot of them are meaningless. And so just this extra step of having to actually like go into the folder and see what the notifications are, it helps me to stay off some of these things, especially like the most addictive ones. But yeah, it’s definitely a constant struggle. Do you have any tips?

JESSE: I turned a long time ago. So, there’s two things I do. I turn off my push notifications, number one. All of them, everything, absolutely everything. So, I don’t get push notifications for emails or anything. And I’ve gotten really bad about this lately is I’ve just gotten back to like, just opening my email like every five minutes. But I had for the longest time done, this is actually from Tim Ferriss, he’s author of The 4-Hour Workweek, is you check your email twice a day. Check it at noon, check it at five. And you answer people at noon, you answer people at five. If people have to get ahold of you like it’s an emergency, call.

Otherwise, send me an email, I’ll get back to you at noon, I’ll get back to you at five. And that’s like batching where you’re like, instead of just okay, I’m working on code, and I got an email and I’m back to code and then back to… Instead of doing that task switching, it’s just this is my task; noon answer everybody, this is my task at five to end the day. Leave me alone for the rest of the evening because this is my alone time. I know I need to get back there because I’ve been terrible about it lately. But I found that to be very helpful setting that rule, having a rule that says these are the times that I can check it. Otherwise, I can’t.

RANDI: Yeah. But you mentioned like, so people have to call you if it’s an emergency. Like–

JESSE: Nobody calls.

RANDI: Oh, nobody. Okay, because there’s no emergencies or because they just expect that you should be on your email every five minutes?

JESSE: Well, the only people that call me are basically my dad. He’s 77. He’s retired. So, he’s got a lot of time to himself. And my phone’s off or on silent. So, he’ll call, I won’t see his call. And then he’ll like call my significant other and then she’ll give me the phone. Other than that, the only people that call our spam callers. I will have the phone on during the workday to try to answer customer calls. But those are often spam callers. I very rarely get customers calling. And then when I’m scheduling for like freight deliveries, and they’ll leave a voicemail. I’ll call them back. So, nobody calls.

RANDI: Yeah, I was thinking like, you almost have to like train people, right? Like–

JESSE: Right, and that’s what Tim Ferriss says is like, you have to train them. If it’s something not important, send me an email. Don’t call me. And once they get used to like Randi’s not gonna pick up her phone, I’ll just send an email, I’ll just send me a text, she’ll get back to me, then they can kind of stop it. It peters off.

RANDI: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It’s something that I feel like is just difficult to do if you have a job where you’re sort of expected. Like if the culture of the company is like, you should see your email every hour, it’s very difficult to not go along with that. But I certainly wish that was the case. Like I long for the days, I feel like even in college, it was like this. There was like almost a 24 hour grace period, right? Like no one expected you to necessarily see your email with less than a 24-hour turnaround, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore. It feels like email is almost just like maybe a slightly more content full-text message. But you’re supposed to see it like almost immediately. But, yeah.

JESSE: It would be interesting if you could experiment with it and report back to me to see. Because Tim’s supposition is basically that even though whoever’s emailing you thinks that it’s important, and it needs to be answered right now, it probably doesn’t. Now, I’m sure there are cases where that’s not the case. It does need to be answered right now. But that’s the case where it’s like, call me if it needs to be answered right now. If it could be answered in three hours.

I’ll check it at noon, I’ll check it at five. So, I’d be curious. I don’t know if everybody did that, I don’t know how effective it would be if everybody’s emailing at noon, and everybody’s email at five. Then you’ve got lag time and I don’t know. Anyway, we’re running short on time. So, I’m asking everybody this season or this year, the same question. I think it’s probably particularly pertinent for you. I’m asking people, what do you think the purpose of sport is?

RANDI: Whoa, that’s a deep question. So, let me just think for like 10 seconds. So, I think that there almost has to be a distinction between like individual sports and team sports in my mind, because I do find they, at least to me, they seem to play a little bit of different roles in people’s lives. And you can correct me if I’m wrong, like maybe you really don’t feel this way as a runner. But individual sports I often think of as being really like a personal thing about self-improvement. And team sports, I think of as being more about like community and culture building.

Now that said, I understand there are running teams and running culture, that sort of thing. But at least for me, they sort of have played different roles. Like if I am doing running or biking that’s really about me against myself. It’s a very personal thing. It’s about connecting with my body and sort of pushing myself. And team sports are really about like making connections and sort of feeling like you’re a part of something.

Like I always feel that there’s sort of connection I have with people that I play sports with, people who I play hockey with that I don’t get that in the same way with people that I work with, right, or people that I sort of know from, like normal life. So, I guess that would be my short answer is that I think it’s about culture and community. But yeah, that’s a really big question.

Like you can also look at this from really different angles, right? Like on a more like, you could think of it from the perspective of like national identities, right, and like national pride, these sorts of things. So, I feel like that was a terrible answer. I feel like I need to, like think on it for like a couple hours and then write an essay about it, because it’s such a big question.

JESSE: That’s okay. Part of my purpose is I might compile everybody’s answers together into a book. So, if you want to talk more about it, I’ll get back in touch with you. And maybe we can expand upon that in written format. But it’s nice to hear people’s kind of like gut reaction to it, right? Because it is so deep and it can be so many facets. Like what is just the first thing that comes to your mind? In regards to running and community, yes, there is like a run culture.

