Ego, Personal Development, and Being a Beginner

Once upon a time I was a relatively elite hockey player. Some of those guys who play in the NHL? They were teammates and opponents. I was also 13 years old when this was true.

Once upon a time I ran a half marathon. 13.1 miles through the streets of Detroit, into Canada, and back into Detroit on a frosty November morning. This happened over four years ago.

Once upon a time I lifted weights very consistently and put on 15 pounds of muscle while elevating all of my lifts to fairly respectable levels. That was nearly two years ago.

Since that time, I've adjusted my priorities to focus on school and my business while letting my physical fitness slide. For the past several years I've somehow convinced myself that I'm still a high level athlete although the only athletic thing I've done with any regularity is play a weekly recreational hockey game.

All of this is to say that I had a realization last week as I once again committed myself to taking my physical health seriously -- I'm not an advanced athlete who just needs a couple weeks to get back in shape. I'm not the elite youth hockey player. I'm not the guy who ran a half marathon any more. And I can't continue creating fitness plans that make that assumption. I'm not a guy who just needs to shake off the rust and unleash the high-level athlete he used to be. I'm a beginner.

And that's okay.

I've been not okay with being a beginner for a long time and it has doomed every effort I've made to build my level of physical fitness back up to a respectable level. I would create running plans or lifting plans that would only be reasonable for someone who was in much better shape than I was. I couldn't admit to myself that I really needed to start back with the basics if I was going to make any kind of actual lasting change.

"The basics? Are you kidding me? I played AAA hockey! I played club hockey in college! I ran a half marathon! I lifted weights! I don't need no basics! I'm in good shape -- I just need to get back in the habit!" These are the thoughts of a delusional man who consistently failed to rebuild a fitness routine time and time again over the past two years.

This got me thinking more generally about the role of the ego in attempted behavior change. How often are we shooting ourselves in the foot before we even get started because we're too proud to admit that we should start at an extreme beginner level? How many novels have burned out after a week of unsustainable writing? How many marathon training plans have been abandoned after an overuse injury in the first couple of days? How many efforts to eat better have been left by the wayside after a week of hyper clean eating?

Failed habit change is not driven by a lack of knowledge, a lack of information, or a lack of will. I'm becoming more and more convinced that failed habit change falls at the feet of our own unwillingness to recognize a.) how much of a beginner we actually are and b.) how patient we will have to be to create actual sustainable change. When either of these are forgotten or ignored and we let our ego influence our decisions I think the chances of success plummet.

For that reason I recently started the C25K (Couch to 5K) program. Sure, I was a decent athlete in the past but I can't let that version of myself influence what the current version of myself needs. This version has spent the last two years on the proverbial couch (more like the desk chair, actually) and needs to do much more than shake off the rust. He needs to shake off the rust and then build up the structural components that have withered away.

I'm becoming more and more okay with that every time I finish a run and feel myself getting a little bit stronger and a little bit faster. Habit change is a marathon, not a sprint -- even if, scratch that, especially, since I'm nowhere close to being able to run an actual marathon.

Photo by Giovanni