On Taking Yourself Seriously

I.
It all started with this tweet from Ed Latimore:


“Train seriously. Fight seriously.”
I’ve noticed something odd about my generation. They don’t do anything seriously. People joke about “adulting.” If they do take on a goal of some kind, it’s always something small. And even then, they talk about how hard it is. Then they give up.
I shouldn’t criticize. I was once the same. And I didn’t realize how much I’d changed until I read Ed’s tweet. I’ve been mulling it over since, trying to figure out what’s changed.
It started in the gym.
II.
Heading into my senior year of college, my life was a bit of a wreck. I’d just been through a painful breakup, and I was struggling to stay on top of my classes. My health was at an all-time low (and my waistline was at an all-time high). Something needed to change. I remembered an old goal I’d set for myself. I had wanted to get in shape by the time I graduated college, but I’d put it off for the past three years. With my senior year looming ahead, I realized that I was on track to failing miserably.
After a few mistakes and false starts, I stumbled onto weightlifting and immediately fell in love with it. It’s easy in the beginning, but those newbie gains quickly slow down. You eventually reach a point in which you have to fight for every pound you add to the bar. You eventually reach a point in which you have to push as hard as you can, harder than you’ve ever pushed before.
Before I got into lifting, I had never pushed myself that hard. I was one of those kids who always got an A+ without studying. I was first chair in music class despite barely practicing. Now I see that it sowed a lot of bad habits. Talent only takes you so far; eventually, you’ll hit a wall. To push through that wall, you have to take yourself seriously..
III.
I recently started taking karate classes. It went well enough for the first few weeks, but eventually I had a bad day. I was messing up on things we’d already covered, things that should have been easy. My instructor wasn’t rude, exactly - I’m too old for him to lecture - but he’s not good at disguising his frustration. He made it pretty clear that I had fallen short of his expectations. I went home in a bad mood. I was angry at him, at myself. “Doesn’t he know how busy I am? I don’t have time to practice outside of class!” After I cooled down, I realized how pathetic my excuses were. It was pointless to take these classes if I wasn’t going to do my best. I started practicing more on my own. I stretched daily. I went through each movement on my next belt test several times a week. I made an effort to stay focused during class. It didn’t take long for my performance to improve - significantly so.
There’s another student that I often train beside. He’s been coming to class for eight years. But I’ve noticed something. He doesn’t seem to take it seriously. When we’re stretching, he barely pushes himself. Our warmup involves doing sets of fifteen pushups. He only does five or so. He’s in great shape, so it isn’t a lack of ability. He’s easily distracted. When the teachers are talking to us, he’s often staring off at a wall. When he receives feedback, he rarely implements it.
Once, I was performing drills beside the other student. I overheard my instructor whispering to another that after two months of training, I was already better than him.
Taking yourself seriously doesn’t sound fun. At least, not until you try it. Then you discover that fun things happen when you do.
IV.
The student I mentioned earlier is not unique. I see it everywhere I go. I see it in the coworkers who never get ahead. I see it in the gym rats who never make progress. I see it in myself, in my own past failures.
Taking yourself seriously doesn’t mean you have to act seriously all the time. There are a lot of jokes and laughter in my karate classes. A group of people doing their best is much more fun to be a part of than a group of people that are constantly checking the time. Taking yourself seriously doesn’t mean that you can’t laugh at yourself. It just means that you have to try, to truly engage yourself in what you’re doing. It means surrendering yourself to the process, to silence that part of you that wants to opt out, take a break, and deal with it tomorrow.
V.
People who take themselves seriously have a massive advantage over those who don’t. So how do you start taking yourself seriously?
What makes lifting so great at teaching focus is that it’s binary. Either you completed the lift or you didn’t. It also scales in difficulty, so that you’re always on the edge of failure. It is impossible to half-ass a genuinely heavy lift. If you aren’t focused while attempting a deadlift, the bar simply will not move. Eventually, focus is the limiting factor on progress.