Recent events got me thinking about why so many people have so much trouble getting what they want out of life. I'm sure you've seen this plenty of times- and you're probably guilty of it yourself: someone sets a goal, decides that he wants to do something, and then for whatever reason, fails to achieve and just sort of gives up. The question that you have to ask yourself is not why you failed to achieve your goal- that much should be pretty obvious after you've failed, and the penalties for that failure should be quite clear. The question you need to ask is instead, what stopped you from achieving your goal?
Note that I did not ask you "why did you fail?". Again, you know why you failed. The question I'm asking you is, why did you give up?
Let me give you an example from my own recent experiences to illustrate the difference.
I've written before about the insidious effect that fear can have upon the ability of a man to improve himself. That post was motivated in large part by the fact that I have tried, and failed, with extremely painful consequences, to deadlift 445lbs in the past. Last February, I tried deadlifting that weight and tore up my lower back but good. The pain was excruciating, on a level that I had never felt before and never want to feel again. Somehow I managed to make it to work that day and get through the day, and somehow I managed to keep myself functioning throughout that week, but as the good Lord is my witness, that is something I hope I never go through again. I took a week off from the gym- in hindsight, this was too little time to recover- and tried again a few weeks later. Same result- tore up my lower back. I was out of the gym for nearly a month with only intermittent and very unsatisfactory workouts to show for it.
I then worked out for about 4 months, slowly rebuilding my strength and confidence, to the point where last August or September I tried deadlifting the same weight again. Same result. The problem, of course, was lousy technique- I was rounding my lower back on my heaviest sets and it was seriously screwing up my ability to lift the heavy weights correctly. The injury was far less severe this time, partly because I had spent time strengthening my core and back, and I was able to recover quickly. From then onwards, I resolved to concentrate on sorting out my form, because I could feel that something was seriously wrong with my technique.
Fast forward to last weekend. It took me nearly a year of hard lifting and hard workouts to get back to that point, where I had the strength, the confidence, and the ability to deadlift that kind of weight carefully and in a controlled fashion. Last week, for the first time in a year, I stared at a bar that had 8 45lb weights and 4 10lb weights on it, resting on the floor, and decided that I would no longer live in thrall to fear. It took me a few minutes to get myself ready (I find "I'm Not Afraid" by MASTERPLAN to be very helpful in this regard, by the way), but finally, it was time.
I approached the bar.
I checked my stance and the position of my feet under the bar.
I leaned down and gripped, hard, making sure to get my hips in the right position for the lift.
I cleared my mind, focused, and lifted.
My grunt- roar, really- must have caused every head in the gym to snap around wondering what the hell I was doing. But the bar came up, my back stayed straight, and when my knees locked out and I saw myself in the mirror, I knew I'd done it. There was no pain, no fear, no failure, only elation and the incredible rush that comes from achieving a truly worthy conquest. I had conquered my fear. I was no longer afraid- of the bar, of the weight, of my own weakness. I knew in that instant that if I truly wanted to, almost nothing was impossible. As heavy as that weight was, I knew that with just a little more time and training, I could lift even more. (I should note that this triumph was rather spoiled by the fact that one of the staff came over and asked me immediately after my lift whether I was using the other squat rack, and then engaged me in a 15-minute conversation about heavy metal stemming from the shirt I was wearing, but I won't hold that against the guy.)
It was at that point that I realised that the only thing holding me back had been the man I see in the mirror every morning. I had allowed my fear to define me, to weaken me, to the point where I was reduced to rationalising my decision to load up the bar like that- "well, I'm going to be travelling for the latter half of next week, so I'm taking the week off from lifting, and it really doesn't matter if I f*** up this lift and screw up my back because I'll have a whole week to recover, so it's fine to do it this week but not last week." The reality is, I was probably ready to achieve this weeks ago; I just held myself back because the penalties for failure are so severe.
And this got me thinking about that other great area of modern male failure- masculinity in the game. So many men today are simply incapable of summoning the backbone to be men- to step up, to take charge, to lead. To most men, leadership should in theory come naturally, but it rarely does. (INTJs and our more specialised subset of Sigma males are rather unusual in this regard, in that we do not want to lead and will actively resist any attempts by others to infringe upon our independence of thought and action, but are exceptionally skilled leaders when we have to be. It's just that leadership is a tremendous drain on an INTJ's energy, which is why we generally don't want to do it.) It should be the simplest thing in the world for a guy to approach a girl he likes- whether in a bar, a bookstore, or online. Yet the vast majority of men just don't do it.
Why? What's holding them back? What's the most severe penalty for failure that there is? Social rejection? A bit of humiliation? OK, fine, if that's the very worst that can happen, that's still much less painful than tearing up the muscles in your lower back. If you get rejected by a hot girl in a club, big freakin' deal, she misses out on an opportunity to make out with you and possibly to bang you- which is precisely how you should think about it. It's her loss, not yours. If you deadlift heavy weights incorrectly, you're looking at a week spent lying down and taking it easy, unable to move properly, bend down, or lift things without severe and chronic pain. That's your loss, not the bar's- the bar doesn't give a damn about you, it's simply cold steel and has no feelings. Are you really going to tell me that lower back pain is less painful than social rejection?
Your single greatest enemy isn't the government. It isn't some shadowy cabal looking to take your money and your freedom. It isn't the gangbanger on the street looking to rob you of your wallet and potentially your life. It isn't the HB9 at the bar who thinks she's the hottest woman in the room and yet can't string three intelligent sentences together. It isn't your former colleague who's now a partner at a hedge fund while you're still sitting on your little rung of the corporate ladder trying to play by the rules in the (vain) hope that you'll be rewarded someday. It isn't even time. It's you.
And if you don't take steps to confront your own weaknesses, to train yourself to face hardship and pain, and to push through the barriers that are holding you back, then you've got no one to blame but yourself when you fail to achieve your goals. As I said before, I don't care about why you failed- that much will become obvious with time, just as it did for me. All I care about is whether you're willing to push through that failure and do what it takes to make sure that you don't fail again.