Difficulty is Life-Changing

We often talk about the “refining power of voluntary hardship.” This idea is not without some controversy: That something truly difficult and life-changing can come from an intentional choice and be something you seek out as a kind of character building activity offends some people.

After all, if you can choose the hardship, is it real hardship? Your experience of vacationing in the rainforest by choice is not the same thing as being drafted and dropped into a jungle with an M-16. Maybe you are roughing it, sleeping in a tent, even hunting for your food. But it’s not the same, since you chose it.

It’s not real, in that it wasn’t thrust upon you. All hardship causes you to change, to adapt, similar to the way a heavy set under the barbell causes a physical adaptation. It’s still hardship even if it wasn’t thrust upon you. It’s more than circumstance that makes things difficult, and it’s the difficulty that makes it life-changing.

Look, if you lived through something difficult, you would likely say that you had grown as a person through the experience. You’ve developed character. But what if your life is easy? Are you doomed to be without any character? To be a weak-willed pushover?

Virtues and how to get them

In traditional ethics, the goal of human life, according to Aristotle, is happiness. Not the happy smiley face that we typically think of, but flourishing, doing well. His classic statement of it is:

Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

There are a few things to note here. Happiness is an activity, not a state of being. If you aren’t doing anything, if you are sitting in your parents’ basement eating Cheetos and surfing for porn, you aren’t really happy, because you aren’t really doing anything. Sorry.

Notice the word virtue. Virtues are not Sunday School or Boy Scout virtues, but mean something very specific. A virtue is an excellence (arete in Greek) that makes you into a good example of whatever you are. Sharpness is a virtue of a knife, since it makes the knife a good knife. It makes the knife better able to achieve its end or telos, cutting stuff. A good flute player has virtues of musicianship, of pitch and rhythm, without which he or she can’t be good.

A classic example is temperance, a virtue having to do with hunger and sex and drink — things that we all care about. No matter how smart you are, if you lack temperance, you’re not going to do very well, because you’re going to chase food, sex, and drink too much, and screw up your life. You aren’t going to be happy if you are intemperate, cowardly, untactful, if you lack patience, if you count yourself as worth more or less than you actually are.

How do you become virtuous

A virtue is a habit, a way of dealing with certain situations in a good way. How do you acquire habits? You deal with the situation in a good way, you act virtuously, every time. Eventually this good action becomes habitual. Part of the Novice Linear Progression is habit acquisition, getting you to be the sort of person who always gets your training done. This is why you shouldn’t miss training sessions, especially at the beginning of your training career. Going back to the gym, even when you don’t want to, makes you into a lifter, into the sort of person who doesn’t miss training sessions. It’s also exactly how you become virtuous.

Aristotle says:

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. . . . men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

You start when you aren’t virtuous, you pretend that you are virtuous, and eventually you become virtuous. In other words, you choose voluntary hardship.

This is an ancient approach, but it’s also a modern approach. Fake it til you make it! Ben Franklin made a chart of 13 virtues, and kept a record of which days he violated each virtue. He inflicted hardship on himself in order to make himself a better person. He did a virtue linear progression, if you will: he says “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

We think that strength training is one of the most general ways to acquire virtue. If you make it in to the gym and get under the barbell, you’ll become more courageous. If you change the way you live or eat to support your training, you’ll be more temperate. If you continue to set PRs, you’ll become more confident. If you are overconfident, the barbell will make you humble.

Barbell training won’t make you into a good person, but it might help.


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