Losing to Win: Learning to Take Responsibility for My Story

If you don’t know me very well, you might not know that Strongman, my sport, my hobby, my athletic pursuit, one of my greatest passions, is a lot more to me than just something I do to stay in shape or entertain myself. 

For me, Strongman has been a refuge, a place of rediscovery and a training ground for who I want to be. It is a spiritual disicpline. It has helped me cope with anxiety and depression, and helped me prevent bad habits from becoming lifelong demons.

Strongman, particularly training for competion and actually competing, is a how I endlessly dig into, reveal, develop, and learn myself. I have always needed something like Strongman, and when I found it, I no longer felt compelled to drink to melancholic rumination while chain smoking on my fire escape – I had something better to channel my angst into. And lifting gave more back to me than any physical vice ever did. 

So with that in mind, I want to talk about how one of my biggest disappointments helped me get back on the road to trusting myself and becoming as successful as I can be as a competitor and as a person. 

Last Strongman Corporation Nationals in 2016, I bombed, placing 37th out of 43 in the overall weight class (middleweight). It was my second time there, and like a lot of green athletes, I had big aspirations. But I didn’t have the mental methodology or trust in myself to get there.

Since then, I’ve obviously had the generic big goal of “do better next time.” Be stronger, be faster, get your head right. But what does that look like?

There are a million small pieces to these things – the obvious ones being good programming, skill practice, proper fueling, adequate recovery. I’ve been working on those consistently and I know that I just need to keep doing them.

But what about my head?

What was off last time?

A million more pieces. 

Stress. A bad work environment, more stress, my old friend anxiety…and lack of belief. Lack of mental discipline. Lack of strong mental habits to reinforce my physical ones.  I had contests where I was much more mentally present and calm, and Nationals was a shitstorm of bad circumstances for my head game. It wasn’t just Big Day jitters, though that was certainly a factor. For whatever the many reasons were, I wasn’t able to bring my A game, my best self – I didn’t bring who I knew I could bring, and it was devastating. 

In every one of our heads, there is a running monologue, a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about who we are, and consequently, what we are capable of. I have taken great effort to become conscious of this narrative, and conscious of the ways it both helps and hinders on every aspect of my life.

The narrative I was telling myself last October, underneath my excitement and enthusiasm, was You’re Not Enough. You’re Too Weak. You’re Too Inexperienced. 

Day 1 I felt solid, and the first 3 events I completed respectably. I legitimately was not quite strong enough to do very well, but I was happy about my numbers. And then Day 2…I completely psyched myself out. There was no physical reason for my events to go as poorly as they did. I choked. I barely got the max distance 225 lbs husafell more than 100 ft (despite having taken 275 lbs for about 100 ft in training, and done at least twice that distance with around comp weight), and my keg medley was a glacial 34+ seconds (even though I had been smoking my conditioning). My poor performance on the husafell mentally destroyed me and I gave up.  I wasn’t there anymore. I felt like I had let myself down and felt deeply embarrassed. 

Shonda Judy Photography

The story – YOU’RE NOT ENOUGH – came true. I lived out the unconscious mantra I had been telling myself for weeks. 

I cried a lot that night and struggled to hold back tears while my friends placed topped 10 and got their Arnold invites. I was legitimately happy for them, especially my coach, who fought brutally all weekend through an injury from the first event. I was so proud of them, and it made my utter contempt for myself that much worse.

My boyfriend patiently listened while I sobbed and rambled. But out of the total mess, right before we decided to turn in, clarity happened. I say happened because it really seemed like a fairy godmother dropped into the room and tapped me with her wand, bringing me out of my self pity.

“This is what you needed. This was the best thing that could have happened. This was your worst fear, and you survived. This will make you invincible. This will give you the courage to admit what you really want – You want to win.”

I want to win.

Since I started competing, I never quite considered myself strong enough to even deserve to aspire to winning. It felt hubristic and silly and unrealistic. 

