In pursuit of failure

“Fail forward” is a sort of mantra in the startup world. (Or, that’s how it seems, watching that world from the outside.) The idea, as I get it, is that you have to fail often and fail fast, as long as you learn from your failures and get up meaner and leaner for your next adventure.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I guess that what I mean could be called muscle failure. But I think it’s more than that.

Back it up a bit

I guess that today’s The Obstacle is the Way chapter on Building Your Inner Citadel got me thinking about something that haunts me periodically: my own troubled relationship with willpower. And, perhaps, my weird linking of willpower with manhood.

This will be a disjointed blog post.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know if I’ve ever reached muscle failure. I mean, I’ve collapsed after a set of push-ups. But, as I stood back up, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I might have been able to do a few more push-ups, if I’d really tried. After all, push-ups seldom are connected to any real consequences.

Fun random aside:

One of my father’s favorite stories from the Army was in some training camp or other where he was the platoon leader, and there were only enough truck to transport two of the three platoons back to the barracks. One platoon was going to have to march.

The way the seargents on the scene decided to allocate the trucks was to have the platoon leaders compete doing push-ups. “I knew I didn’t have to win,” my father always says in this story, “I just couldn’t lose.”

According to the legend, he did over a hundred push-ups in this story. I’ve never done that many push-ups, and I often wonder if I would have the mental fortitude to really push myself, if I had to.

So, I wonder, is there a way I can engineer my own muscle failure. Can I set myself up to try hard at things and fail, knowing I’ll come away stronger and wiser? (Or with a reinforced Inner Citadel, whatever that means.)

I don’t know.

The Army Combat Fitness Test

Part of what’s got me thinking like this is the news that the U.S. Army is introducing a new physical fitness test. Up until I stopped doing sit-ups (word on the street has it they’re bad for your back) I’ve been silently measuring myself against the existing Army Physical Fitness Test. After all, my first encounter with the idea of ‘minimal fitness’ was with the Army, and it’s nice to know (or think) “I could check all those boxes. I am fit.”

The new test may or may not be an improvement over the old test. What it is, though, is a departure from the days when I could do the exercises at home and say “Yup, that was enough push-ups.” or “I smoked my old two-mile run time.”

Conclusion

I don’t know if there is a conclusion. The point is, I wonder about my ability to push myself until my body simply doesn’t have more to give. I get that I’ll probably never need to do that.

But I want to know that I can. And I don’t know how to teach myself that.

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Build Your Inner Citadel

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, I’m writing on this chapter of the book.


In another chapter that provides a great tip, but doesn’t explain how to follow through with it, Ryan Holiday begins this chapter of The Obstacle is the Way by referening my (sometimes) favorite American president, Teddy Roosevelt.

[speaking of asthmatic, weak young Teddy] One day his father came into his room and delivered a message that would change the young boy’s life: “Theodore, you have the mind but you haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”

You’d think that would be lost on a child, especially a fragile one born into great wealth and status. But according to Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, it wasn’t. His response, using what would become his trademark cheerful grit, was to look at his father and say with determination: “I’ll make my body.”

I love Theodore Roosevelt for a number of reasons, but I think his relationship with manliness is problematic. (I read an article that suggested he may have driven a son to suicide with his expectations.) Still, his determination is enviable, at the least.

Moving on philosophy, Holiday talks of developing “mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body,” and matches this to what stoics called their “Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.”

Then, the narrative returns to Roosevelt:

To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.

And all that is great… but that’s where the chapter winds down. (There’s one last quote that I’m saving for the end, as seems to have become my tradition.)

And, as a guy who flirts with an obsession with fitness, it’s easy for me to think that I’m moving down the right path. But, I don’t know. Holiday doesn’t end the chapter with his list of “Ten Things You Can Do Today to Become the Architect of your Own Inner Citadel” and I’m left with a list of questions:

  • Should I invest more energy in meditation?
  • Do the things I do to practice practice help?
  • What about cold showers: they certainly demand willpower, do they also strengthen it?
  • Does enduring voluntary adversity help when involuntary adversity comes knocking?

There aren’t answers, and I’m left reaffirming my commitment to fitness and “making the most of my time.” (Whatever that means.)

However, I did mention that there is one last great quote. It’s as close as Holiday comes to direct advice in this chapter, and I like the first sentence enough to maybe write it on my wall:

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.