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Life Lessons I’ve Learned by Spending Most of My Life as a Gym Rat
Looking back, I recognize that my path toward the training life was no accident. I’m not going to say it was preordained, but I realize that my upbringing provided a strong base for which I will be forever grateful. My family is active, and they live healthy lives. During my childhood, soda and processed sugar did not exist inside our house. Home-cooked meals were de rigueur. Without exception, my family ate dinner together every night until I went to college. My parents had 2 huge vegetable gardens that provided quite a bit of what we ate. Trips to the farmer’s market were standard. My earliest memories of my mother are of her running laps on the college track while my siblings and I built sand castles in the long-jump pit. I remember watching my father play pickup basketball games at the college gym on his lunch break when I was 7. As we got older, my younger brother was the most naturally talented on whatever team he played, and he eventually made his way into the minor leagues as a DH. My sister was a competitive swimmer at a young age.
My own natural physical talents, however, were not so clearly defined. I was not exceptional in any particular sport. I was not the strongest or the quickest or the most adept. Eventually exasperated with my seeming lack of abilities, I finally decided to run cross-country track in 9th grade, figuring there wasn’t much I could screw up. Was I wrong! Why I thought my body was well-equipped for long distance running, I’ll never know, but within a month of practice I had developed such bad shin splints that I had to ice my legs every night so I could walk in the morning. The pain was excruciating and I was nothing more than a liability to the team, but I would not quit. It took a bad cycling accident—a car, my bike, a windshield, and no helmet—that put me in intensive care for a week with a head injury and broken leg requiring 16 weeks in a leg case, ending my short-lived running career.
Only in retrospect have I realized that my one exceptional talent was my unwillingness to quit, regardless of the pain or stress or my obvious lack of ability. Aside from the debilitating physical effects the accident had on my body, which I recovered from rather quickly given the scale of the initial damage, the bigger impact was the long-term ramifications it had on my psyche. I did not acknowledge, nor understand, this change until I was well into my thirties, but as my teen years stutter-stepped into my twenties, my willingness to quit when things got too tough grew along with my mood swings. I’ll reserve a discussion of the long-term effects (including PTSD) of this accident on my life for another time, but suffice it to say that over the next many years, with the exception of my training, I developed a debilitating pattern of quitting when the going got too tough.
I graduated from high school 3 years after that life-defining accident. I was bored out of my mind, depressed, and working what for me was an unlikely factory job. I had chosen to defer college for one year—I’m not sure I would have done this if the accident hadn’t occurred—and though I had no doubt I would eventually go to college, the first few months of my break from academia gave me real concern about where my life was heading. That fall, while my high school friends were all engaged in innocence-eliminating, first-year, pseudo-adult college activities, I was spending my days in a hot, dirty, print factory, working 12-hour shifts with guys who had no interest in speaking to me once they discovered my stay with them was a temporary sabbatical from academic life. My factory colleagues resented me for potentially taking a job away from a hard-working guy who actually needed the job to support a family, whereas I was living at home with my parents and had no real financial responsibilities to speak of other than my car. As soon as they got a whiff of my left-leaning politics—we’re talking Bush I, fall 1990—they stopped speaking to me altogether. My mornings before work were filled with dread. To say I was depressed doesn’t even come close to my reality. I needed an escape from daily misery, something to look forward to, an activity that would provide me with a feeling of forward motion, progress, success. I found what I was looking for in the gym.
I started hitting the weights for the first time in September of that year, and I’ve never looked back. I started out with 4 nights a week, but over the next 5 years, my time in the gym became a necessary anchor in my life. Split workouts morning and night—5 days with the weekend off, sometimes 6 days a week, 3 days on 1 off, 4 on 1 off, 4 on 2 off—I tried numerous combinations of training days/rest days to maximize my growth. In those first few years, I had no clue how important and impactful this training life I’d discovered would have on my future. It started with body building in the gym, but as the years passed, it morphed into something more wide ranging. I added varied training forms to my repertoire: swimming, cycling, yoga, running, Tae Kwon Do.
Then in my early thirties, I met the spin bike and went through my second metamorphosis. Fifteen months after taking my first spin class, I became a certified instructor. (By no coincidence that same month, I did my first triathlon.) Not one to do anything in moderation, I jumped into this instructor thing with addict-like fervor. I started out teaching 5 classes a week at 2 gyms; at one point I was teaching 9 classes at 3 separate studios, and I taught on the bike, not while walking around the room! My quads and I were not on speaking terms during that period. Two years after I began teaching, I started dating my future wife, who managed one of the studios where I taught. Four and a half years later, we had our first child, a beautiful little boy. Soon after that magnificent milestone, my wife and I opened our own heated indoor cycling studio, the first of its kind. As I said, the training life has been very good to me!
