Categories
Essay General Life Skills Tactical

My 2016 Personal Retrospective (And 2017 Action Plan)

A one-hour exercise to help you celebrate your biggest wins, identify your biggest opportunities, and dominate the new year.

Nathan Anderson
Sometimes it’s nice to think about how small you are, and how everything you’re worried about right now probably doesn’t matter.

I spend most of my time planning for the future. With the help of my meditation practice, I’m getting better at living more in the present. But something I still find incredibly difficult is reflecting on the past.

I rarely celebrate achievements for more than a few minutes, and I almost never “look back” on projects or situations to identify what I learned. (And I certainly don’t use that information to guide my future decisions.)

This, as you can imagine, is a problem.

“Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Sometimes being “doomed to repeat” stuff can be a good thing. I think I did a lot of things right this year, and I’d like to continue to do them.

But I also did a lot of stuff wrong.

If we don’t learn from our past, we we won’t be able to identify our biggest opportunities to make life better. Which means we’ll likely suffer through the same situations and thought-patterns again and again.

So this year, I’m continuing with a new tradition I started last year: a personal retrospective.

(Read my 2015 retrospective here.)

What’s a retrospective?

A retrospective is when you look back on past events to identify what worked…and what didn’t work. A retrospective helps you celebrate your wins and identify your weaknesses. It helps you learn from the past and correct for the future.

How to do your own personal retrospective

To do a personal retrospective, you simply pick a particular project or time period and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s working? (“What did I do right? What am I proud of?”)
  • What’s not working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)
  • How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)

Then you spend 15-30 minutes writing about each.

Nate’s 2016 Personal Retrospective

To give you an idea of how it’s done—and to encourage you to do the same—I want to share mine with you.

NGE 2
Talking with a Buddhist monk in Thailand; taking a selfie with friends; hanging out in a Slovenian gym; taking in a gorgeous mountain view.

QUESTION 1: WHAT’S WORKING? (“WHAT DID I DO RIGHT? WHAT AM I PROUD OF?”)

If I had to give 2016 a title, I’d call it “The year of gaining perspective.”

Big Win #1: I lived out of a suitcase for seven months and traveled to Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, England, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. (And Canada, but who counts that?)

Traveling like this taught me a few important things:

  • I have all that I need to be happy. It may sound trite, but it’s true. I have hot water, a comfortable place to sleep, enough food to eat, full functionality of all my limbs, a good group of friends, a family I love, and I don’t live below the poverty line. (Fun fact: If you’re single, live in the US, and make $50,000 gross per year, you’re in richest 1.3% of the world’s population.) Traveling is the ultimate perspective-giver.
  • Everyone is seeking connection and potential friends are everywhere. Wherever Richelle and I went, we had people to hang out with and new things to try. We made friends with a young group of entrepreneurs in Playa Del Carmen; we ate strange noodle desserts with the owner of a a coffee shop in Chiang Mai; I nearly got myself killed while riding on the back of a scooter in Vietnam (on my way to a karaoke bar no less); and we had one of the best meals of our lives at Hisa Franko in Slovenia, thanks to Luka and Matej.
  • If you’re creative, you can get (or stay) in shape anywhere. I lifted water jugs in Mèrida, did handstands on a rooftop in Bangkok, hiked in the Julian Alps, played frisbee in Danang, and hit up an old school gym in Croatia. (The guy behind the counter was named Goran, which means “mountain man” in Kurdish. He looked the part.)
  • Long-term travel isn’t for me. After seven months on the road, we were ready to come back to the States. We missed our families, our community, and our basic routines. We’ll continue to travel, of course, but we’ll likely do it for a few weeks at a time (at most) and turn it into a full-fledged vacation instead of a “workcation”.

Big Win #2: I maintained my key habits and adopted a couple new ones.

  • Old habits I stuck to 90+% of the time: Meditating in the morning for 20 minutes; doing a daily gratitude practice with Richelle; exercising a minimum of two times per week; doing undistracted creative work for at least four hours per day; taking weekends completely off.
  • New habits I adopted: Giving 5-10% of my income to charity; cutting my meat consumption in half.

Big Win #3: I did work I was proud of.

  • From January to November I sent an average of three newsletters per month. (I took the month of December 2016 off completely.)
  • I advised a handful of companies that are doing great work in the world.

What We've Learned

Click here (or the image above) to download the book for free.

