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What Happens When You Do—Or Don’t—Identify with Achievement

This past weekend I was at the gym testing my strength across the three big lifts for which I train: squat, bench-press, and deadlift. I’ve been training somewhat seriously for the last 18 months, and this was my first chance to leave it all out there and see where I was at. As I walked up to the bar for my first lift, I struggled to turn it on. I couldn’t find that extra gear. As bad as this sounds at face value, I just didn’t care as much as I used to.

Rewind to seventh grade: I really, really wanted to play football but my parents didn’t let me. Then, I got jumped on the side of the road by two high-school punks. This was terrifying. I became anxious and basically scared of being outside alone in my own neighborhood. But there was a silver lining—my parents decided to let me play football.

I threw my all into football. I was first in and last out of the weight room every day. I got strong from training hard and felt safer and more secure in my own body. Girls started liking me, and as much as I cringe to say it now, it probably had more to do with size of my arms than anything else. I became captain of the varsity football team and we had the best two-year consecutive record (17-3) in the last four decades of my high school’s history. I got recruited to play in college by smaller programs, and although ultimately I decided to go to Michigan (I was definitely not good enough to play there), football and strength training were a huge part of my identity during my formative years. You could easily argue they were my identity.

In college at Michigan, I couldn’t go to the football games. It felt pointless to be on the stands instead of on the field. It was too close to something the loss of which I was still grieving. So I did a total 180 and got into endurance sports, doing marathons and eventually triathlons. At the end of my junior year, the girl I had been dating since early on as a freshman told me she still had feelings for another guy and dumped me. Though looking back this was clearly for the good, at the time it was deeply painful. I threw myself into triathlon with full force—not so much because I loved swimming, biking, or running, but because it was an easy way to numb the pain. My identity shifted from boyfriend to triathlete. It was not hard to give the sport my all.

Fast forward another 10-12 years and I got back into strength training when my wife Caitlin (thank goodness the other girl dumped me!) and I had our first kid. Endurance sports were consuming too much of my time and energy; I was getting injured far too frequently; and I wanted a physical practice that could better fit into my new life as a father.

At first, I strength trained without much structure. It simply felt good to be back in the gym. Eventually, however—about 18 months ago, out of the thick of infant parenting and in the thick of the pandemic when there wasn’t much else to do for leisure—I decided to focus on strength training a bit more. I trained 4-5 days a week for about 60-90 minutes each session. Far from an elite athlete, but more than a total newbie.

Back to the gym this past weekend. I have a theory for what happened at my fitness test. The reason I couldn’t find that extra gear, the reason I felt like I just didn’t care as much as I used to, is precisely because I don’t care as much as I used to. Or, perhaps more accurately, I can’t figure out how to care as much as I used to.

For the first time in my life, my performance in sport is not core to my identity. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a writer. I am a coach. I am a reader. I am a friend. I have a spiritual practice. I love German Shepards. And only then, perhaps tied with “I enjoy long walks outdoors,” is strength training.

In the past a fitness test felt like everything. When I walked up to the bar or the start-line of a race my self-worth was on the line. It was easy to find an extra gear. Though I (mostly) enjoyed the sports, I was competing in threat mode: all the resources available to protect my identity—i.e., make the lift; win the race—were easily marshaled. At present, however, I feel pretty content with how things are going. Whether or not I make a lift has little bearing on my life and sense of self.

My strength coach laughingly remarked that zen masters do not make the best powerlifters. I assured him I was nowhere close to being a zen master or the best powerlifter, but the point was well-taken. We enjoyed the morning together even though I was only able to muster up a 9 out of 10. In the past, 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, all the way up to 10 were gears available to me. But this past weekend, I couldn’t find them. Although at first I was a bit frustrated (don’t get me wrong, I still care, just not as much as I used to) now I am actually pretty excited about all of this. It is a great chance for me to explore if it’s possible to turn it on and find that extra gear, and then turn it off shortly afterward; if it’s possible to crush the lift from a place of not caring if I miss it, from a place of challenge and love instead of threat and fear.

I have a hunch that it is, indeed, possible, though to what extent I don’t know. I do know that it will require changing my relationship with doubt in my ability to lift heavy weights. In the past, I could face fear of failure (or maybe even simpler, fear of having 400 freaking pounds on my back and squatting low!) and overcome it because it felt like everything was on the line. Whatever doubt I had I just pushed through. I had no choice because without hitting the lift, my sense of identity went to crap. Now, I’ll have to face those fears in a different manner since I know everything is not on the line.

I have no idea how this will end up. I could see myself being regionally competitive in a few years and I could also see myself not training hard at all. I’m curious to find out. And while this post was pretty much all about me, my hope is that it helps you reflect on and gives you some language for similar tensions you may experience in your own life.

Brad

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3 Comments

  1. Karl on February 21, 2022 at 4:00 pm

    Brad, this really reasonated with me. I had a 5-mile race recently and my sense of identity had changed so I didn’t feel like I needed to do well. I found a job in my field after almost 2 years so my identity had shifted from endurance athlete to Assistant Attorney General. I passed a guy who was in my AG, but I didn’t know it at the time, and got 2nd in my AG. I wonder if I would have found that extra gear to pass him before when my identity was on the line.

  2. […] Blog post on identity connected to achievement that is mentioned in the show is here. […]

  3. Read : 2022-02-26 | thegraywolff on February 26, 2022 at 4:38 pm

    […] “What happens when you do—or don’t—identify with your achievement” by Brad Stulberg (The Growth Equation, 2022-02). […]

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