Dan John: Wandering Weights, Issue # 188

Wandering Weights
Our Epic Journey Through All Things Heavy, Issue # 188

New article from Dan on OTPbooks.com: New article from Dan on OTP: “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.”. [CONTINUE READING]


I’m sitting in the Alexander Pope Pub again. I just finished some work and I am listening to a baby cry down the hall. It’s not always glamorous in London at six in the morning drinking instant coffee.

Yesterday was Father’s Day and I spent it on the road again. I have celebrated ONE Father’s Day with my wife and kids in Utah: 1991…my first. With Discus Camp and St. Mary’s, I have been on the road this weekend since the year my father died. I’m not sure what that means, but, well, yesterday, I was here and there was a big party in my home.

I’m okay with this, of course. But, we have to have the “examined life.” I have always felt that I keep my priorities very well, I strive to keep my balance of Pray, Play, Work and Rest at an appropriate level.

I also believe in the “sacred” part of sacrifice. I also know that when I do sit alone in a hotel room or teach through sunburns and snow that there is a greater purpose. Yesterday, I worked with a bunch of our St. Mary’s students in the kettlebells, shot put and javelin. I sat with many of them answering dozens of questions. I had a podcast with another.

Who knows what will come of these sacrifices? I don’t have a way to measure, but I always feel, “downstream,” more good will come from our tiny sacrifices in life.

For the past year, I have been doing this little review of The Sword in the Stone that I usually add after WW. I couldn’t have planned this week’s better:


“What is the first law of the foot?”

(“Think,” said friendly little Balan, behind his false primary.)

The Wart thought, and thought right.

“Never to let go,” he said.

End quote

This, of course, is my personal motto. I include it, as Never Let Go, in my signature and it is the title of the book that changed my life. My wife and I have a mission statement: Make a Difference. We try to make every decision based on how many people our decision will positively impact. It ties in well with Never Let Go.

I love history. I love stories. I love going back and rethinking and improving programs and systems from my past.

And, yesterday, I thought of my father. I thought of him standing out in the sector with me for hours and hours returning my discus. As I have noted, my father had his demons: abandoned after his mother died, raised by aunts, struggled through the Great Depression, World War II and raising a family of six.

Yet, he provided me with a chance to excel in all things. And, I remembered him yesterday…standing there.

Because, sometimes, it is simply being present that is the greatest gift. And that memory, well, I’m not letting go of it.

Back to WW. Sleep has become the new diet discussion. I enjoyed this article as it put a few things into perspective for me. Try to stay awake as you read it.


What about people who mess with their sleep cycle and try things like the da Vinci method, where you take a 20-minute nap every four hours?

That polyphasic sleep stuff? I mean, it’s just not enough sleep. It’s ridiculous.

I haven’t seen a study that empirically shows that it’s helpful. There is certainly a false myth that we need eight hours of continuous sleep: I think it’s possible to have your sleep be a little bit broken up and be perfectly healthy—but getting that eight hours is crucially important. The thing is that the placebo effect in some of these polyphasic sleep methods runs really high.

End quote

This next article reminds me of a creativity experiment that we were taught probably in the early 1990s. If I can find the old article I wrote on it then, I will reprint it. But, I find the point of this absolutely true.


The participants had to complete the task twice, finding alternative uses for a brick and a toothpick. The only difference was that some were asked to do so in blocks, listing all the uses for the brick first before turning their full attention to the toothpick, while others were told to alternate between the two tasks.

According to Bell’s view that immersed concentration is the key to creativity, you might expect the first group to perform better – but this wasn’t what the team found. “While they might have felt that they were on a roll, the reality was that without the breaks afforded by the continual task switching, their actual progress was limited.”

From the sheer number of ideas they produced to the perceived novelty of the ideas (as assessed by independent judges), the multitaskers performed better.

