In 2017, I committed to going to the gym and investing in my wellbeing. And that decision changed my life.
Not just because I lost weight, got in shape, and found more confidence and strength than I’d thought I was capable of—although those changes would have been reward enough in themselves. And not just because of the friendship and camaraderie I found with other regulars, although these relationships have become part of my heart-treasure.
One of the surprise benefits, one I didn’t see coming at all, is the way greater physical discipline has led me to greater mental discipline. Going to the gym and meeting physical challenges has helped me face other kinds of challenges more confidently. And since one of my company’s core values is nurturing confidence and an appreciation for a richly integrated life, I want to share with you some lessons on work and life that I've learned at the gym.
First, however, a quick disclaimer: I’m not a trainer or a medical or exercise professional, so this blog post is not intended as medical or fitness advice. It’s my musings on my experiences. (But if it resonates with you, please let me know—I’d love to hear what you think!)
Lesson #1: “Hang out” in the uncomfortable spots.
When I first started going to the gym, a trainer taught me some good recovery techniques: stretches and other strategies to try before and after workouts to keep myself feeling well and strong. One of the things he demonstrated was foam rolling, which I’d heard of but never tried. (Moves I can do on a mat, with one piece of equipment, that feel like a massage? Um, yes please!) So I gave it a try, and although it was VERY uncomfortable initially, over time it became easier and actually started to feel wonderful. I’m glad I stayed with it.
And I’m glad the trainer’s advice stayed with me: “If you find certain spots are uncomfortable, hang out on those for a little while.” That advice definitely proved helpful to my foam rolling. But one day while I was mulling over a difficult personal problem, one that had no clear best solution, I realized I needed to apply the same advice there too. I’d noticed, years before, that I tended to be too quick to feel I had to reach a decision in matters where I felt I should accommodate other people (hello, people-pleasing). And I’d found I made better decisions when I allowed myself to take some time to figure out how best to proceed. So why not do the same with more personal decisions? Now, when I’m faced with only choices I don’t like, I try to hang out in the discomfort for a little while.
There are, however, a couple of caveats regarding this approach. One is that it can be dangerous in abusive or otherwise unhealthy situations. The other is that it might lend itself to procrastination, if “taking a moment” turns into an excuse for avoiding hard decisions. But most often I find if I take the pressure off by just sitting with my discomfort, I come to a decision, gain a better perspective, or allow circumstances a little time to develop more clearly. And however I ultimately feel about the outcome, at least I know I didn’t make a hasty choice.
Lesson #2: Show up, and do the work. Be consistent, not perfect.
As you might have guessed already, I struggle with perfectionism. A lot. And I especially have to watch out for the all-or-nothing thinking that whispers to me, “What’s the point, if you’re not doing it absolutely right, in doing a thing at all?” I get frustrated with myself when a task goes partially undone or when I have only 80% of my energy to give to it instead of 100%.
Regular workouts required me to change my thinking. I wanted to lose about 30 lbs, and there was no way I was going to do that healthfully and sanely without also doing it slowly. So I committed to consistent effort, 4-5 times per week. And although my aim was to go all-out during my workouts, the reality was that some days I had more energy than others. So I did my best. And I came to realize that because I showed up consistently, it was easier to give myself some grace if I had an off day or had to miss a day or two altogether due to illness, my kids’ activities, or just needing an occasional break.
I did find that I got frustrated when I couldn’t complete a tough workout or do all the reps I wanted with a certain weight. But one day a trainer who was coaching me through one of the exercises (and who knew my perfectionism all too well) explained that if I’d really hit my limit, then failing was a sign that I’d done my uttermost, and the challenge was a success, even if I didn’t finish all my reps. What really struck me about his explanation was that he smiled and said, “This is one place you’re allowed to fail.”
And you know what? I’ve been afraid of failure for most of my life (well, so far). But I got to thinking about what failure means in the world outside the gym, and I kept coming back to the importance of compassion: when you’ve tried hard and you mess up anyway, then yes, you’ve failed, but you’ve also learned, and you can move forward in the hope of doing better next time. Once you know your limitations, your weaknesses, you’re better equipped to challenge them and either overcome them or know you did your best.
Lesson #3: Believe in the future, but stay in the moment.
There’s another way, too, in which challenging myself at the gym has made me aware of how important mindset is to success—in my workouts but in other pursuits as well. In addition to being a perfectionist, I’m also a worrier and a planner. So when I’m working through a set of hard exercises, I’m often thinking ahead to how many reps I have left and whether I can possibly finish. But that sucks the energy right out of me. I do much better when I can remember to focus on just the rep I’m doing. And at the same time, it’s important to remember why I’m doing those reps at all: because I feel better when I’m strong and toned.
That same balance, between thinking of the future I want and focusing on the moment I’m in, strikes me as a pretty ideal way to go about work, relationships, and free time, too. When I can put my phone down, lay aside my worries and planning for a while, and focus on the people I’m with, that moment, as ordinary as it might be, is invested with meaning. I find it a difficult balance to achieve sometimes, but the rewards are fantastic. And it’s a great antidote to the perfectionism that tells us we have to make just the right grand gesture at just the right Big Moment: we can cultivate beautiful lives one beautiful little moment at a time, in the same way we’d cultivate a garden with a little attentive care every day.
My experiences at the gym over the last two and a half years have been invaluable to me, not just because they’ve made me physically stronger than ever before but also because they’ve improved my mindset. And that shift, in turn, has transformed how I approach my personal relationships as well as my jewelry business. I feel closer to being my best self, and that feeling makes life seem much more enjoyable and much easier, even in hard moments.
And because I’m passionate about helping other people feel this way, I love my work. One of the joys of designing jewelry is watching a client’s face light up when she sees a piece she loves, a piece that shows the world something about what her best, truest self is like. If the act of putting on a necklace or a bracelet, or choosing a pair of earrings to wear with your favorite dress, sends ripples of happiness through the rest of your day, then it’s a little moment with big impact. And that piece of jewelry--that accessory, a word that can refer both to something rather trivial, "additional and subordinate," and something more crucial, with the ability to "complete[ ]" a look (see "accessory," Wiktionary)--has profound meaning.
I’ve found that, whether we’re fitting in regular workouts or dressing to suit our own taste, these seemingly small ways of taking care of ourselves can create habits with much greater significance for our lives and thus for the people around us. And if you ask me, that’s a lesson well worth remembering.
What's an important lesson you've learned from an unexpected experience? Let me know in the comments!
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