But my hedging my desires didn’t make them go away. My refusal to freely admit my true and ultimate desires – to place and go to the Arnold – created a chaos and internal conflict within me that drained my energy and maybe even caused some of my error. 

And the truth is, I want to win. And it feels damn good to admit it. And since admitting it, I have gotten a lot of clarity in what I need to do, and I actually feel a remarkable decrease in stress. And the beautiful thing about self-honesty is that it can snowball. In the last 8 months I have become more honest with myself about all kinds of different things totally unrelated to Strongman. Truth begets truth. Clarity begets clarity.

And ambition begets ambition.

So, since last October, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve asked myself over and over, “what do you want?”

And the answers keep coming back, clearer and louder. 

So the obvious next question is,

“What do I have to do to live this new story out?”

This isn’t about simply wishing I was stronger, or thinking I can will myself into my ultimate goals with magic.

This is about understanding that for me to be successful, every part of how I think of myself is important. Every part of how I treat myself is important. Everything I say about myself is important. It’s all important because ultimately it shapes the reality that I Iive out – in training, at work, in my relationships, and in competition. I believe this to be as true of training as it is of anything else – I can only create true value in what I put in the world if I truly love and invest in the value in myself. And that means being honest about everything, including my faults. 

I may not be strong enough or good enough this upcoming November, but that will only be because others worked harder, and showed up stronger physically and mentally, and I am at peace with that. I am at peace because I know when I show up in November, I will have spent a year living a new narrative, creating a new mantra, a new reality:

I am enough. 

I may not be the strongest, the most skilled or the most talented.  But I will keep getting stronger. I will keep practicing. And maybe my goals will change, maybe other pursuits will take focus over Strongman. I’ve changed a lot in the last few years and I’m open to more change. But right now, I want to win. And I’ve just started learning who I need to be to make that happen.

I’m starting to take control of my story.

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It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Get Better

It’s gonna be Not Fun. You’re going to think things like, “Wow, I’m an uncoordinated potato person who clearly has existed thus far based on luck alone,” or, “I am a shame to my ancestors,” and “Can I die now please?”

It’s okay, really.  Beginning a new physical skill and fitness regimen, ESPECIALLY when you are in poor shape, is really, really hard.

And guess what? It doesn’t get easier, exactly. You get tougher, you get smarter, you become stronger, and hard work becomes a habit that doesn’t threaten you as much.

When you’re weak, it’s easy to feel the exertion and the pain and the effort and think “this sucks, I’m done,” because you would rather opt out of the difficult task than face uncomfortable truths about yourself that, maybe, threaten your ideas of who you are. It’s not fun or sexy or badass to feel your own weakness. But it is a crucial part of any kind of growth process.

It’s a mistake to look at someone who is at the pinnacle of their sport and think “Wow, it’s so easy for them, they’re so good at it…they must be gifted.” It is SO easy to look at someone strong and skilled and dismiss them as “gifted,” because it protects your ego and excuses you from taking responsibility for your fitness/skill/etc.

They might be more genetically presupposed to be good at that particular thing, and yes, everyone has different skills or abilities that they are more likely to be good at, but to be REALLY good at something, no matter what it is, you have to work really diligently and intensely. This takes incredible focus.  And it’s REALLY, hard.

Photo Scott Lloyd Photography

Cultivating a physical (or non physical) discipline that routinely challenges you is hard, but that is what makes it so empowering when you progress. You confront limiting ideas of yourself, you deconstruct your ego, and you grow.

It doesn’t get easier — but you adapt, and become stronger, tougher, more informed about yourself and more capable of meeting new challenges.

I remember the beginning, it was rough.

And it’s still rough, a lot of the time. But now I expect that, and I know how  much better it can make me because I have the proof of my body, my skills, and most importantly, my attitude.