QUESTION #2: WHAT’S NOT  WORKING? (“WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED? WHAT ARE MY BIGGEST OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH?”)

Big Growth Opportunity #1: Continue to work on flexibility and mobility (for real this time).

Big Growth Opportunity #2: Spend at least 50% of my creative time on my own projects.

If you read my 2015 retrospective, you’ll notice that Number 1 is a carryover from last year.

Here’s what I said then:

I’ve paid lip-service to flexibility for the past couple of years, half-heartedly following a daily stretching routine. But honestly, I still tend to skip a good part of my warm-up and “forget” to stretch at least half the time.

Because of that, I often wake up tight and sore and often require a hot shower to “loosen up.”

Well, a full year has passed and I’m disappointed to report that not much has changed. Old habits die hard, apparently.

One potential reason for the fuck-up: I gave myself way too many (four) action steps last year. Here’s what I said I’d do at the beginning of last year:

Action step #1: Do my morning mobility and activation warm-up at least 80% of the time. That means I can only miss one day out of the week.

Action step #2: Follow a simple 5-minute mobility, stretching circuit before bed every night.

Action step #3: Set a timer for 60 minutes and do one stretch for one minute for every hour that I work at my computer.

Action step #4: Sit on the ground for at least 10 minutes and play with positions till they become more comfortable.

That’s WAY too much.

After watching thousands of people go through the habit-based coaching programs at Precision Nutrition, I know that most of us can only stick to one new habit at a time. (Sometimes you can get away with two, but it helps to have those habits in different domains—like one for personal and one for professional.)

So this year, even though I have a lot more to work on (trust me) I’m going to narrow my focus to these two things, plus reduce my action steps.

Both of these opportunities—increasing mobility and working on my own projects 50% of the time—will have a significant positive impact in my life. Probably more than any other habit I could adopt.

In other words, if everything else about my life stayed the same and only these two things changed, I’d consider 2017 a huge success.

QUESTION #3: HOW CAN I FIX WHAT’S NOT WORKING FOR A BETTER RESULT? (“WHAT SPECIFIC THINGS CAN I FOCUS ON NEXT TIME?”)

Action step #1: Set a timer for 20 minutes of stretching, breathing, and movement directly after I finish my morning meditation.

Rationale: I’m already meditating in the morning, so I might as well use that to my advantage. By linking this new practice (stretching) to my old practice (meditating), I’m more likely to stick to it. And the fact that I’m already wearing sweat pants and sitting on the floor helps.

Also, for someone who loves routines, I hate following rigid programs. That’s why I’m purposefully keeping the stretching and movement portion of this action step vague. My only goal is to set a timer for 20 minutes and do some kind of movement for the entire duration. If I can do that, I’ll consider it a win.

Nate Green Morning Workout Routine
I figure I can crawl, stretch, and do some other bodyweight exercises for 20 minutes and feel pretty good about it.

Action step #2: Immediately fire 1-2 companies I’m currently working with in order to free up 50% of my work schedule. 

Rationale: The way my schedule is structured right now, I’m spending 90% of my time on other people’s projects. This has been fun and lucrative, but it’s not allowing me time to work on stuff that matters to me: writing blog posts and books, creating new projects, and working with personal coaching clients.

I’ll likely take a significant financial hit in the short-term, but that’s no big deal. Best case scenario: I use that free time to create things that help people and earn money directly. Worst-case scenario: I try it for a year and pick up another corporate client or two in 2018 if needed.

Write your own Personal Retrospective

So that’s mine. Now it’s your turn.

It’ll take you roughly an hour, but it could be the most important thing you do this year. After all, 2017 is already here.

What are you the most proud of? Where are your biggest growth opportunities?

And the biggest question: What are you going to do about them?

-Nate

Categories
Life Skills Tactical

Nate Green’s 2015 Retrospective (And 2016 Action Plan)

A one-hour exercise to help you celebrate your biggest wins, identify your biggest opportunities, and prepare to dominate the upcoming year.

Greg Rakozy

I spend most of my time planning for the future. With the help of my meditation practice, I’m getting better at living more in the present. But something I still find incredibly difficult is reflecting on the past.

I rarely celebrate achievements for more than a few minutes, and I almost never “look back” on projects or situations to identify what I learned. (And I certainly don’t use that information to guide my future decisions.)

This, as you can imagine, is a problem.

“Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Sometimes being “doomed to repeat” stuff can be a good thing. I think I did a lot of things right this year, and I’d like to continue to do them.

But I also did a lot of stuff wrong.

If we don’t learn from our past, we we won’t be able to identify our biggest opportunities to make life better. Which means we’ll likely suffer through the same situations and thought-patterns again and again.

So this year, I’m beginning a new tradition I hope to repeat every year: A Personal Retrospective.

What’s a retrospective?

A retrospective is when you look back on past events to identify what worked…and what didn’t work. A retrospective helps you celebrate your wins and identify your weaknesses. It helps you learn from the past and correct for the future.

I was first introduced to this framework by Phil Caravaggio, the CEO of Precision Nutrition. Because of him, PN does a retrospective at the end of every single project.

We’ve found it invaluable for the business, and I expect to get similar results with my Personal Retrospective.

How to do your own Personal Retrospective

To do a Personal Retrospective, you simply pick a particular project or time period and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s working? (“What did I do right? What am I proud of?”)
  • What’s not working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)
  • How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)

Then you spend 15-30 minutes writing about each.

Nate’s 2015 Personal Retrospective

To give you an idea of how it’s done—and to encourage you to do the same—I want to share mine with you.

If I had to give 2015 a title, I’d call it “The year of getting out of my comfort zone, seeing the ‘The Big Picture’, and refocusing.”

Big Win #1: I did more public speaking and repeatedly faced my irrational fear of talking in front of large groups.

I gave four talks this year, and each one taught me something profound.

  1. The Toastmasters “Ice Breaker” speech: Everyone feels at least a little nervous getting in front of a crowd of strangers and talking. Speaking at Toastmasters helped me boost my confidence and practice my speeches in a very low-risk arena where I didn’t know anyone.
  2. The 3-hour focus and productivity workshop: Small groups are where I thrive. I felt engaged and enjoyed the ability to switch gears and tailor my material to the needs of the group. I felt like I made a genuine impact on each person.
  3. The fitness conference: I don’t feel as natural on stage, but I know it’s a skill that can be refined with more practice. My slides were on point, people laughed at my stories, and a few later told me how much it helped them. That’s all I can ask for.
  4. The eulogy: This was incredibly difficult. My good friend Kyle Hibler died this year at the age of 31 when he was hit by a car while walking to work. His death reminded me of how suddenly life can go away. Unlike my other talks, I didn’t feel an ounce of nervousness while giving Kyle’s eulogy. There was simply no room for it.
Me, Jason, and Kyle in 2002.

Big Win #2: I did work I was proud of.

  • I wrote a half-dozen newsletters, a couple blog posts, and an 8-part series on relationships. (It starts with the most embarrassing story I’ve ever published and ends with a little redemption and hope.)

  • I coached a few guys online and helped them get out of their rut, find a new direction with their business, and bring more balance back to their lives. This was incredibly rewarding work, and I’m thinking about doing more personal coaching in 2016.

“Working with Nate is like sitting in a coffee shop talking to a good friend, but instead of chatting about what you did last Friday night, you’re plotting a plan for domination.” Eric W, a guy I worked with this year.

  • And at Precision Nutrition, I contributed to some big, influential projects that will go on to help thousands of people. I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve done there.

Big Win #3: I took steps toward gaining even more freedom and autonomy. Plus, I set the stage to do even more personally meaningful work in 2016.

Richelle and I stayed debt free, contributed a good chunk of money to our “freedom fund”, and put most of our stuff in storage before setting off to travel.

We left Portland, spent two months back home in Montana, then traveled to Merida and Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where we’re currently enjoying the beach. From here, we’re heading to Southeast Asia, then on to Europe. Or wherever.

Agave fields in Mexico.

I also made a few difficult yet calculated decisions that I believe will allow me to do even more personally-meaningful work in 2016. But more on that later.

Question #2: What’s not  working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)

Big Growth Opportunity #1: Continue to work on communication skills, especially reacting emotionally during charged conversations.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very candid. That means I say what I think and share my feelings—oftentimes without thinking critically about what I’m about to say. Since I tend to hash out ideas verbally, I actually “think” while talking.

Because of my gregariousness, I can sometimes come off as brash and emotionally-reactive, which understandably makes some people uncomfortable.

“Venting” on an idea may help me formulate my thoughts, but it’s not necessarily an effective way to communicate all the time.

While I’ve trained myself to notice it either while I’m doing it or shortly after the interaction is over, I have yet to discover how to notice the urge to “vent” before it happens.