But it is kind of an odd dichotomy where it’s like, I am trying to improve my own times and I want to be faster, better, stronger, but then at least at the high school collegiate level if you’re on a team of like similar fitness level individuals, you have a shared experience of suffering. And you are encouraging each other to be better, even though individually, you all have to perform and like I shot a commercial with my friend Brian, so anybody who wants to see that just go to the Solpri website, who ran with me in college.

Brian’s a small guy, but I couldn’t put Brian on my back and run with him and like get him to the finish line sooner. Like that’s not how that works. He has to run his own race and I have to run my own race. But collectively, again, in those formats, there is a team and you score points and you rank as a team. So, there is some team aspect, but definitely not in the same sense that a team sport would be playing or you’re passing a ball or a puck, or whatever it is where you have to coordinate, cooperate, set up plays, do all that kind of stuff, where you’re a piece of a larger puzzle versus an individual piece that happens to go together with other individual pieces.

RANDI: Yeah, certainly. Yeah. You mentioned shared suffering and that is so huge on team sports as well. Like on the Korean team, we had such different people. Like our age range was like 16 to 30. We had people who grew up in the US or Canada, people who spent their whole lives in Korea, people who kind of straddled both. And it was shared suffering that brought us together, right? Like that was the only thing and I think maybe our coach understood that and made our lives really, really difficult sometimes.

But it really did bond us together. And that was just a cool experience to have just starting out and being like, wow we’re so different. Like, I don’t know how This team is possibly going to work. And then by the end feeling so connected with these people. That’s pretty cool. The one other thing that just kind of popped in my mind, you know, if I make it a little more personal and not you know, trying to answer this huge question of like, what is the purpose of sports for like the entire world but like, what is the– [rosstalk]

JESSE: Just for you.

RANDI: Yeah. So, I would actually say, I think for me and like many of the girls that I’ve played with on local teams, college teams, definitely the Korean national team; it’s about finding like a safe space in the world where you can be like, completely free, be yourself. I think for women like sort of not having guys around is like a weird thing to say. But it makes a huge difference because people stop like performing for men, right? Like the girls stop thinking like, oh, like how does my body look?

Do I look attractive? Am I being feminine enough for men? It’s like you’re completely surrounded by women and you can be as gross as you want, you can be as aggressive as you want. And you just see this like freedom come out of women when they’re in this like all-female environment. Particularly for an aggressive sport like hockey. I think it’s an outlet for a lot of girls.

And for some of these girls on the Korean team, Korean society is pretty culturally like oppressive on women, right? Like, there’s such high standards for beauty femininity, and you could just see these girls like, just the freedom that they felt when they were at the rink, in the locker room, having their teen time, it was a beautiful thing to see. And you realize that people wonder like, why were these girls playing hockey in the first place? Like no one cares about hockey in Korea.

You can’t make money, right? People think it’s weird. Why were they doing it? That’s why they were doing it, right? Like they were doing it for that feeling in the locker room. And so, I think that would be my answer for, you know, if I was to make it specific for kind of Women’s ice hockey. I think it’s a space to be free as a woman.

JESSE: Yeah, I don’t remember. I’ve forgotten the exact word you said. But you said something along the lines like, it sounds weird or sounds wrong or something. And I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, I know I’ve had that experience like with scouts growing up as Boy Scouts. And then there’s Girl Scouts, and they’re divided. And now there’s this push, where like, girls are allowed to be in Boy Scouts. And it’s like it kind of makes me sound conservative, and I’m pretty middle of the road, politically. But I’m like, it was it’s nice like, as a boy growing up just to be at with a group of boys doing boy things not worrying about, like you said, there is that pressure?

Like if girls are around you’re like, that one’s cute, I want to talk to her or whatever. It’s like your behavior changes. You’re not the same anymore. And I know for scout camp, there’s a day when families come up called Visitor Sunday, and guys would just be bananas when like everyone sisters would come up or whatever. And just the dynamic is completely different.

So, I think there’s a lot of value and having those avenues where it’s like, it’s just women or just men or whatever the division is going to be, depending on age, obviously, there’s a lot of value in that through like, you mentioned that freedom where you don’t have that pressure to try to impress the opposite sex anymore.

RANDI: Yeah, yeah, I completely agree with that. And I know, it’s not for everyone, and I feel a little conflicted sometimes about the idea of like, gender segregation in schools at a young age. But at the same time, I do just see like in young women, for example, like the level of confidence that they can build in themselves when they’re not worried about what boys think, is something that I think is just so important, and it seems like it can’t happen unless you create these sort of special places. So, yeah.

JESSE: Randi, I think we could probably keep going for a while, but we’ve run overtime, and I want to be mindful of your time. If people want to get in touch with you kind of see what you’re up to; are there any avenues where they can keep in touch with kind of what’s going on with you, your research, or anything like that?

RANDI: I have a dinky personal website that I don’t really keep super updated anymore. And I’m not huge on social media either. But if they really wanted to see my bad jokes and stuff, they could follow me on Facebook. But yeah, I don’t know. Not really.

JESSE: No, that’s probably fine. I’m not really active on social media. So, I’m with you, too. I had the show and that’s about the extent of what I do. Randi, I really appreciate you spending time with me today.

RANDI: Yeah, thanks. This was a great conversation.

JESSE: Take care.

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