The Work Is The Thing
I’ve written variations of this post a half dozen times or so, and never published them. Somehow it always felt either too trite or too heavy - I wanted to find the middle ground to talk about something that has both uncomfortable and slightly-braggy parts, while maybe adding in a few moments of levity along the way just to make it easier to get through. I’m sure some standup would look at this and think “man, that’s a slow pitch down the middle” but I’m not a professional comedian (or writer), and talking about myself generally ranks at around the same personal comfort level as being pulled over when I damn sure know I was speeding, or having to ask the waiter to send something back to the kitchen.
So finding the right words to discuss this while not sounding like an asshole was tough, but important to me. At least I wanted to keep trying until I thought I got there, because if I did, it might help someone else out. I think I mostly got there this time. But who knows. I guess we’ll see.
I get asked a lot how to get in shape. Or how I got in shape. Or how to lose weight/get fit/generally look better. It’s flattering, and looking at me, you’d probably think I had some idea, but despite the fact that I’ve helped some people out in the past, I don’t think I’m a particularly good authority on the subject. Because for all I know today, I really only know the path I took to get here - and I wouldn’t recommend that path for anyone.
Where I Started:
I was 28 when I realized that I hated myself, and I didn’t really want to exist anymore. Intellectually, I know that depression is a genetic trait that runs in my family, and that certain members of my family have openly struggled with it for years, but I hadn’t looked in a mirror and put two and two together yet. I didn’t like mirrors back then, because I was fat and going bald and mirrors made me look like I was forty. So I sat in my (cushy) office and thought about what it might be to not be. Not about actively taking my own life - I don’t think I was genuinely suicidal - just about passively not being something that’s considered “in existence” anymore. I think Allie Brosh probably explained it best.
At that time in my life, I don’t want to be me, and I sometimes don’t want me to be. This phase lasts for longer than I’ll admit right here. Basically, I had two choices: keep doing what I was doing and keep hating myself, or make changes. I didn’t know what those changes would be or where they would lead, but I knew that they probably wouldn’t - probably couldn’t - be any worse than how I felt every day.
Change is…scary. And difficult. And often infuriating. I made changes that were drastic, so they were inevitably all three at once. I was borderline self-destructive in my drive to see the results of change, and I justified it with the idea that I had to destroy myself in order to rebuild myself. (Today I know the actual impetus of that inclination/justification.) But it’s a byproduct of the way my mind works: I’m rarely able to stop multitasking and concentrate on one thing at a time, so “do these five things concurrently” is often easier for me to understand and execute than “do this one thing until it’s done and then move on.”
But with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that through trial and error and error and error and error, I learned a number of things:
- I learned I like olympic style weightlifting; it’s objective (as Henry Rollins says, “The Iron is the great reference point … two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”)
- I learned that discipline beats inspiration, and that the gym days to be truly proud of aren’t the ones where you show up in beast mode, ready to conquer the planet - but the ones where no force on earth could make you get your ass there…and you go anyway, even if all you do while you’re there is the absolute bare minimum.
- I learned that there actually is a lot of scientific study on muscle growth, fat loss, and how various types of variables affect both. And a lot of bullshit. And how to find out which is which.
- I learned that I’m sometimes prone to self-destructive behavior and that no matter how strong I look, my ego and my personal expectations are actually the two strongest muscles in my body.
- I learned that rest and recovery are equally important aspects to consider when it comes to seeing hard work pay off.
In short, I learned what I needed to do in order to force myself to grow as a human (hey look, a double meaning there!)
Where I Am Today:
I’m nearly 40 now. Despite having grown up playing sports year round, I’m probably in the best overall shape of my life today. I spend most of the year built somewhere in the neighborhood of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Yesterday, a bachelorette party introduced themselves to me by shouting "Show us your abs!" and I rarely go three days without a friend or stranger commenting on the size of my arms, back, chest, or some other part of my body. I'm still not totally comfortable with my body, but I don’t mind mirrors or scales as much these days (even if I still don’t entirely trust them.) But the thing is, I no longer work out to look good.
That sounds really fucking egotistical, like I’ve physically peaked, so let me caveat that a bit. Right now I’m not the strongest I’ve ever been. I’m not the leanest I’ve ever been. Hell, it’s possible I’ve actually already hit my lifetime PRs somewhere in the recent past, and I’ll never achieve those statistics ever again in the future. But right now I am the best balance of fit, strong, and willing/able to enjoy the food and drink that I want to, when I want to.
