Building a Better Me

Katrin Davidsdottir (and by extension, Ben Bergeron, her coach) have been huge inspirations to me, both as a CrossFit athlete and as a person, and one of my favorite things about both of them is their approach to mindset. I’ve added my own thoughts and interpretations in here a little bit, but to give credit where it’s due, what follows is primarily a synthesis of what Ben espouses for all of his athletes.

Katrin and Ben often say, “Be the best you,” and that resonates so strongly with me. It’s not “be the best at X thing,” or “be as good as Y person,” it’s just, “Be the best you.” Being the best you is a unique goal, because there’s no one else exactly like you. Because it’s specific to you, it removes comparisons to others and also removes static goal posts. Your best is not, and should not be, the same as Katrin’s best, or my best. Even focusing in just on myself, those goals aren’t static either. My best today is different from my best yesterday and my best tomorrow, because I am constantly changing and constantly growing. It also removes the scarcity mindset of training and becoming better — my getting better does not take something away from someone else, or mean that they cannot also get better, and in fact, I should support them in being their best selves. It’s a never-ending and unbounded process — there are no shortcuts, there is no end point, and you get out of it only what you put in — and, to quote a friend, “That’s a beautiful thing.”

I learned about the principles of having a growth mindset (believing that through practice and effort, you can get better at anything) and the “1% better every day” principle (incremental progress compounding on itself over time) through weightlifting, before I started CrossFit and before I had even heard of Katrin or Ben. I even wrote a whole post about it, and how it made me feel empowered, how it made me feel like I had control over some aspect of my life and some control over my body, which is a huge area of struggle for me, as a non-binary trans person. But when I layer on, “Be the best me,” on top of the frameworks of a growth mindset and incremental progress, suddenly those things apply to all of my life, not just specific endeavors like fitness or drawing or these other really narrow areas. Suddenly, it’s like: “Oh, I can be a better me, I can be better at my life. I can be better at my relationships with people; I’m an introvert, but I can be better at talking to people; I can be better at talking about my feelings; I can be a better friend. It might be hard, it might require effort, it might be extremely uncomfortable, but I can grow and become better at it. This applies to everything.”

Being the best you, believing you can become better at anything, and that being a little better each day results in huge changes over time — I think of these as pretty foundational ideas, but when it comes to putting these things into practice, there’s a few other Ben/Katrin mindset tips I have found incredibly helpful:

  • Focus on what you can control. Ben lays this out as the following five factors of health: Mindset, Relationships, Sleep, Nutrition, and Exercise. These are the factors of health that you can control in your life. Within each of these, there’s more granularity, but that’s for another post. There’s also the factors of genetics and environment, which you can’t control (and when looking at things from a perspective of power and privilege, you also can’t deny), but since these aren’t things in your immediate control, focus on what you can control.
  • Sometimes you can’t control things, but what you can control is your response to them. Ben often gives the advice to approach things with an, “I get to” mentality, instead of an “I have to” mentality. I get to go to work. I get to have a busy day. I get to go to the gym. We often dress our opportunities as stress, but they are in fact, opportunities for growth. To me, I see this as less an “always be positive about everything” mindset, which I’m very skeptical about the usefulness of, and more a “Good or bad, everything is an opportunity for me to grow, and I should approach it like that” mindset. Negative things still suck, it’s not trying to convince yourself that they don’t suck and aren’t painful, but oftentimes, when bad things happen, it’s when we learn the most about ourselves. But they still suck, and I don’t agree that we should just try to convince ourselves they’re a good thing.
  • What I would also add to the above bullet, mostly as a reminder to myself, is to balance this out by remembering that stress, no matter the mindset we approach it with, fundamentally breaks us down and that recovering builds us back up, stronger than before. You have to make time for both processes, both in terms of fitness and in terms of life. Approach stresses as an opportunity to grow, but also recognize when to take care of yourself and recover. Just as you can’t train twice a day, seven days a week with no rest days and expect to grow as an athlete, you can’t expect the same out of your life, either.
  • Another thing that I’ve heard Ben say that resonates with me is that, “Happiness does not lie on the other side of achievement.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set goals to achieve, because goals are good, and represent growth, but rather, that you shouldn’t tie your happiness to your goals, because that will just result in fleeting happiness. As soon as you achieve a goal, you may be happy for a bit, but then you will start to focus on the next goals to achieve. And that’s the way it should be, you should never be completely satisfied. That doesn’t mean you’re not happy, just that you recognize there is always room to grow. Focus your happiness on growing as a person, on living your every day, and building your relationships.
  • I’ve always naturally been someone to focus on the process of doing a thing, and less so the goal, though sometimes to a fault, so what I often need to hear is not to be told to focus more on the process and less on the goal, but that sometimes, you just have to suck it up and get out there and do it. Another way to look at it might be that I get caught up in the micro process of a very specific thing. Like reading about and doing research about how to write a book. That’s a worthy process, but it’s a preparatory process to the process of actually writing a book, which is an even smaller process within the context of my life. When I get stuck on a micro process, I have to remind myself that sometimes, to trust that I am as ready as I can be, while knowing and accepting that I will fail at times and be stressed, but to do it anyways. “Jump and build your wings on the way down.”

