I’ve got many different interests.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you found this site through my technical writing (it’s what I’m best known for). What you may not know, however, is that technical stuff isn’t really my main passion.
My main passion is personal development and self improvement. For me, technical stuff (programming, writing, startups, etc.) is only one small part of that.
While some people derive intense joy from doing one thing only, I derive almost all of my joy from the feeling of making progress towards becoming a better person in some way: either through creating something that I feel is useful, sharing my thoughts in hopes that someone will benefit from it, or directly improving myself in some measurable way.
Despite the many things I’m interested in and spend my time doing, there’s been a single activity which has generated more personal growth and development for myself than any other by orders of magnitude – and this is what I’d like to share with you today.
The activity I’m talking about is bodybuilding (better known as weight lifting and dieting).
When I married my beautiful wife Samantha, I weighed in at over 300lbs (that’s 136kg for all of my European friends out there). To put things bluntly, I was quite fat.
I’m not sure when it started, precisely, but after my second year of high school football (and being in great shape), I decided to completely sacrifice any and all physical activities in favor of improving my programming skills.
At the time, I had already been programming for several years, and programming was consuming more and more of my life. I’d routinely stay up until 2am or so, only to wake up at 6:30am for school. This was a pretty regular occurrence.
Not only is it incredibly hard to work out when you’re exhausted, but it’s also incredibly hard to think straight, eat healthy foods, and generally make decisions that are in your best interest.
While my mind was occupied with working on my pet projects, I completely let my physical appearance go. I ate bags of Doritos on the regular, and drank enough Coke to fill an Olympic swimming pool.
On the plus side, it was during this time that I really learned how to program well: I built hundreds (if not thousands) of small, command line programs. I learned all about data structures, sorting algorithms, and OOP – and more importantly, I made myself comfortable writing larger and larger programs on my own.
The downsides to this, however, were immense. I started to really hate myself. I avoided all public outings because I was ashamed of how I looked. I avoided talking with friends (except those over IRC) because I felt embarrassed just being myself. And of course, I felt sick and tired almost all the time.
At some point, during this phase of focusing solely on programming, I began to think of working out and eating healthy as something counter productive. I remember thinking to myself that anyone who worked out or dieted and tried to be “healthy” was simply wasting time that could better be spent being productive and contributing to the world.
I actually started feeling hostile towards getting in shape. In some odd show of misplaced guilt I felt that it was vain to care about your physical appearance and health. People who cared about that stuff were obviously superficial and wasting time that could be better spent doing more important things.
Deciding to Change
After getting married, I remember looking at the wedding photos and thinking “Who is this person?”
I was surprised by what I saw. I felt fat, disgusting, and unhappy with myself. Seeing pictures of myself really drove in the point that I needed to change. Not because of what other people would think of me, but because of what I thought of me.
I realized that my appearance was crushing my self confidence, happiness, and personal relationships.
So, I decided to do the only thing that would help: I decided to start programming my body.
Learning the Basics
When I decided to start losing weight, I really had no clue what I was doing.
When I got started, I simply put on shoes and jogged around the block. I did this every single day.
After a few weeks of half-decent progress, I decided to start changing my diet as well: so I cut out sodas.
A while later: I started counting calories, and eventually started losing weight consistently.
What I learned through this trial-and-error process was that getting in shape wasn’t really all that hard. If you eat more calories than you burn each day: you put on weight. If you eat less calories than you burn each day: you lose weight.
After roughly a year of trial-and-error, I was feeling pretty good with myself. I had lost a decent amount of weight, I was feeling a lot more positive about myself, and I was very focused on improving myself both physically and mentally.
I realized over the first year of my physical fitness journey that I really enjoy pushing myself physically, and that the same physical work ethic I had could be applied to other things as well: programming, work, family, etc.
After my first year of getting started, I decided to get serious about my progress. Instead of just being content losing weight, I wanted to aim big. Instead of just improving myself a little bit, I wanted to improve a lot. I wanted to build the perfect physique.
So, I started doing research. I learned a lot about bodybuilding, muscular development, and proper nutrition.
I learned what macros are (there are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), and I read lots of studies and books so I fully understood what the biological purpose of each macro is, how they’re useful, and how different quantities of them can affect body composition.
I learned how much protein to consume ever day, and why.
But most importantly, I learned to lift weights properly: I started going to the gym 6 days a week, and developed a respectable routine modeled after professional bodybuilders (why not emulate those people who are successful at what you are learning?).
The more I lifted weights, the more progress I saw each day. Every gym session brought me a little bit closer to my goals.
Every day I’d spend a little bit of time reading through the bodybuilding subreddit, popular fitness articles, and nutrition journals. I also started following a lot of professional bodybuilders and learning from them: many of the professionals have informative Youtube channels where you can learn a surprising amount.
If you’re looking to improve your physique, learning from those who look the way you like is the best way to improve. If you want to learn programming – you’ll want to talk with a good programmer, right? The same goes for bodybuilding (and really, any form of fitness): if you want to look a certain way, talk with a good bodybuilder!
What Bodybuilding is About
As I mentioned earlier, I used to be incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of improving my body. Back then, it seemed as if the more I worked out, the less time I’d have to spend on programming, and all of my other knowledge pursuits.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve completely changed the way I view physical improvement.
Bodybuilding, in particular, is 99% mental (something I think a lot of people don’t realize).
Unlike most activities, bodybuilding is a lifestyle. To make anything more than modest gains, you need to actively change your lifestyle to accommodate your goals:
- You can’t drink alcohol (except on special occasions).
- You have to get plenty of rest every night.
