Let me begin with a story. I had a friend once, in college. He was the dedicated type; he excelled in academics, played two team sports, and was well-regarded by his professors, coaches, and peers alike. He consistently had a 4.0 GPA, had a great physique, and was quite popular. From the outside, it appeared to everyone that he had it all.
But what did your mother tell you about appearances? Ah yes, that’s right: they’re deceiving. Some say nothing is what it seems. I wouldn’t go that far. But in this case, with our model friend above, nothing could have been more accurate.
You see, he had secrets—nasty secrets, painful secrets; the type that ate at him, eroded him, consumed him. Even in the face of what appeared to be a wonderful and rich life—indeed, a perfect life—this guy was miserable. And here’s the irony: he didn’t even know it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Some part of him did know it, some part of him that he’d forgotten about, suppressed; a part of him that seemed distant and alien. As it turns out, what appeared from the distance to be the perfect, successful life, was in reality being maintained with tremendous effort. But hey, a little effort never hurt anyone, right? Right. But a lot of effort, exhaustive effort, effort that pushes one to narrow his vision so finely that nothing exists outside of that drive, that can and does do damage. And it did.
Remember I mentioned that our friend had a little secret? Here it is: in search of approval, and perfection, he had so tightened his reigns, so disciplined himself, that he came to a point where his drive—his meaning—was not his own. He constructed himself, cultivated himself, erected himself, not from reflecting on what he wanted to be, but from reflecting on and responding to what he was supposed to be, what people had endlessly told him, he should be.
And, as with all things, this was not without price. His perfectionist drive, the one that sought to constantly improve upon, in a masochistic way, his physique, and his grades, so drained his energies that he literally did not, and could not, focus his attentions on anything outside of those pursuits.
Life for him was about work, endless amounts of work, launched always in attempt to outdo himself, to better himself, to beat himself. It was about reaching the point that he had all his reading for the next 4 weeks done, rather than stopping with satisfaction when he was ahead of the others by 3 weeks. It was about pushing himself harder and longer in the weight room, because not outdoing himself was not only unacceptable, it was truly frightening. It was about depriving himself pleasure, because pleasure was weakness, impure.
When he wasn’t grueling over academics, he was logging countless hours in the gym. Constantly unhappy and unsatisfied with his physique, he endured rigorous and obscenely high-volume workouts. He looked at himself, and saw not what he’d accomplished, but only what he could improve—what he could “fix.” Outside of the gym, his diet was impeccable—he didn’t eat anything that was even marginally “unhealthy.”
For this cat, pleasure had become a dirty word; the idea of it sickened him, and he feared it. He dismissed the people around him who gave into it—who didn’t occasionally blow off a class, relax, or eat food that actually tasted good—as weak, undedicated, base.
And this whole time, he was so focused on himself, on fulfilling an image, on pursuing goals he didn’t fully know the origin of, that our friend didn’t even realize how isolated he’d become. You see, when you’re after perfection, the idea of missing your regularly-scheduled chicken breast (which he ate alone, by the way) in favor of a dinner date with friends is not something you are open to. It isn’t even an option. Even though a part of him—a part he’d tried to silence, to kill—yearned to go with them, he could not.
Perfection meant opting to work rather than socialize, to cut away anything—and anyone—that might obstruct his goal. It meant working out along because it was more efficient than working out with a partner. It meant eating alone so he wasn’t forced into a situation where he might have to—god forbid—compromise on his dietary “rules.” It meant ignoring his social needs, conceptualizing in his mind some non-existent point at which he would be ‘perfect,’ yet failing to realize that all the while he was preparing himself for life, life was passing him by. It meant adhering, with a force born of fear, to a regimen that was so self-absorbed, so self-centered, that he soon found himself alone, and exhausted.
The routine had become him, and he had become the routine. Straying from it was as daunting as a child leaving its mother; it was a non-option. His ultimate fear. Yet some small, almost-dead part of him, that part he feared, that part he couldn’t control, was screaming to get out, to escape the monotony, the isolation, the robotic existence.
You might at this point be curious as to what became of this cat. Did he heed that voice, or ignore it?
I can’t answer that—I don’t know him anymore. Nor do I have to answer that: what became of him is not the point, per se. Though I’d love to tell of the man who overcame his inner turmoil, sublimated his angst and became fodder for a tale of existential heroism, that really isn’t what I wish to get at.
The point, you might ask, of this story: find balance. Clichéd—yes. Any less true or imperative—no. Reflect on the hows and whys of your actions. Do you truly desire everything you have so assiduously pursued? Or do you only desire only what you’ve been told to, your greatest concern placed in finding acceptance rather than finding your own inner voice and the direction it births. Question, with steadfast honesty, not only how your behaviors affect you, but what impact they have on your relationships, on those around you. Goals are laudable, and the lampposts by which we guide ourselves to success. But when a goal becomes an obsession, something all-consuming which detracts from the roundedness of your life pursuits, detracts from your functionality as a human being, detracts from your ability to connect and engage with anything outside of yourself, it is time to reevaluate what you are doing, and why.
What needs to be addressed, what my time in this industry has convinced me we must discuss, is the line between healthy, balanced dedication, and unhealthy, corrosive obsession. For, in the shadows of this very isolated “bodybuilding culture” (moreso I think than in other sports/hobbies) there exists a fanatical drive which, initially forged in the name of self-betterment (some might say vanity), can easily pervert itself into a corrosive and ultimately destructive force.
Myopia, as I’ve mentioned, is certainly an essential element in one’s creative drive. It can be productive and healthy—the avenue through which goals are pursued and dreams are realized. So too, however, can that inertia become destructive and damaging to one’s psychological, physical, social and emotional worlds. It is the insidious transition into this latter phenomenon that I’ve witnessed time and again, with alarming frequency, amongst the members of this community. The pattern is too pervasive to be dismissed or ignored.
Get a grip, and get over yourself. Really. This statement, genuinely embraced, is infinitely more empowering than it is insulting. There is far more to life than how you look. “I know,” you say. But do you? Do you really? Is not skipping a workout honestly more important than opting instead to spend time with your family, with a friend or lover? I can assure you that, when reflecting on life at age 65, it will be your relationships in life that mean far more to you than what size your biceps were when you were 21. How you look is but a fraction of who you are, and has very little bearing on what you have to offer, or how rich your life is.
Don’t allow the pursuit of an image consume you such that your adherence to a routine leaves you, quite literally, no time to live. Don’t relegate your identity exclusively to the ephemeral and transient realm of physical perfection; to do so ensures a life of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and isolated misery. Don’t allow the “hardcore dedication” of the blind to lead you into their dreary world of narrow-sighted “perfection.” Life is not a competition to see who can outdo one another in a precise and perfected march to misery.
Embrace that every day you hold the key to your own destiny. The minute you begin to feel this is not true, take a step back, pause, and ask yourself what your motivations are—why you do what you do. Often, it is those who are truly in control, those who truly apprehend the nature of dedication, who know when to let their feet rest so that they may regain perspective.
Realize that there is a line between dedication and obsession, and learn where it lies. Reflect on the difference between healthy drive, and the productivity it bears, and destructive drive. And finally, though it will necessarily always elude you, strive—strive everyday—to find balance.