Cara

The Beginner’s Gauntlet: You Don’t Hate Working Out, You Hate Being Out of Shape

Chest pains. Nausea. Body shakes. You dread working out, because this is what it means to you. Total exhaustion and PAIN. 

You avoid working out, because working out means pain. UNBEARABLE pain.

But this isn’t what working feels like. That’s what being out of shape feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, an effective workout should often be challenging and uncomfortable, but once you are in good shape, those challenges FEEL different. Your body, now accustomed to hard work, relishes the opportunity to push. A hard workout, while still painful at times, is not excruciating.

I swear I recently read a blog or a Facebook post that quipped something like “You don’t hate exercise, you hate being out of shape.” If I did read that, I cannot for the life of me remember where, so if you’re reading this and you know who wrote that, please message me so I may properly credit them for inspiring THIS post. Moving on.

When you are out of shape – that is, have low aerobic endurance and are generally weak, your body almost perceives physical effort as a terrible threat.

Exercise hurts and is totally overwhelming.

It kinda feels like you’re dying.

That’s not normal. But is is normal if you are out of shape and have just started exercise. It’s not very encouraging, is it?

Let’s call this the Beginner’s Gauntlet. And the Beginner’s Gauntlet comes with more than just with physical pain.

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Baby lifter Cara. About to attempt 225 for the first time, a little over 3 years ago. Also, not that long ago.

A decently able bodied adult without injuries or significantly limiting physical handicaps should be able to get their heart rate up, plank, row, deadlift around their own body weight, and pick up and carry at least half their body weight in each hand. You should be able to balance on one foot for 10 seconds (according to His Excellence, Dan John). You should be able to perform body weight squats. You should be able to exercise relatively uninterrupted for at least 20 minutes.

These are not super high standards either – and if it sounds like they are, then I think you know what you need to do.

But how do you get past the  Beginner’s Gauntlet?

Well, the first thing is acceptance. Accept that it’s GOING to suck a little bit, especially at first.

Realize that you are up to it. A few weeks or months of physical discomfort is not going to kill you.

Realize that it WILL END. This part is important – when we first start exercising, and we are in this  Beginner’s Gauntlet still, we think Oh god, it’s always gonna like this. This SUCKS. Why do people do this? NOT WORTH IT.
And then we quit. And we continue to feel like shit. And nothing changes.

I have a friend who recently has started training under my guidance, and we recently discussed some of the potential negatives that discourage beginners early on in the training process, and one thing stuck out to me:

The idea that you should already be good at it and you clearly just aren’t cut out for hard physical work. This is wrong. Our body are living adaptations at work and we actually crave physical challenge. If we didn’t, strength training wouldn’t work. We just have to stick with exercise long enough to remind it that this is a good thing.

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This took a lot of practice and I ended up going the barbell route versus the yoga route or the calisthenics route. BUT THERE ARE MANY ROUTES!

But again, the  Beginner’s Gauntlet is REALLY hard to get through, especially when combined with any number of mental barriers blocking you from working out (low body confidence, exercise knowledge anxiety, fear of being mocked at the gym, and on and on).  I am no psychologist, so I won’t try to pinpoint what exactly makes it difficult aside from the physical “It feels like shit a lot,” but I will give examples from my own experience.

My attitude towards exercise is often reflective of my attitude toward my ability to overcome obstacles, AND the level of respect I have for my body.

When I don’t think I am capable or strong, I start to fail, I start to give up.  When I feel self-loathing and don’t treat myself with respect and love, I start to abuse my body through neglect. “I hate my body, I’m too weak” — this is a horrible kind of internal warfare, sadly likely familiar to many.

Sometimes, sometimes that attitude can get you in the door to the gym…but it won’t keep you there. SO what is the antidote to hate, even hate for oneself? Here it comes, and you know it’s cheesy AND true;

Self. Fucking. LOVE.

