It turns out people can change
I’m sure you’ve seen those articles about the health benefits of physical fitness. They have headlines like “Researchers Find That People Who Exercise Live Longer.” You wonder if the study was commissioned by the University of the Obvious.
This is not one of those articles.
I’m not here to convince you that you need to exercise to be healthy, or to make you feel bad if you don’t get up at 4:30 every morning to go for a 10-mile run. You already know exercising is good for your health, even if you have one of those bumper stickers that says “0.0.”
The point I want to make is that you can learn a lot about professional improvement by making a serious effort to improve your physical fitness. You could also “learn” these things from reading some self-help articles, but sticking to a serious physical fitness regimen teaches these lessons in a more concrete way that will stick.
So what will you learn?
1. Discipline isn’t always rational
You know it will take discipline to go from struggling to jog around the blog to running a seven-minute mile, but people often misunderstand the nature of discipline.
The problem is that we tend to think of reason and discipline as allies. After work, you would rather sit on the couch and watch Fresh Prince reruns than go for your daily run. You try to overcome your laziness by reasoning that you won’t reach your goal by the end of the year if you don’t go on that run.
But here’s the problem: you’re reasoning is wrong. From a purely rational perspective, skipping that one run will not materially affect your long-term goal. If you’re trusting your rational mind to get you to run, it will fail you.
You need to enlist passion on the side of discipline. Emotion says, “get off that couch, lazy!” You need an ethos of discipline fueled by pride, not by logic.
Make a schedule for when you’re going to exercise and get almost fanatical about staying on the schedule. Your friends, family, and co-workers may think you’ve joined a cult, but your new schedule will become a habit. And habit is stronger than reason, whether the goal is doing handstand pushups or getting more clients.
2. If it’s not fun you won’t stick with it
Unfortunately, your new obsession with discipline will only take you so far. If running isn’t fun for you, then you’re not going to do it consistently. I don’t mean it needs to be fun every time you do it, or that it should be easy and care-free. But at some level you have to enjoy the kind of exercise you do, or you won’t keep doing it.
So if you don’t like running, then find some other kind of exercise you enjoy. Lift weights, do Pilates, play basketball, ride a bike, whatever.
The same thing is true in your professional life. Let’s say your goal is doing more public speaking, but after several attempts you still just hate it. Stop and reconsider. Maybe you don’t really need to do that. Perhaps there is some other professional goal you could pursue instead. Like learning to clear a paper jam.
3. Improvement is gradual
So now you’ve found a “fun” exercise program you follow like your life depended on it. In six weeks you’re sure to look like a fitness magazine cover model, right? Well no, of course not. You probably will notice some difference within six weeks, but reaching your goals will take longer.
Don’t get frustrated when you don’t see the results you want immediately. Celebrate the small victories and stick to the plan. Your fitness level will improve. It just takes time.
Professional improvement usually works the same way. If you have no management experience, for example, don’t expect to become a great manager overnight. Focus on improving your skills a little each day.
4. Don’t skip rest day
Once your fitness activity has become a habit and you start to see results, you may get a little greedy. You’ll tell yourself, “I lifted weights three times a week for two months and got stronger, so if I do it six times a week my results will be twice as good, right?”
Don’t get caught in that trap. Most good exercise programs have rest days. Lately I’ve been following the daily workouts posted by crossfit.com. It’s three days on, one day off. Sometimes I’m tempted to exercise on the rest day because I’m impatient to improve my results. But skipping the rest day is a mistake.
In physical fitness, the rest day has both physical and mental benefits. The physical benefit is obvious. Your muscles need that rest time to rebuild. But the mental benefit is even more important. When you take a day off, you come back the next day with greater mental sharpness.
Taking the “rest day” is just as important in our careers. We think that if we work more nights and weekends, we’ll get ahead faster. Sometimes putting in that extra time does pay off, or it’s just something we have to do. But don’t think your job performance will improve simply by working more. Routinely skipping your time off will cause you to lose mental focus, which will undermine your performance, not improve it.
5. Learn to deal with setbacks
Injuries from exercise are especially demoralizing because you feel like you did something to get stronger, and instead it made you weaker. And it may take you weeks or months just to get back to where you started.
Hmm. Has anything like that ever happened in your professional life? Maybe you took a new job hoping it would improve your career, but you got laid off six months later. Or you took on a new responsibility at work, only to be thrown under the bus when it went south.
Coming back from an injury teaches you something about overcoming setbacks. You learn that it takes even more discipline and determination to recover from an injury. But if you stick to the plan, you will come back stronger than before.
6. You’re not too old
First the bad news. If you are an NFL running back, you are probably “over the hill” by your 30th birthday. Your body has taken such a pounding that it just can’t do what it used to do. You can’t burst around the edge for a first down the way you used to.
Unless you’re Emmitt Smith, who ran for an incredible 18,355 yards over a 15-year career.
But the good news is that most of us are not NFL running backs, or any kind of professional athlete. Unless you were an elite athlete in college, you can probably get in the best physical shape of your adult life in your 40s, 50s, and beyond. Yes, it gets harder, but it can be done.
And if age doesn’t prevent you from improving your physical fitness, then you know it can’t prevent you from improving your other skills. There is no reason getting older should stop you from becoming a better public speaker, a better salesman, a better manager, etc. You can even learn how Twitter and Periscope work.
Which leads me to . . .
7. People can change
If you have a daughter in the 10-18 year age range, you probably know the line “we aren’t saying you can change him, ‘cause people don’t really change.” And if not, you’ve still encountered the sort of pop psychology that says after a certain age people don’t really change.
But physical fitness teaches you this isn’t necessarily true about skills and talents.
Recently I decided at the last minute to run a five-mile race. I didn’t win any awards, but as I ran the course, I realized running five miles without doing any specific training for it was pretty easy for me. (This is what the kids call a “humble brag”).
Here’s the cool thing. Ten years earlier, it was a challenge just to run three miles without stopping. But since then I had done a lot of running, biking, strength training, you name it.
That’s when it really hit me. People can change. And they can learn a lot in the process.
Zach Wolfe is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.
Rumors that he recently injured himself attempting to clean and jerk his own body weight are exaggerated.