After World War II, General Patton faced a personal crisis. After the fall of the Axis powers, he longed for the engagement and action he felt during wartime. This frustration is of no surprise. After all, his instrumental leadership during a world war had also been a summiting of the Everest of self-actualization. A return to normalcy was bound to be rough landing.
I’ve never led a global wartime effort. But I have had some rough landings. Here, what I’d like to do is look at General Patton’s situation as a problem of job identity, and see what we can learn.
But as the old saying goes what goes up…
I could only imagine the possible frustration he experienced once the war was coming to an end. Bittersweet only begins to explain it. On one hand he had accomplished his goal: To drive unceasingly toward the enemy with a singular obsessive goal for victory. On the other hand, during peacetime his utility, his usefulness was becoming increasingly threatened.
He had self-identified with his role as a war general so intensely, he was mentally stuck in his self-generated vacuum of past experiences. His life was surrounded by war, conflict, and the unique ability to live, navigate, and succeed in that environment. To abandon that in any way was, in some form, a predictable, uncomfortable fear.
In short, he couldn’t let go.
General Patton’s case is a great example of job identity.
I’m not suggesting any of us have the same monumental task to shed our postwar skin and adjust to life outside of a worldwide emergency, but we can all relate in some ways. History, as we all know, always has unique ways to teach us how to handle current struggles and challenges.
After that deep dive into history let’s circle back to today. I wanted to title this “Un-Bodybuilder” for a couple of reasons. Sure, I can’t compare to the trials and events of General Patton, but it can provide reflection to be applied to other struggles in life. And maybe even put us in our place at times.
One reason: To tell the story of my shifting paradigm regarding my involvement in the fitness industry, writing, and ultimately direction. The other, to possibly give someone else something to relate to. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation and could use a little insight.
To give a little background I’ve been in fitness in one way or another for a while now. I started training at 14 years old, I majored in Kinesiology as an undergrad and earned my master’s degree in the same discipline. I became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
Along the way I started competing in drug-free bodybuilding, traveling the country to competitions hoping to “make it” one day – whatever that meant.
I also worked in hospital wellness centers, university rec facilities, and trained others for bodybuilding competitions.
I was immersed in the fitness industry and handled it well. I was striving, motivated, and looking to improve on everything.
I completely identified with being the “fitness guy.” I was even the unofficial fitness authority in my Air National Guard unit.
Fitness permeated into everything I did and experienced. At the age of 29 when I was diagnosed with cancer, Hodgkin’s Disease to be exact. For days, weeks, and months during treatment I would envision coming out of my last chemotherapy session determined to train, eat, and compete once again.
Eventually I would begin writing for several publications online and in magazines. I’d make my way up to associate editor and co-brand coordinator.
To top it off I was training people on the side, consulting with nutrition and training online, and constantly advising students in everything fitness.
I was indeed “making it” I guess.
I, unsurprisingly, heavily identified with what I was doing. I unconsciously thought I was in the right place. I felt I had successfully merged passion with work. Desire with money. I lived and breathed fitness and others identified me in kind. I was consulted about diets, losing weight, and building muscle and I liked the fact that others confided in me, trusted my so-called authority. I was traversing the fitness landscape like a well-worn trail.
Was I effectively and happily immersed in my own little world or was I going through the motions with blinders on and beginning toward burnout?
Early on I can honestly state I was climbing the ladder and happy for it. Getting paid to write, teach, and talk about an interest and passion is a dream come true for many. But the armor was starting to chink. Cracks were unknowingly forming while I was busy climbing the fitness ladder.
Warning signs are most-often spotted in hindsight and my case was no different. Looking back, I can clearly see material mounting in favor of eventual burnout.
One pivotal moment was taking on clients at my local gym. I was already inundated with everything fitness. Taking on one more role was exciting for a moment, but quickly lead to exhaustion. But I trudged through convinced it was the right path.
Other things were getting at me as well. Once one rock falls it doesn’t take much for the avalanche to start. When I was well on my way to burnout other aspects began to suffer. Stress set in and I simply and mistakenly chalked it up to the belief that I needed to work harder and push through.
Unaware of the ship sinking I was still playing music on the deck.
Have you ever felt like there were two miniature versions of you in your head and don’t know which one to listen to? One was telling me to keep pushing because that’s what one does. Press on. Since I had never once quit at anything until the end, I thought that this should be no different. The other voice was quietly whispering warnings that could easily be ignored. Since I considered myself a driver I chose to listen to the pusher.
One of the biggest influencers of my ongoing battle with burnout was my writing. As mentioned earlier I was writing for several outlets producing numerous articles each week. Month after month I met pending deadlines, writing, editing, and revising.
The content was the same. Training, nutrition, and motivational articles flowed out of my brain. I wrote only from experience of what I truly believed in instead of trendy miracle diets and uber cool-sounding programs.
I would often talk to other writers and editors who were mystified at my rate of output. Looking back, I can easily see the mere fact I was reaching out to others signified my frustration of overload.
I began repeating myself. Article topics were running together. Did I already write about this? Is this just repeating myself? Am I plagiarizing my own work? Is that even possible?
Then, at a very defining time, many companies were letting their writers go. Sure, they would still accept your work, but without compensation. I managed to navigate these waters for a while without too much loss, but things were beginning to change. For years I was free to write to my heart’s content, free to choose titles and subject matter, but now I was being given click-bait titles, assigned subjects without much focus on content. The industry was starting to shift to quantity versus quality. Additionally, the demand for more video came to town. People were reading less and watching more.
In a way I was relieved. I truly felt that I had written all I could have about fitness. Yes, it was and always will be an ever-evolving subject, but I believed that the principles still and always will remain the same.