And that can be fucking hard to muster. Sometimes it’s not there at all. This doesn’t make you a failure, it just means you’re a human being and you contain multitudes of highs and lows. Sometimes that love for yourself can be manifested as love for other people. If you don’t feel that love for yourself, maybe it can sound like “I want to be healthy and capable for my partner who loves me,” or “My community that needs me,” — you get the idea.

Love for yourself will keep you in the gym. Love will also give you the courage to fail, which you’re going to need, because you are going to fail, a lot. And that IS A GOOD THING. Because then you will realize that failure really doesn’t kill you – failure is an opportunity to get better.

In the gym, failure is an absolute necessity. In fact, I would say that the gym is one place where failure is IMPERATIVE. if you’re not failing or feeling like you are at some point,  you’re wasting your time.

How long does the  Beginner’s Gauntlet last? Well, it depends on how frequently you commit to exercising and how challenging that exercise. is, and how out of shape you are. There are tons of variables.

But it WILL END. And one day it you’ll wake up, go to the gym, and realize mid workout that you didn’t have to talk yourself into going. You went because you wanted to. You’re a little out of breath, but now you enjoy it. You take pride in it.

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This took some doin’. Also growing out bleached hair is almost as hard as getting in shape.

Listen, not everything in this blog will apply to every beginner. But everything in this blog DID apply to me, and if I felt these things, other people did too.

The  Beginner’s Gauntlet is tough. But one thing is certain – if you keep at it, you WILL get through it, you WILL get better, and you might just even learn to love exercise. You might just learn that it’s one of your favorite things. I know, I was shocked too.

Cara

 

HANDLE IT: Break Down and Prioritize Your Goals

Handle it.

When it gets hard, but you handle it.

When you’re tired, but you handle it.

When you want to give up, stop trying and leave it to someone else, but you handle it.

We are capable of so much more than we realize, but sometimes when we work on setting personal goals, we think “Oh that’s probably too tough for me,” or “I’ll just give up eventually anyway,”

We forget all those thousands of moments when you didn’t have a choice, because it was your job or your money one the line, or someone depending on you, or a crisis and you just reacted, and even though you didn’t want to and you were scared and tired, you just handled it.

Why can’t we trust that when it comes to our own goals and our personal desires, we can handle it?

Why can’t we trust that we do have the power to handle our aspirations and the challenges they bring?

Probably because they ARE SO BIG.

It’s scary when we want something big.

And if we’re scared of it, we give ourselves the option to back out – to avoid failure, and to quit before we even start.

When the Goal is SO BIG that you can’t even wrap your brain around the How To, it makes it really easy to quit. Here are some concepts that helped me  out a lot.

✖Whole-assed, not half-assed✖ When we decide to do something, we must really decide. In training (which almost always has some real life parallel for me) I've been working on TOTAL COMMITMENT to the task at hand. Being ferocious and completely committing to every single lift with equal intensity. This is hard. This takes practice. This takes self-care and self-confidence. You can doubt your strength and your capabilities, that is normal. But when the moment to act arrives, you have to COMMIT. Or it's not gonna happen. Excellence is a habit. Commitment is a habit. Presence is a habit. You decide your habits. It's on us to be more present in our work, in our training, in our life. It's up to us to show up and commit. #strongwoman #createyourself #trainingislife . . . . #motivation #discipline #inspiration #selfcare #womenwholift #barbend #strongman #startingstrongman #belleofthebar #sportsphotography #chickswholift #reebok #perfectnever #showup #meditation #zenandtheiron #healthyliving #weightlifting #fitfam #crossfit #badass #booty #strong

A post shared by Cara Brennan (@captainstarbuck) on

How do we apply that “This Is Not Optional, I WILL Succeed,” attitude that sometimes occurs naturally when we are at work or helping a loved one, to our personal goals? How do we make huge goals easier to start actually striving for?

