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Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously

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My workout plan this summer would make any fitness guru shudder. 

I try to go to the gym once or twice a week. I spend 25 minutes there. I run for a mile, do some curls and then finish off with a dumbbell bench press. It’s an admittedly ridiculous routine that does very little for my overall fitness. But I don’t care. 

I don’t care because I’ve been down this road before. I decide I’m going to start working out again and I take myself very seriously. I become a workout-planning god. I research routines, buy supplements, construct a schedule and pick a start date. Then I go to the gym every day. 

By the end of week two I invariably give up.

My current workout routine seems lackadaisical, and it is lackadaisical. But intentionally so. That’s because it’s designed to naturally evolve. 

Here’s what I know is going to happen. I’ll get accustomed to going to the gym every now and then and doing a little bit of whatever I feel like. After a month or so I’ll be at the gym at the end of my normal workout and I’ll say, “Hey, why don’t I do some legs.” 

And then I’ll start doing legs. After a month of that I’ll be finishing up my curls and I’ll say to myself, “Hey why don’t I do some triceps.” And so I’ll add triceps to my routine.

Then I’ll start adding days to my routine. Mondays and Wednesdays are arms and back. Tuesdays and Thursdays are legs. Pretty soon going to the gym once a week whenever I feel like it will have transformed into a 5 day a week habit. 

I know this because I worked out 5 days a week for the entirety of my senior year of high school. I wish I could say I committed to 5 days a week from the very beginning. But in reality the fact that I was working out so much happened pretty much by accident. I just ended up in the gym one morning without any expectations. For some reason I came back the next week. And then the week after that. 

Finally I looked up and realized that I was working out a lot. So I started optimizing. I researched routines, and slowly started implementing them. It was a low stress, organic process. And by the end of the year I was in the best shape I’d ever been in.

Here’s the problem with taking yourself too seriously: every experience you have can potentially jeopardize your self-importance. When your self-importance is jeopardized you become defensive, and then eventually stop doing whatever it was you were trying to get good at.

To gird yourself against this outcome, when you’re taking yourself too seriously, you do two things: you tend to model yourself after very successful people and refuse to take advice from others. 

Hypothetically let’s imagine I’m serious about working out. Because of this, I need a very serious role-model to copy. I settle on Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I read his Wikipedia page, I watch Pumping Iron and I take away something like the following:

On Mondays and Fridays Arnold did squats, dead lifts and bench presses.

Then on Wednesdays Arnold did squats, bent rows and power cleans.

Arnold also took creatine 3 days a week to boost his muscle mass. 

Looking at this, what’s the most immediate, clearly accessible thing to do to get me closer to becoming Arnold? The creatine of course! So I drive on over to GNC, buy a big bucket of creatine and come home satisfied. I’m at least 30% of the way to becoming the next governor of California, right? Wrong!

What I think I’ve done is taken one of the things that made Arnold successful and applied it to myself. What I’ve actually done is taken something that’s merely associated with success and assumed that it actually leads to success. Successful bodybuilders may take creatine, but taking creatine doesn’t make them successful. It’s just a more visible component of success than, say, showing up every day.

Showing up every day is very interesting because it’s the least visible indicator of success. No successful person tallies how much they show up every day. Well except maybe this guy. But other less important things that are merely associated with success are easy to convey and are thus more visible (taking creatine). So we tend to latch on to those and think of them as leading to success. 

Buying creatine to become a bodybuilder is like making someone sign an NDA to become a successful entrepreneur. What do very accomplished, very smart people do when they come up with a good idea? They write NDAs and make people sign them to hear what they have to say. What do people who take themselves too seriously do when they’re getting into business, and want to model themselves after smart and successful people? They make people sign NDAs!

An NDA is sometimes a signal of a good idea. When a very big company is working on a big new product, you’ll probably have to sign an NDA to get access to it. Because NDAs are sometimes associated with good ideas, it’s easy to make the assumption that any idea with an NDA must be good. Therefore because we came up with an idea and we’re very serious about it, it must require an NDA.

But here’s where taking yourself too seriously really gets you in to trouble. Let’s say you’re very serious about your startup and you ask someone to sign an NDA before you pitch it to them. If they refuse, it not only reflects badly on your idea, which you think is amazing, it also reflects badly on you, and worst of all your level of seriousness. If you’re taking yourself seriously this is crushing.

So you end up yelling at the person trying to give you advice, the conversation is ended and you sit there with your unsigned NDA having learned nothing.

Taking yourself too seriously when you work out is similar. You show up on the first day proudly sporting your creatine shake. You have a checklist in hand containing the exact workout Arnold used to do. You manage to get through the squats but you’re now sweating bullets. Next up is the bent rows. This particular exercise is the most excruciating physical activity you’ve ever done in your life. By the time you get to the power cleans you can’t take it any more. You throw your shake in the garbage and storm out of the gym. You probably weren’t cut out to be a bodybuilder anyway.

