This column is by John Fawkes, a fitness expert and science geek.
Back in college, I lived off of pizza, soda and beer, and I looked like it. I was skinny, but with a sizable beer gut. I had kesterrible posture, a sallow complexion, and never slept well. Most damningly, I exuded an utter lack of vitality which carried over into other areas of my life, making me extremely shy in social situations and unproductive at my schoolwork.
I knew I had a problem, and I wanted to be in better shape. Unfortunately, this would have meant going to the gym. I say it was unfortunate, because the school gym was packed with shockingly fit people, and I found those people intimidating. The guys were more buff than I could ever see myself getting, the girls were out of my league, and I felt completely out of place every time I set foot there. My solution: never go to the gym, ever.
In my junior year, I decided to join a martial arts organization on campus. Unlike most student clubs, this one had an entrance requirement- you had to try out, to prove that you could practice martial arts safely. I was excited to join the club; I knew I would learn a lot, and the members seemed really cool.
Unfortunately, I was rejected- the members of the club didn’t think I could practice martial arts safely. Not for the reasons you might imagine- I didn’t hit people too hard, or or fall the wrong way, or continually attempt jump kicks that might break my ankle. There was nothing wrong with my technique.
I was rejected because, during the tryouts, I got so winded I almost passed out, and had to sit down and rest for five minutes. They were afraid I would have a heart attack if I practiced martial arts. I was the first applicant ever rejected for reasons of physical fitness.
Devastated by my failure, I spent weeks sulking alone in my room, playing video games, reading, and refusing to go out and face the world. During this period, I read several biographies of famous people, as well as numerous celebrity interviews, and it gradually dawned on me that the people I was reading about all had a mentality that was starkly different from my own.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered the gym, or Slash discovered music, or Benjamin Franklin discovered the printing business, they were surrounded by people who were far ahead of them, just like I was at the gym. Yet instead of feeling intimidated, as I did, they felt inspired, motivated, and even excited. When Arnold first entered a bodybuilding gym and saw that he was the smallest guy there, he reacted like a kid walking into Disneyland.
A couple weeks after almost passing out trying to practice martial arts, I walked into the gym for the first time in almost a year. I was still one of the least fit people there. Walking over to the free weights, I saw a man who looked like a professional fitness model, bench pressing over two hundred pounds with little apparent effort.
Previously, seeing people like him was exactly what had kept me out of the gym. Yet this time, I was ecstatic. Look at that guy! If I keep coming here and working out with all of these fitness buffs, I’ll start to look more like him!
So I kept going to the gym, and I kept working out. At first I didn’t know what to do, but many of my fellow gymgoers were happy to give me advice. Now, I was energized by their company. I realized they wanted me to succeed. Just being around them made me feel invincible.
The next semester, I went back to the martial arts group. After being the first person ever rejected for reasons I physical fitness, I set a new first: I was the first rejected applicant ever to come back and try out a second time. Where before I had struggled through the initiation, this time I breezed through it. I was in.
I had always thought that I needed to learn some new diet, or some new workout, to get into shape. But the truth is, I had always had plenty of information, and I hadn’t used it. What I really needed all along was to change my psychology.
Over the following years, I realized that I was underachieving in other areas of my life for the same reason I had stayed out of shape for so long. My social life was being held back because I was intimidated by people who were outgoing and socially active. I started going to more parties and bar crawls, and my social life quickly became far more fulfilling than it had ever been.
My career was being held back because I was intimidated by people who were wealthy, successful, or owned their own business. I made an effort to network with successful businesspeople, and my career took off- I got better jobs, and later on became a successful business owner myself.
To give you a contrasting example, there’s this guy I know who’s a moderately successful small business owner, makes pretty good money, and travels a lot. For reasons I won’t get into, I don’t like him very much. He surrounds himself with people who are less successful than he is, and probably always will be. Within the small social circle he’s built around himself, he’s the man.
His friends shower him with admiration, which strokes his ego. The thing is, like heroin, that admiration feels good, but it weakens him. His choice of company holds him back, because he would rather have admirers than people he can learn from.
As the old saying goes, show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. Too often, we allow ourselves to be intimidated by people who have achieved the things we ourselves want to achieve. As a result, we actively avoid the very people we should be seeking out as friends, mentors and role models.
When you feel intimidated by people you perceive as more fit, successful, cooler, or in any way better than you, here’s what you should do instead: First off, remind yourself that intimidation is all in your head; it’s not something anyone else is doing to you.
Second, remind yourself that most of those people who intimidate you actually want you to succeed. Why do they want you to succeed? Partly so they can have company, and partly because there’s a natural human impulse to want everyone else to be like ourselves. Consequently, fit people want you to get fit, rich people want you to get rich, and so on.
Third, look at the people around you and imagine being like them. Visualize how you’ll look, feel how it will feel to be like them. And then tell yourself, “If I stick it out, this is what will actually happen to me. That’s what I’ll become.”
Finally, reframe your sense of intimidation. Yes, your mind is in overdrive, your pulse is racing, and you’re obsessing over what might happen. Intimidation feels that way. But you know what else feels that way? Excitement. Reinterpret everything you’re feeling as a sense of positive excitement over the bright future that you know you’re headed for, because you’re spending time around people who will pull you up to their level.
I’ve learned to seek out people who are successful in the areas I want to be successful in, and draw upon their strength. I talk to them, befriend them, learn from them, and most importantly, I simply spend time around them. And in doing so, I become more like them.
Now, I’m in better shape than most of the people at my gym. The thing is, I never want to be the most fit person at my gym. Within the next few months I plan to move on to a different gym, one that caters to competitive athletes and bodybuilders. I know that if I train where they train, if I spend more time where they are, they’ll pull me up to their level. And I never feel intimidated at the gym anymore.
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