Cargo Cults and CrossFit

Every year on February 15, natives on the island of Tanna celebrate “John Frum Day.” They paint “USA” on their chests, march with replica rifles made of painted bamboo, and wear homemade GI uniforms.
The procession is the peak of their religious year. But if you look around the island, you’ll see many military mockups: control towers fashioned from bamboo and rope; large landing strips for nonexistent planes; radio headsets made from wood and coconuts. Day after day for over 70 years, men from Tanna have manned these outposts faithfully, waiting for airplanes that never come.
Well, in the 1940s, the Vanuatu islands were occupied by US military forces trying to establish bases in the Pacific. Over several months, hundreds of thousands of personnel landed, building Quonset huts, hospitals, docks and airstrips. And they brought cargo.
Huge crates of clothing, food–unimaginable riches is unlimited quantities–fell from the sky. For a few very short years, the natives witnessed the blessings of the twentieth century, delivered by US Marines and engineers.
And then the war ended, and everyone left. The cargo stopped coming. The “miracle” was over.
So the locals set about trying to bring the miracle back, by building the things that brought the cargo in the first place: air strips, docks, control towers. They began to mimic the processions of the Marines to call down the cargo. “John Frum” wasn’t a real person; but John From America was, and they want him to come back.
But The Holy Cargo didn’t happen because the landing strips were there. The Miracle wasn’t birthed by marching. It was the other way around. The Cargo Cults have famously confused cause and effect, and practiced the rituals of the US Marines until they became dogma. Now they’re afraid to stop.
You can read one version of John Frum and the Cargo Cults here. The physicist Richard Feynman coined the phrase “cargo cult science” to describe the bad habit of confusing cause and effect.
And we, as gym owners, are guilty of cargo cult science.
We confuse the effects of good business with the causes.
“People join my gym because they want to move better” – that’s false.
“People stay because of the community” – also false.
“If you get them results, your clients will tell their friends” – no they won’t.
“Have the cleanest bathrooms.” “Clients will seek out the best coaches.” “People will choose me over an app because apps are for nerds.”
Data collected from the best microgyms in the world proves it clearly: these are not the causes of good business.
Having clean bathrooms is critical but insufficient.
The gym community is great because people stay long enough to make friends.
Clients seek results, not credentials. Clients don’t talk to their friends unless they’re asked. And great trainers provide all the tools to help their clients, not just the things they saw John Frum doing.

“There’s a fine line between salvation and drinking poison in the jungle.”

Mark Twight wrote that around the time he was leaving CrossFit. His exit was a loud one, and many didn’t understand his warning at the time. His quote was referencing to the Jonestown massacre as an example of blind followership: Twight was saying that although he believed in the fundamental principles of CrossFit’s workout methods, he no longer believed in the brand.
All of these little myths about clean bathrooms and “community” seem harmless, but they’re not.
If you believe your clients will stay because you have a great community, you’ll lose clients. You have to measure LEG and then improve it. You have to have 1:1 meetings with your clients every quarter or so. You have to show them a path to their goals. You have to call them between classes. These are the actions–supported by data–that improve retention (your LEG score).
If you believe people are typing “learn to move better” into Google, you’ll put that phrase on your website and your Facebook posts instead of the things that people actually care about. That’s cargo cult stuff.
If you wait for your clients to bring their friends, you’ll be waiting a long time. Bribing them with free months and discounts won’t speed up a nonexistent process. But believing it will happen will stop you from actively marketing your gym. You’ll spend time building control towers instead of learning how radios work.
Dogmatic rituals hurt our progress. Priests and prophets of “John Frum” have urged their followers to throw their money into the sea; slaughter their livestock in sacrifice; and let their crops go untended–because John Frum would provide all of that stuff when he comes back.
Your business is too important to risk. Doing things simply because “that’s the way we do it in CrossFit” or “that’s the way it’s always been done”–even because “that’s the way this blogger says to do it”–that’s not good enough. You need data. You need to test.
Question authority, kids. Evolution is life.


One more thing!

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