Thursday morning thoughts about purpose

Five years doesn’t seem like all that long to be in a particular career. But in the fitness industry, where many trainers only stick with it for as little as 1-3 years, five years can seem ancient. I have immense respect for those who have made it 10 years, 20, or more.

Though at that point it can be hard to tell if it’s really just that they’ve lost the last of their marbles. Which is why so much incredibly good stuff comes from the fringe-lurking fitness veterans — you’ve got to be pretty insane to be willing to push the boundaries of an industry that is still utterly obsessed with cardio and working out till you puke.

When I talk with industry friends about the way new trainers tend to fall off, the discussion usually focuses on burnout. And it’s true that trainers do tend to be overworked and underpaid. But it also has a lot to do with purpose.

Modern capitalist society revolves around efficiency. Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing process revolutionized the way we work. Not just with products, but service. I think of this most often with doctors. I remember my pediatrician, Dr. Green, quite well from my childhood. He remembered my name, spoke to me like a friend, and asked me sincere questions about my interests.

Maybe I’m looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but I feel like many careers used to be about being driven by purpose. Now, doctors are driven by necessity to move quicker, see more patients for briefer periods. It seems almost foreign to imagine just sitting with a doctor and having a heart-to-heart. Many of them just don’t have that kind of time. Teachers, similarly, don’t get as much of a chance to connect with their students and teach them how to think and why. Instead, they focus on bare facts because of standardized testing.

Whenever this happens to any industry, I feel like it zombifies the people within it. Further, any perceived gains of increased efficiency are likely never fully realized. Because people are not mindless machines. We need stimulation to keep going, and that doesn’t happen with endless repetition of tasks.

Further still, even if we were able to realize greater efficiency by reducing the scope of a worker’s role to a simple series of rules — who actually cares? If things are getting more efficient but nobody is happy, then what’s the point?

It took me a lot of time to catch on to the fact that this was happening in my own career. It’s why I made such a drastic change from the corporate world to becoming a full-time trainer in my 30s. That was huge for me. But even as a trainer, it’s so easy to fall into habits and patterns. Inertia is a powerful thing.

A dear friend — who is also in the industry — recently told me that when she hears people talk about me it’s most often in the context of, “he seems to be searching for something and hasn’t found it yet.” Which is quite true, though I did feel somewhat defensive when I first heard it. Perhaps because there’s an undertone to that observation that doesn’t sit right with me: the implication that searching is somehow a bad or undesirable thing. On the contrary, searching is invigorating. It’s what makes me feel most alive. The quest for knowledge and purpose is something I hope to never outgrow, because there’s always more to learn and purpose is never achieved with any finality. It can only be pursued, constantly. It’s an enriching thing.

I’ve been searching my entire life, and I hope to never stop. My poor mother has been bombarded by questions since I could talk. Teachers, too. Especially my college professors, who were so patient as my manic mind meandered and sorted ideas on the fly whenever I gave presentations, wrote papers, or engaged in classroom discussions. I’m certain that the majority view of my approach is that I seem like I’m intellectually overcaffeinated and/or generally unsettled. But, I’m okay with that. It keeps me hungry.

On my fridge is a magnet that I got in college. This one was given to me in response to the totally cliche religious-upbringing self-questioning that happens to so many young people when they first leave the sheltered comfort of their family home. It reads, “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.”

When I used to run all the time, my body was completely broken and becoming more so. It had to change. So I asked myself a question that ended up launching my fitness career and ultimately providing me a point of focus that I hope to never lose. That question was this: how can I fix myself?

My purpose is an ever-shifting one. Right now, I’d say my purpose is to help people discover the liberation that comes from getting stronger and more mobile. To help them achieve the yummy feeling of increased physical autonomy. To help them know that it’s never too late to start. NEVER. If you’re alive, you can get better. You are always practicing something, so you might as well be practicing forward-moving concepts rather than variations of approaching-death inertia.

I know these thoughts are rather unorganized, but today they feel like they are bursting out of me. Writing helps clear the fog, even when it’s fast and feverish like this. Maybe especially so. Near-term I’d like to write a more formal statement of purpose and maybe even take it to the crazy levels of a full manifesto. I’m still searching, and I’m proud of that. At least I’m chasing something, rather than doing what one might call “sitting and searching,” not actually taking actionable steps towards anything.

