i was afraid to fail.
so i just didn’t try.
for years, i've had a superficial but enduring fitness goal of doing a single pull-up.
i'm in pretty good physical shape, that i generally maintain with a mix of meandering cardio (walks), strength training, and yoga.
at the gym, i watch others use the assisted pullup machine, or sometimes the obvious triathlete-in-training bounce from a pushup to a pull-up over and over.
"i wish i was strong enough." i felt no envy, only longing.
i tell myself i’ll give it a try one day when i feel strong and have trained steadily for months. one day when the gym is empty. i rationalize this precise scenario will give me the best chance of success, having built up strength while also preserving my ego, as i am sure i will inevitably be able to only meagerly struggle a slight bend in my elbows from a dead hang. my devotion to upper body strength training feels inconsistent at best, and i’d rather fail in private.
so for years, i don’t try.
i fantasize about the day i will feel prepared and courageous enough to attempt it for the first time. i will film a short video of the anomalous triumphant moment when i struggle up the bar, kicking and wiggling my chin over the top. i will excitedly jump down and into the arms of whatever gym bro is nearest. he won’t really care but he’ll be kind enough to hug me back. i’ll regard this moment in time as my peak. a split second of greatness. i will forever remember the irreproducible event fondly.
yesterday, having returned from a weekend trip where i was away from the gym and my normal routine of physical activity, i felt soggy. i felt slow and weakened. i know that objectively i’m in great shape but i’m a long way from my personal best as far as fitness goes. coming downstairs, i discovered that someone had installed a pullup bar in one of the doorways at home. it quite literally could have smacked me in the face on my way to the kitchen if i had been wearing heels.
in that moment, i suspected it was safe (private) enough to just hang there and get a gauge of how far i was from my goal. it was right in front of me.
as i put down my bag and grabbed the bars overhead, i was ready to fail. i feel a twinge of sadness to admit that, but its important.
with a firm grip, i let myself hang a solid 3 seconds before i started to pull. to my wonder, up i went. and up and up and up. with ease, and comfort i calmly lifted my chin well over the bar. warmth and electricity spread over my body, my eyes widened, and an elated smile overtook my previously forlorn expression. i felt full-body butterflies. WHAT THE FUCK, I DID IT. i lowered myself back down, released the bar and let out a shriek as i did one of the most fulfilling touchdown celebration dances of my life.
i couldn’t believe it! it had happened so easily…. i’d held this goal on a pedestal in my mind - such a great degree of difficulty - i had believed FOR YEARS that i couldn’t possibly be capable, even at my best, of making a dent (or a bend in this case).
i savored a mix of triumph and humility over the next few hours. triumph over the action, and humility over how wrong i had been about my ability. the metaphor was clear. with amazement, i wondered “what else do i believe i can’t do? what other limitations in my life are held in place by my fear, ignorance, lack of belief or curiosity or courage or the misguided comfort of being small?”
when i returned home after a hardy brunch with my best friend & business partner, i grabbed the bars again. again, i was certain my muscles might be too fatigued from the one miraculous rep, or the food in my belly would weigh me down. i was sure the previous victory had been a beautiful accident but i also felt courageous enough to follow my curiosity now. i was amazed. on my descent from another successful pull-up, as i eased back into a dead hang i decided to let myself try something crazy: a second, continuous pull-up. at this point it may seem weird to say that i felt a sense of defeat as i succeeded to do 2 pull-ups in a row. i will explain:
the facts piled up. at first, i thought i couldn't do this thing. i was certain of it, and to save my ego i shunned any attempt for years. when it was placed unavoidably in my face, i felt obligated to try. my old belief about my limitation came crashing down on me from the tower of delusion as i easily accomplished TWICE the goal i was previously certain was unattainable, impossible, requisite of witchcraft. my sense of defeat was that of my ego.
we often think of ego as an aura of superiority, but in truth it’s simply the “I”. the collection of qualities and unconscious rules and limitations our minds present to us as a complete definition of WHO & WHAT WE ARE. so here’s another truth: the ego is full of shit. mine, yours, everyones. and i love and cherish each example of personal egoic defeat that the universe graces me with because i get a juicy example of what’s really true every time:
i am not who “i” thought i was.
and neither are you. i saw clearly yesterday that i am so much stronger, faster, more capable…. add as many adjectives as you like, than i thought i was. separate of physical strength, its a crystal clear metaphor for my egoic beliefs about my abilities. the crumbling of the ego at the hands of this trivial feat brings me a rush of freedom. who i thought i was, was limited to “i can’t possibly do a pullup”, and yet, on a far-from-my-personal-best day i did twice that, with a great deal of ease.
doing a pull-up, for me, is normal. and apparently that’s been the case for quite a while, i just didn’t know it.
what else is my ego certain i can’t do? what other erroneous limitations in my life do i allow my ego to uphold? what else can i do, that far surpasses the small thing i thought i couldn’t do? what other things that i previously thought unattainable and/or impossible will i discover are actually normal, everyday accomplishments or feelings for me? what else is here for me if i simply let it in?
more broadly, what freedoms and possibilities lie ahead without the limitation of my ego? there is excitement to not knowing the answer to this question, because you will either be elated or terrified by the answer:
question: what freedoms and possibilities lie ahead without the limitations of my ego?
answer: all of them.
at the end of the day, i had done a total of 8 pull-ups. at different points throughout the evening. 1-2-2-2-1. each time i did another, a part of my ego died. i gave it a nice funeral of laughter and gratitude. i happy cried a little. i recognized the sense of peace i felt as i watched a fragment of my ego break off and dissolve - a fragment that told me i couldn’t. a fragment that was sure it would be safer to be small, safer to avoid any risk. that jagged and unconscious fragment of me was always lying when it told me what was normal.
with each discarded of a chunk of my ego, i get to grow deeper into the truth of who and what i am. i get to realize a new powerful, possible, free, normal.