I was losing the war. Well, maybe not losing, but I certainly wasn't winning. Sometimes I would win a small battle that would gain me some ground, a precious foothold that would help me advance, but I was not winning the war. Until recently, I was not even aware I was at war. I knew of the battles, they were (and still are) my daily struggles, but I never looked at them as skirmishes in a more epic war.
When I first began to identify what was holding me back, I did not think of it as a war, or as even a series of battles. That metaphor came later. That metaphor is actually the weapon that turned the tide of the war and helped me devise a plan for victory.
The war I am talking about is the war between who I want to be and who I actually was. Or as I have come to look at it, the war with the inner voice inside of me who justified the behavior that was holding me back from who I really want to be. This was the voice that told me to hit the snooze button, to start the diet tomorrow, to put off my work and do it later, the list goes on and on.
For my entire life, I just viewed these struggles as the challenges everyone deals with on a daily basis. We all have our own challenges. Many of your challenges are likely different than my own, yet some may be very similar. I just thought of challenges as the things I was not very good at doing.
Having hit my forties, I had put on some weight. I had a lot of projects I would start and never complete. I was drinking more than I should. I could see these things slowly happening in my life. I would look in the mirror and think I could lose a few pounds, but then I would see a photo of myself and think, "Man! You are FAT!" (Mirrors lie, by the way. We will get to that later).
At one point I got serious about losing weight. Not because I was finally fed up with how I looked and felt, but because my fiancé at the time (now my wife) said she wanted us (meaning me) to be skinny at our wedding. I love this girl and that was enough motivation for me to take some action. I ended up losing about sixty pounds (260lbs -> 200lbs) in a 3 month period by subscribing to one of those commercially available calorie restriction diet programs. I didn't have to think about my diet, it was all prescribed for me. Simple. The weight came off and it was exciting to see the results and hear the compliments. I even started working exercise back into my life.
It has been about seven years since that time and I have slowly put back on thirty of those sixty lost pounds. When I would get back up to around 230 I would put myself back on some diet. I would do a 30 day green smoothie diet or go hard core paleo and lose about 10-15 pounds then let off the gas and slowly put it all back on.
This was not a lack of motivation. I did not like the way I looked. I did not like the way my clothes fit, or the fact that there were clothes I liked, but could not fit into anymore. I was motivated. I would start a diet, always on a Monday morning (you gotta enjoy that weekend after a hard week at work). I would make it a day or two, sometimes all the way to Friday. Then I would just cave. Someone brings in donuts to work, one donut won't kill me, right? I would get invited by coworkers to lunch where I would ultimate order something way off my diet, usually fish-n-chips or the biggest burger on the menu. I would justify this by telling myself I don't eat out much so when I do I should at least enjoy myself. The next week I would start again. Monday morning my diet would begin. I WAS MOTIVATED! The problem was, no matter how motivated I felt, I was not disciplined.
Up to this point, I am sure most of you can relate to my story. There are challenges in your life that you struggle with regularly. Things that are contrary to who you believe you really are or who you want to be. But things were about to change for me, and in a very big way.
Something you should know about me is I love to read. I mostly read non-fiction books about leadership, business, and self-improvement. Technically, I listen to a lot of books, since audiobooks are much easier for me to consume while doing mundane activities such as walking the dogs, ironing clothes, and household chores.
One day, in early 2017, a former colleague of mine was responding to a question posted on LinkedIn asking how best to onboard new software engineers onto a team. His suggestion was to buy them a copy of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin and have the new employee read the book before they start work.
Now I was curious. What could be in this book that would cause a former software engineer of mine to recommend it as required reading for new engineers? I bought the audiobook.
The book is great. I attribute much of my success to the fundamental principles in this book. The crazy thing is that there is nothing new about these fundamentals. Nothing. For me it is the context. While there is much to learn from this book, three of them fit together in a way that would change my life forever.
The first is Extreme Ownership, which happens to be the title of the book and the subject of the first chapter. To break it down in its simplest form, there are no excuses. You cannot place blame. None. 100% ownership, 0% blame. That is a powerful concept.
When you own something it means you take complete control of every aspect of that thing.
In the book, Jocko discusses an incident of friendly fire that left one Iraqi soldier dead and one U.S. Navy SEAL wounded. While preparing for the post mortem of the incident, Jocko was struggling to identifying the cause or who is to blame, he eventually came to the realization that as the leader of the task unit he was the one to blame, the only one. 1
He had to own all the mistakes that happened on his team. Completely own them. If the SEALs under his command made a mistake he owned that mistake. It is his responsibility as their leader and he would have to do everything in his power to prevent those mistakes from ever happening again.
The second principle is Check your ego. This is very closely tied to the first principle. It is your ego that makes the excuses, that passes the blame.
When we get defensive in the face of criticism, that is our ego. We lack the humility to receive the criticism, determine if it is valid, and learn.
Not all ego is bad. Ego is also what drives us to be better, but when ego prevents us from ownership it is bad.
The third principle is Discipline Equals Freedom. Now if you look up the definition of "discipline" you will get something like "the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience." Doesn't sound very pleasant, nor like freedom.
As I thought about it more, it really means self-discipline, "the ability to control one's feelings and overcome one's weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it."
Discipline is the bond that keeps the first two fundamentals in place so we are able to use those in our daily lives. There is freedom in self-discipline. This is common sense.
