I’ve picked up some big insights at the sports center that I visit daily for the very different purpose of picking up heavy weights and putting them back down again. Or maybe I should say that I’ve picked up new perspectives on some things that we all sort of know, but need to be reminded of, now and then, and vividly see in action.
Lesson One: When you work hard to be strong, unexpected benefits follow.
I’m 62 years old. When I was a youth of 58 and a half, I decided to get serious about exercise, and especially weight lifting. I started working out two hours a day and did that for a year, before I had to cut back to an hour or so a day. Life has its demands.
A month into my new routine, a guy came up to me one day and said, “You make more noise than anybody else in here.” I replied, “Yeah? You should have heard me get up in the mornings and walk to the bathroom before I started doing this.” I’d been nothing but one big ache of stiffness and pain in the early mornings before I launched into my new routine of serious weights. And, within weeks, all that tightness and soreness just vanished, as an unexpected side effect of what I was doing.
My new friend then said to me “You’re the only person in here I see really working hard. We should work out together.” And we have now, for three years. In addition, I’ve developed friendships with fellow lifters who are at many different stages of life - in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond. How often does that happen these days? The weight room has become a social club and mutual support society, where we talk about life and philosophize each day, between sets. We get stronger. But we also get wiser together.
Lesson Two: We need encouragement in our lives - to get it, and to give it.
My workout partner is Don Sharp, a guy who’s lifted weights seriously since his teenage years. He’s a dedicated surfer, skateboarder, disc-golfer, tennis player, regular golfer, bowler, fisherman, and runner, among other things, and is more physically active every day than anyone I’ve ever known. He said he came over to talk to me that day in the gym because he could see that I really cared about what I was doing. I was completely committed, and going all-out. He wanted to be around a kindred spirit. And now, due to his constant encouragement and informal coaching, I’ve done things that I, on my own, would have thought impossible.
Let me give you an example. I had never done the common exercise called bench press. But one day, I saw a guy about my age benching 85 pounds, ten reps, and so I tried it and realized, “Ok, I can do this.” It quickly became my favorite part of a workout. You get to lie down to exercise. Always good. And every day I did it, I’d try a little more. I’d up the weight, or the reps, or the sets. Don would say “Good job!”, "Come on - you got it!", "Doing great!" and often, “Let’s go higher today! You can do it!” And we did. Spurred by all the encouragement, I got lots stronger.
I recall vividly the first days, after I got into my sixties, that I benched 300 pounds, and then 305, and 310, and now at age 62, 315. It was in large part due to Don’s ongoing challenges and encouragements and congratulations for my successes and failures. Once, it was all I could do to get 10 reps at 200 pounds. Now I can do 40. It really astonishes me.
And, along the way, I've learned something profound about encouragement. I had never been congratulated on failing before. But for three years now, whenever I’ve tried for a higher weight and initially not gotten it, Don enthusiastically congratulates me for trying. He reminds me that, “Very few people even try.” And he points out, again and again, that trying and failing at something new is the most common first step to nailing it later. The process of success has already begun.
The power of our words and our thoughts is amazing. I’m trying to watch what I eat this week. In six days, I’ve shed five pounds. I sometimes feel unpleasantly hungry, but say to myself, “Ah, the feeling of success!” Early stages of any worthwhile process can often seem unpleasant or difficult. We can misstep, and fall down, and fail. But how we think about these things can make a huge difference. When we encourage ourselves, and each other, in our efforts, whatever we’re doing is easier. Don has reminded me of the power of encouragement. I now make sure to encourage him in turn, and myself. It makes a big difference.
We all need encouragers in our lives. And we all need to be encouragers for others. We need to remind the people around us how important their efforts are, and how difficulties and even failures can be stepping stones that are worth congratulating. That’s how great things can happen.
Lesson Three: We become like the people we’re around, in unexpected ways.
I’ve certainly become much more physically strong because of my time at the gym, and some of the other guys there have clearly become more philosophical. I pay more attention to what I eat. And I take advantage of little opportunities throughout the day to go on a quick walk, or drop and do some pushups, or a set of sit-ups in the middle of the workday. When I was only around professional philosophers, I pretty much just pondered a lot.
Don is in food sales. Tony has a car repair shop. Chip’s retired. T Ryder’s a headhunter for Silicon Valley. There are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, students, and people of so many different talents, all there to get stronger. We keep each other going. We learn new things almost every day. Most of the guys are younger than me, but just by being around them, I think I’m catching up.
Who are you around? What are you picking up? What are you becoming, as a result? We easily forget how much the phenomenon of “social tuning” means in our lives. Kindred spirits kindle great things.
Tomorrow, I'll share a few more of my weight room epiphanies, beginning with a funny and powerful perspective on excuses thanks to my lifting partner, who has no time for them.