Here’s something you’ve probably read before: the harder you try, the more meaningful the result is. I’ve read those words many times, but until now I had never lived them.
A couple of years ago, I got very into physical fitness. I was in college, so I needed to work around classes to get everything I wanted done. I was primarily a distance runner, so I ran a lot, and did some endurance-styled lifting to condition my upper body for that running. I had no other purposes for this, I just placed a high value in longevity and believed that endurance exercising would condition me for a long run at vitality and functionality into old age.
About nine months ago, some friends challenged me to really test my body, to train and audition for the TV show American Ninja Warrior. I watched the show from time to time and the athletes on there were no joke, ranging from retired Olympians, ex-football players, gymnasts, rock climbers, and freerunners. After enough analysis, it became clear that my friends wanted me to up my fitness level to pseudo-world class.
I welcomed the challenge at first. I was about to graduate college, had a job, but suddenly had a huge amount of time on my hands since there was no more constant studying for tests and I had no relationships other than friendships to maintain.
I lifted heavy for endurance, and started focusing on every muscle group. I had a strict schedule set up during the week: 6-mile runs at 5:30am, then work, followed by a two-hour gym session working whatever muscle group was scheduled for the day. I was steadfast, possibly for the first time in my life, consistently improving while refusing to stay satisfied with where I was at.
It soon became clear that this would not be enough. Without proper body mechanics, I would not be able to do half of the obstacles featured on the show. I joined a parkour gym that was operated by a guy from the show (who I would soon become friends with) that housed many of the obstacles I would deal with while participating. This of course opened up a myriad of new deficiencies for me to identify that I had previously not considered: grip strength, finger strength, balance, and technique. Strength and endurance were good things to have, but there was so much more to full body efficiency than I had experienced.
So I vamped up my training again. I took up rock climbing, studying the muscles and tendons of the hands carefully so I could train hard, but not so much as to hurt something and set myself back enough. The same thing went with basic gymnastics and freerunning. Before I knew it, I had completely dedicated myself to the art of body development, training distance runs in the morning, lifting in the afternoons after work, rock climbing afterward, and working gymnastics and freerunning on the weekends.
People took notice. Every discipline fed into the other and I was increasing strength and stability at a fast rate, without increasing size too much. Word got out what I was training for and when people related this with my intensity, not only did I find myself with a new group of people to confide in and work with, but these same people told me they found themselves working harder, as if seeing one person work with such might to accomplish something had awakened a similar drive in themselves. And we fed off of each other, pushing ourselves to new heights each week.
As a small frame of reference, at one point my medium-sized 167 lb frame could max out at 285 lbs on the flat bench press, run a mile in about four and a half minutes, and boasted some cool (albeit basic) gymnastics and freerunning abilities that, in hindsight, probably looked obnoxious when training at the gym. I know that may not be impressive for some, but from where I came from, that is significant improvement for me.
The time for submissions came. I had thought a lot about what I would show on my submission video. The point was to be unique — this was not just a competition, it was a TV series, and I was looking to be casted. I also played trumpet for 15 years, so I did some funny routine where I exercised and played a jazz solo at the same time. I showcased strength and agility, and most importantly, scored footage of me handling obstacles from the show. I submitted the required footage with a very lengthy and also required written application, and then I waited.
This was by far the strangest period of time in the whole process. I knew I really had worked as hard as I could to do what I wanted to do. People expressed confidence in me, demanding I text them as soon as I got the call. I trained just as hard in the meantime, still for improvement, but now an uncertainty existed that grew as weeks passed, gnawing away at the back of my mind.
In the end, I was not picked.
I’ll watch the show this summer fully believing that I could pass most of the obstacles after physically and mentally breaking them down hundreds of times on the weekends.
I won’t lie to you, there were about two to three days where I was incredibly dejected. This was the first time I ever put 100% of my effort into something and completely failed to achieve it, and for your stereotypical 90s kid who was told he could do whatever he wanted with hard work, this was a crushing new reality.
This proved to be necessary, however, and something that I wish everybody deals with at least once in their life. From a simpler perspective, I would have never known some of the things I was capable of without really testing my limits mentally and physically. Despite the nicks and bruises that came with hard work, I am so much better off in terms of physicality, mental toughness, and knowledge in a wide range of fields. But on an even deeper level, I believe I understand the idea of failure a little better.
Only a specific kind of failure will help you realize your aspirations. A true failure. One where you spill blood and (admittedly) tears while you toil through your weaknesses, one where you question yourself and are constantly questioned by others and push on anyway, one where as you near the end, you are certain that your are worthy of the prize you have slaved for. Then just like that, it’s pulled from your reach and it’s as if you’re right back where you started. It’s the kind of failure that smarts for a little while but then leaves you not hungry, but starving for it. You’re ready to do it all over again.
I also noticed that the effort you exert to achieve (yes, achieve) this failure then becomes easier to exert not just for your goal, but in any other endeavor. I am not an exercise science major, nor am I a personal trainer. My professional goals have nothing to do with physical ability, but through combined efforts in this field unrelated to my work I find a much more tenacious drive in anything else I do.
The take home point of this is not the action of trying, but the effects of it, both on yourself and others. I pointed out how others seemed to elevate their focus in response to seeing someone else locked in, but I have a strong feeling this response is a natural thing that doesn’t just take place in the gym.
My true failure was meaningful only because of the effort I put in to get to this point. It’s a humbling experience that may not necessarily have changed my perspectives, but at least has enhanced their definition. There are many out there that don’t give something an all or nothing shot, and I don’t think that’s right. Everyone should try it at least once — I say “at least” because one time won’t be good enough once you get a taste. Maybe if the entire population gave 100% focus to something, it could really change the world. At least, that kind of work changed mine.