You Are Not Your Workout: Observations on Effort and Self-Awareness

 “You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” 
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

           I pace while waiting.  I channel Doc Brown below the clock tower, “Damn!” I haven’t mastered the art of patience-it’s what you do while waiting they say.  Nevertheless, Todd shuffled in fifteen minutes late for his appointment.  I own a gym-I coach people toward the most sustainably healthy and autonomous life possible.  In 2019, it can be an uphill battle. 

“I’m sorry, Nathan, I got my ass handed to me today.”

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah, it’s just ….” He recaps his stressful day and follows up with a relatively benign denouement that leaves me staring, and waiting for more information, it doesn’t come.   “Damn, damn!”

“Just do what you can.  It’s been a long day.  Maxing yourself out just isn’t going to happen, man.”

“Yeah, I know, I just, don’t want you to think I’m quitting.”

“You’re not your workout, Todd.”

            There it is.  Todd is everyone-works, lives, and strives to be a better version of himself.  Let’s be clear-you’re not your workout.  Your ability to complete a list of preordained physical tasks at the end of an incredibly stressful or even physically and psychologically taxing day is not the appropriate mirror to peer into.  You’re not your fucking workout.  You’re not physically tired.  You’re mentally exhausted.  The flesh however, is not weak. 

“When you’re tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” – Banksy

I have news for you.  The workout, by and large, may be the least important spoke in the wheel from a personal development or holistic living standpoint.  What Todd failed to acknowledge was the fact that he, at the end of an incredibly taxing day, kept a promise to himself to improve himself.  This is a win.  However, the day took a significant mental toll which he was equating to physical fatigue and lack of motivation.  Regardless of his state when he walked in the door, his ability to shelve the day, or quantify his remaining energy for the tasks at hand, he showed up. 

What is of the utmost importance for me, the coach, is to find out what Todd is capable of in this moment.  We have a habit of ascribing our mental states to our physical states, and while the connection between the two is clear, it’s essential to understand that despite mental fatigue, the body will perform.  In this case, if Todd is only capable of a seventy-percent effort, we will make doubly sure we get one hundred percent of that seventy percent.  Wait.  What?

            We fail ourselves when we fail to assess and then address our expectations in real time.  We use previously established expectations as gospel, and assess ourselves.  This can be extremely detrimental to our self-opinion.  We use workouts, days at work, days with our kids, conversations, and so on as real-time indicators in an effort to typically, reinforce a negative instinct we have about ourselves.  We do this without taking the facts of our life into consideration or more importantly, reframing our expectations for the next moment or pocket of our life.  How much better will Todd feel when he gives one hundred percent of his seventy percent? Maybe this means choosing something different to focus on? Technique, rest, breath, mobility, etc.  There are myriad ways to get one hundred percent out of anything if we remain aware of ourselves, our capacity, and what it will take to get as much out of ourselves as we have to give. 

            No, I’m not telling you to settle.  I’m not advocating for giving up.  I’m not insisting on the road most traveled.  I am advocating for your doing your best, but understanding what your limits are when it comes to the emphasis you place on things that you may traditionally overemphasize-how well you perform under duress no matter what for example.  I’m advocating for pause in the moment.  This is the seed of self-awareness we spend our lives seeking to ascertain.  This is the beginning of self-understanding.  This is a bit of forgiveness.  This is the place where you start to build momentum.  This is when you pay attention to the mind, but also understand the body is not exhausted from sitting in meetings all day, receiving a review, or solving problems.  The brain is tired.  And it may be at odds with the body’s tail wagging for some movement time. 

            Todd started his workout after we had a brief conversation consisting of some of the above sentiments.  He completed everything at the prescribed reps, intensities, with only a modicum of additional rest and complaining.  He set his mind, exceeded his expectations and left feeling up, not down.  We’re so intent on crushing life that we blur expectation, fall short, and then turn on ourselves for not finishing first.  We need to gain a firmer grasp on where we’re at, our ability to strive in the face of personal adversity, and give ourselves credit for our incremental improvement.  We cannot close the gap in one leap. 

            In his book, Factfulness, Hans Rosling addresses the concept of “bad but better.” He uses the analogy of a prematurely born baby.  The baby’s health is bad, given its premature birth, but it improves quickly given the care, nourishment, and pace of growth.  We wouldn’t say after a week that the health of the child is great, we would say it’s still bad, but better.  If we fully understand and embrace this concept in our own lives it does two things for us: 1.  It’s the recognition that we’re not perfect, great, or even close to finished.  We may even be bad, at something.  2.  We are a work in progress.  We recognize our in-process state.  We accept our room for growth.  We acknowledge from whence we came. 

            The tasks we execute on a daily basis are not the ideal litmus test for who we are as people.  We’re simply people      working at varying capacities given the day, job, moment, relationship, etc.  Give pause.  Know where you are, be where you are, accept it, assess, and respond appropriately.  Give one hundred percent of whatever you have-just be honest with what that percentage may be, and whether or not your mind is simply playing tricks on you. 

Nathan Senter