One part of it could be in changing how we think about and prioritize our goals. If you are trying to change your body, or your career, or your habits, it takes a LOT of focus, focus that is easily robbed from us by work, friends, and the constant distractions of social media and entertainment. It’s not that ANY of these things are inherently bad, but we have to acknowledge how freely we give away our attention and thus our willpower.

When we give away our energy/willpower, it’s really easy to feel like we can’t handle it.

We lose ourselves in distractions all day, and then in the evening when we are idly dreaming about what we really want to be doing or have, we think “I’m too tired, I can’t achieve anything, I can’t handle it,” when really, you’re just wiped out.

You can handle it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even simple.

Something that I, and I’m sure many others, struggle with is prioritizing activity. There is not necessarily a Best Way to Do This, but just thinking about how you schedule your day is a great start. If you have a job with downtime, maybe there are ways you can utilize your free time better.

For example, as a personal trainer, sometimes I have an hour between clients. Am I writing? Am I responding to emails? Or am I mindlessly scrolling Facebook? Deciding what to do with those free windows AHEAD of time has been really helpful in at least keeping me mindful of what I am doing.

You should see my Google Cal, it’s ridiculous — I started scheduling those free windows. At the very least, I’ll get a reminder on my phone that reminds me of what I said would be doing.

Big goals are usually intimidating, and the more you are emotionally invested in them, the harder they can be to actually start. That fear of failure is SO REAL. Make it easier on yourself to start, and dial them back a little.

Breaking down your goals into smaller, bite size and manageable steps really helps. If that goal is “Being in Athlete Shape” and having ripped abs and defined muscles and superhuman endurance, or “writing a best-seller novel” or “Curing cancer”, then yeah, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Maybe that “Grand Goal” (as Chris Duffin of Kabuki Strength calls them) can temporarily be:

“I want to work out twice a week consistently,”

and then even that can break down into

“Put my gym clothes on at 6 pm the second I walk in the door,”

and then that becomes

“Lay my gym clothes out before I leave for work so they are there staring at me when I come home and want to lay down,”

Noticing a pattern?

Break things down. Make them digestible. Make them actionable.

Make them something you know you can handle. Accomplishing something for yourself that you said you would do, no matter how small, builds confidence in yourself that you can do what you say you want to do.

This allows you to slowly build your goals bigger and bigger, all the while handling them with confidence and energy.

Action builds confidence. Give yourself lots of bite-sized very doable actions, and before you know it, you will build the willpower and guts to get after those Big Goals.

Get after your goals – you can handle it.

Big shout-out to my training client Jenna who’s use of the phrase “Handle it,” inspired this post.

Cara

Gratitude for the Grind

There are hard days. And then there are days where you feel like the universe has conspired for no particular reason to utterly upend your shit. Be grateful for these days. Greet these days begrudgingly but with an affirmative nod. Because sometimes they’re the days that have something really important to teach you. And sometimes they have come just to remind you what you’re working for.

I had a training day like this recently. It was like in a scifi movie where the heroes are being attacked by an alien ship and the captain’s like “Return fire!” and the weapons guy is like “We can’t, they’ve blown off our cannons!” and then the cap is like “Well then raise the back-up shields, we are getting clobbered!” and the crusty engineer is like “No can do, they’ve disabled our power converters!” And then you think everyone is going to die and it’s really tense, but then some deus ex machina or cleverly established earlier plot point comes along and saves the day.

My training day was like that except there was no cleverly established earlier plot point to save me. “Fire the biceps! No? What about my traps? Fried? Gods dammit, Apollo!” and so on. There was no positive thinking my way into a more powerful workout, there was no more technique to fall back on, I was tapped.

I was taken by surprise; my workouts earlier in the week were solid, and I felt fast, powerful and strong. That day was the opposite. I struggled. My body felt like I’d never touched a weight or run or pressed or pulled.

And my internal mantra was “just get through it,”

And when I did finally get through it, I was totally spent and very proud of myself. I felt that I just exercised something deeper inside of me that had nothing to do with how physically strong I was, but had something more to do with personal grit, and with the mind I will need to have when I find myself in hard situations, whether in competition or in life.