Big Growth Opportunity #2: Continue to work on flexibility and mobility.

When I don’t have a chair, I find it very hard to sit still for longer than a minute or two. (If you want to make me miserable just ask me to sit on the floor.)

I’ve paid lip-service to flexibility for the past couple of years, half-heartedly following a daily stretching routine. But honestly, I still tend to skip a good part of my warm-up and “forget” to stretch at least half the time.

Because of that, I often wake up tight and sore and often require a hot shower to “loosen up.”

Question #3: How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)

If I had to “80/20” the stuff I should work on — the stuff that will help me suffer less and become more effective in 2016 — my biggest opportunities are fixing my communication skills and becoming more flexible. (While maintaining my already-established good habits, of course).

I’ll likely talk to people and move my body around for the rest of my life—so it makes sense for me to focus on these weaker areas.

“In your professional life, it’s better to focus on your strengths. But in your personal life, it’s better to improve your weaknesses.” Phil Caravaggio

Below is how I plan on tackling them right off the bat, though I’m sure my specific action steps will change and transform throughout the year.

How I plan to become a better communicator.

Action step #1: Read the book Crucial Conversations, take notes, then perform an 80/20 analysis on my notes to identify the top 1-2 habits I should work on first.

Action step #2: In the meantime, I’m going to work on not interrupting people during conversations. When I notice the urge to speak, I will take a breath, continue to listen, and try to hear exactly what is being said before asking a question or beginning to talk.

How I plan to increase my flexibility.

I’ll do the following in PN-style fashion: pick one thing and focus on it completely for 2-4 weeks before moving on to the next action step.

Action step #1: Do my morning mobility and activation warm-up at least 80% of the time. That means I can only miss one day out of the week.

Action step #2: Follow a simple 5-minute mobility, stretching circuit before bed every night.

Action step #3: Set a timer for 60 minutes and do one stretch for one minute for every hour that I work at my computer.

Action step #4: Sit on the ground for at least 10 minutes and play with positions till they become more comfortable.

Write your own Personal Retrospective

So that’s mine. Now it’s your turn.

It’ll take you roughly an hour, but it could be the most important thing you do this year. After all, 2015 is almost over and  the new year will be here in a week.

What are you the most proud of? Where are your biggest growth opportunities?

And the biggest question: What are you going to do about them?

-Nate

PS – Here are a couple random things I think you’ll enjoy:

What I read to become a better public speaker:

A video of my friend Kyle sticking his head in a toilet after losing a bet. The guy was hilarious and would do anything for a laugh.

And finally, I’m going to be doing a LOT more projects, writing, and personal coaching in 2016. I’m very excited about this—and I hope you are, too.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

-Nate

Categories
Life Skills

We think we need more

More skills before starting a business. More clothes to reinvent our wardrobes.  More Twitter followers. More money.  More attention from the world.

But do me a favor: before you get more food from the grocery store,  go take a look in your fridge.

What’s in there?

Half an avocado that’s turning brown? A couple eggs? An apple?

That’s your dinner.

With a little love and attention, the stuff you were going to trash tomorrow can be a nourishing meal now.

You didn’t need more. You had enough already.

This isn’t about kids starving in Africa or food waste or whatever else.

It’s about recognizing what you have and putting that to good use before trying to get more.

It’s about learning to be resourceful and creative. Because those are qualities that extend far beyond making an omelet.

Those are life skills.

So here’s some advice for you that’s really advice for me:

When you feel the need for more, stop and do an inventory of what you have already.

Maybe it’s enough.

 

Categories
Uncategorized

All Over Again

kettlebell-grass

A couple days ago, a 19-year-old college student asked me this:

“I want to work in the fitness industry and help people. If you could go back to when you were 19, what would you do over?”

It was a good question; and I felt honored that he trusted me, a college dropout, to answer it.

Now, I don’t remember everything I told him, but I do remember one Big Point:

Don’t get loaded down in debt. Instead, get creative, help more people, and you’ll make (and keep) more money.

Storytime:

When I was 21, I took out a $25,000 loan to buy workout equipment and rent my own personal training studio.

The first year I was open, my mom had to bring me care packages of food and toilet paper because I didn’t have any cash left over at the end of the month.

