This Is Bigger Than You

***This article was originally written in August 2017. My, how times change!

We learn through pain. It's not that we have to be in pain to learn life's most important lessons, but throughout history, some of the most inspired ideas, literature, music and even companies were born in times of turmoil. This seems to be human nature. When things are going well, we take one hand off of the wheel and hit cruise control. It's usually in times of despair, or exhaustion--when we feel like we are at the end of our rope--that we experience something truly transformative. For me, this has been a month long (and still going) process. I am at the point where I am extremely grateful for what I have gone through, but there is still that day to day living thing. I want to share with you what I experienced this morning in particular, because I think it may help some of you the way it helped me.

It is August 1st, and I have had a goal of hitting 6% body fat since April. I really only got serious about this goal in June, so it has been two months of dieting. Eating less than what you want to eat on a regular basis can be psychologically taxing. In addition, there are many areas of uncertainty in my life right now, which does keep the stress levels higher than normal. On a morning like this one, after a day of sacrificing and going against my hunger signals, all I wanted was a reward for my effort--a lower number on the scale. It is natural for us to constantly seek rewards as if they are something we deserve when a lot of the time, it just does not work that way. No one is keeping score and waiting to pat you on the back for not eating that cookie. Still, the minute we don't get that reward, if we are not mindful of our thoughts, we can trigger a surge of negative thoughts that can cripple us. This is what happened to me this morning. I weighed myself, got off the scale, and tried to get ready for my workout. I was tired, and I felt weak. My motivation to train dropped down to zero.

When things like this happen, we tend to focus in on anything negative in our lives. When I got to the gym today, all of the stairmasters were taken. Then I went to my first set of exercises and one of the pieces of equipment I needed was taken, which was rare at 6 am. Then the same thing happened for the next set of exercises. I walked around the gym like a pouty five year-old for a few minutes, avoiding people, contemplating if I should go home, hating my life, and overall thinking negatively. I had to stop for a minute, lean against a piece of equipment, and take decisive action because I was miserable.

Step 1: Find a hype track. You need external motivation.

Step 2: Fake it until you make it. Take longer rests if you have to, but you are going to get this done. Maybe by the time you start sweating you will get a second wind.

Step 3: Practice gratitude. What good can come of this situation?

The last step was the game changer, and the reason I am writing this article right now. I have so much to be thankful for, in spite of everything I think is wrong with my life right now. Part of practicing gratitude is taking account of that which you do have. I could start thinking about my family, and all of the amazing people in my life who are willing to help me, listen to me or give me advice. Unfortunately, some people may not have a support network like that. Another part of gratitude, however, is thinking about what you do not have, or rather, how much worse it could be. I started to think about the fact that I could have a crippling condition that does not allow me to walk, let alone lift weights. And in this moment, I was reminded of something I read recently in a book that I could say with certainty is one of the most life changing books I have read in my 36 years on this earth. In “The Obstacle Is The Way,” Ryan Holiday gives several historical examples of how some of the most successful people have used stoicism to overcome seemingly impossible situations. If you have no idea what stoicism is, this is the perfect primer. I am no philosophy expert. But I do think I have a grasp of the main concepts of stoicism and I will outline them here briefly.

The 3 main areas of focus are perception, action and will. Our perceptions inform our actions. If we have a flawed perception (see Danny Vega this morning) it can lead to us taking the wrong action—action guided by emotions rather than reason. Where people like John D. Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodor e Roosevelt and even Steve Jobs differed from the average person was in their perceptions. They saw opportunity when others saw roadblocks. This led to them seizing opportunities that others missed, and they did it regularly. The last area of focus is our will. Keep in mind, this is not will in the “jedi  mind trick” sense of the word. We are not going to will anything into happening or ending. Our will is our ability to wear down our problems with a relentless smile. Not only are we to continue forward, just accepting what happens to us, but we are to do it with a genuinely positive attitude. So to be clear:

Perception – we must always see clearly and perceive things as they are.

Action – we must act correctly and leave no option unexplored.

Will – we must endure and accept the world as it is and transform whatever cannot be changed.

Within these concepts there are many others that are explored in depth. But the one that is applicable to my situation, and possibly yours, is the idea that this is bigger than you. You are part of a greater whole, and this is extremely powerful. As Ryan Holiday puts it, “When you choose to focus on something bigger than yourself, it always gives you strength. When you are confronted with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that you cannot fix for yourself, think about ways in which you might be able to make it better for others.”

That is what I did this morning, and it inspired me to slowly plot through my workout, taking time to jot down ideas while I rested twice as long, so that I could share these ideas with you. There really was no time to dwell on the uncertainty in my life, or why this or that did not happen, if all I could focus on was finishing the workout and thinking about all of the ways I could keep someone else from going through this.

It starts with managing your expectations. Is it reasonable to think that even though I was hungry, I trained hard and I followed the plan yesterday that I could still gain weight due to stress or fluid balance or any number of other things? Yes, it definitely is. Should I have prepared myself for the possibility that I may not lose weight and that is okay in the grand scheme of life? Yes, I should have. You may be in a completely different situation, but the concept still applies. Think about all of the perceived obstacles in your life. Alter your perspective when necessary so that the right actions can follow. Once you start to think differently, follow it up with the proper action. Lastly, forge your will. Do not wait for the big break. Trod slowly towards the finish line even though it is nowhere in sight.

Danny Vega