I’m not proud of the fact that I felt like shit even at the start of the workout. Running yourself into the ground on purpose because it’s the “Beastmode” thing to do isn’t smart or admirable. But I am proud of what I mentally kept choosing while in the midst of a hard session.  Our willpower is being constantly tested by the minutiae of our lives, and I embrace fiercely a moment where I can make my will stretch on my terms, to choose something hard that totally belongs to me and ultimately is going to make me better.

This is not unique to strength training or Strongman, though that is my medium. The training of willpower, cultivating personal discipline, has become so much more than a way to help me be healthier and more productive. It has become a way for me to meet myself.

When I decide, or am forced, to do something difficult, I do not fear it the way I used to, because I have grown to trust myself through my discipline. I am less of an uncertainty, I am less of a question to myself.

When I experience hard days like this, I remind myself what I’m made of, and I remind myself what I have been building all those hours in the gym. My body, yes. But also something deeper and just as important.

Now, sometimes the stress outweighs the benefit. Talking about it later with my boyfriend, he pointed out that “You know, it’s okay to just stop and go home sometimes.” In this case I am happy with what I took from the workout (including a plan to increase my caloric intake, heyyooo), but next time I’m struggling, I will make sure I stop and really ask myself if it’s worth it. I think this is especially important for strength athletes for safety reasons. Pushing yourself to such exhaustion that you injure yourself is clearly no good.

But if your day, training or otherwise is really hard and you have to dig a little deeper to get through, make sure you thank yourself and acknowledge what that digging means.

It means you’re strong and you keep getting stronger.

How to Go Through Hell – Training and Living Through Anxiety

Sometimes nothing in particular is wrong, YOU just feel wrong. Unsure, unconfident, like you’re making the wrong choices. Sometimes you get stuck there for days, weeks. Everything you say sounds wrong. Every decision you make seems like a terrible idea.

Ah, anxiety you sure know how to make life suck for absolutely no reason.

If you’re like me, and anxiety is not a constant battlefield so much as an annoying ex roommate who drops in to visit with no forewarning text, then you can probably relate.

It goes like this: One morning you wake up and feel like your brain got spun around inside your skull, and everything you do SUCKS. You start messing up small things, and then leaving your wallet at home and having to add 20 minutes to your commute to go back and get it suddenly feels like a metaphor for how you should have picked a different major in college and oh God that guy you’re into really secretly thinks you’re disgusting and you’re a talentless failure that no one will ever love.

Yes,  non-anxiety-havers, it’s THAT dramatic sometimes.

And if you’re a lifter like me, sometimes anxiety sounds like this:

“You can’t get your legs into your deadlift. You suck at deadlifting. You will always suck at deadlifting. Why do you compete again? So other people can see how bad you suck? Who the fuck do you think you are? Why do you even bother?”

Yyyyyupp. One of my favorite not-so-inspirational inspirational quotes is from famous British curmudgeon-quipper Winston Churchill:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Well, damn,  okay then. But how does one do that, when to keep going exacerbates the panic in your brain?

1. Stop Caring

Make a deal with yourself to temporarily suspend all fucks-giving. All caring about The Big Picture of Your Life. Decide that for the next 24 hours (or however long it takes), you will make no value judegements about your life in the larger sense, no decisions about any future course of action, and make no opinion about your life. This alone is very hard, but if you can at least attempt that, move onto Step 2.

2. Work

Clean your kitchen. Write some boring work emails. Call the plumber. Train and do your best to forget the reps and the amount of weight on the bar. Right now it doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting yourself to a better state of mind. Will any of these one things cure that anxiety, that gnawing sense of misplacement, of ongoing error, of confusion? No, not necessarily, but they may give you something to focus on that isn’t your Whole Life and Every Choice You’ve Made So Far. Or your next competition. Or your next career move. Or whatever Anxiety the Annoying Ex Roommate is choking up your brain with. Once you’ve done a few small things and feel remotely functional, move on to Step 3.

