“This is all I know. This is all I have. And I’ll die in this gym if I have to.”
I had that mantra stuck to my desk for a couple of years. It’s a song lyric–I can’t remember the band, but Jim Wendler quoted them in one of his blog posts. And it’s all you need to know about my mindset as a young entrepreneur.
“I will lead this horse to water and hold its head under until it drinks.” I actually wrote that on a blog post in 2010. I still believed in martyrdom then. I still believed that the hustle was the answer. Gary Vaynerchuk wasn’t a household name then; no gym owners were talking about “the grind”. But every morning at 5am, before the lights at the gym even warmed up, I’d press my cheek against the front window and look down the street to make sure my gym was open first.
I wanted to believe that the hardest worker would win. I told myself that lie because I know I can outwork anyone. If putting your head down and trudging forward, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse–if that made a business successful, I was a born winner.
If volume of work was the answer, I had a huge advantage: I’d been trained for work since birth. Trudging through snow to a frozen stream in the dark; chopping a hole through the ice with an ax; hauling pails uphill to meet thirsty animals that wanted to butt me aside? Yeah, I did that. At age eight. I’ve been on sinking boats. I’ve followed the blood trail of a wounded bear without a rifle. I’ve passed out in hayfields from heatstroke, and then finished the day. I worked on a logging crew in college. I have frostbite in both ears and most of my toes to remind me of my first job.
Those are all cool stories. And none of them matter a bit.
I was a mule. I was never late. I drove my truck past “road closed” barricades to get to work, and had to be rescued by snowmobile. I once hit 100 days without a day off from the gym.
None of that made me profitable.
I missed my kids for days at a time. I left home before they woke up, and got home after they were in bed. I told myself “I’m willing to do ANYTHING for them. And if they don’t see my sacrifice, that’s one more burden I’m willing to bear.”
Martyrdom is a romantic delusion. Here’s what broke the spell:
A friend’s business failed. He said, “I take pride in knowing that I did everything I could. It wasn’t my fault the business went under.”
He had the luxury of blaming someone else. I didn’t. And I asked myself, “Am I okay with this business dying, as long as it’s not MY fault?”
That would have proven my martyrdom, wouldn’t it? Wasn’t I already fantasizing about a buyout, or a co-operative takeover that would have absolved me from responsibility of failure?
When I zoomed out and looked at the situation objectively, I saw myself working hard toward an inevitable end: this business was going to fail. My kids were going to go without. And it didn’t matter if it was my fault: it was my responsibility.
Then I realized: the greatest thing in my way was my ego. I WANTED to believe that hard work wins, because that’s my strength. I wanted to believe that a 4am start gave me a huge advantage over a 5am start, because I was good at the 4am start.
I did NOT want to ask for help. Hell, no.
The real “park bench moment” came for me when I realized that I couldn’t work any harder, and success wasn’t any closer. I literally asked, “What if I did the opposite of everything I’m currently doing?” I hired a mentor. I took his advice–I actually paid for his advice, which was anathema to me. I did what he said to do, even if it seemed counterintuitive.
The hardest part was when my mentor said, “Take a day off.”
I think my response was, “Okay. What should I do on my day off?”
(This is like saying, “I’ll do a few reps while I’m resting between rounds.”)
I don’t take time off well. That’s a huge weakness of mine. So is stubbornness. But my greatest weakness is my willingness to just work MORE, work HARDER, instead of stopping to ask, “What am I doing?”
I still fall into the trap: I try to do everything. I wake up at 1am with an idea to help gym owners, and go sit on the couch with my laptop. The lure of work is strong. But it often pulls me away from doing the RIGHT things. It’s not a virtue; it’s a trap.
When you farm for a living, the ability to bow your head and pull the plow is an asset. I come from generations of men like that. But when you open a business, you need to raise your eyes to the horizon. Thank you to my mentors for showing me the light.