For example, I believe most people would agree that financial self-discipline will move us closer to financial freedom. Skipping that $4 coffee each day, saving that money into an emergency fund, gives you that freedom and peace of mind knowing you will be more prepared should an unforeseen event occur, such as car repair.
Know your enemy
As I thought about these fundamentals, I asked myself some questions, specifically around my goal to lose weight. Why did I continually sabotage my efforts?
I thought of all the things I did that prevented me from losing weight. I drank beer. I love beer! I used to brew beer as a hobby! My father-in-law has three kegs on tap at his house and lives 3 miles away! Beer was my life.
I never really had much of a sweet tooth. I would eat sweets, but I they were not that difficult for me to cut out. In fact, I had cut out all added sugar from my diet months prior. Yet this alone had minimal impact on my weight loss.
I thought again of that guy in the mirror. The guy who saw himself better than he was, not just in weight, but in all things.
This is me, I thought. I want to weigh less. I want to get more exercise. I want to be in control...
Wait... control. Who is in control?
This is when it clicked. Yes, it was just like that, a click. I was not in control. Me, the person who I know I am, the person who is thin and in shape, was not in control.
If I was not in control, then who was? Who was driving this bus?
This is when things changed for me. This is when I discovered who was in control. This is when I saw my enemy, really saw him, right there in front of me. He had been there all this time, grinning, as if to say "Bring it."
That may sound melodramatic, but that is exactly how it happened. There was this enemy inside me hell bent on keeping me from being the person I want to be. He is strong. He is confident. He knows all my strengths and weaknesses. He knows how to exploit them.
This of course is a metaphor, but for me it is a very powerful metaphor. When I took a moment to detach from the situation and look at it from the outside I was able to see how my actions were not in line with who I wanted to be.
By creating a persona for the part of me that lacked discipline I was able turn the tide of the war. I began to win the battles. And not just slightly win, but completely destroy my enemy.
Changing the tide
I was now detached from the situation. I could see it for what it was and this was truly liberating. I knew who I wanted to be. This is the true me. At the same time I could see the other persona. The one that sabotaged all my efforts. Not just in weight loss, but in all challenges.
Every time I started a diet, this enemy would get me to procrastinate, tell me I could still have beer on the weekend, hell, and even tell me beer wasn't what was making me fat!
When I was able to separate the actions holding me back into this idea of an enemy is when I began to regain control.
Think of the times you have wanted to accomplish some goal and there was someone there telling saying you wouldn't be able to do it. Did it make you angry? Did you want to prove them wrong? This is how I now felt about those desires to procrastinate, to cheat on my diet, to take a short cut, to get defensive, all those things who were contrary to who I want to be.
It was really that simple. But why was it suddenly simple?
This is where those three fundamental principles in Extreme Ownership became the key.
Ownership, Extreme Ownership
I had to own everything I did. If I wanted to be the person I really thought I was this was a requirement. No more excuses... ever. The enemy did not own anything.
Ego will sabotage your efforts. The enemy within uses ego to justify when you deviate from the path you really want to be on. Ego will get you into arguments just to prove a point, usually at a high emotional cost.
Discipline is the principle that binds it all together. Discipline to know the path and to stay on it at all times. Discipline to own my decisions. All of them. Discipline to not let my ego drive me from the path.
It was like finding out there is no Santa Claus, once you know you can never go back to a state of not knowing.
If I ever let go of owning everything in my life I will know exactly what I am doing. If I ever let ego make excuses or get defensive I will know exactly what I am doing.
There is no going back.
Winning the war
May 21, 2017 was the last day I had a drink of alcohol. Will it be the last day ever? Maybe, but that is a different article.
Today, the day I am writing this post, is July 30, 2017. That is 70 days. During those 70 days the following events occurred:
- Memorial Day
- Father's Day (my son brought me two 22oz bottles of beer which are still in the fridge)
- Independence Day (also my anniversary)
- 2 birthday parties (both with open bars)
- Work offsite dinner party
Each of these events would have normally been prime for the consumption of many beers, but the enemy within did not need special occasions. I typically would have 1 - 2 beers a night during the week, the typical "Man, what a day" drinks, and on the weekends about a 6 pack a day. Yes, your math is correct. I was drinking a case of beer per week. No wonder I was not losing weight.
At that time, 70 days ago, I weighed 232 pounds (I am 5'11''). Today I weigh 197, for a total of 35 pounds in 10 weeks. I have not been at this weight since the late 1990's.
I do not even want a beer. Why? Because I have a goal. I own that goal. My ego is not going to get in the way of that goal. And I have the discipline to stay on that goal. That is an amazing feeling. Much better than any beer or buzz.
Where to now?
The power of self-control, when framed correctly, is unstoppable. I have applied these same principles in everything I do. I know who I want to be and I am in control.
I no longer argue with my wife. I am in control of myself. My ego doesn't have to win.
I no longer procrastinate. I have put value on completing tasks.
I am exercising again, even training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
People notice, they comment on something, and this gives me an opportunity to share my experiences. And that is the best part.
I started this blog with the goal that others will benefit from what I have to share and have similar success. It has truly been life changing.
The purpose of this blog is to share what I have learned along the path. It is my sincere hope that you will find something here that will truly help you in your own path.
The enemy is still there. He is looking for an opportunity. I will not give him one. Ever.