Meanwhile I just finished with the treadmill and I’m about to do my 10 minutes of free weights before I get on with my day. And hey, maybe I don’t feel like doing curls today. That’s fine.

I know I’ll be back next week.

If you liked this post you should probably follow me on Twitter at @danshipper. Or check out my startup Airtime for Email. We help you standardize your company’s email signature line.


27 May 2012, 8:00am | 20 comments

  • MsGemNicholls
  • MsGemNicholls

    Hi Dan,I liked the title, I read the entire thing (which is rare). Thanks for writing.I disliked the exercise analogy, until I realised you were right. (except for diets based on physiological changes, like ketosis, which is all or nothing).Your theory is what I have learnt recently. If I decide that I am going to do all my university work by the book. I will do 5 hours per subject per week, watch every video lecture the day they come out etc. I never get it done. Then I feel like I let myself down. I give myself strict goals, and I fail myself by pressurising the situation.Just as soon as I relax, and learn that as long as I am working toward the end goal, that everything is OK. The words flow. The inspiration and understanding come. True happiness usually isn’t too far behind.

  • Senthil Kumar B

    Interesting title …This might vary between each person but a good work .”You show up on the first day proudly sporting your creatine shake” … I remember few of incidents in my life too :)Instead of taking Yourself So Seriously, take the life as it comes :)

  • fadzlan

    This.I remember back then I tried to create something only to procrastinate for the next two years! There was so much self worth tied to the app I wanted to do, that my heart beats so fast every time I was about to make any progress.I am taking things more progressively right now. But oh it is slow. But the reason that I loved to program is because its fun, and if I can make money from it, hey why not! By making itself to become too serious, there would be no joy in it, and with it not much progress.Right now it feels much more natural.Feels good when some other people puts the same experience in words.

  • Andrew

    Wow, you have no idea how much this article made my day. I just realized the reason behind the lack of productivity I’ve been experiencing these last couple of weeks, and now I know how to turn it around. Will check out your blog more often for sure!

  • benzesandbetter

    Usually I like your writing, but I think you jumped the shark on this one. Your metaphors are really a stretch and they just don’t connect for me. If you want to work out casually, fine. If you want to take your workouts seriously, that’s great too. Personally, I think that if you’re going to compare working out to entrepreneurship, the person who is disciplined and and has structure has a much better chance to outperform someone who does things in dribs and drabs. I agree with you that NDAs are lame in a large percentage of cases, but they do have their place. Anyhow, the point about NDA has been covered so many times, and I don’t think that comparing them to creatine really adds to the discussion. I’m glad to see that some of your writings have made a stir. Please don’t fall into the trap of being overly enamored with your own eloquence. I think your time is better spent on growing your business than writing ‘clever’ stuff like this.

  • auroramirabella

    thanks for that very inspirational post. I quoted you in my post today on my blog (http://lookingforahammock.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/stop-taking-yourself-too-s…. Thank you so much!

  • Shiggidy Diggidy

    Sure is sour grapes in here.

  • Matt Van Horn

    I think there’s a difference between taking yourself seriously, and taking your workout seriously. The lackadaisical approach avoids the pitfalls of the former, but provides none of the benefits of the latter. The difference comes down to *how* you tie your identity to your work. There’s a great quote from Basho: “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”To continue the strained analogy – don’t try to copy what Arnold did, instead try to copy his desire and determination. I’m very serious about my workouts (BJJ), but to me that means being serious about showing up at least 3 times a week, and willing myself through a killer warmup and the ego-crushing of having guys 50lbs lighter or 10 years older than me prove that they could kill me with their bare hands in under 5 minutes, again and again. The victory is not how many opponents I can submit or not – the victory is that I keep coming back. That’s something I couldn’t do if my ego/identity was wrapped up in wanting to win (results) instead of wanting to learn (process).In my professional work, I’m serious about the process more than the product. That’s the part I have control over. I don’t do a quick and dirty approach because I know that I’ll be back next week too, and I don’t want to deal with the mess that results from working that way.

  • Reed Rosenbluth
  • Shawn Janas

    Great read. I must say, I have been putting off getting a gym membership for the last month since I just moved to a new city but before hand I had a strict workout schedule for months. After reading this article, I got up and bought a membership not because I want to get fit for the summer and follow a strict schedule but because I truly want to get a membership and go when ever I want to.