- You have to drink lots of water throughout the day.
- You have to set aside anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours per day for training, 5 or 6 days per week.
- You have to be meticulous about your nutrition and diet at all times, ensuring you are getting the proper macros and caloric intake requirements every single day.
- You have to push yourself incredibly hard every day during training to push past your limits and stimulate growth as much as possible.
While all of the above things are not terribly difficult, they must be executed consistently, day after day, year after year, for years at a time – in order to be effective.
More than anything, it’s a mental game. Do you want it bad enough? Are you willing to be ruthless with your scheduling and time so you can meet your daily requirements? Are you willing to sacrifice a lot of short-term pleasures in favor of more long-term victories?
I find the self-discipline and work ethic that come with the bodybuilding lifestyle to be admirable. It’s not easy to constantly push yourself past your limits. It’s not easy to turn down sweets. It’s not easy to go out with friends and order special foods off the menu to accommodate your needs.
Bodybuilding and Personal Growth
As I’ve gotten more and more into bodybuilding over the past few years, I’ve learned a ton about nutrition, training, and self-discipline. But, more than anything, I’ve learned important lessons about myself that have given me more benefits than anything I could have previously imagined.
Hard Work Pays
The biggest benefit I’ve come to realize is that working hard to directly improve myself through physical training is the very epitome of personal development. You put time and effort into something, and you see and notice improvements and changes as time passes.
It’s a simple idea, but one that many people (myself included) forget: if you want to get better at something, you have to work hard at it and spend time on it. There’s no way around it.
If you want to be a better painter, you need to paint. If you want to be a bodybuilder, you need to diet and train. If you want to build a wall, you need to lay down brick after brick, day after day, until the project is complete.
I used to find myself constantly wanting to take the easy way out of things. I was always looking for a simple way to accomplish X without effort, or a faster way to do Y without thinking. And, more often than not, I’d end up spending much more time looking for quick solutions than I would have spent by simply sitting down and solving the problems myself with some hard work and effort.
Applying this lesson to other areas of my life has made tremendous differences in my quality of life. My relationship with my wife is better, my home is cleaner, and I’m a lot more organized.
Consistent Action is King
I’ve also learned that despite how much you care about something, and how passionately you talk about it and think about it, unless you’re actually taking action every single day to do something with it – you’re not growing as a person.
If you’re learning a new programming language, for instance, and spent weeks reading through every book you can find, studying every Github repo you come across, and telling all your friends about it – you’re not becoming proficient – you’re simply procrastinating.
Until you start sitting down and consistently writing code in this new language every single day, working to solve real problems – you’re not going to improve your skills.
It’s all about action.
No amount of knowledge, passion, motivation, or experience will help you grow as a person and meet your goals without direct and consistent action on your part.
Pain is OK
The more I push myself, the better I feel. This is always true for me. I’ve never pushed myself hard and NOT felt good afterwards.
While my brain is constantly telling me to lay down on the couch and watch movies for hours on end, I’ve come to realize through bodybuilding that hard work is OK. Feeling pain isn’t a bad thing.
Without that feeling of pain in your life, it’s impossible to feel the intense joy and relaxation that comes when it’s over.
Growth comes from pushing yourself into uncomfortable territories. Wars are never won from a couch. They’re always won out there in the battlefield.
This lesson has dramatically changed the way I approach my programming, writing, and technical work. Instead of working until I get stuck, then taking time off, I try to instead push through the barriers immediately and solve my problems without delay.
Not only has this forced me to develop new skills, but it’s helped me to retrain my brain to constantly seek out that relief that only comes with solving a hard problem and pushing yourself through uncomfortable terrain. This makes dealing with real hardships a lot easier – instead of feeling the need to retreat and take things slow, I’m instead constantly looking for ways to move forward and find solutions.
Life Can Be Much More Enjoyable
The most important lesson I’ve learned through my struggles is that life can be a lot more enjoyable than I ever previously imagined.
Life can be so much more fun, exciting, and enjoyable when you feel proud of yourself, your hard work, and your dedication.
Through my own struggles, I’ve learned to appreciate and respect myself. I’m no longer embarrassed to go out in public, see friends, or be around strangers.
I feel more confident. I feel happier on a day-to-day basis. I have more energy, and more desire to go out and actually do things.
But most of all, I’ve got a constant feeling of relief and satisfaction with the direction my life is headed. I know every night when I go to sleep that I made progress towards improving myself, did what I wanted to do, and lived with my own integrity.
If you’ve ever gone to sleep at night knowing you didn’t do everything possible to improve yourself and kick ass that day, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a horrible feeling.
I went to sleep that way for far too many years, and only recently I’ve felt the intense joy that comes along with being able to sleep well at night knowing I did everything I could to improve.
Bodybuilding has shown me over the past few years that I’m able to push myself a lot harder than I ever previously knew.
I’m a lot tougher, smarter, and more stubborn than I realized. I’m able to do things I didn’t realize. I’m able to make positive decisions for myself.
More than anything though, bodybuilding has opened me up to a whole new level of personal development. While I was previously exclusively dedicated to mental improvement, it’s now amazingly transparent to me that I was leaving out the other important half of the equation.
For me to really feel satisfied at the end of the day, I’ve got to improve both my mind and body.
If you’re looking for a way to push past your barriers, improve yourself, and accomplish things you didn’t know you could – physical training is an incredible way to get started.
Not only is it an incredibly rewarding, stimulating, and intense journey, but it will push you to your limits, and past. It will both challenge and relax you, and above all else: it will help you unlock a better version of yourself.