The Power of the Persona You Give Yourself

February 18, 2012 Tagged with: health, life

In any driving course, when learning how to recover from a skid, the instructor will always hammer the same thing into you: “Look where you want to go because you tend to go where you look.” it’s good advice, and I can vouch that it works (seriously).

The same thing is true of your self-image, I’m learning. You tend to act how you see yourself. You will live up to the image you see in the mirror.

In the last 13 months, I have lost between 80 and 90 pounds. It started on January 3, 2011 as a classic New Years resolution. Since then, I’ve been more or less obsessed with nutrition and exercise. My diet is fantastic, by any measure, and I exercise six days a week.

But, unbeknownst to me, the most important thing I’ve done is shifted my self-image. I think of myself as an athlete now. Everything is relative, of course, and I know that compared to your average NFL player, I’m not much. However, compared to your average 40-year-old suburban father, I do really well.

What I’ve learned is that since this is the persona I’ve given myself, I tend to live up to it. I get up at 5:30 a.m every weekday and go to the gym. Why? Because I’m an athlete, and this is what athletes do. I run five-miles in 15-degree weather, because this is what athletes do. I don’t eat just because I’m hungry, because this is what athletes do.

More than just my actions is my attitude – I look forward, and I enjoy the challenge. I constantly think about my next workout, and I can’t wait to keep moving incrementally forward. The gym or the bike trail seems like a second home to me. I see myself as a continual work in progress and I love the journey.

But I’m just now coming to this realization, and all because I went to Europe for a week.

In the beginning of February, I was speaking at a conference in Lisbon. On the way home, I got stuck for a day in Paris for a day, and then went to Las Vegas to watch a rugby tournament with my Dad for a couple days. I was gone for over a week.

During this time, I tried to workout, but it didn’t go well. I was on the move all the time. I tried to run in Lisbon, but the hotel was in a bad spot and there was no obvious place to run (the sidewalks in Lisbon have the smoothness of a minefield). I did get a short run in Paris, but when I tried to workout in Vegas, the Rio wanted $22 to use the gym. So, I went for a run on The Strip, which was a disaster because it was about 4 p.m. and the crowds were just ridiculous.

On top of this, I ate a lot. No one told me about Portuguese bakeries – wow. The pastries were just crazy (these things especially)...and then I got to Paris. Holy cats. I had a croissant at an otherwise non-descript hotel buffet that almost made me cry. Throw in a couple Las Vegas buffets, and you have a significant calorie imbalance.

When I finally got back to Sioux Falls, I felt out of shape. I hadn’t had a meaningful workout in 10 days, and I had gained about five pounds.

So, you’d think I’d instantly go running back to the gym, right? Uh, no. I made excuses not to go. And I kept eating. There was something keeping me from starting back up, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I got back home on a Monday night, and I finally got off my ass and went back to the gym on Friday morning.

When I finally went back to the gym in Friday, it seemed...foreign. I remember standing in the gym thinking, “What the hell am I doing here at six in the morning?” I felt out of place. It wasn’t home anymore, it was a place that other people went to. A place where athletes went.

And there was the problem:I had stopped thinking of myself as an athlete. I had let myself slip out of the persona. Instead of an athlete, I now saw myself as a couch potato. And, like a powerslide on a slippery road, you tend to go where you look, and I wasn’t looking in the right direction anymore. Couch potatoes don’t go to the gym at six in the morning – they sleep in. And they don’t eat well – they stuff themselves every chance they get. I was living up to my persona.

On Saturday (today), I went for my weekly five-mile run on the bike trails. I’ve been chasing the U.S. Army Ranger test for a few months now, and my pace has been steadily coming down. Two days before leaving for Europe, I clocked in my best time yet. But I approached today’s run with dread. I wasn’t an athlete anymore, I was a couch potato, so the run was going to hurt, and I was going to have to watch my hard-earned pace backslide.

But, amazingly enough, my pace dropped by two seconds. I don’t know why – perhaps my body had been beaten up for the last year and it enjoyed the rest. But 42-some-odd minutes after I started, as I was walking off my run in the parking lot, I felt...elated. I was on top of the world. I felt like I was heading back in the right direction. I an athlete again.

And now, as I write this, I’m looking forward. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s workout, or Monday’s run. I know that next week, I’m going to take a few more seconds off my time. Every workout is another chance to get better, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Why? Because that’s what athletes do, and when I look in the mirror, I’m an athlete again.

The fact is, you go where you look. And you look in the direction you see yourself. See yourself as a couch potato, and you’ll act like one. Likewise if you see yourself as an athlete. Or an addict. Or a successful professional. Or a Christian. Or a sleazebag.

How do you see yourself?

Update: My friend Greg from CrossFit Sioux Falls commented below, partially in response in an email exchange he and I had about CrossFit. We discussed the fact that something CrossFit does really well (aside from apparently being a great workout in general), is that it teaches people to think of themselves as athletes. I know of no other organized workout program that does this – that pays attention to the persona that its participants have for themselves. I honestly think this is a huge part of the exercise equation, and one that few programs other than CrossFit are paying attention to. (Disclaimer: I do not CrossFit.)


Matt Smith says:

Good post, Deane. I got off my butt this year after peaking at my highest weight/worst shape after the holidays. I’m three weeks into a 12 week program. So far, so good.

Jason Conant says:

Wow, good job. Loosing that much weight is a big deal. If you don’t mind me asking, other than running, what is your exercise routine?

Greg Nelson says:

Deane - this is a great post! I will use it in an upcoming post on our website to motivate Athletes at CrossFit Sioux Falls. Every person in our gym is an Athlete and we coach them as such. We do year round training that prepares people for the unknown and unknowable. Our trainers are not simply training but they are coaching; yep, we call them coaches and they likely know more about your “in-gym” skills and deficiencies then the athlete and use this knowledge to Que, adjust, motivate people to do more.

I will say, I am proud of you. You have done well my friend. I love your outlook. The mirror is telling you good things. And keep that fire burning, athlete, competitor, Deane!

Your Friend, Greg - CrossFit Athlete, Dad, Shaun White Wannabee, and many other things the mirror reflects!

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