“Never underestimate the utility of incremental improvement” – Jordan Peterson
I want to talk about one of my clients at the Boston Sports Club, who has given me his permission to share this anecdote. But it applies to my other clients over the years as well. His just happens to be the most recent.
I don’t think we can truly appreciate (for all kinds of various psychological reasons) how truly powerful just making one change can be; how changing course by just 1 degree can have you in a totally different place. I mean, we get that with a ship, sure, but it can be very abstract to fully appreciate how that can manifest itself over time when it comes to bettering ourselves and literally taking life one day at a time and still have an eye on the future. I’ve mentioned this before, but the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray is one of my favourites. Yes, him coming up with thousands of different ways to kill himself is funny, but there is a much deeper psychological meaning to the whole movie. I am currently reading 12 Rules for Life by Dr. Jordan Peterson, and while it has enjoyed being a best seller, surpassing all the crap about Trump, it is occurring to me that you really don’t have to read his book. Just watch “Groundhog Day”; it gives you the whole psychological transformation from the being selfish “it’s all about me,” to the nihilistic “What the hell am I doing and what is this all for?” to coming out of all that chaos and realizing that it is not just about trying to get the girl, but instead, becoming better each day. Being a better person. Taking care of myself and helping others do the same. It is finding that meaning, over time, and lo and behold, isn’t it amazing that he gets the girl when – and only when – he finally becomes worth having.
That’s the fast, psychoanalytic summary. So, I won’t get all Carl Jung on you here, but the point of slow gradual improvement is what I want to tackle, and Steve (we will call him Steve) has been proving to be a terrific example of this very concept. Six months ago, he signed up at the gym and wanted a personal trainer. Unfortunately for him, I just happened to be the trainer closest to him. 😊
We’ve seen this all before. He is a very successful lawyer in his mid-30s, but with all the financial success, it has come with a heavy price. It came with 120-hour work weeks, and as a result, everything else cascaded downward around him: fast food and alcohol, a broken relationship, high blood pressure, lots and lots of stress. Everything I have been railing against, he was the archetypical embodiment of.
He didn’t know it at the time, but him waking up and realizing he was in trouble was the first step. The first degree of change. We met, I gave a little bit of the big picture, and a lot of what we were going to do next week. What he didn’t know was that I was preparing to help him go to war for his soul. The enemy: the flawed American dream. But this isn’t an enemy you crush! You can’t go into this and think you can annihilate the enemy. What we do need to do is stand up to it; make it an ally and learn to live along with it, learning how to take care of ourselves and devote the right amount of time doing that. Once we are in a better place, then the “American Dream” becomes far less flawed.
I am writing this 2 full months after the “New Year’s Resolutions” that have stopped happening. Our gym is a ghost town again in comparison to the first 3 weeks of the year, with a small handful of new regulars who, of course, have been welcomed into the fold by the vets. (This is why NYRs are so stupid! They try doing too much, all at once, and then poof! They’re gone.)
Steve didn’t do that. He still worked a lot, still ate not as well as he could, and still drank more than he knew he should. I was okay with that. My job was to help him get stronger. Period! So, we trained. Then he came in the next week. We trained again, and shocker: he was stronger than the week before. So, we did it again the next week, and he was even stronger. Six weeks later, he was twice as strong as he was when he came in the first time. This is about when he asked me, “Glenn, what can I be doing next?” Now, I started coaching him on the food: eat cleaner, as many vegetables as possible. This was at the same time Lenny had come back looking better than ever, so I asked Steve to read my blog post about Mr. Clark. (Update on Mr. Clark: he has stuck with the diet and training. He is 65, and he has a six pack! Not bad, Uncle Teddy! Not F$%#ing bad at all.)
Steve has been eating better. By doing these small things and getting better, he was getting more productive at work, which meant he was able to start dialing back the hours. As we built a solid and committed time every Tuesday morning, this has led to him realizing he can do this the other mornings during the week. He likes swimming (we have a pool), so he swims a couple times a week and trains with me. Because his activity level was going up and becoming far more intense and demanding as he continued to get stronger, he has been craving nutritious foods and has drastically cut back on eating crap. Along the way, he has met someone and started to enjoy more time with her. Because he isn’t home alone, he is drinking less. This isn’t an infomercial where I then say he’s lost 50 lbs. and looks like a fitness model. Nope, that hasn’t happened yet. His changes have been slow and tempered, but the foundation and new habits he has and is building are now a part of his identity. We have only been at this 6 months. Looking back on it, he has done and accomplished a lot! But that first week, making all these changes, all at once, would have seemed (because they are) overwhelming. What is that saying? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Yeah, duh! But then you need to keep taking steps. That is what Steve and my other clients, and Lenny, keep doing. They keep taking steps, and each day they get just a little, often imperceptibly, better.
Steve has started over the last 3 weeks getting into the intermittent fasting. Now the changes are coming even faster. Where he was once in a vicious cycle of too much work, too much bad food, too much stress, too much alcohol, etc., he has made the shift to a virtuous cycle of tough training, followed by a sauna, followed by a hot shower, followed by less, but more productive and meaningful work. This is followed by stresses, sure, but because he is in such a better, more resilient place, he is able to cope that much better. This means alcohol with friends for enjoyment, but not as the crutch to get him through such tough stressful days, which means he’s more fun to be around, which means he has a great girl, which means “keep doing this because this is all so much more fun!”
It started on one of the last days of August. It is by no means over, but the trajectory of his ship, his soul, his path, is on a new and exciting course.
There is one piece I want to add to this post as it relates to both Steve and an earlier one about “False Idols.” It follows my realization, due to my own experiences over the last couple of months and the real addiction Steve and so many others have. It’s not to alcohol, or heroin, or cocaine, but to work. Hourly, wage-earning, work. I am working for a security company. For my wife’s and my current needs, I am paid well enough hourly. I am no lawyer billing at 200-plus-dollars an hour but I am paid well enough. I am also not on salary like I was as a teacher. So, the more I work… the more I get paid. Okay, so thank you Spock and your logic, but when you put in 60 hours a week and do that a few times… holy shit! My paycheques have been great! Like, solving-financial-problems-reaching-financial-goals great! Here comes the feedback loop: a previous paycheque was good. So, I worked even more hours the next pay period. That paycheque was even better, so I worked even more the following pay period. My last paycheque was a whopper! So, guess who wants to work even more? Now, like I said, I do not bill at $200 or more and hour. But can you imagine if you were someone who did? Working 30 hours is good. You’d have a nice cheque put into your account. So, you work an even 40 hours. Your next cheque is even better, then you must help a big client with a big case and you end up putting in 50-hour weeks. Shocker! Your cheque is even better. We see where this is going. Next thing you know, you’re in competition with yourself to see how many hours you can put in during the week. 60, 70, 80, 100, and your paycheque keeps getting even bigger: huge, massive amounts of money being dumped into your account, and it looks good! It feels good! It makes the effort and sacrifice seemingly worthwhile and you are getting rich because you have no time to spend any of it!
I tell all of this to Steve. He looks at me, then says, “Yeah, but then you don’t have a f$#%ing life!” He appreciated what I had experienced: me, finally feeling that feeling, had me really starting to understand the dilemma he and many others face. I will also say that many will experience making six figures, but quickly fall into the trap of needing to make six figures to keep a lifestyle they can now afford, which puts them into a “rat race,” to quote Robert Kiyosaki. But it’s a rat race on steroids.
This lends itself to how truly impressive Steve’s transformation has been. He’s getting his life back. I took today off (first one since Christmas Day!).
Be careful of the snakes in the garden, false idols, dragons, etc. They come in many forms.