For further evidence, the team next looked at a test of convergent thinking, in which you are given three words (such as “way”, “mission” and “let”) and you have to think of a common linking word (in this case “sub”). The test is meant to measure your ability to find the associations between apparently unconnected concepts, and unlike the “alternative uses task”, you are looking for a single answer that comes in a single flash of insight.

End quote

Lots of people are revisiting the “Marshmallow Test” on the internet this week. Facebook friends have tagged people in it and the discussions ensue. New research points to the fact that what makes one have more “free will” in this test is your level of income. Poor kids tend to look at their life experiences as they make the choices; perhaps, it is a learned behavior that they choose to take the marshmallow now versus some promise of future sweets.

The discussions made me dig up this older article from one of my favorite authors, David Denby. “Grit,” when applied to rich kids (I am trying NOT to think of one person) is unfair when compared to someone like my father.

My ability to throw the discus up to four hours a day and lift from two to three hours a day is not related to my “grit;” all praise goes to my dad for his ability to provide the financial means for me to do this as I worked my way to a scholarship. This article, I think, should be required reading for people, like me, who often ignore the sacrifices of others when patting oneself firmly on the back.


Duckworth’s single-mindedness could pose something of a danger to the literal-minded. Young people who stick to their obsessions could wind up out on a limb, without a market for their skills. Spelling ability is nice, if somewhat less useful than, say, the ability to make a mixed drink—a Negroni, a Tom Collins. But what do you do with it? Are the thirteen-year-old champion spellers going to go through life spelling out difficult words to astonished listeners? I realize, of course, that persistence in childhood may pay off years later in some unrelated activity. But I’m an owlish enough parent to insist that the champion spellers might have spent their time reading something good—or interacting with other kids. And what if a child has only moderate talent for her particular passion? Mike Egan, a former member of the United States Marine Band, wrote a letter to the Times Book Review in response to Judith Shulevitz’s review of Duckworth’s book. “Anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work,” Egan wrote, “ought to be jailed for child abuse.”

Duckworth not only ignores the actual market for skills and talents, she barely acknowledges that success has more than a casual relation to family income. After all, few of us can stick to a passion year after year that doesn’t pay off—not without serious support. Speaking for myself, the most important element in my social capital as an upper-middle-class New York guy was, indeed, capital—my parents carried me for a number of years as I fumbled my way to a career as a journalist and critic. Did I have grit? I suppose so, but their support made persistence possible.

After many examples of success, Duckworth announces a theory: “Talent x effort = skill. Skill x effort = achievement.” It’s hardly E=mc2. It’s hardly a theory at all—it’s more like a pop way of formalizing commonplace observation and single-mindedness. Compare Duckworth’s book in this respect with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” Gladwell also traced the backgrounds of extraordinarily accomplished people—the computer geniuses Bill Gates and Bill Joy, business tycoons, top lawyers in New York, and so on. And Gladwell discovered that, yes, his world-beaters devoted years to learning and to practice: ten thousand hours, he says, is the rough amount of time it takes for talented people to become masters.

Yet, if perseverance is central to Gladwell’s outliers, it’s hardly the sole reason for their success. Family background, opportunity, culture, landing at the right place at the right time, the over-all state of the economy—all these elements, operating at once, allow some talented people to do much better than other talented people. Gladwell provides the history and context of successful lives. Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little. Is there any good football team, for instance, that doesn’t believe in endless practice, endurance, overcoming pain and exhaustion? All professional football teams train hard, so grit can’t be the necessary explanation for the Seahawks’ success. Pete Carroll and his coaches must be bringing other qualities, other strategies, to the field. Observing those special qualities is where actual understanding might begin.

End quote

Let’s leave it here. These articles really are worthy of further discussion. Next week, I promise to have articles on diet (which will fill my inbox with complaints) and exercise, but be sure to drink deeply on what you see here.

Until then, keep on lifting and learning.


New this week on OTPbooks.com: Thomas Plummer’s The Soul of a Trainer (click for details)


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