Dan John: Two Basic Problems

There are two basic problems in the fitness world.
In truth, neither is that bad at first glance, but over time, they have become issues.

First, those of us in performance, and I am including me, have been the tail wagging the dog’s abs for a couple of generations. Every time the Olympics come around and we see an athlete doing something idiotic, gyms across the world will be hosting BOSU ball leaping contests, vomit-inducing cardio work and joint-ripping feats of dumbness that increase all of our medical costs.

It’s great that high level jumpers do plyometrics. Grandma doesn’t need them. Jumping up and landing on the BOSU ball? No one needs it. That exercise with the barbell where you use momentum to twist your spine into a twisted rope . . . nah, not that either.

Performers perform.
Most people want to look a bit better and basically feel good.

That leads us to the second problem. I think that exercise helps with the following:


Yep, there is something missing.

Health, according to Maffetone, is the optimal interplay of the human organs,
Longevity is quality and quantity discussion,
Fitness is simply the ability to do a task, and
Performance is when they call your name and you step into the stage lights.

The second problem is . . . fat loss. Fat loss happens in the kitchen. Fat loss happens with shopping and chopping. Fat loss happens with veggies and water and protein.

Fat loss happens when we stop eating like five-year-olds.

Yet, fat loss dominates nearly all of the talk about New Year’s resolutions, gym goal setting and most conversations about, well, health, longevity, fitness and performance.

No wonder so many people fail in the gyms and spas and fitness clubs. I have tightened screws with coins, but a screwdriver—the right tool—works much better.

In the world of goal setting, most people fall back on performance. In our gym, we call that A–B goal setting.

“So, you bench 200 and you want to bench 250?”

A=200 and B=250 and the route is that little “–.” If your bench goes up, we are right.

Most people, and now I lump myself in this category too, don’t work with this performance model. We tend to use words to say things like “I want to lose weight/fat. I want to look better.”

What they are saying is this: You see this person? Yeah, it’s not me.

Me? By God! I am tan, ripped, looking good and I can play all day. Yes, yes, that was 30/40/50 years ago, but give me two weeks and I will be back to my teenage body.

Um. No.

No wonder so often people “fail.” I talk about success a lot. I think I talk about success so often, I don’t discuss failure.

You know why? I don’t think we truly fail.

Two recent events got me to thinking about what defines “success.”

On a Tuesday night, I spoke to a graduating class about life, living, the universe and everything else. Or whatever; few people listen to guest speakers.

That Thursday night, my daughter, Kelly, spoke to another school’s graduating class. She was brilliant. She emphasized the interesting level of friendship that one has with classmates after eight to twelve years of interactions. I still remember the layout of my friend’s homes from elementary school and the names of most of their brothers and sisters. I can remember their pets, their choice of books and stories not to be retold.

Now, I get lost at night looking for the bathroom. Memory is a funny thing.

As I began thinking about the nearly fifty years since I graduated from the eighth grade and the over forty years since I graduated from high school, I realized that both of us, me and Kelly, were reflecting on the “other side” of goal setting.

I always tell high school freshman a tough lesson: as you walk on the campus your first day of school, literally the whole buffet of life is open to you. With your choices, your skills, both innate and developed, some luck, and application, you can do anything you want with your life. Doctor, lawyer, athlete or rock star . . . everything is possible.

After the first week of homework and testing, for some, the options close. Sophomore year is a bit narrower and things shrink faster and faster in the last two years. The windows are closing with the high school graduation.

Yes, absolutely, there is always a Second Act. You certainly can flip a u-turn with the Titanic, but it does get progressively more difficult. I went to college with military vets and all of them would say the same thing: “If I knew then what I know now” and then explain the importance of taking care of business early (and often).

I have always had a funny way of looking at goals. I repeat the quote from Cervantes so often that I feel I have made it a cliché, but “The road is greater than the inn.”

I have achieved many of my goals. As a ninth-grade boy, I told people I wanted to throw the discus for Utah State University. I wanted to be a state champ. I wanted to pay for travel by competing. And I did.

But, every story is filled with names: Mom and Dad. Dick Notmeyer. Eric Seubert. Ralph Maughan. Tiffini picking me up and twirling me after a once in a lifetime lift. My brother Gary’s slow nod and thumbs up. That’s the reality of success.

It’s like what Jack Schroeder told me about writing: “People love stories and stories about people.”

The inn is the trophy; the road is the story. People love stories.

I wanted to write a book . . . just to feel it in my hands.

One of my best books is From Dad to Grad, (included HERE for free). I wrote it to Kelly as a gift for her eight grade graduation. I shared this with her:

On Successful Failure and Failing Success

Most people are going to miss the point here, so let me start off by reminding myself that most people miss the point of anything related to success anyway, so I shouldn’t worry too much about most people missing the point.

The point? Well, you will have to bear with me a little bit, but the basic idea is this: sometimes, NOT getting a goal or a dream spurs people into making a greater impact on the world in general than fulfilling that goal or dream. And, the reverse is true, too: getting that dream can just flatten a person out for years to come.

I have known a lot of College English Majors who spend four years writing their own work in Creative Writing and poetry classes and never write another essay as long as they live. They may spend hours red penning in semi-colons and the words “transitive verb” above a student’s paper, but never again write a composition. They attained the degree . . . and stopped writing.

Many athletes sweat and fight for four years of high school to get a scholarship to college, then quit the first weeks of college practice often because “it doesn’t mean anything” to them.