All my money went to paying two rents (my apartment and my workout studio), bank loans and…weekly matinee movies where I snuck a couple cans of beer into the theatre and drank them in the back row. I learned that a regular 9-5 job wasn’t for me early on. I’ve also gotten better with money. Still drink beer at the movies, though.

From the outside, of course, it looked like I was doing great. And to a point, I was.

I didn’t have a “regular” job. I was starting to write for fitness magazines. I made money helping people get in shape.

But I really had the illusion of success because I had the nice “upscale” studio. No one knew how much money I made…or how much money I paid to have the nice studio.

“Hey, there’s that young go-getter with the fancy workout place!”

So while I was good at training people and had some wonderful clients — the best, actually — my studio was too small to train more than one person at a time. Plus it was above a nice hair salon who didn’t appreciate the thump of early-morning deadlift sessions.

Plus, I wasn’t having that much fun eating canned tuna and wiping my ass with low-grade, single ply sandpaper.

So…if I were just starting out and had to do it all over again…

I’d buy a cheap beat-up truck and $300 worth of kettlebells and other random workout stuff, and train people outside in the sun. Park, beach, backyard…it wouldn’t matter.

No more training studio with an astronomical rent. No more bank loans.

If it rained, I’d negotiate some kind of flat-rate deal ($20-40 bucks for a few hours) with a high school gym or a martial arts studio or some kind of community-building-thing and train people there instead.

And I would never ever train one person at a time. Only groups of 2-3.

Quick aside: training 3 people is pretty much the same as training one person, and it’s even easier to get clients, since everyone wants to bring a friend and hang out and make the thing social.

Plus everyone gets a discount and you make more money per hour. It’s winning all around. 

Math: 

One person: Pays you $50 / hour to watch them do lunges. You make $50 per hour.

3 people: Pay you $25 / hour to watch them all do lunges. You make $75 per hour.)

Of course, coaching is a skill and involves much more than watching people do lunges. But that’s still a part of it.

So, Yeah.

If I was 19 or 21 or hell, even if I had to quit everything and start from scratch now,  that’s what I would do. And when I wasn’t training clients, I’d be writing and hustling in other ways.

I’m not saying it’s perfect or even a good idea.

But still. It sounds kinda nice, right?

+++++++++++

What I’m currently enjoying: Choose Yourself by James Altucher.

Get notified whenever I post something new by following me on Twitter or liking my Facebook page. Read why I don’t have comments or an email newsletter here.

+++++++++++

Categories
Focus and Productivity

The easiest thing to do.

Escalator

The easiest thing to do is to let your mind wander instead of being in the moment.

To check email or Facebook or Instagram instead of creating something.

To wait for your turn to talk instead of listening to what’s being said.

To sleep in instead of starting your day.

To get caught up in gossip or drama or who said what instead of asking yourself why it matters.

To stay still instead of moving.

To do the same stuff everyone else is doing instead of trying something new.

To find fault instead of value.

To wait for someone to text or call or invite you instead of contacting them yourself.

To think about the past and what should have happened instead of what’s going on now and what could happen.

To say no instead of yes.

The easiest thing to do is the thing you’ve always done.

It’s the thing you’ve habituated, the thing that’s waiting for you, the thing that makes you feel safe and OK.

The hardest thing to do? Recognizing when you’re doing the easy thing.

And then doing the opposite.

+++++++++++

What I’m currently enjoying: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

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Categories
Life Skills

Ode to Shower Beer

One man’s love note to the humble shower beer.

shower beer

Oh, Shower Beer.

You are the almighty relaxer.

You are the ultimate creativity enhancer…for I am writing this after having you, Shower Beer.

You inspire me.

You, who are so cold when the water is so hot.

You, who have been waiting in the fridge for me all day, patiently, like a good friend.

Others have tried to reenact your experience — with coconut water, or wine coolers, or some kind of juice, perhaps — but their efforts are feeble and preposterous.

For only you, Shower Beer, are bestowed the bubbly bragging rights of “Best Shower Beverage.”

Your counterpart, Bathtub Whiskey, is nice, of course.

Elegant, regal, a fine sipper…but not an option, sadly, for I live in a small house with no tub and must reserve it for hotel visits and excursions home where I must first remove hair from the drain and wipe it clean with paper towels before settling into the water and being transported.

But you, Shower Beer? You are simple.

A throwback, perhaps, to my younger days.

Back then, you were a thing of novelty. To be enjoyed while on trips with friends, usually the morning after a late night of doing stupid teenager-type things.

