For me, going to the gym is more mental than anything else. It helps me clear my mind, relax and focus on the day ahead. I do a lot of weight lifting, but in actuality the whole ordeal is much closer to meditation than it is to actual weight training. Most days, as I work through my lifting program, I drift deeper and deeper into a state of calm focus.
And then there are those days when someone tries to talk to me.
It was Thursday of last week and I was working through my last set of the morning: French curls. Mid-way through the set I watched in the mirror as a man walked up, stood beside me, and closely examined my upper body. As I finished the set, he started shaking his head, “Oh no, no, no, no.” I placed the heavy dumbbell on the ground and turned to face the man. He was noticeably shorter than me and I looked slightly down on his intricately braided cornrows. I blinked for a moment, adjusting to the interruption. The man was wearing warm up pants, sneakers, and a tight T-shirt that struggled to accommodate the girth of his enormous biceps. Across the chest of his shirt was written the word “Trainer.”
The man introduced himself as Rakeem and explained that if I ever wanted arms as big as his, I needed to change the way I was lifting. I needed to go slower, focus on the full range of motion (going all the way down with the weight) and use lighter weights.
Before I could respond, Rakeem snatched up the dumbbell that was just in my hands and started performing a series of bicep curls. Both Rakeem and I watched in the mirror as the rippling muscles of his massive arm extended and contracted to lift the weight.
Rakeem spoke again: “Don’t be afraid to use lighter weights, focus on your form and go slow. If you want to be truly great, you need to check your ego at the door.”
These words triggered a flood of emotion for me.
“Check your ego at the door.”
I’ve been lifting weights regularly since high school and I feel as though I’ve reached a certain level of aptitude. But Rakeem reminded me of the one universal truth of the gym: there will always be someone who is stronger than you, and there will always be something more that you can learn.
Similarly, Rakeem has probably been lifting for his entire life. When he came over to talk to me, he assumed that I was at the gym solely to enlarge my muscles – while I was really there mostly for the mental benefits.
I smirked for a second, realizing the irony of the situation.
In most things, the biggest barrier to learning something new is the assumption that you already know everything. I assumed that I was lifting using the correct form and Rakeem assumed that I was lifting in order to get arms that looked like his.
Rakeem and I chatted for a moment then parted amicably. As I was walking to the locker room, my mind raced through the implications of our interaction.
Ordinarily I hate when people talk to me at the gym, but last Thursday I was happy for the interruption. Rakeem reminded me that the first step to learning something new (or starting a new role at work) is admitting there is something to learn. In order to truly achieve life-long learning – in lifting as well as all things – you must humble yourself, embrace ignorance, and absorb new information as quickly as possible.