This was first posted in the summer of 2014 on the GJ members site, it would be the last piece I wrote for them.
I love retrospection, thinking, and of course, thinking about thinking. Recently, someone asked me to describe my favorite day or best memory. The question took me to a place. Feelings multiplied. My senses were clearer in that instant than they were on the day.
It’s a fine exercise. But before you answer, remove the fat from the question, and reject the generic answers that come easily: the ones we recite to please others. “My wedding. The birth of my child,” etc. Although I do not doubt these are shining moments, they are without revelation we seek for this exercise. Whereas a deeper and more thoughtful answer might offer an in-depth look at who you really are - or who you really want to become.
The answer has much to do with our identity and the image with which we identify. In fact, the key to who we want to be seen as or who we might become is contained in this answer.
We create who we are. We fabricate identity through experience, social circles, product purchases or plain old selective memory. And we should. We need more than what we are born with. We desire to blossom to thrive and become the best possible versions of ourselves. With what and whom we identify with solidifies this desire. To a point. Most of us label ourselves with our greatest accomplishment: doctor, teacher, coach, father etc. Some assume the description of who they wish they were: Athlete … umm, gym owner, Actor … uhh, waiter, Musician … shit, clerk. At some point the whole “fake it ’til you make it” thing becomes more like an unsuccessful con than an optimistic-extrapolation. The reason we label our desires is to focus on the group we hope to access. We want to open the door for ourselves or close it to others who don’t belong.
Information is passed to those who do, or might eventually belong. Buying the outfit might get you close. But hard effort, given consistently and mindfully over time steers you closer than a t-shirt or bumper sticker ever could. In most cases effort is the only physical manifestation that allows one access, especially in sport.
Over the past two years I’ve been playing with weightlifting and with “exercise tournaments”. These are new for me, and coincide better with my job, but I was also drawn by curiosity. Being “new” at anything has its own harsh reality. Decoding the culture, blending in, and not making a mockery of oneself is as hard as learning the skill itself. Navigating the path is easier with a guide. Finding a mentor is critical. Camaraderie and simple association are helpful. Painting your white belt black is not.
For two years I was persistent in one movement. I’ve become “good enough” to perform well at competition. This has earned me conversations with people who might help me improve. I put in time and effort. I’ve earned the t-shirts and the demeanor that identify me with what I’ve come to love.
For most of us grade school offered a glimpse of what it means to identify and to belong. Social circles were defined by appearance and this experience was powerful enough that we still unconsciously relate to the same rules later in life. At some point though the currency changes.
A friend and training partner was explaining his ascent into Strongman culture, the simple expressions that define the sport. After a hard day and hours of loading stones, rack pulls, etc. his coach told him to finish with heavy tire flips. He hesitated, and asked if that was too much back work for a day. His coach laughed at him and replied “Tire flips aren’t back, they’re blood and guts.”
At the time my friend huffed, dismayed, but continued the work. His coach’s words weren’t used to dissuade someone worried about injury but to set up a successful competition mindset, and to cut from the herd anyone who would dilute the hard-fought training environment. Years later my friend used those words to put me back on the right path after an especially hard week, after one too many complaints.
At least one person in a given group must be responsible for knowing what it takes. He must lead from the front. He or she must reaffirm what it takes to belong. Any group that lacks such a leader or selection process also lacks true identity, without which it can never develop or progress its members.
This isn’t to say that a clever catch-phrase can lay the foundation of a subculture but many of the sport identities I’ve dealt with have found that such ideas support the effort required for eventual success.
In cycling, a common admonition is to, “harden the fuck up.” Runners say, “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.” My current training partners say, “It’s 90% mental. The rest is in your head.” At a recent power-lifting seminar I heard Brandon Lilly say to those about to lift, “You ain’t no bitch.” He said it over and over. Machismo aside, all of these statements are intended to down-select the strong individuals who can respond to them, to compel you to give greater effort than you think you can give.
These words can be written on clothing. They can be posted on social media. That’s easy. But to understand and actually apply them, to practice and put them into action is far more difficult. The words are a cue for mental focus, not a club cheer. Wearing a "HTFU" hat doesn't stop you from quitting when things get hard but someone just ahead of you who urges you to HTFU might make you go deeper than you thought possible.
My best memories are of moments in time when I gave great effort and overcame odds I voluntarily stacked against myself. Once, on my bike, 67 miles past Gordon's Bay in South Africa, with no one to call for rescue should I need it, the safety net was torn, and I was on my own. The same storm that drenched me pushed the baboons down from the mountains. They were scattered across the road between the ocean and some rocks. I weaved in and out of the troop, tense, but rolling away I smiled because I got away with something that day. It was an experience no one else can take from me, and although I didn’t know it at the time a large part of my identity: it was an experience only accessible after long, hard effort.
I used to believe that the bike defined me. To be sure my soul is attached to it, but it is a vessel, a tool. I have used the bike to navigate my mind, and I have also used the barbell. I’ve raced my bike, done triathlons, and “raced” in fitness competitions. I identify with effort. No matter what costume - or identity - I wear I prove it. Whatever the task, I identify with and express humility. Because I am humble those who are more capable help me to improve. If I rolled in with an attitude and an outfit I’d have been treated as what I was: a poser.
The lesson I learned is to use identity as a tool, and to be honest about the elements that make identity. Words and clothes matter little if actions and effort don't back them up. Find your club, find the group with whom you identify, and then fight like crazy to prove you deserve to join it.