So today I don’t work out to look good - I work out because it’s a habit, and because it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my personal growth, mental health, professional life, and relationships.
Some people have yoga or meditation - I go into a room and move heavy objects from point A to point B. It forces me to stop thinking about the rest of my day/life/whatever, clear my mind, and concentrate on what I’m doing; because when you’re holding 200 pounds over your face, if you’re not concentrating you stop having a face (and despite my love/hate relationship with mirrors, I do kinda like having a face.)
On a good gym day, nothing else exists. I put in my headphones, start moving weight, and then sometime between 90 minutes and two hours later, I leave and reenter my life.
So I’m not an expert. I’m the guy that got into weightlifting at 29, long after the stage of your life where genetics makes it easy to build muscle, and worked really fucking hard to make progress anyway. But then again, I’ve always considered myself a late bloomer. Despite being (in general) an early adopter of new technologies, and having worked most of my career on the cutting edge of the same, if I was to speak to my personal and professional development objectively, it would be “he’ll probably figure it out eventual- ahhh there it is.”
How, What, and Why
So swinging back around to the beginning Alias-style, at the end of the day how do you get in shape? If you’re me, you spiral into depression, flounder about for a couple years in a dark hole, try a hundred different workout programs, blow out your back (twice!) and generally abuse the shit out of yourself as you figure out how to stop using fitness as a proxy battle for mental health.
But then you claw your way back up in fits and spurts over the next seven years, learn to separate the “work” from the “results,” and (incoming core theme) start appreciating doing the work for the sake of doing the work.
When I started, I wanted everything to change all at once. I was confusing action with progress, and agency with efficacy. I was doing everything at the same time because I didn’t know what worked. And like any experiment where you have a hundred variables, I couldn’t explain what had a tangible positive effect and what was just…also present. I was doing fifty things and probably three were working - but I didn’t know which three. I was more worried about where I was going than how I would get there.
So what I tell people these days is this: make one small change, and see the effect. Move more. Eat less of what you know isn’t great. Replace soda with water for a bit. Drink alcohol fewer times a week. Learn how your body reacts to inputs and outputs - then start doing a little more of what works. You don’t have to jump into scientific research articles on protein timing and uptake or carbohydrate backloading, just like you don’t start a high school physics class by designing a manned lunar mission. But the most critical part, and the part I stress as much as possible, is this: learn to love doing the work - separate and beyond just the results.
The results aren’t the thing - the results are the byproduct of the thing. The work is the thing. Focus on doing the work. Make the work itself the goal and the reason, and treat it as such.
On those days of overwhelming chaos or back-to-back-to-back meetings, that 60-120 minutes I set aside in my schedule offers a clarity of mind and purpose: barbell starts here; barbell ends here; repeat until done. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while I’m stressing my exterior to its limits, my mind is often clear, focused, and calm.
I’m in shape today because I don’t try to be “in shape” nearly as much as I try to consistently and methodically do the work for the sake of doing the work. I found joy and peace in the day to day mechanical diligence that came with focusing on doing something difficult. Sure, I still sometimes set and work out with goals in mind - by example, for the next couple months I’m working out for a specific halloween costume - but the best thing I ever did for myself and my progress was learning how to love doing the work itself.
I’m never going to be free of depression or anxiety or whatever you want to call it when my brain spits out a hundred partial thoughts at a hyperactive pace - it’s part of me. Each of them are an immutable element of my genetic makeup, just like my height or my eye color.
It’s who I am.
But what I’ve started doing in my "old age" is learning my own agency. How I can make changes and mold my environment to head the negative aspects of those elements off at the pass. I can make changes - but also choices - within my own life, even within my own mind. And while I don’t think it’s medically or factually accurate to say that I’m cured of anything, I can say that I’m better than I was.
Most importantly though, beyond any of the physical results of the past decade, I can also say that when I take stock of who I am, what I’ve done, and who I’ve become, well … at least on most days, I can honestly say that I genuinely like who I am.
Not every day - I’m still a byproduct of my genetics after all - but most days. So I’ll take it. It’s progress, and making continual incremental progress in the right direction is something worth working on. And I learned to love doing the work.
Because the work is the thing.
Next week we’ll speak about finding value in deliberately being a beginner…