Mark Twight, the author of “Kiss or Kill,” and one of the world’s foremost mountain climbers, noted the same thing at my dinner table not long ago. Faced with a decision to keep climbing and probably die on Mount Everest or to come back to base camp, he came back down. But, he noted, he learned far more from this failure than would have from succeeding.

In a sense, success can dilute the lessons of life. No, I am not telling you to fail; it is just that success seems to prod most people into rethinking their attempts, their journey, their path.

Joseph Campbell commented on this several times regarding the fact that the most renowned person in Comparative Religion never got his doctorate. No, Joseph Campbell chose not to do it and often encouraged his students to not go on either. He also warned them of getting buttonholed in a job that stopped them from exploring all the directions that life presented them. He noted that people who earned their terminal degree and were next appointed to their dream job often “flattened” out. Much like Earl Nightingale warned us: “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.”

Every four years, the world turns its attention for a few weeks to the Olympic sports. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that one of the worst kept secrets of Olympic sports is how many of the athletes quit . . . in fact, they can barely stomach to think about it, their sport, after the Olympics. Even gold medalists abandon the pool, track, field and court. After all the sacrifice and pain, “here is your medal, thank you very much, next!” just doesn’t seem to fulfill the athlete as much as the dreams of victory while training.

Those who fail to make their goals turn to coaching, writing or other forms to continue expressing their goals in other mediums. Or, they take those lessons learned and parlay them into a successful life . . . but, they don’t just drop them and walk away.

Now, I’m not encouraging failure, nor the initiating of a “culture of failure.” I coached football at Judge Memorial Catholic High School for a long time and I realized a very unsettling thing: when we began losing games, my athletes were getting more out of losing than winners did from winning.

When you win a game, as I had the good fortune to win many playing for South San Francisco High School, the team goes into the locker room and before you untie your shoes, the coach is talking about next week. The total amount of celebration in a winning locker room . . . for true winners . . . is often not very much!

But, the losers, the losers have hugs, tears, kisses, long speeches . . . usually from the prettiest girls. While the victors are thinking of yet another week on the grindstone, the losers are being cuddled and caressed back to a smile. Okay, I exaggerated, but not a lot!

Don’t let success flatten you nor let failure let you join the “Loser’s Club.” Learn from failure, enjoy it if you can, but plug along into another expedition to the top.

When you win, be gracious. When you get your goals, dream of other goals.

Years ago, I worked with a professional basketball team. The interactions were always interesting. Professional athletes either want to talk about nothing BUT their sport . . . or anything BUT their sport. I gravitated to the guys who had other interests. I learned a lot about crossword puzzles, taxation laws and honor among pros.

The coach told me something once that really unlocked a puzzle in my head:
“With all the games . . . preseason, season, playoffs . . . you just can’t let yourself get too high or too low. Tomorrow is another game.”

With professional sports, that is probably true. When high school seniors play their last game, win or lose, it is almost universally their last game. With pros, tomorrow is another game.

To me, this is “job thinking.” My job is shooting free throws, defending and fighting for rebounds. If all of us do our jobs and we have the genetic gifts, we win. With enough good DNA, we can probably win without all of us doing our jobs.

For the rest of us, we need to celebrate the highs and lows of life. Whenever I skip a good celebration, I later regret it.

Yes, things do seem to come in waves. I had a number of graduations in a short amount of time:

 8th Grade (1971)
9th Grade (1972)
High School (1975)
Junior College (1977)
University (1979)
Masters (1982)

I skipped the graduation from junior college to hang out with my friends. I didn’t have a celebration. Oddly, that is the one I regret the most.

Celebrate successes large and small.

This reminds me of something Charlie Francis, the great Canadian sprint coach, told us in Utah:

“Your highs are too low, and your lows are too high.”

He was talking about quality training. His insight was simple: on easy days, people try to do more and slide up into “medium.” On hard days, those earlier mediums days have taken the wind out of your sails and you do “medium again.”

Medium, like Dan Millman teaches us in the Peaceful Warrior, “is like lukewarm tea, the devil’s brew.”

I often explain my issues with “medium” like this: your daughter comes home from college with the love of her life. You ask: “What’s he like?”

“Ah, you know: okay looks, okay student, kinda funny, you know . . . okay.”

This is not exactly high praise!

Art DeVany reminds us that there is no failure, only feedback. In fitness, I think we set our people up to fail by focusing on these performance-ish goals rather than the process of learning new movements, moving more and moving with grace and beauty (more).

The scale, and we all know this, means nothing. If you want to lose weight quickly, chop off your leg.

There. Weight loss!

The feedback on one less leg will be insightful, I must honestly say.

Change your vision of success in the area of fat loss. You might as well change it to something more measureable like health or longevity. “Look at my lab results!” “Hey, look at my sprinting at 100 years of age!”

Like I told Kelly fourteen years ago:

Don’t let success flatten you nor let failure let you join the “Loser’s Club.” Learn from failure, enjoy it if you can, but plug along into another expedition to the top.

When you win, be gracious. When you get your goals, dream of other goals.

Rethinking health, longevity, fitness, performance, success, failure and fat loss teaches us an interesting way to answer the question: “Who are you?”

Me. This is me. And that is success.

A final thought: “If a book about failures doesn’t sell, is it a success?” ~ Jerry Seinfeld

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