How are you doing on your search? Let’s talk. I very much want to engage with more hungry people.

Keep Moving, by Dick Van Dyke

Keep Moving: And Other Truths About Living Well LongerKeep Moving: And Other Truths About Living Well Longer by Dick Van Dyke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keep Moving came to me accidentally. Jerry Lewis passed away at 91 not too long back, whid led to discussions of other aging comic greats. Turns out, Dick Van Dyke is still kickin’. Hard. Same age Jerry Lewis was, but in a whole lot better shape. While “surfing the net” (do people still say that?), I discovered a book by the man himself with a title that I annoy friends and family with by telling them constantly.

Of course I was going to read it. I bought it for the title and author alone. And because I went into it with no expectations or outside opinions, I especially enjoyed it.

This isn’t a fitness manual, or a how-to or self-help. It’s just a guy, who happens to be pretty legendary in the entertainment business, and might be the most wholesome character and writer in all media, sharing thoughts and anecdotes from all his 91 years. And also giving the best foundational advice on how you can maybe get there, too. More importantly, he spends a lot of time discussing how to make the most of those years.

This is vital. Because really, who wants to keep living that long if life is miserable? Do you want to live a long time and enjoy yourself along the way? Let Dick Van Dyke point you down the right path.

This is an easy read, and it takes a lighthearted approach to a topic we could all stand to reflect on more (and with more levity): aging. As a professional trainer, it’s obviously important to me to get people moving, and keep them moving. My ultimate dream would be to become obsolete, to live in a society where good movement would be so standard that the knowledge of trainers would be unnecessary. Where things like singing, dancing, and laughing too loud in public were common and natural occurrences. But this dream is a long way off, so I am grateful to be a part of making it happen. (And to not have to work in a cubical anymore.)

All that to say: this theme hits me deep. It’s something I believe in strongly enough to build my career around and thus spend more time doing than anything else. Van Dyke’s got it right in the core idea that keeps coming back up: it all comes down to attitude. Your attitude creates a current through which everything must flow. So which way do you want your life to flow?

My only possible complaint is that he doesn’t go far enough. Van Dyke discusses all of the usual “keys” to a long life we hear about: eating thoughtfully, exercising, community, hobbies, keeping the mind active. He stresses that so much about long life, and particularly aging well, are in the individual’s hands. He apparently gives the agency to the person. However, he mentions genetics enough times to properly frustrate me.

Obviously, genetics matter. I’m not denying that. But I also think that we, culturally speaking, lean too heavily on genetics as an excuse for not doing much. Yes, all else being equal, a person with “better” genetics will outperform you. But shouldn’t you at least make an effort to get things to the point of “all else being equal?” — if only to be sure that genetics aren’t actually what’s holding a person back?

Then of course there’s the follow up question: “better” genetics based on whose standard?

What I’m getting at is that yes, Van Dyke is also correct by citing genetics as a contributor to a long life. But also, it muddies the argument for the individual to keep moving. Because some people will look at their own genetics, their own family history, and feel discouraged. When really, whether genetics are a factor or not, the individual still has a responsibility (to themselves) to try their best. We only get this one life.

Other than the genetics quibble, I agree with pretty much everything else the man says. You should keep moving. Exercise. Sleep and recover well, and fully. Participate in community. Be present. Laugh and sing and dance. These are all things that we know are good for us. And yet we continue to not do them with the mindfulness and positivity that we could.

As such, it’s worth repeating the title. Over and over again. Until we take it to heart.

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There is no way this winter is ever going to end

The inconsistent winter weather of North Carolina inspired a dream a couple of weeks ago, and with the sudden drop in temperature today it’s relevant to share.

A wizard and I were walking through a forested area, everything slightly brown and brittle from the cold. He looked like Johnny Cash, which may have inspired the dubious looks I was giving him.

“How do I even know you’re a real wizard?” I asked.

“Tomorrow it will be freezing outside.”

“Knowing that doesn’t make you a wizard,” I scoffed, “You could’ve just checked the weather app for that. Anyone can.”

“Yes, but what nobody else knows is that this winter is never going to end,” he paused and looked at me gravely, “and neither will your sadness.”