3. Finish Something

Once you have met your basic needs, a sense of well-being, accomplishment, and confidence is really only acquired one way, through finishing something. So in the effort to redirect your mental and physical energy away from your anxiety, pick something you like doing, but pick the very simplest easiest version of it. I’m talking “You could do this with the flu, on an empty stomach, blind-folded and on no sleep” level easy. Do it once. Then do it again. Then maybe make it a little harder or more elaborate and keep doing it.

If your powerclean is making you feel like a total idiot, do some lat pull downs. And fucking MURDER THOSE LAT PULL DOWNS. Make them the greatest pull downs to have ever been pulled down. Feel that shit deep in your arms pits, deep in your soul. Or wherever. You know what I’m saying.

The point of this is to give yourself a focus, a task, and then an easy win. Lots of easy wins eventually turn into moderate wins, and into hard wins.

So on top of the more long term solutions to anxiety (seeking profesional help, medication, meditation practice and other methods of coping/living with anxiety), sometimes it’s the really normal small stuff that will save you. Routine. Discipline. The work. This is part of why I am such a big believer in having a specific and simple daily routine. It can be the lifeboat you need when you feel like your ship is a hot damn mess of holes.

If hell for you right now is your power clean, then get it done, and move on to something you know you can knock out of the park. If hell is your creative passion (writer’s block whaattuppp!!), write a grocery list. Then write a list of your favorite colors. Then a word association game. If hell is something you feel like you “should” be better at, pick the kindergarten version and do that until you start to feel like yourself again.

Anxiety sucks. It takes and takes and doesn’t care how much of your precious energy it steals. So reclaim your energy and put it back into yourself.

Ordinary Greatness: How Discipline Builds Us

Good morning!

I’ve decided to make the 15th and the 30th/31st my post deadlines, and as the rest of my weekend (Strongman Competition! Weigh ins! Steak! Early bedtime! The Glamour of it all!) promises to be exciting and hectic, I’m posting this now. Thank you to everyone who read the earlier drafts and gave me notes.

This topic hardly applies to just Millenials, that is just the particular lens I’m looking through at the moment. Enjoy!

Ordinary Greatness: How Discipline Builds Us

I hear a lot of people my age defiantly proclaiming their mediocrity, their worthlessness, and their worst qualities. “I don’t have any complex relationships or endeavors that demand anything more of me than showing up and getting drunk! Fuck you if you don’t like it!” This young person has very little personal discipline. Maybe they have some lofty ambitions, but ultimately their day-to-day existence is a wreck. I suspect there are a lot of reasons for this. Lack of spiritual direction, unclear principles, and the general confusion that has been heaped on my generation by well meaning parents and a mainstream culture that idolizes celebrity over actual achievement. We want to anesthetize ourselves to our lack of impressiveness and our burdens. We’re not the future Senators and Nobel winners our proud parents told us we could be and in fact, we’re struggling, so we’re incredibly let down by ourselves and have collectively spiraled into apathy, self-indulgence, and general insufferableness. We seem to have conflated being ordinary with being useless let-downs.  How do we get our heads out of our asses? First we must realize that personal Greatness is one of the keys to fulfillment, and that the path to that Greatness may be much simpler than we imagined.

I am not attempting to pile onto the “Millennials are lazy” diatribe. I am a Millennial, and I take neither pride nor injury in saying so. It’s just when I was born. And what I grew up with was a mainstream way of thinking that values fame, profit, and materialism as the highest markers of success.  So we’ve come to conflate our lack of Big Deal-ness  to mean failure, and this could not be less true. That is a trap of the ego and is a destructive force.  We forget that greatness is achieved by hard work, that hard work is often boring, and that greatness can be unrecognized. Personal Greatness can be simple, and it comes from personal development.  So if being acclaimed is a goal, that’s fine, but finding the greatness in your own life first, without outside validation, is a process of discipline and discovery that will ultimately lead to more personal joy and fulfillment than striking rich or famous in your field/world overnight.

