Without motivation, we would get nowhere. The achievement of goals requires focus, dedication and hard work. Yet, without having that “fire in the belly”, it’s impossible to focus, to be dedicated and to work hard. Something has to drive us, and that something is emotion.
Motivation is fueled by emotion. It comes from wanting to prove something, the need to stand out, the fear of being perceived as “ordinary”. It comes from the desire to be respected and admired – to rise above. Sometimes it comes from anger. Some of the best motivation has come to those who felt shunned or ridiculed when they were growing up, and the anger associated with that. Were it not for the avoidance of negative feelings, or the need to feel validated, or to feel fulfilled, it would be difficult to find motivation.
This fact is both good, and bad. It’s usually good to succeed, of course. However, it’s better to succeed at something constructive, rather than destructive. For example, many people have been motivated to commit an act of violence, based on some of the emotions mentioned above. The same focus that works in the achievement of respectable goals, also works in despicable goals. The obsession that drives a person toward on Olympic gold medal or a Mr. America trophy, can also drive a person toward revenge or murder.
But the difference between “good goals” and “bad goals” is not always so dramatically clear. A person can have a goal that doesn’t hurt anyone and is perfectly legal, but is of questionable value. In fact, there a number of “weird” competitions, to which many people dedicate themselves. These include “Air Guitar Championship”, “Toe Wrestling”, “Cherry Pit Spitting”, “Ostrich Racing” (ridden like a horse), “Beer Sculling” (guzzling), “Hot Dog Eating”, “Pie Eating”, the “Mud Olympics”, and the “World Sauna Championship”. The list goes on and on.
Of course, no one person can be the authority on which goals are “worth” pursuing, and which ones are not. Those are individual choices. In the above two paragraphs, I’ve drawn a distinction between productive goals and destructive goals, and have also named goals that could be classified as “silly” – neither destructive nor necessarily productive. But what about goals that aren’t obviously silly? What about goals that appear to be productive, and may even inspire others, but ultimately don’t have a measurable benefit? What is “benefit” and how much of it is enough?
Let’s take stretching, for one example. It’s good to be flexible – there is no doubt about that. Of course, some people “need” stretching more than others, based on genetic factors. But we’ve also seen people who are obsessed with stretching, which makes one wonder how much flexibility is enough? Many of us have seen people in the gym who spend over an hour, just stretching. Often times, these people are so flexible, they could practically fold themselves into a knot. Although stretching is generally good, there is some science which suggests that “too much flexibility” leads to joint instability.
Certainly, an argument could be made that the degree of flexibility some people achieve, is far beyond what is “practical and useful” in day to day life. Are there other reasons, beyond what is “practical and useful”, which motivates someone to spend so much effort stretching? Is the goal to actually achieve a ridiculous degree of flexibility, or does the act of stretching itself, feel so good that it needs no other reward? Is that degree of extensive stretching, an obsession – a type of “obsessive compulsive disorder” (OCD) – or does this person find it oddly gratifying to be seen in the gym, demonstrating “impressive” feats of flexibility?
As you can see, motivation could come from factors that have nothing to do with what is “practical and useful”. In fact, it could come from factors outside of one’s self. In other words, aside from the possibility that one could pursue an extreme result which may actually be harmful to one’s health, purely because “it feels good” – there is also the possibility that a person could pursue an extreme result primarily because it will impress others.
Humans are complex creatures. We sometimes find ourselves pursuing something – getting excited about something – and be completely unaware of what is driving us toward that pursuit. Having been involved in the fitness field for over 38 years now, it’s become very clear that motivation is most definitely “essential” in the achievement of goals. Yet, motivation is not always intrinsically good. People often obsess over things that are, arguably, not productive. We are sometimes convinced that something is “good”, or something else is “bad”, and we may not even fully understand why we believe that. Very often, we abandon our own thought process, and embrace the belief of others, simply because we don’t have enough confidence in our own ability to decide.
On a recent Jimmy Kimmel (TV) show, Jimmy walked around a public shopping area and asked people if they were “Gluten Free”. After they all exclaimed with a great passion, that they were “Gluten Free”, he asked them what Gluten is. None could answer. Nobody could explain with any degree of clarity, what Gluten is. Yet, they had fully embraced the concept, and undoubtedly go to great lengths to buy “Gluten Free” products. This was a perfect example of people embracing an idea, without even understanding it.
To complicate matters further, we are often influenced by ideas which relate to our identity, more than we are influenced by science or facts. According to “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, our basic “wants” are FIRST to satisfy our hunger and sex drives. These “wants” are then followed by our safety concerns. After that, there are two stages which clearly invoke matters related to identity, which are often influenced by irrational ideas of what might “enhance” that. These next two stages are “Love & Belonging”, and “Self Esteem” – respectively.
