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Tracking Max Levchin

The millionaire tech investor, computer prodigy, and fitness fanatic sees a future in which we record and analyze data for everything we do. Why? Because he's already there.

Exercise Data Sesnors

Of course, the personal data revolution is well underway. Wearable health and motion sensors are getting smaller and cheaper, and data analytics software is growing in sophistication by the minute. Companies like Fitbit and Jawbone have flooded the market with fashionable wristbands and pendants that count the number of steps you take, the intensity of your movement, and the hours you sleep.

As of 2013, seven in 10 American adults admitted to tracking at least one health indicator about themselves or a loved one, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Market research firm Canalys predicts that an estimated 17 million trackers will ship in 2014, and 23 million in 2015. This spring, Amazon launched an online store specifically devoted to the selling of activity and fitness widgets. Though many of the products have received mixed results—Nike pulled the plug on its FuelBand tracker this year, which has been roundly criticized for its inaccuracies—it’s safe to assume that the best and most cutting-edge items have yet to arrive. The biggest names in tech are just now entering the marketplace.

In 2013, according to the consulting firm Mercom Capital Group, $564 million of venture capital was invested in the burgeoning “mobile- health” industry, which includes not only wearable fitness trackers but also technology that is intended to put patients in closer contact with the larger healthcare system (in other words: devices that will deliver data to hospitals and physicians in real time). The wireless company Qualcomm launched a division specifically targeted at “mHealth.” In January, Google announced that it was developing, among other potential innovations, a contact lens for diabetics outfitted with sensors that will monitor the wearer’s glucose levels. According to Silicon Valley insiders—and reports by The New York Times—Apple is aggressively working on its own activity tracker. This year, the company launched its basic Healthbook body-monitoring app.

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“We are only at the beginning of what we will do with tracking,” says Kevin Kelly, the futurist and founding editor of Wired magazine. In 2007, Kelly founded the Quantified Self Labs with fellow Wired alum Gary Wolf as a forum for self trackers. The company, made official in 2010, now hosts more than 100 “meet-up” groups comprising devoted “Self Quantifiers” in dozens of countries throughout the world. Alan Greene, M.D., a close friend of Kelly’s and an early collaborator on Quantified Self Labs, now serves as the chief medical officer of a startup called Scanadu, which is developing consumer medical devices that will provide you with the analytics to meticulously monitor your health at home.” We’re trying to make Quantified Self–type behaviors into more everyday ones,” he says.

But, for now, if you’re looking for a preview of where the future might be headed for all of us, take a look at the way that people like Levchin live today. As he and I finish our espressos, he glances over my shoulder at another rider who was pulling his gear together. “Hey,” he says. “You getting ready to head out?”

levchin wasn’t always a fitness fanatic. Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, he suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma and was so sickly that doctors told his mother that he wouldn’t live past the age of 7. Even when his health improved, he says that his “parents always saw me as the one who should be getting excused from PE class.”Hismainsportwaschess.“Iwasoneofthese guys who are neither embarrassed by nor looking forward to taking off his shirt in public,” he says.

The fitness obsession that would transform him began after his family immigrated to Chicago, in 1991. Levchin took up martial arts, then cycling. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he majored in computer science and flourished. His love of programming—and data—expanded to encompass his workouts. He sought to improve himself and has never stopped.

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Today, if you can name it, Levchin has quantified it. Food? He has spent weeks using his iPhone to photograph all of his meals and snacks and later gauge their nutritional values. Sleep? As an overtaxed entrepreneur—and the parent of two children under the age of 5—Levchin determined his minimum rest threshold by shaving five minutes off of each successive night. Interpersonal relations and time management? Levchin says he once spent a month grading his every business and personal meeting “on a scale of 1 to 10 on several metrics, like usefulness, intellectual stimulation, and social stimulation.” (Low-scoring people were less likely to make his calendar in the future.) Sex? When he was younger, he reportedly even graphed women’s breast sizes to quantify his preferences.

Levchin mocks himself for being “over-metricized.” Knowing his own tendency to over-obsess, he tries to limit most of his data-collecting “experiments” to a month or so in duration. That’s long enough to teach him something about himself, he says, but not so long to take over his life. And when it comes to his routines at work, Levchin avoids becoming too rigid—he doesn’t want the discipline of data collection to throttle creativity. “If you do things exactly the same way all the time you miss opportunities.”

When it comes to fitness, though, Levchin is quantified self to the core. Like most quantifiers, Levchin understands that data is a tremendous motivator. If you intend to improve, you need to know the foundation upon which to improve. But the tracking tools also play helpful tricks on the mind. According to James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic, the data is like high-tech sugar pills—placebo interventions that work simply because users believe they will. “It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but there is nothing wrong with that,” says Levine. Scanadu’s Alan Greene, meanwhile, believes that quantifiers demonstrate a phenomenon in social psychology known as the Hawthorne effect, in which the subjects of an experiment improve their behavior simply because they know they’re being studied. “When you are aware of the choices you’re making, you make better choices,” Greene says.

Three and a half hours after rolling off from the café on his bike, Levchin returns. He has pedaled past the grassy Presidio and across the Golden Gate Bridge, its rust-colored towers shooting upward until they vanished into the swirling fog. On the other side of the bridge, he made two circuits around the Paradise Loop in Tiburon. “The problem with Paradise Loop is that it is really, really beautiful,” he says. “You start looking at the scenery, but then you’re not riding fast enough.”

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