But now, Shower Beer, I treasure you.

For you are the great reset button.

The end of launch-day ritual.

The “I’ve had a bad day and need to unwind” exhale.

The “I’ve had a good day and need to celebrate” exclamation.

You are many things, Shower Beer.

Naturally, you come in different containers and are comprised of different ingredients: Glass bottles. Cans. Stouts. IPAs. 40 ounces of malt liquor.

But I’ve always preferred you in your most humble form, the simple light ale in a can.

For in that simple design you are refreshing and not heavy and decidedly less dangerous than glass.

Because what if I should drop you, Shower Beer?

Oh what a catastrophe that would be. Can you imagine?

But I mustn’t think such deathly thoughts.

Because there you are, half-full (for I am an optimist) and cold and sitting on the little shelf next to my girlfriend’s shampoo and conditioner.

And I shall savor you and stand in this shower until not only you are finished but until my skin turns wrinkly and kinda burny due to my dry skin.

And when I’m down to your last sip, I will take a deep breath and feel the hot water on my head and close my eyes and know that yes, life is amazing.

And then I will set your empty vessel back onto the shelf (where I will inevitably forget you until the next morning), and I shall step out of that steamy portal, and I will towel off and think:

Did I wash my hair?

I don’t remember.

Categories
General

You are not alone.

When I wrote “I’m a recovering fitness junkie”, I received a bunch of likes, comments, and retweets. That made me feel good, since it seemed like a lot of people related to it.

But what interested me more were the emails I received. Private ones.

They were from people who didn’t want anyone else to know that the article resonated with them. People with businesses, egos, jobs, and possibly friendships on the line.

They couldn’t afford to “go public” with their opinion.

One person wrote:

“I didn’t want to post this on Facebook since all my friends and fans would see it. The truth is, I’ve been feeling similar to you for a long time. I thought I was the only one.”

Reading these emails and seeing the hurt, fear, and possibility contained in them was a good reminder for me:

Whatever we’re feeling right now—whatever we’re worried about, scared of, and trying to bury deep down—at least one other person is feeling the exact same way.

Same goes for what we’re excited about.

So even if it feels like you’re the only person in the world who deals with X, that no one else will understand or care, trust me on this:

You are not alone.

 

Categories
Archive

Why I Should Be a Failure (And My Real Education)

I barely graduated high school with a 1.7 GPA. I never made it past basic algebra and I didn’t take the SATs or any other college-admissions test.

While most of my friends went to school out of town, I gave up my hosting job at a restaurant and started working at a clothing store.

During that time, I attended one half-assed semester of local community college. It lasted three months. My economics professor told me all I had to do to pass the class was turn in the final assignment. I didn’t even show up that day.

A couple years went by and I got a job at a health club wiping down machines, re-stocking towels, and changing the soap in the men’s locker room.

I was 22 years old, living in the same town I grew up in, with no college education, cleaning sweat off of treadmills.

This is the part where you may expect me to say I pulled my shit together, that I hit a point where I said, dammit, I’m not gonna live like this. The part where I started to turn my life around.  Well, that never happened. I never had an epiphany like that.

I knew I was on the right track.

Back then if “someone important” would have looked at me on paper —  at my jobs, my GPA, my lack of college —  they’d probably think I was a loser destined to a shitty life of minimum-wage jobs.  And that would be a fair judgement, based on the sheer amount of evidence.

But they would have missed a few things.

They would have missed the two years I wrote a weekly sports column for my city’s newspaper while in high school. They would have missed me reading strength and health books during math class, and the 40 pounds of muscle I gained in the weight room. They would have missed my job as editor of the community college newspaper for that one lonely semester. They would have missed the day where I randomly emailed the former fitness director of Men’s Health magazine and told him I wanted his job. And the day I took out a $1,200 loan to fly across the country to attend a fitness seminar. And the day where I started my blog. And the day where I started training clients in between wiping off the treadmills.

They would have missed it all because they would have been looking in the wrong place, comparing my shitty grades to the rest of my class and basing my future worth and earnings on those numbers.

I’m telling you this because there’s a lesson and an opportunity here.

The lesson is this: Education isn’t restricted to the classroom. The hallowed halls of Whatever College are not the only place where  you can learn. What most people won’t tell you is that you can get education on your own by doing things. By trying stuff out. You can learn a lot by taking risks and connecting with other people who have taken risks before you.

