Just Shut Up and Do What You’re Told

By Deane Barker

I graduated from high school in June 1989. By December of that year, I had enlisted and found myself on plane to Chicago to spend the next nine weeks in boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois.

I was sitting there, clutching a large manila envelope stamped “U.S. Navy” which was full of paperwork I had been told to present to the bus driver that picked me up. The man sitting next to me noticed it, and said that he was in the same position 20 years prior – he had spent boot camp in Great Lakes back in the late 60s.

I asked him if we had any advice for me. He did, and it was simple:

“Just shut up and do what you’re told. You’ll change, whether you want to or not.”

Shutting up has never been a skill of mine, but I did it anyway. And despite never being able to finish much of anything by that point in my life, I left boot camp nine weeks later as a completely different person.

Twenty-five years down the road, I’ve learned that releasing control of something into the hands of someone more qualified and objective is usually a pretty good way to get things done.

The drill instructors in Great Lakes didn’t know anything about me, and they didn’t care. Their only job was to turn me into a sailor. They didn’t know my story, my weaknesses, my feelings. They didn’t think, “This training might not go over well with that Barker kid. We should change it to suit him better.” They just expected me to do something, and I did it because I had no choice. Along the way, I surprised myself.

Now, I’m not claiming that CrossFit is the exact same thing as the military, but there are similarities. Like boot camp, CrossFit is programmed by an external source. You don’t just wander into CrossFit and do what you want. Rather, the class is planned in advance, and you’re given little choice other than to do it.

And this is why it works so well. Left to my own devising, I’d naturally gravitate towards (1) exercises that I enjoyed, and (2) an intensity level that didn’t make me too uncomfortable. This is just human nature.

CrossFit permits neither of those luxuries. There’s one whiteboard, and it speaks to everyone in the same voice. You’re gonna do what’s on it, and you’ll get better, whether you want to or not.

In this sense, CrossFit might be the easiest exercise program in the world. You just don’t have to think about it much. You go there, shut your mouth, do what you’re told, and you will get better. You can try to resist, but the laws of physics are fairly settled, and if you complete the WOD four days a week, your body is going to respond. You have little choice in the matter, and this is a good thing.

There’s a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue.” It turns out that human beings only have a limited capacity for decision making. As we make more and more choices, our skill at making the right choice goes down, as does our willingness to stick with the choice we made.

President Obama wears the same types of suits, all the time, apparently. He told Vanity Fair:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

This is the same reason Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck and jeans all the time. Or why Mark Zuckerberg always wears a hoodie.

Making decisions takes effort. Additionally, lots of decisions reduce our ability to follow-through on them. A University of Chicago study (PDF) in 2005 found that:

[…] participants who made a series of choices regarding consumer products, college courses, or course materials subsequently showed poorer self-regulation (measured in terms of task persistence, task performance, and pain tolerance), as compared to people who viewed or rated similar options without making choices.

Every time we make a choice, that’s a moment we have to regulate ourselves, and then we second-guess to our own detriment. Did we pick the right exercise today? Did we work out hard enough? Are we doing the right things overall?

These decisions accumulate doubt over time. Eventually, the doubt gets so high that we wonder if we’re doing the right thing at all. Some people start to question whether the effort they’re expending is going to result in any progress. Dragged down by these doubts, they quit.

Compared to this, there’s a lot to be said for simply “shutting our mouths and doing what we’re told.” For one, it removes the ability to second-guess ourselves. If we’re not in control and we trust the people that are, then we reduce the chance we’ll get fatigued by our own decisions and bail out too early.

Even better, we’ll be forced to perform to another standard – one which we didn’t create and which doesn’t bend for us. When Coach Casey left CrossFit Sioux Falls, I wrote this in a Facebook comment:

The thing about Casey was that he had much a higher expectation of you than you had of yourself. He’d put these crazy workouts on the board without apology, and you’d be thinking “what the hell is this?” But then you did it, and you realized that Casey knew you could do it all the time, you just didn’t know it yourself.

The decision on what we’re going to do on any given day has already been made. All we have to do shut our mouths and do it. (And what else would we do? Leave? In almost three years at CrossFit Sioux Falls, I’ve never seen someone leave a class early because they didn’t want to do the WOD.)

In a larger sense, the decision that we’re all going to get better has already been made. We just need to hold up our end of the deal.

If you can get out of your own way, it eventually becomes a habit, and you simply release yourself to the process. There’s a weird and wonderful freedom to that – just show up and throw down, and don’t worry about the details.

Know this: the coaches at CrossFit Sioux Falls have higher expectations of you than you have of yourself. The only question is whether you’re going to stop yourself from achieving them. If you continually force yourself to be held to a standard you didn’t create, you will adapt to that standard, whether you want to or not.

In this sense, CrossFit really is the easiest thing in the world, for the same reason that guy gave me on that plane a quarter century ago.

Just shut up and do what you’re told. You’ll change, whether you want to or not.