“What I really want to stress is: by all means, success, yes. But let’s accept the strangeness of some of our ideas. Let’s probe away at our notions of success. Let’s make sure our ideas of success are truly our own.” – Alain de Botton

At the beginning of my journey as a personal trainer, I started out with a definiteness that, ironically, came from my inexperience – I knew that my client should be completing (insert number here) sets of (insert number here) reps, that they should only stick to eating their macros of the day, that they should progress at so-and-so rate.

The more that I learn and develop in terms of knowledge and body awareness, however, the less definite I am about these numbers. There is so much to take into account when it comes to the human body, then you throw in different lifestyles, habits, attitudes, goals… it follows that the more variables there are, the less certainty there is.

This is also the reason why I’ve shifted more towards helping people develop body awareness and better movement, rather than enforcing rigid exercise programs. People usually start out not enjoying workouts because they are ‘bad’ at it. The better they move, the more enjoyable it becomes, because people naturally enjoy what they get better at.

What got me thinking about this was a TED talk by Alain de Botton. While it is more about how to define success and happiness in life, and definitely worth a listen for that reason, it also related back to the ideas of fitness and exercising that most people (whether advanced or beginner) still have. I’ll have to borrow Alain’s (much more eloquent) words to continue:

“Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.”

Maybe it’s the growing popularity of CrossFit which gave rise to the idea that being fit is being able to do everything – Olympic lifting, Strongman training, gymnastics, sprinting, good endurance – and that to be excellent, you just have to do it more. Aiming to be well rounded is a great goal in itself and that’s not what I’m disputing. What I think is that we also have to accept the flip side of pushing your body to such extremes.

Professional athletes have a better understanding of what they will have to sacrifice for what they get in return (a sense of accomplishment, recognition, maybe the prize money.) Most gym goers or sport hobbyists won’t get much of that return, though, and that’s probably the point at which we should ask ourselves if the benefits outweigh the costs, whether that’s chronic injuries, mental or physical stress, and so on.

“There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem. So that’s another way in which something quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious — about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it’s, again, linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.”

Not all of us can be Rich Froning or a Victoria’s Secret bikini model, no matter how hard the media or companies try to sell this dream. The unfortunate reality is that being a superstar in any field requires in a unique blend of not only hard work and willpower, but the right circumstances and environment, passion, talent, working relationships and a whole cocktail of other variables.

“The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.”

When it comes to the fitness industry, your ‘grade’ is very tangible, whether it’s the number of plates on your barbell, the percentage of body fat you have, the fastest time you’ve taken to complete a routine… you get the idea.

The problem with telling people to work hard in order to succeed is the correlating idea that if you haven’t succeeded, it’s because you haven’t worked hard. The successful people ‘deserve’ their success, and the unsuccessful also ‘deserve’ their failures.

“And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people […] And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves.”

Much has been said about how the media gives us unrealistic expectations and goals, so I won’t say too much except that a more realistic path towards self-satisfaction is to try and put those ideas away for a minute and just take an honest look at yourself. Assess your flaws and look what advantages you have. Judge yourself by your own standards and be kind when you are setting goals for yourself. Make personal progress your priority.

“The nightmare thought is that frightening people is the best way to get work out of them, and that somehow the crueler the environment, the more people will rise to the challenge.”

Once you’ve gone to that unpleasant place and examined yourself truthfully, give yourself realistic expectations. It’s not only some instructors who berate and push their clients into a torturous hour of exercise, but the clients themselves who use negative reinforcements.

Some people are frightened by the thought of looking fat, of seeming weak, of muscles deflating. Some are frightened by the idea of your health meter meter going down if you don’t log in your workout hours. Whatever it is, it will taint an hour that should really be ‘you’ time when you can just focus on your body and feel what it’s like to move.

“So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. As always though, it’s a much more encouraging journey if you focus on the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘done’!


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