And this education — what some call “street smarts” — may just be more helpful in the real world than a piece of paper.

College, I’m told, is a wonderful place for discovery and learning and building life-long relationships. That’s fantastic. And if that’s why you’re in college — or why you went — then I understand. It sounds fulfilling and exciting.

But if you’re in college with no clear direction and no clear goal other than “It’s what I’m supposed to do” — if you’re in any situation with no clear goal or objective, for that matter — I challenge you to ask yourself why. Is it really the place for you right now? Or could you get an even better education by investing in yourself and taking some chances?

You can always go back to college (or back to the job or back to whatever).  But you can’t get back lost years of your life.

I’m not suggesting you drop out if you’re currently in college. And I’m not suggesting you go to college if you’re not sure if it’s for you. It’s up to you to do that critical thinking.

But whatever you do, make sure you learn something. Make sure you take control of your education — however you get it —  and use it to build a life worth living.

Because isn’t that the whole point?

 

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You Don’t Belong Here: Esquire’s Chris Jones

I’m a big fan of Esquire magazine. In fact, I’ve contacted a few of their writers over the past couple of years.

The e-mails were relatively safe.

AJ Jacobs told me “mazel tov” on my first book. Tom Chiarella gave me some excellent writing advice. (Because of him, I now have a very comfortable office chair.)

While I appreciated the responses, the interactions always felt incomplete. I wanted to talk with them about work, and money, and women. I wanted to talk about life. But it’s tough to do that without seeming weird.

“Hello. I admire your work. Do you want to be my friend?”

As someone who gets the occasional semi-stalker e-mail, I know how something like that will be received. (Hint: It involves the “delete” key.)

Still, I wanted a deeper connection.

So when I wrote Esquire contributor Chris Jones, I asked if he’d be interested in doing an interview. Pretty harmless, I thought.

Then he agreed, and I immediately regretted asking.

The guy does interviews for a living. I’m gonna look like a chump with my silly little questions, I thought.

In the end, of course, I got over my ego and we did the interview, which I thought went very well.

Then I had the gall to actually mimic the structure of “What I’ve Learned”, a uniquely formatted piece—the questions are removed and only direct quotes remain—that runs in Esquire every month.

So here we are, and the fear of looking like a chump has started right back up again. Oh well.

What I’ve Learned – Chris Jones

Chris jones

It’s nice to think you’re the guy with the beret in the coffee shop just hanging out. But the truth is, you just have to sit your ass down and write.

I’ve been struggling for three or four years on a book project and have had a hard time getting the discipline to write every day. That’s why I started the blog. To practice. The problem is it worked too well. I was writing 10,000 words a month. That’s a book after nine or ten months, you know?

The ideal at Esquire is that you report so well that you could sit down at a bar and tell the story.

When you live in a big city you don’t do the stuff you’re supposed to do in a big city. You never go to the museums. Or the ballet. Really you’re just inconvenienced by the problems of the city. You wonder, “Why am I stuck in traffic for no good reason?” We realized we were happier living in a small town.

I try to think of my ending first. I know where I want to get to. I may even write it first. Then I structure the story in a way that gets me there. I’ve always felt like the ending was the most important part.

The idea that you can do whatever you want is a nice sentiment. In some ways it’s true. Like there’s a range of possibility out there for you and if you want it bad enough you will achieve more than if you didn’t want it. But it doesn’t mean you can be whatever you want.

I really wanted to be a baseball catcher. I was never good enough. It’s just a fact.

There’s a great story about Margaret Atwood – a Canadian novelist – who was talking to a brain surgeon at a party. He said, “When I retire I’m gonna write a novel.” And she was like,  “Oh that’s funny. When I retire I’m going to start operating on people’s brains.”

I don’t doubt that if you took someone and said, “You have to write 10,000 words” they could get it out. But no one’s gonna want to read that shit.

I’ve never written a story where it just went straight into the magazine. You gotta be able to take the sting when they say it’s not good enough.

I can take criticism from people who know something. What drives me insane is pot shots from the peanut gallery. I can’t abide that shit.

I’m the youngest “writer-at-large” for the magazine. Once a year or so we all get together and go out for dinner in New York. 14 of us in a room with a fireplace and a big table. The last time I was there I said, “There are people who’d pay ten grand to sit in this seat and just listen.”

That night we ate – this will sound incredibly pretentious but it was so fucking good – we ate French fries with truffle oil. Those fries were hardcore.