I took what I thought was a well-deserved break from writing. Believing I had nothing else to add to the conversation I focused my efforts to teaching and training. It was a welcome sabbatical, but the desire to write was still there in the background.
Writing paralysis round two
During all this burnout I recognized that my love and passion for training had faded. No longer did I anticipate going to the gym and getting in a good ole fashioned sweat session. As something that was so instrumental in my life, I was subconsciously disappointed it had come to this.
To simplify things and write on my own terms I decided to crank back up my old blog (bradborland.com) and write. I made the choice to write on my own terms again and it was good for a while. I had fun writing about training and nutrition again and my writing was flowing, and, as a bonus, I felt I was helping others along the way.
I was cranking out workouts, nutrition advice, and motivational stories from my past. Sure, I was regurgitating old topics, but now I was able to convey them in my own way. It seemed to renew my interest, was perceptually sustainable, and I was getting decent feedback from readers.
My once dormant blog was once again a haven for self-expression. Even though I was still pigeon-holed into fitness I had a sense of freedom. It was my land and I was going to treat it my way.
Well, something happened along the way. Once the Covid-19 Quarantine of 2020 hit I found myself like many others around the world – without income. As the quarantine lingered on, I began to think in terms of making money, remotely.
I started scouring for information on online training. I joined groups, researched methods, and asked tons of questions. I knew that if I were going to move forward with it, I would have to turn my blog into a business. I’d need to restructure email sigh-ups, offer giveaways, and start (ugh!) marketing.
I wrote copy, started structuring my article writing with sales in mind, and kept a keen eye on metrics. I even started to post on social media. I did marketing to friends, kept up with all the trends, and felt as if I was going to “make it” once again.
Two major things happened at this point.
a nagging an overwhelming feeling that I was no longer true to myself. I was inundating myself with the very things I abhorred: marketing, sleazy sales, and ruining my passions with the crazy world of trying to merge those passions with business. I simply wrote my last (at the time) post and decided I was going down the same road as before.
I walked away from the keyboard and made a deal. I would take a break from writing on my blog. A real break.
I started to allow myself to write on my own, on a word document, but nothing online. Why? Because I allowed myself to get caught up in the hype, of writing for sales, and to always try to appease the reader. I was no longer challenging my writing or the reader. I had succumbed to the industry just like so many. I was looking into video marketing, trying out different social media tactics, and constantly basing my success or failure on metrics such as views, comments, and other feedback. I would risk trying to hitch my wagon to business instead of creating real personal expression.
That sent me in motion to truly take a break. The other thing that hit the last nail on the head was an article I read by John P. Weiss. It was titled How to Create Content People Want to Read on Medium.com. (John also has a blog).
As the title suggests, John delves into the creation of content, but from a different perspective. I must have read the article three times as he succinctly summed up my feeling towards modern day creation and wholeheartedly justified my decision to just stop and look at what I was putting out into the world.
I wasn’t taking any deep dives into what I was writing. From my vantage point I wasn’t creating anything authentic enough to justify putting it out into the world. Most content these days consists of short bursts of status updates, easily digestible bits of ephemeral opinions, comments, and selfies. I’ve never been about that. I truly believe if I’m to put anything out there it needs to be of some value, something I can look back on and be proud of. Nothing fake, filtered, or showcasing a “perfect life,” but of significant usefulness, personal authenticity, and timeless integrity.
I needed to shut my content creation machine down and seriously wipe the slate clean.
Time well spent
Even though time during the quarantine can be quite frustrating I tried to put it to good use. It was the first time I had been mentally and physically away from fitness in a very long time. I remember how beneficial annual trainings with the Air National Guard were. It was a time to disconnect, travel, work hard, and do something completely different for a while. I needed something like that again.
The time at home and away form the normal routine was something I had to recognize as positive at least for some part of my wellbeing. Yes, being out of work is terrible, not being able to see the future, and the waiting can become mind-numbing, but I was determined to make this time well spent.
I decided to declutter my head. I would stop the researching, creating, and experimenting with marketing ideas, I stopped posting blog and social updates regarding new articles or services I was offering, and I took a break from checking any metrics and analytics regarding my blog.
I wanted to be okay with not being “the fitness guy” for once. I wanted to intentionally strip away my self-identification with it, take the blinders off, and for once in a long while, look at my surroundings.
It reminded of an old Peter Gabriel song, Solsbury Hill. In it he paints a vivid picture of his feelings about leaving the band Genesis; how he needed to break free so he could be true to what was about to be before him. A bit lofty on my part, I know, but I welcomed the inspiration.
With my new commitment toward more silence, less noise, and a healthy use of time I could honestly get back to what is and what could be important. I wanted to see what I could do for others to have a deeper impact and more meaningful creation.
English artist Henry Moore once said,
“It is a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work.”
This rings so true for me. I want to only create my best work, to share that best work with others only when the time is right, and to build on authenticity and integrity that I can be proud of for years to come.
Does this all mean I’ll never write about fitness-related topics ever again? No, of course not. It does mean, however, that if I do decide to jump back on that horse it’ll be something unique and as helpful to others as possible. The world is filled with information on training and nutrition overload. It doesn’t need another meathead like me to muck it up any more than it is already.
I will always be a work in progress. I will continually shed my skin, clear my mind, and be in pursuit of what really matters in the world. Much like General Patton’s desire, I’m hoping that my writing, content creation, or anything else I put out into the world will still be of use and utility without the burden of a self-imposed identity.
I will always remember these words from French author Andre Gide:
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
To be continued…
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