  • vipulnsward
  • ecomware

    After reading the post, and the comments, I can see I’m about to reply differently than I usually do. And, today, that appears to be different from how your fans usually do to. (Said differently, everyone is flip-flopped today.) I typically hate what you write, but this post reminds me of the fat-aunt analogy I use to tease my co-workers.My co-workers have all kinds of ideas for achieving this or that goal by implementing new code organization, new technologies and new processes. And they’re almost never wrong. But they’re almost never successful.I had an aunt who was overweight. She rarely worked out, but she did pay special attention to her diet, including always washing her cottage cheese. And though she rarely lifted weights, or ran, or even walked, she did invest the time to absorb huge quantities of information about diets, and the effects of food on the body, and how certain foods interact. After a decade, she was an expert. I think she did this because she felt some inner drive related to her weight, and though she expressed her fitness goals in words depicting a physically-fit body–”I’m going to lose 30 pounds and be in the best shape of my life next year,” she would say–her actions rarely produced results anything like her estimates. (In fact, her only positive gain usually occurred in pounds.)If you talked to my aunt about health, diet and fitness, she was almost never wrong. But she was always fat.Many people engage in the lowest-returning activities associated with their goals (not just entrepreneurs). Often, it’s because these activities are a lot easier than doing the things that produce the highest results. (Eliminating butter from your diet will certainly help you in your quest for a marathon finish, but not nearly as much as running. I know some of you will disagree–those who do should re-read from the top.) Sometimes it’s because we lack education or the habituation of a lifestyle embedded at childhood. And sometimes it’s because it’s easier to say we have a goal than actually taking on the responsibility of one.Being a good leader, being smarter than people who make these mistakes, in some way obligates you to help them improve their lives. And helping them improve necessitates understanding why these people are off track, and then finding ways to help them get back on, even if that sometimes means making it safe and acceptable for them to release their stated goals.

  • Last Man Standing

    At one point in my life, I too was a college sophomore, and I too wanted to write wisdom, but I don’t think I ever wrote anything about which I could be as unembarrassed from my post-college perspective as I am of this.Your idea seems to be about letting people take things easily enough that they come to delight in them naturally. This seems to have very wide-ranging applications, for instance in international development programs, mathematics education, and the pursuit of God, friends, or spouses. Perhaps you could next turn your attention to what to do when you catch yourself taking yourself too seriously, or perhaps the dreaded self-referential trap: taking not-taking-things-too-seriously too seriously!

  • ifben

    Very cool post. I constantly wrestle with the paradigm that there is a magic balance (and sometimes a power grab) between discipline and fun in any given pursuit in life, but especially in the gym. My ex was a serious PL/OL and insisted that I go four times per week, doing one of the four major lifts each workout along with assistance exercises, abs, and sometimes cardio. This was hell, and though I got pretty strong pretty fast, I couldn’t find it enjoyable enough to sustain my efforts, even with her awesome support. This was exacerbated by the fact that I couldn’t really play tennis, which I love and is a hell of a lot more fun than squatting!These days I still have strong desires to go to the gym and have tough, efficient workouts. But I find it to be so much more enjoyable without the expectation of needing to be there a certain number of times per week, worry about how some microinjury will affect my next workout, worry about making sure I eat the proper things at the proper times to get the most out of my efforts in the gym, and, most of all, that it’s okay to leave before finishing all exercises if I’m not feeling up to it as long as I give a good effort to the major lift I felt like doing that day. It’s awesome knowing that I can choose to get more serious about it anytime I want; to have that freedom. No pressure.Don’t want to delve too much into my personal life, but my ex gave me a contrasting perspective. She was a Bosnian genocide and breast cancer survivor. When she was at the lowest of the low healthwise, a very well-respected trainer told her to give him three months with her to turn her health around. Therefore she jumped into the fitness/nutrition lifestyle without hesitation. Her doctors were floored at what direction her health went in. From this dramatic success, she couldn’t digest the idea that I should have to warm up to something and learn to enjoy it before really comitting to it. I wasn’t with her during that especially difficult period of her life so I wasn’t able to witness the miraculous turnaround. She always wondered how I could know if I enjoyed it without fully committing to it over a long period of time. Really made me question myself and wonder if I had been seeing the glass half empty, but decided I hadn’t been. She had a strong enough impetus to revolve her whole lifestyle around working out and cooking/eating well. It was basically life or death for her. I never had as strong of a cattle prod, so decided I am content with the extent to which I am involved in the gym, especially knowing that I can always ramp it up in the future if desired. And this is not to say one has to endure horrible life circumstances to become a stoic gym-goer, but to each his/her own.

  • topdownjimmy

    Your Arnold example reminds me of cargo cults:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult

  • Michael

    Arnold also did some serious drugs and probably ate close to 10,000 kcals daily.And ftw do pullups/chinups instead of curls. You’ll see much better results!

  • p9ng

    Great post, thanks…

  • Paul I Q

    really enjoyed this. realized how i may have been “drinking the creatine,” so to speak, in one of my projects

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