I still feel like any day someone’s going to call me up and say, you know this is all one big joke. You don’t belong here.

Does the midlife crisis exist? Oh, God yeah. It totally exists.

It’s like, shit, time’s running out and I gotta do the stuff I want to do. All of a sudden you feel like you can’t tolerate unhappiness. Like it’s a waste.

When I was younger I developed what I called the Baseball Theory of life. At that point the average life expectancy was something like 72 years. If you divide that by nine, it’s eight years an inning. Once you turn 32 you’re in the top of the fifth inning.  At 36 you’re in the bottom of the fifth.  It’s an official game at that point. You can’t mess around any more.

I’m a big fan of projects. That’s why I like working on the house. You can stand back and say, “ I did that.”

Writing is the same thing. “I wrote that story today.”

I love manual labor. It shuts my brain off. Yesterday I was stripping wallpaper.  You enter this sort of Karate Kid zen-state where you’re just doing it. You kind of float away for a while.

Over the past few months I’ve realized how much more I can get done in a day. If you write a little bit each day it adds up. A million words is 500 words a day, 50 weeks a year, for 8 years.

If I thought of the whole house, I’d melt. But today I’m stripping wall paper. And so I do it. Eventually the whole house gets done.

I look like a homeless person a lot of the time. I don’t take real good care of my appearance. That’s why I love walking into a place and being able to pay cash. I’m sure that sounds juvenile. A few months ago, I bought a new Toyota truck. I look like the guy who should be sleeping under the truck.

I’m sure a lot of people in our old neighborhood thought I was a drug dealer. We lived in a nice house and I was always around during the day.

I worked all the way through school. No student loan debts. No credit card debt. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. I want to do it all myself.

Do I care what they think? It depends on if I like them, I guess. Recently, I wrote a story about Roger Ebert. I didn’t keep anything out of it. It was 100 percent honest. But I definitely care what he thinks of it.

One thing that’s always preached in journalism is that you’re supposed to be objective. A neutral party. I think that’s a lie. I don’t think anyone could sit there with Roger and feel totally neutral about him.

I’ve got a pretty good track record of knowing who the assholes are and who the good guys are.

I can’t just buy a house and live in it. I have to know what’s inside the walls. I need to know all its secrets.

A house is a home when you know everything about it. And when you fart in it a lot.

You know what you did? You made me forget it was an interview. Which is really the key.  When you do an interview, you both should gradually forget who the other person is. No one has the upper hand. No one is on guard. It’s just two guys talking about life.

If you think you’re great now, you’ll probably never actually be great, because you’re not gonna work hard to get better.

That’s a good question.

+++++

Chris Jones is a two-time National Magazine Award winner and writer-at-large for Esquire magazine.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Bonded with Iron

My mom had Brian when she was just 17 years old. His father split and I don't think Brian ever met him.

12 years later she married my father.

Then they had me.

I don't remember much about growing up with Brian. I think most of my day-to-day thoughts at the time revolved around blowing spit bubbles, running into walls, and wearing funny hats.

When we moved to Montana in 1996, he stayed in Texas. He had his own thing going, he said. So my family started over in the Big Sky state without him.

Three weeks ago was the first time I've talked with him in over a decade. I don't know him; he doesn't know me. But he's back and living with my parents. He's 32.

For better or worse, I've been through a lot. So has Brian.

I found refuge and battled my demons in the weight room. So had Brian.

I train to clear my mind. To punish myself. To reward myself. To push beyond what I think is comfortable or possible.

But I know too much about strength training now. I perform dynamic warm-ups; internal rotator stretching; balancing pushing and pulling on different planes; single leg work; back-off weeks; controlled rest periods.

Brian's training is raw and indifferent. He trains to fight against himself and accept himself at the same time. To control his former addiction. To overcome.

His form is border-line. His movements are jerky. He uses too much weight. He doesn't want a spot.

But he tears the fucking weight room apart.

It's therapeutic to watch. I can't even imagine what it feels like to him.

“You couldn't let the guards rush you,” he told me once. “You had to get your shit done quick. You didn't mess around. But when I hit the yard, you better believe it was my time. Not theirs.”

We may not have much to talk about just yet. I'm sure it'll come with time.

But for now, when we're in between heavy sets of squats focused on catching our breath, we can make eye contact and crack a half-smile that says “I know how you feel, brother.”