Ordinary can be incredible, and we need to redefine what “greatness” means if we want to save ourselves. We want to be the Best in our fields, but we can’t even be the best at doing dishes. We want to be the best at Big Things, but we often can’t even master small ones. What business do I have wanting to be a GREAT Strongwoman/Writer/Trainer/Performer etc if I can’t even be great at doing dishes, or writing a tiny bit every day or managing my schedule? How can I say I have so much to offer the world when I can’t muster a smile for the person selling me my morning coffee, or hold the door for someone, or ask my roommate how their day was? And these require mostly minimal  effort, I’m not even talking about the type of personal charity that really demands time and energy.

Excellence in small things leads to excellence in all things. Many societies throughout recorded history have recognized this principle – that in order to do well in life, you must put all of your attention in EVERYTHING you do, not just the things that strike your fancy. This concept seems lost in America, with the few exceptions of perhaps some serving in our military and anyone who watched Karate Kid and took it really seriously. Think of any martial arts movie you’ve ever seen. There’s always the impatient student who wants to be a Badass right NOW, and there is the wise teacher who teaches that student that first they must conquer themselves through seemingly mundane tasks. They must conquer themselves through discipline.

Manage your expectations of yourself and put your attention where it matters – sometimes the ordinary road IS the road to excellence. You want to get in shape? Get stronger? Get promoted? Get ahead in general?  That’s awesome. And the work is deceptively simple, it is hard because it is CONSISTENCY in a world full of distractions. If discipline were easy, everyone would be Great.  What are the actual steps for achieving your goals? Examine those steps. Think about what it would take to reach them. Do you have the discipline to get to the gym as much as you need to? To write every day? Maybe you don’t, not yet. So how can you cultivate that discipline? There are many ways, and it’s important to start small. Make a decision to do one thing every-day (that isn’t something you already do, like brush your teeth). Decide to make it as essential as brushing your teeth. Do it for a month. Even if it’s really boring. When that month is over, you will feel accomplished. You will feel proud of yourself. Perhaps you continue that task. Or pick a new one. Have your friends hold you accountable.  Cultivating discipline takes time, it takes effort, and remember, you are literally training your brain to be able to see things through. This is a skill.

I mentioned Personal Greatness before. That means more than just accomplishing your goals. It means creating value in yourself, and thus value in the things you do – this creates a positive ripple effect in the world.  What brings joy, peace, and prosperity? PERSONAL greatness. And this is ultimately where I believe our focus should be. Are you greatly kind? Are you greatly compassionate? Are you greatly wise? Are you greatly analytical? These are the qualities that are gifts to cultivate in a scary chaotic world. But this scary chaotic world is equally beautiful and overwhelmingly prosperous in the right hands. It seems that a lot of the time the world is in the hands of violent, uncaring, capricious, greedy people. So how do we take it back for ourselves? By blacking out drunk? Or by committing to cultivating personal values and habits that contribute to both a better personal whole as well as communal whole?

Developing Personal Greatness doesn’t have to mean unsubscribing from Netflix, cancelling all your brunch plans, or giving all your money away to charity. It doesn’t mean your life completely changes overnight. It starts much smaller than that, and that is perhaps what makes personal greatness so difficult. You won’t get a bunch of pats on the back or hearts or “Likes” or re-blogs. There is no guaranteed reward in anything but the doing. And ultimately, your own regard and belief in yourself has to be enough. You will hold yourself captive waiting for something outside of you to give you meaning and validation. We’re all going to die, and when I die I want to say I lived my life well. I lived it with joy, compassion, enthusiasm, discipline, and with Greatness.

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Cara