Are you trying to become the best at something?
Maybe it’s powerlifting, or bodybuilding. Maybe it’s that you want to be the most jacked dude on the face of the planet. Maybe it’s that you want to move and feel better in your body.
Or maybe it’s not fitness related at all. Maybe you want to be the best in your business. The smartest person in the world. The richest. Everyone wants to be the best at something, particularly when we’re kids. Presidents, rock stars, astronauts.
But then the grim reality of adulthood sets in: the vast majority of us will never see that level of success that we’re looking for. Only an extremely small percent of the people who set out to be good at anything ever succeed: usually just 5% or less. Last year, the New York Times ran an article claiming that it was “impossible” to lose weight on a diet, and that we should basically just give up.
Usually this isn’t our fault, per se. There’s lots of things that hold us back or determine our degree of success in any field that we have no control over. Natural intelligence, genetic predisposition to exercise, and the wealth and connectedness of our parents are the most important factors, and sometimes we can just be dealt a bad hand.
Regardless of how bad of a hand we’re dealt, we can always do something about it. In the classic psychology book Man’s Search For Meaning, Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl recounts how even in the bleakest of circumstances, he managed to find purpose and meaning in his life and remain strong. The cards can be stacked against us, but even making the smallest choices intentionally can be powerful in motivating us to succeed at our goals.
Aside from the big ticket items like genetics and birth, there are plenty of minor hurdles in our lives that hold us back. Abusive bosses, bad days, long work hours, unexpected expenses, and other events like this can sap our willpower and drain our energy, leaving us unprepared to take the steps we want to take to improve ourselves.
But the good news is that you don’t have to be a perfect robot in order to succeed.
That’s something we hear a lot. Fitness personalities tell us that the only way to succeed is by copying their intense exercise regimen every day and sticking to a strict diet of kale and air, or whatever the big health food is these days. We’re expected to follow all their commands to the T, and then we’re mocked when we can’t do it, or when the plan doesn’t work out the way they promised. The good news is that this isn’t the way anyone succeeds.
The real way anyone succeeds is this: you need to practice regularly, for a long time. Yes, you need the right combination of privileged circumstances to fall in line first: the money, the free time, the genetics. But no one gets anywhere with zero effort at all. In this excellent article from Greg Nuckols, Greg writes:
“In general, it seems that trainability and initial size and strength are completely independent factors. The best of the best are likely people who have high baseline amounts of strength and muscle while also being highly trainable, but it doesn’t seem that your size and strength when you first hit the gym influences how well you’ll respond to training.”
The only way to find out if you’re good at something is to give it a try.
Here’s some more bad news: Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule, which holds that excellence is due almost solely to practice, and that practice requires about 10,000 hours to reach expert status, is probably BS. Depending on your domain, practice may be more or less important than other domains, but it ranges from between 1% and 25% of your total success, with the remainder being due to other factors that you don’t have as much control over.
A small positive: success in fields in which the task at hand is more stable are more correlated with practice. The rules of chess, for example, never change, so it becomes a task of mastering those rules and practicing to know how to apply them properly. Exercise is relatively similar - the rules of powerlifting don’t substantially change over time.
But when it comes to more complex tasks, like real estate investment, the rules are constantly changing and adapting. Your hard practice one day may be invalidated the next day by new developments in the field. With these domains, it’s not just practice, but staying on top of the game that’s often most productive. In these fast-changing domains, you always have to stay up on the newest methods and practices in order to see continued success.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, the “easy” way to be good at anything is just to put a lot of practice into it. Your practice doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. You may pick it up faster or slower than somebody else, but as long as you stick with it, you’re better than someone who gives up.
After a few years of practice, you should be able to get a good handle on whether or not you’re going to be world class, a failure, or “good enough” for your purposes. Even if you’re not going to be world class, you can still turn a failure into a triumph by learning to repurpose that skill. As the saying goes, those who can’t do - teach.
Here’s a personal admission: I’ll never hit a world record powerlifting total.
Most world-class lifters hit their stride within a few years of training. With any skill, there’s diminishing returns on practice after the first few years - you’ve probably attained 80% of your potential by that point, so you can get a good handle on what you’d look like with that remaining 20% tacked on. Many elite lifters work for a year at a time just to put a measly 10-20lbs onto a lift, and the process of training becomes more difficult and complex, because you’re training harder and longer than ever for that remaining 20%.
I’ve been training as a powerlifter for four years now. Before that, I was training as a bodybuilder/general exerciser for many more years. I already have an idea of what I can expect, and I know that a world record probably isn’t in the cards for me.
But that doesn’t mean that this pursuit hasn’t been massively successful for me. I’ve become stronger and more muscular than a younger me ever could have expected. I’ve become stronger than the vast majority of the population, putting me in that cherished elite 5%.
I’ve coached clients in ten different countries, and developed an online business that allows me to work from anywhere, on my own time. I’ve enabled elderly clients to walk up and down stairs again, and helped a woman recover from a disastrous car accident that left her physically unable to bend over before she came to me. I’ve made numerous guys stronger when they thought that they had hit their genetic limits. I’ve turned a hobby into a business, and I love what I do. If this is what every failure looks like, sign me up for more!
We often hear that the journey is the reward, or that the obstacle is the way. Sometimes, you don’t even really have to be perfect at anything to reap rewards from it, you just have to be good enough, and that’s all that matters. Don’t aim to be perfect, aim to be good enough. Accept that sometimes, what may start off as a crisis can turn into a huge opportunity.
If you didn’t read anything else in this article, you should still read the following bullet points, the tried and true keys for succeeding in anything. Here they are:
Be privileged with natural talent - free time, genetics, intelligence, money, connections, whatever it takes to succeed in your domain (or make up for some of the lack with additional effort).
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Set short term goals in the pursuit of long term goals, track progress, and self-analyze periodically. If you aren’t, you aren’t improving.
Seek knowledge. Go to the best and brightest in your field and see what you can learn from them. Don’t skimp on money if this is something that matters to you - the best don’t do anything for free, and are well worth the cost.
Rinse and repeat for 3-5 years. At this point, reassess your goals: are you 80% of the way to your overall goal, or do you need to pivot your attention? At this point, you may wish to quit, repurpose that skill in another field, or ultimately decide to double down and grind it out for the long haul.
That’s it. That’s the ultimate success formula. It’s the easiest way - it’s the only way. But it’s still not easy, and you still have to put effort in. Think long term, don’t get discouraged by short term stumbles, but be willing to pivot in a few years if your best isn’t good enough.
Find something else that you enjoy. Catch up on that TV show you love. Eat a whole pizza. Drop a bunch of savings on that dream vacation. Pick up a new hobby. Find a new career. Enjoy your life. I want you to be the happiest, and best, version of yourself that you can be.
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
Interested in coaching? Inquire here. If you don’t have the money or interest in purchasing long term coaching, consider donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon, which also nets you a copy of my book, the UpLift Method. You can also subscribe to my mailing list, which gets you the free GAINS exercise program for maximizing strength, size, and endurance.