5: This sucks
Lessons from 4,000 burpees in a month
It’s been a tough week due to sad events we’re all aware of. As if the virus wasn’t enough.
I’m not gonna go into the subject if not to say that my willingness with this newsletter is to “arm” you with some hopefully useful thought weapons to make yourself - and the world - a better place.
On this note, yesterday was D-Day’s 76th anniversary. I visited the Normandy beaches and countryside back in 2018. It was an experience that keeps staying with me to this day.
This is how tiny my 6’3” look on “Omaha” beach.
From what I’ve been told, that day the weather was almost exactly the same as in 1944, when allied forces landed on those sands. Grey skies, clouds, icy-cold strong winds and light drops of rain.
It’s surreal. Seeing those places, walking the same grounds where thousands died, forces you to question a lot of things. It’s definitely a good reminder to not give what we have, our freedom and rights for granted.
It’s also a very meditative experience.
Only a few things I tried keep me truly focused on the present moment:
Getting tattooed (the chest… omfg)
Going 30 mph on an electric skateboard
Doing as many burpees I can in one hour
Maybe it has to do with our fight or flight response, but it’s generally when I feel completely immersed in what I’m doing.
You might wonder what something apparently so tedious like burpees has to do with this. Well…
I thought it was gonna be boring
When the pandemic started, I thought I was gonna have to come up with the weirdest shit to keep me motivated and to fight the monotony of lockdown-life. I had my window of opportunity to enjoy some sunshine and get out in nature once a day for my workout.
I didn’t want to waste it.
Right after I found out about this guy I started doing one very simple thing that had a huge impact on not only my physical shape, but on my mindset as well.
Enter: The burpee
The burpee was named after its creator, American physiologist Royal H. Burpee between the 1930s and 40s. He wanted to develop a simple and efficient way to assess people’s fitness level for his Ph.D. thesis. Later the exercise was used by the military because of its effectiveness in evaluating agility, strength and coordination in one go.
What I didn’t know about it (apart from the unlimited number of variants) was how efficient the movement is at testing and building your mental toughness and at bringing you into a meditative state.
If you’re anything like me time has flown by in the past 3 months. Repetitive routines and a non-existent social life made all days look the same. And suddenly, from March, we jumped into June.
In 2016, studies on how we perceive time based on our life stage shown that "Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period”.
When you do something new time slows down, when you don’t, time flies.
Surprisingly, doing burpees slowed time down for me.
In the past month I’ve been doing on average 140 burpees per day (some days 300 some others 100 etc.). It’s been a big shift from the automatic clocking into the gym pre-lockdown. The last time I’ve felt such a big shift in my attitude, was after I got back from a 10-day Vipassana meditation course last year.
This is what burpees have taught me.
Life lessons from ~4,000 burpees in a month
The “Keep It Simple, Stupid” principle implies that most systems work best if we keep them simple. This is exactly what the burpee does. You don’t have to think about what equipment to use, where to go, which routine to perform, and it’s super easy to learn.
Because of its simplicity I was able to make it a consistent part of my daily routine. For me it’s the exact same with meditation or running. When I don’t need apps, or don’t have to take my phone or listen to music, that’s when I can totally plunge into the task.
Most of the great things in life are simple. Simplicity is a good filter for decision making.
2) Sit with contradictions
I love what author Mark Manson wrote in his last newsletter:
Two opposing viewpoints can each be partially correct and partially incorrect. Evidence can be complicated and suggest contradictory conclusions. Be prepared to sit with these. Your mind will try to push you to be comfortable on one side of the fence or the other, but do not let yourself fall into mental complacency. Life is complicated. Issues are complex. Sit with the uncertainty.
And Tatiana Mac in a recent article said:
Never allow yourself to stay comfortable. Comfort is complicity. Discomfort means change. Sit with it.
This is the foundation of what I think about when I think of negative capability. Being able to sit with opposing thoughts and dealing with the complexity of the situation without either jumping to conclusions too quickly or to become complacent. Similar to what poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) called “wise passiveness”.
Bringing it back to earth, the burpee teaches you to deal with the discomfort of the moment without quitting. It’s fucking hard, but at the same time you get that window to rest once you’re back up. That’s how you do a 100, 200, 300 or more. One at a time, recovering and getting back to it until you’re done.