And a final thought — I said earlier, “Getting better does not take something away from someone else,” and that, “You’re not trying to be as good as or better than anyone else,” but what about in competitive spaces? What about areas where there’s limited resources? Maybe the result you want is that you win first place in the competition or get the promotion over another person. You getting it means they can’t have it. And while that means you do have to perform better than them, when you approach training or practicing or working towards that goal, however that looks, all you can really control is your effort. This is what I’ve heard Katrin say many times about her training for the CrossFit Games. If you know that you gave it your best effort, every single day, every single hour, maybe even every single minute or second, if you’re really disciplined and committed, then you know that you’ve done all you could, regardless of the result, regardless of what your competition is doing, so why worry about results and others, when you can’t control those factors. If you give it your all, you can have no regrets. And if you lose, you can still know that you became a better you in the process, regardless of this singular, specific outcome, and that’s a victory in and of itself.

Nerds and Sports

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I grew up as a Star Wars-loving, science-fiction-addicted geek/nerd type who was picked on by jock/popular types and who bought into that narrative, so of course, I grew up hating organized sports. I still did hiking and biking and outdoors-y activities at my parent’s behest, but now I sometimes feel like I missed out on a lot of what competitive and organized sports can offer besides just physical activity — the development of discipline, an outlet for competitive behavior and expression, learning teamwork and social skills, etc.

I don’t feel that I missed out on those lessons themselves just because I didn’t play sports, but I do feel that I missed out on an avenue for a physically-involved manifestation of them, which I think might have worked pretty well for me. When I have kids, I’ll probably want them to be involved with some kind of sport, or at the very least, have a fair chance at trying to enjoy them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that sports is the only place (or even that it’s necessarily the best place) to learn these things, or that all athletes take these sort of values away from their experiences, or that the activities I did in place of sports didn’t teach me many of these same things, but sports do represent another place, and everyone learns and develops differently — shouldn’t all kids have as many options and opportunities to develop as possible? I feel confident that there are other people out there, who, like me, grew up as a geek, but who would have really benefited from and enjoyed participating in sports, but who chose not to because of bullying, harassment, or a heightened fear of embarrassment, or just the assumption by coaches and teachers (and themselves) that they would fail at them.

I’m 28 years old now, and weightlifting is still teaching me a lot about mental discipline, the value of incremental progress, and setting and sticking to long-term goals, all of which are things I’ve struggled with for most of my life. Now, a good amount of that may be just a new-found maturity, but when I look at young athletes like @katrintanja or @mattiecakesssss who really have their stuff together (though they may also just be extremely exceptional individuals), I can’t help but shake the feeling that I would’ve taken something valuable away from participating in sports throughout my youth.

It makes me really sad that some kids potentially miss out on organized sports growing up, just because of some arbitrary stereotypes. Being a geek or nerd and being athletic are not things that are diametrically opposed. In fact, there’s a substantial amount of similarity and overlap. I am nerdy about my love of weightlifting and its athletes. Even for ‘non-nerds’, collecting baseball cards or playing in a fantasy football league are pretty indistinguishable from say, Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. Video games (not even counting sports video games) also offer a lot of parallels to sports: character management, leveling, and min-maxing are pretty akin to diet, training, and programming; and other skills definitely have more direct analogues: teamwork and strategy, reflexes and skill, and so on.

While I definitely think the line between geek or nerd and athlete has blurred a lot since I was younger, I would love to see even more overlap — in both directions — more athletic kids who felt comfortable having and expressing really geeky or nerdy interests, and more geeky and nerdy kids who didn’t feel like they were going to fail at something athletic just because they have glasses and like reading and science fiction. Sure, some geeks or nerds still may not be interested in sports and some sporty kids may not be interested in nerdery, and that’s perfectly fine, but in the end, being an athlete and being a geek or nerd both come down to being passionate about something! All it means is that you love something, practice it, learn all you can about it, compete for enjoyment and to exercise your mastery of a skillset! In the end, it’s all just to express your love of the game!

Note: Please leave a comment if you feel any of this is way off base, or was substantially different from your experience! Or just if you have something to share, like if you were into both nerdy things and sports!