Back in my twenties, the weight room provided a safe place, a haven, for me. No matter how bad my day went, I always knew I had my workout coming, my escape, and that’s what it was for me. During these early days in my training life, I was unable to see, or, apply, the life lessons that were ever present under the surface of this training. It wasn’t until I entered the spin room and, more specifically, climbed onto the teacher podium, that a deeper understanding of this training life, of what it meant to me, began to crystallize. The podium has humbled me and provided more wisdom than I ever thought possible. I have learned many life lessons inside the spin room that have both improved my daily existence and made me a more useful human being. Below is a list of some of the many lessons I have discovered so far during my hours of sweating. They are in no particular order. I consider them all equally important. I hope you find them helpful.
First and foremost, WE ARE BORN PERFECT. During those first few months of existence, we’re doing our best by just breathing, sleeping, and crying. Later, as we age, we are taught that perfection is something “out there,” that being perfect is impossible. I beg to differ. I believe the definition of perfection is, or should be, whenever we do our best in any given moment. Training provides the opportunity in each session to allow us to feel perfect just by giving all we’ve got. In that moment, we connect with our perfect self.
TRUE FAILURE HAPPENS ONLY WHEN I STOP TRYING. Success and failure are 2 sides of the same coin. Success does not occur without failure, and vice versa. They are both necessary to create forward motion. I try I fail. I correct, make another attempt, and I fail again. My anger fuels me. I further adjust, try again, and I succeed. Now I’ve raised the bar. I keep going. I fail again. I repeat. As long as I don’t quit, I will never be a failure.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS WHEN IT COMES TO SUCCESS. American culture has morphed into something akin to a spoiled adult-child living off a perpetual trust fund surrounded by sycophants who only know how to say yes. “I want it right now! Isn’t there a program called 10-second abs? Why should I have to work for it? Why can’t I take a pill? Have surgery? Isn’t there a diet I can do in 10 days where I’ll lose 20 pounds?” No! Please, let me reiterate: No! Long-lasting success stems from hard work and time spent. Period!
PAIN IS MY BEST FRIEND. If my training doesn’t hurt, I’m not growing. If it doesn’t hurt, I’m not doing my job! Those Nike commercials don’t show athletes smiling while they’re training. No pain, no gain!
PAIN IS TEMPORARY, GUILT ISN’T. During training, the moment I succumb to the pain and back off, I feel those irritating pangs of guilt because I gave in rather than pushed through. And though the pain would have dissipated the moment I finished my session, the guilt sits with me all day. I’ll take the pain over the guilt any time.
FORM IS EVERYTHING. True in training, true in life. If my form is bad, I’m working the wrong muscles and risking injury. Good form keeps me on task and progressing properly.
SUCCESS FEEDS ON ITSELF. I learned this one early on in my training life. The first time I benched 225 lbs. made me hungry for more. My time in the gym increased significantly after that milestone. I became more conscious of what I was eating and how it would improve my strength. Gain a little, grow a lot.
SEXY IS A WAY OF BEING. After 43 years on this planet, I’ve discovered that the commercialization of the body has done us all a great injustice. For the first half of my life, I thought sexy was a certain shape, a particular haircut, a certain eye color, body perfection. I’ve grown wiser. My twenties were all about my biceps and muscle tone and the six-pack—that was a primary goal of my training. Now, so much of my training is about how training feeds the connections between my mind, body, and soul. I’ve grown to understand that sexy comes in all shapes and sizes. I’ve never seen anyone sexier than my wife when she was 8 months pregnant with our son. She was absolutely glowing, and I found her incredibly sexy. It wasn’t about her body shape. It was about her being. That’s what sexy is!
I HAVE NO RIGHT TO INTERFERE WITH MY OWN SUCCESS. I have learned that I am my own worst enemy. Time and again, I have sabotaged my own success far better than any one around me did, including the people who were saying, “Sorry, Jason, it’s not going to happen.” So I’ve learned to disregard that insecure inner voice and just do. I’m a horrible swimmer, and I have a solid fear of open water, but I did not let that stop me when I decided to enter the world of triathlon. I bought a wetsuit and jumped in. My first race was in the Pacific Ocean. Nike had it right: Just do it!
THE BIGGER I DREAM, THE GREATER MY CHANCES. Just try it! Dreams inspire, encourage, and provide positive reinforcement. If you have trouble with this one, pick a hero, someone who has climbed to the top of her game. Read and watch everything you can about her. I guarantee her success started with her childhood dreams. Why should the process be any different for us? Start the journey by dreaming big!
IT IS HARDER TO LOSE A BAD HABIT THAN IT IS TO LEARN A GOOD ONE. Bad habits are seductive. I can kick them for a week, a month, maybe a year. But when I drop my guard, I’ll say, “Well, I’ll just eat that big bag of chips today,” and suddenly that bad habit is back overnight in full force. It can take weeks, months, even years to learn a good habit and make it stick. Know this. Keep it in mind. It will help you as you try to build good habits and drop bad ones.
THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO GET BETTER AT SOMETHING: PRACTICE! Again and again and again! No need to explain this one. You either get it or you don’t.
Over many years, I have done my best to apply these lessons to my daily life, in the gym, in my relationships, with my job, in my creative endeavors. They help me stay motivated and on task. In no way do I consider this a comprehensive list, or intend it to be a set of rules by which we have to live our lives. However, I have found that these lessons make my life less of a “struggle” and more of a “daily joy.” The practice of these lessons helped me fulfill my life-long dream of becoming an author and publishing my first novel, Jon Fixx, this year. I live by example. I hope the training life has the same impact on you that’s it’s had on me. As always, especially for those of you I train with, shut up and ride!
In a recent interview, I was asked if I intentionally created Jon Fixx to offer up a new modern-day hero archetype to the literary landscape: a man who is openly fragile, sensitive, emotionally available, willing to shamelessly shed tears over a woman. The simple answer was, “No, that was not my intention.” Then, later, after mulling over the question, and considering who Jon Fixx is and how he behaves, I realized that the more accurate answer would have been “yes.” But not because I wanted to create a new archetype—the initial reason I answered “no,”—but rather because I wanted to pull back the curtain on how the disaffected “male macho” response to heartbreak is generally portrayed in film, television, and literature.
When I was growing up, one of the biggest shocks of my life was how much it hurt to be in love or, rather, to fall out of love. I read voraciously as a child and was allowed to watch as much TV as I wanted, but none of this reading and television prepared me—a young man—for heartbreak. I knew what breakups looked like on TV and how they were portrayed in the novels I read. Women cried. Women called their friends to vent, to discuss, to gain clarity, to feel solidarity. Men, on the other hand, did none of these things. Men were stoic, unaffected, often apparently unfeeling, off to the bar for a drink and a new number.
But the truth is more complicated. In reality, men have feelings as deep and varying as women do, but we are taught that it is taboo, unseemly, to share our feelings openly or force others to witness our breakup machinations. In effect, if we hide the heartbreak, it doesn’t exist.
My first breakup, then, was far more jaggedly painful than I was prepared for, as was every one after that. I figured I was an outlier, more damaged than my buddies, that possibly something was wrong with me. But I got older, matured, and I paid attention. As years passed, I watched my close male friends, how they handled their misanthrope, how they mourned their love lost. And I realized I wasn’t an outlier, that my feelings were neither unusual nor unexpected. My buddies were going through the same things. I witnessed my male friends completely distraught over the lost love of a woman and how that loss manifested itself in their erratic behavior.
So, I took the manifestation of this experienced heartbreak to the extreme, creating a young man who wears his emotions on his sleeve, who finds it almost impossible to withstand the tidal waves of being dumped, who cries openly when his girlfriend tells him she’s fallen in love with another man. In many ways, Jon reacts to his breakups with the manner and characteristics generally attributed to a woman. His emotions drive his decisions, and he feels so intensely that he often goes to extremes that many men would be embarrassed to admit to but may, in fact, take. He so badly wants to be in love that he doesn’t know what to do when he doesn’t have a muse with whom he can share his feelings. He doesn’t hide his tears, he’s not embarrassed by his emotions, and he has no problem telling his partner how he feels. For many women, he’s almost too available.
But does all this mean that Jon is cowardly, weak? Far from it.
Jon Fixx is a complicated man. He writes real life romance stories for a living. When a couple is on the way to the pulpit, or when an anniversary milestone is on the horizon, a couple’s 50th for example, Jon is brought in to memorialize their love in the form of a Hollywood-style romance that shines light on the highs, glosses over the lows, and takes a little fictional liberty to make the story interesting for anyone outside the couple. Jon is very good at what he does, and he is well respected by those who hire him.
When the novel opens, Jon is emotionally incapacitated, having been recently dumped by the love of his life. He is incapable of writing anything even remotely related to successful love affairs. But then the head of the New York Mafia comes calling and gives Jon no choice. Literally. He—at first—hopes just to do the job and be done. But Jon finds compelling reasons to dig deeper and become more involved than he expected. He does not back down from the Vespucci story he unravels and actually—almost knowingly—compels the story forward. He can handle himself. Jon is certainly not your average novice detective.
I invite you to get the book, read Jon’s story, and discover the other characters that make Jon who he is. I think you’ll enjoy all of them.
P.S. I want to give a shout-out to Segun Oduolowu for introducing this topic in our interview.
This post originally appeared on the Vroman’s Bookstore blog, as part of my appearance for Local Author Day.