Those “needs” (love, belonging and self-esteem) leave room for behaviors which could be interpreted in countless ways. Men often believe that certain appearances will be perceived as “more masculine” – even though this might be subconscious – and follow the example set by others. These include things like facial hair, tattoos, piercings, long hair, shaved heads, serious or “tough guy” facial expressions, vulgarity (flipping the middle finger, cursing, etc.). Women often rely on behaviors that enhance their “sexiness”, often times ignoring discomfort and costs. It seems some people so desperately need to qualify as “sexy”, “attractive”, masculine, feminine or – in some cases – “threatening” (dangerous), that they’ll pursue that identity no matter what. But it should make one wonder, whether or not these pursuits are sensible, or even rational.
Do we ritualistically congregate at the Bench Press station, because that exercise is bio-mechanically exceptional? Or do we gather there because our piers are there, and we like to see who can Bench Press more weight – as if that matters a great deal?
Do we do “One Armed Chin-Ups”, “One Armed Push-Ups”, “Pull-Up and Overs” (where one goes beyond the bar, and then pushes up and over the bar, repeadetly), “Jump roping with double swings per jump”, “Bench Hopping up to a level that is 3 or 4 feet high”, because these things will improve our fitness level? Or do we do them because it’s perceived as an impressive feat, and we feel gratified when observers watch us?
Do we embrace a form of exercise that has been advertised as having been invented by a Navy Seal, or was used by the Russian Military, because we fully understand its physical benefits, or because it helps us feel more masculine, as we “share” the machismo associated with its roots?
Do we sometimes ignore a logical and scientifically-based refutation of an exercise, simply because it’s emotionally difficult to let go of an exercise we’ve used for years – even though it has not produced good results?
A good argument could be made that “fitness” should be about good health, respectable appearance, safety (for the sake of longevity), and a reasonable degree of functionality. However, some people might consider that “boring”. They might define fitness as being able to Bench Press 400 pounds, even if their waist measurement is 40 inches. Others might define fitness as the ability to survive the “Iron Man” competition (annual mega-triathlon held in Hawaii every year), or score a good time in a marathon – even though each of these would not necessarily result in better health than a “standard fitness program”, and would certainly incur a greater risk of injury. In some cases, we might have to admit that our pursuit is NOT necessarily “fitness”, but exhibition.
If exhibition (“showing off” / bragging rights) is our actual goal, so be it. But let’s recognize it as such, and acknowledge the trade-off. Let’s not pretend we have no ego in it. What are we risking? What are the potential consequences? Perhaps more importantly, do we really want to prioritize the accolades of others, over pursuits that are more sensible? Whose opinions matter to you? Would it not be better to value the opinion of intelligent, practical and reasonable people, over the opinion of those who are as dependent on “pier acceptance” as you may be? Are you being honest with yourself? Are you even bothering to evaluate your motivations?
I admit that being a bodybuilder involves varying degrees of “Prima Donna”. However, not all bodybuilders indulge in it to the same degree. Some never stop flexing, even in casual settings (especially if a photo is being taken), and seek to wear clothing that is always revealing. In the case of others, observers would never know they are looking at a competitive champion, due to his modest dress code. It depends on whether or not one perceives himself / herself as “being” a bodybuilder, or “doing” bodybuilding. Is “bodybuilding” that person’s identity, or is it simply something that person does? Does that person define himself / herself as that – primarily? If so, should that not be a red flag of insecurity?
Maslow’s ultimate human need (top of the pyramid) is “self-actualization”. That would be defined as a state where one is free from dependence on what others think of him / her. So, it seems that the human process moves from pure survival first, then onto “experiments in identity and acceptance”, and then finally onto a more practical, peaceful, honest and fulfilled state.
Any psychologist would concede that some degree of pier acceptance is a reasonable concern. So, it seems that balance is the key. Yes, we pursue a high level of fitness, such that our physique is “impressive” (most of the time). But we don’t need to “announce” it when we go about town. We also pay attention to our health and well-being (physical and mental). We use practical means to pursue our fitness goals (scientifically sound exercise, rather than trend or tradition), and we ensure that our lives are not focused entirely on that one pursuit. Our identity is made up of a variety of rewarding pursuits, and we understand the value of questioning our motivations.
Ultimately, we don’t need to let everyone know how strong and fit we are, and we shouldn’t care so much about being perceived as “ultra-masculine” or “ultra-sexy”, by people whom we don’t even know. We can be those things (strong, fit and beautiful), without making obvious efforts to display it. It’s the difference between being motivated from the inside out, versus from the outside in. Be fit, but genuine. Be motivated, but for a reasonable goal. Be accomplished, but – in the words of “Polonius” to his son “Laertes” – to thine own self, be true.