Setting a goal whether it’s a certain time or a number of reps is important to see where you get. But don’t get too hung up on it. Use it as a feedback tool so you can keep doing better.
In life we have to learn to deal with contradictions and discomfort. One rep at a time, learning from the feedback we get, without quitting.
3) No excuses
The burpee is pretty much considered the go-to workout of convicts. The side effect about it being so simple is that you can do it basically anywhere, anytime.
Stuck in a 3x3 prison cell 24/7? Do some burpees.
You have literally no excuses not to do at least one burpee a day.
Life can get shitty pretty quickly if you let your excuses get in the way of growth and progress. Find something excuse-free and keep at it.
4) Use and deal with momentum
Momentum or the amount of mass in motion is a useful force. When you’re doing hundreds of burpees, stopping for more than 1 minute can kill your momentum and derail all your effort.
When I first mentioned these workouts, some people (the inevitable haters) immediately rejected the idea. “You can do it because you’re half my weight/you have more time/you’re in good shape etc.”.
I call BS. You’re heavier and can’t do 300 burpees? Do 1 every day. Show me you are willing to put at least some effort in instead of sitting on your ass and tell me you can’t do what I do. Use that little momentum you get to build on it.
Life gives you momentum when you start something. How/if you use it is up to you.
5) Do stuff when no one is watching
As I mentioned in the last issue, doing stuff when no one is watching frees up energy. I’m often tempted to share some of the milestones I reach, but I’ve realized it’s even better when I keep it to myself.
When you post stuff on social media all you get is a dopamine boost.
My thinking instead goes like this:
Today I’ve done 300 burpees, great. Nobody really cares. Tomorrow get out there and do 400.
In life, if we constantly worry about what others think of us or need their approval, we’ll always be stuck on a surface level growth. Doing things for yourself, and yourself only plants the seed deeper.
5) Follow a framework
Before getting into these burpee routines, I had no idea I could do that many repetitions. I had probably done 200 pushups at best in 2 or 3 hours in the past.
The burpee is in itself a framework for working out almost your entire body, in a way that makes it achievable.
That’s how by adding them to the movement you’re able to do 500+ pushups in one hour. because of the rest you get in between and because the focus moves from one muscle group to the other in a sequence, generating momentum. Doing 500 pushups in one hour would be way harder, if all you did was pushups. As mentioned, less momentum, less energy.
Following a framework, or someone else’s example, makes our progress easier and it starts a domino effect. We need to find the frameworks that work for us.
6) Lead by example
Ok, if there’s one reason why sharing what you do is useful, is to inspire other people.
During my 60-minute soul destroying burpee workouts I often meet people who walk by and say something like “Uh, luckily it’s not me” in a friendly and fun way. I just smile and keep on working.
My hope however, is that next time they’re faced with the decision between eating cake or working out, remembering my sweaty self in agony, they will pick the latter in a spur of motivation.
I’ve come to learn that if we want to help someone, the best way is to do the work ourselves and show them instead of telling them.
7) Embrace the suck
There’s another good saying in the military: embrace the suck.
Embracing the suck means to consciously accept or appreciate something that, you guessed it, sucks.
Burpees suck, especially when you combine them with pushups, squats, jumping jacks and so on. Doing hundreds of burpees sucks even more. And that’s when you can truly appreciate the beauty and simplicity in the effort.
It’s not when you keep on going despite the whole thing sucking, it’s when you keep on going because it sucks. Because you know that doing the hard thing will equip you with the mental tools and resilience to deal with tough situations later on.
It’s what makes you a pro.
“A professional is one who does his best work when he feels the least like working.” - Frank Lloyd Wright”
This is what’s working for me, hopefully keeping in mind some of these lessons will be helpful.
What keeps you focused on the present?
Here are this week’s top finds:
Good reminder that a framework or process is at the basis of creativity and that being creative doesn’t mean magically coming up with ideas out of the blue.
Writer and director Brian Koppelman on The Knowledge Project
Insightful interview of one of the people I’ve been admiring and following the most lately, the creator of the TV series Billions. They talk about about his career ups and downs, dealing with fear, and learning to live a meaningful life.
This 3-part documentary on USA general/president Grant is excellent. Great production, educational and entertainment value. Loved how they dive deep into strategy. If you can get your hands on it, watch it.
Have an amazing week!