I felt like getting a bit more philosophical than usual, so decided to draft this article... Hopefully without getting too pithy, and of use to at least someone. Fair warning, nothing I say here will be original (see this, this, this or this). In some sense, it is the simple and consistent story of human struggle. I write anyway, in part as therapy... as well as hope it might inspire.
As with any story, context helps. I'll make it quick so as not to bore...
My father was a blue collar worker, and during childhood we traveled a lot to follow work. The most stable period for me was nearly a decade when we settled on a small farm (rural land was cheap, and provided a means to grow our own food). One positive from that experience which also became a negative for me was the daily routine of agricultural chores. Combined with a father who was always coming up with projects, the chores encouraged constant activity. Exercise was not something you thought about, it was part of everything you did... ceasing to move only for lunch, dinner or passing out at night.
As idealistic as it was in some ways, I never appreciated it as a youth obsessed with Sci-Fi and piecing together garage sale computers. I saw those chores as an endless distraction from my true love: escapism fueled by literature. As soon as I could, I ran to Silicon Valley and spent most of my waking hours thinking about computers.
While the technological love affair funded a life better than my parents ever hoped for, it also brought a unique set of challenges. Sitting in a chair, ordering takeout and drinking inordinate amounts of espresso every day did little for my health. Since my childhood activity had been driven by necessity rather than any sort of athletic discipline, I spent the next twenty years buried in thought (inspired by a pay check and high cost of living) and moving very little. Exercise was no longer part of everything I did. In fact, when I would try to exercise for short periods of time it often felt like a distraction that consumed the precious few hours in my day.
New Year's Resolution
For some, far too much loss is experienced early in life. I was fortunate to have relatively little loss during my reckless twenties. Eventually, the realities of life caught up to me. As I lost more friends and family to suicide, cancer and old age I began thinking about health.
It's perhaps common sense, and increasingly accepted, that a big component of physical and mental health is exercise (as examples check out this, this, this and this). Old age aside, the fact that many friends and family members expired early from ailments that could be mitigated by healthier lifestyles (exercising regulalry, eating well, sleeping enough) become a routine thought.
Finally, life experience accomplished what habit or discipline never could for me... I made a New Year's resolution to start eating better and exercising regularly.
Learning From Exercise
My resolution was actually more vague... I wasn't so bold as to mention exercise, but simply committed to a mantra: Do More Hard Things. Based on my life experience, I knew one of the hardest things for me would be getting off my ass and becoming disciplined about exercise. If I could do that, I'd not only be healthier but also have the confidence to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead. Here are a few things I've learned along the way...
Make It Personal
My first suggestion is probably obvious to everyone else. When I started thinking about my desire for growth through doing hard things, a lot of things came to mind. Take on side projects and work even more hours? Learn a new technology? Branch out into new areas (I've always wanted an Astrophysics degree)? Spend more time with friends and family having deep conversations? It seemed there was no end of hard things.
I soon realized that many things feel like a priority because others see them as admirable. These are things friends or society often talk about wanting, giving a sense of communal desire. They may also take the form of fantasy (imagine taking on qualities or skills of your favorite protagonist). While there's nothing wrong with fantasy or being inspired by friends, it's important to find your own hard things. Living someone else's dream, no matter how noble, is not a way to stay inspired and committed in the long run.
I felt so poetic (and a bit maniacal) chanting "Do More Hard Things" to myself. However inspiring those words may have been, I needed more to take action. Clarity is important in life, especially when making big changes. You may not have clarity on all of the tactical steps to get where you are going (big changes require learning), but lack of clarity in the vision is catastrophic. Without understanding your Why and What you are unlikely to figure out How.
I didn't just need to do hard things. I needed a starting point in something hard I felt deeply about. More than a commitment to get healthier, I needed to be explicit and commit to a stricter diet and exercise regimen. I needed to know I would be doing sweat-inducing cardio and strength training five days a week, taking walks every day, cutting back on specific indulgences (carbs, sweets, excessive coffee, red meat), and catalogging progress.
It Won't Be Easy
As it turns out, hard things are... well... hard! Whatever your hard thing is, it's going to require effort and change. Change, no matter how healthy, is always scary. There are times when continuing down the path won't feel natural. It won't always be fun. Show up. Be present. Feel the burn. Do it anyway. This is where being committed to your hard things (vs something that someone else said you should be doing) will really make the difference.
No matter how important your hard thing is, no matter how committed you are to the vision, or how strong of a start you get... You will have doubts. I'm reminded daily that to err is human, but "To doubt is human" is an equally universal truth. A good support network will build you up, but often the most well-intentioned friends will increase your doubt. Colleagues or professional circles can be even worse. Some times out of jealousy, some times innocently, some times meanness... Remember your Why and press on.
Even if you don't particularly enjoy science, I encourage you to watch Nova's documentary series Quark Science. It covers a gamut of topics about how the physical world works. A common theme across many ages and disciplines is that the biggest breakthroughs we take for granted would never have been accomplished without ignoring criticism.
Your Why will come with its own unique set of challenges. As you remember your Why and keep going, it's important to appreciate the small victories along the way. Before loosing 100 pounds, you will notice an uptick in energy. Before looking like a Greek God, you will fit into your favorite jeans again. Revel in the small things. You earned it. That said, don't forget the vision... Small wins are not an excuse to over indulge. Remember that real growth takes time.
Big changes take time. The Information Age has had such negative impacts on our health because of how much time it consumes. Did you achieve Inbox Zero (I hope not), shuffle all your Trello cards, herd the little tikes through a barrage of extra-curriculars that would make a pro athelete perspire, think about work before-during-and-after work-hours (what are those?), find time to read 300 books in a year (how short are these books anyway?), oh yeah – friends and relationships... and... and...
No matter how disciplined you become, there will undoubtedly be ebbs and floods. In the slow times, it will be easier and even feel good to make time for growth through disciplined practice of hard things. The real difference is what you do during the flood. Since busyness can't be avoided, you have to make a commitment to yourself (it's okay to do some things for yourself, honest)... In the busiest times, don't budge on what matters most. Exercise. Eat right. Sleep for eight hours. Meditate. The reality of how you accomplish these things may require creative thought and adjustment over the years, but by remaining true to yourself you will be a better you – not just coping, but excelling despite it all.
We know mental health is an increasing problem in the world around us. We're reminded of it every day on countless mediums. We understand the science of diet and exercise more than ever, but are less active than any prior generation. It's important to pause in an increasingly busy world, take stock of what is important, and think about our future selves. Improving means getting out of our comfort zones and doing hard things.
There will be doubts along the way. We will get busy. It's okay, you are not alone. Acknowledge the doubts, and reassure yourself. Doubt is a natural part of being human, and has accompanied every great accomplishment.
Some times the doubt will feel like too much. You will try and fail. Appreciate the bad times so the good can be even sweeter. Learn from life's feedback loops, and keep trying. Remember your Why, and iterate. While wealth is overly concentrated, scarcity is more imagined than ever in the world... Do you have a roof over your head? A bed to sleep in? Can you afford basic staples? You will get through this. You will be better in the end.
Don't give up, stay true to your vision, do the hard things.