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


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