“A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain.”Mildred Witte Stouven
Here I am again.
Well, sort of.
I started writing this when I was literally five miles above the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean, nothing but darkness outside the plane and a seemingly infinite expanse of black water below, 2,200 miles from the coast of Australia.
Now I’m sitting at a hotel in Gold Coast, south of Brisbane.
I’ve never been HERE before.
But I’ve been here before.
I’m two days out from a major competition and, depending on when you catch me, I’m feeling wildly powerful, ridiculously incompetent, excited, completely unprepared, totally ready, and anxious.
When I unrack that bar and there’s more weight on it than I’ve ever moved before, will I be up to the challenge?
I don’t know.
I wish I did.
I wish I were one of those magical people who never seem to doubt their own abilities.
I WANT to be that person.
But I’m not.
The reality is that every time I compete, I face a new unknown, and I have doubts.
Yes, I’ve competed before. Lots. I’ve even been on national and international platforms before. And often (though not always) I’ve succeeded.
But the experience is new every time, because the numbers are new every time. At a minimum, my third attempts will always be weights I’ve never moved successfully on the platform. Either I’ve never even tried them before, or I’ve tried and failed and am hoping that this time the outcome will be different.
The one constant, the one thing I CAN be sure of, is that anxiety and doubt and fear of failure will show up every time. I’m learning how to manage them—but they still show up.
And when they do, I always find myself asking, “Why in the HELL do you do this to yourself?”
Why do I intentionally choose to make myself suffer?
Why do hard things?
This may be a question you’ve asked yourself as well. Maybe it wasn’t about a meet, or lifting in any form.
Maybe you asked it as you began mile 20 of a marathon.
Maybe it was on the 8th rep of the last set of your last 3×10 squat session, or seconds after you fell into the water obstacle in a Spartan race.
Hell, maybe it was when you were in labor with your second or third or fifth baby. (You didn’t know what you were in for the first time, so that one doesn’t count!)
The activities differ, but the questioning is pretty universal, I think.
“I could be having a beer and watching Netflix right now.”
“I could NOT be worrying about whether I’m going to fail and look stupid in front of everyone.”
“I could NOT be suffering.”
The suffering is entirely self-imposed.
So why do we do it?
I can only speak for myself, but the truth is, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
If anything is certain, it is this: at some point we will be called upon to live through and manage situations that we may or may not feel equipped to handle.
Sometimes these are relatively small in scale. A flat tire. A stolen purse. Lost luggage. A minor injury.
Sometimes they’re enormous. A serious illness. A divorce. A bankruptcy. A loved one’s death.
At these moments, what will we bring to the party? What tools do we possess to help us cope with and navigate the confusion, the fear, the pain… the struggle and the suffering?
And if the toolbox isn’t as full as we’d like, where can we acquire more of those tools?
I believe one of the greatest benefits of strength training—and competing—is that it forges fortitude. Doing hard things trains you to do more hard things. Every time you push yourself through burning fatigue to get that last agonizing rep, you’re proving to yourself that you ARE strong enough and you CAN survive a little suffering.
When you push through, you give yourself a homeopathic dose of fortitude. You become more confident in your ability to endure and microscopically less likely to give up quite so easily the next time you’re faced with a difficult situation. You make it easier to practice good self-talk.
And every time you make yourself walk onto that platform and step up to the bar for that first squat and unrack that bitch, despite your shaking legs and racing heart and queasy stomach, you are proving to yourself that you are capable of overcoming fear and doubt.
Every time you get a PR on that platform, you demonstrate to yourself that you can lift a weight you once thought impossible.
That’s why, during the next 48 hours, I will watch my own videos of my last two squat PRs over and over again. Those videos prove incontrovertibly that not only did I stand those weights up, I did so with relative ease and lots more in the tank.
There is no better antidote for fear and doubt.
Do hard things to make hard things easier
Lifting is not the only route to this kind of fortitude. People climb mountains, run ultramarathons, hike the Appalachian trail, and walk into the woods and try to survive with nothing but the clothes on their back, all substantially because they want to push themselves right up to (and most likely past) what they thought was their limit.
But lifting (along with competing) may be one of the most accessible and easiest ways to microdose on difficulty, which, when combined with all of its other health and aesthetic benefits, makes it a pretty compelling pursuit.
The math is simple: Doing hard things helps you do MORE hard things. And while it’s full of joy and pleasure and transcendence, life is also really fucking hard sometimes.
Being more prepared to handle the hard stuff reduces our overall suffering.
With enough time, we can even get to a place where, even though we may occasionally question our sanity for making these choices, we secretly relish the challenge of coping with the hard stuff.
And that, my friends, is a good place to be.