Monday, November 23, 2015

Lessons From Dirtbags And An Iron Addict: Paying The Price


In March of 2011 I found myself with 4 of my friends in a brightly colored room, sitting in hammocks after a very long day of travel. The windows, which only had bars on them, allowed the night sounds of the jungle to waft in on a cool breeze. This moment was the culmination of months of dreaming, planning, doubt, failure, recruiting, fundraising, success, positive affirmation, and stress. My friends and I had just arrived at the Dyer Rural Hospital in the mountain village of Rio Viejo, Honduras for a weeklong mission trip that I was leading. I had spent the previous night unable to sleep, smoking cigarette after cigarette in between episodes of SCRUBS worried that one more obstacle would arise and end the trip before it even started.

But now, we had made it. Our bags were unpacked in the dormitory below and we were talking with the hospital’s staff about the work we would be doing over the next few days. That night I heard a phrase that has stayed with me for almost 5 years now. While explaining on why a mission hospital has fees for its services, Dr. Martin Williams, the hospital’s founder and main physician, said, “Everything that is valuable has a price. Everything that has a price is valuable”. The price/value equilibrium is why the word obsession often carries a negative connotation. In most people’s personal lexicons obsession simply implies a price that is too high to pay.

C.T. and the dirtbags certainly would certainly agree with Dr. Martin. They put a high value on their obsessions and pay a very high price in pursuing them. After dying on the operating table 3 times during emergency open-heart surgery, C.T. Fletcher was advised to never lift weights again, literally at the pain of death. But, he was obsessed with being a great power lifter. So, he returned to the gym, stating he’d rather die doing what he loved to do than live without being able to do what he loved. Dirtbags frequently sacrifice their comfort and physical health in the pursuit of their obsession. They face inclement weather and inherent physical peril for days on end to reach previously unreached summits.

There also is a hard-and-fast monetary cost to pursuing passions. Jay Cutler, a former Mr. Olympia and contemporary of C.T. claims that he spends over $100,000 a year on food and supplements in order to be a professional bodybuilder. Part of the reason dirtbags choose to live out of their cars, other than the freedom of mobility, is that having a mortgage simply isn't an option. The quality and quantity climbing gear needed to become an elite level climber costs THOUSANDS of dollars and is in constant need to be repaired and replaced, the money just isn't there to have gear and a home.

When identifying our own magnificent obsessions we run the risk of pursuing things that either have too little value or too high of price. The first seems to be the more obvious one to me. Obsessions are by definition costly, so if I state that my ‘magnificent obsession’ is getting out of bed before 10am and brushing my teeth twice during each 24-hour period I’m alive, it’s achievement will have very little value to me, like a dime store trophy given out to participants who simply showed up. That ‘obsession’ would require too little from me: only a small amount of devotion and sacrifice. Small price can only carry with it a small amount of value, plain and simple.

With the help of hindsight I am able to admit I have much more experience with the second pitfall: finding that continuing in the pursuit of my obsession comes at a price that is higher than I am willing to pay. I spent three years of my life attempting to be accepted into medical school. In monetary terms I spent thousands of dollars on post-baccalaureate classes at the tech school and the university in my city, took the MCAT twice (at $300 a time plus additional money for study materials), and spent hundreds of dollars on submitting the applications themselves. I spent hours of my time attending and studying for classes, writing essays for applications, and pursuing extracurricular activities that would improve my application. I did all of that work, spent all of that money, devoted all of that time, and even got a medically themed tattoo on my arm only to be rejected by all the schools I applied to, twice. After the second round of rejection letters arrived I took a few months to look at what I would need to do to improve myself as an applicant. It honestly was overwhelming. I had run out of motivation and the cost of pursuing entry into medical school or any other job in the medical field was too high. That experience reminds me of a parable of Jesus that is recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was addressing people who wished to be His disciples and He advised them to understand the cost that pursuit carries.

Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  
--Luke 14:28-30 ESV—

This truth also applies to the pursuit of magnificent obsessions that are truly worth our time:

What will the cost be? What will it require of us?

Are we able and willing to pay that cost?

In the end, will they be worth it?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lessons From Dirtbags And An Iron Addict: Redefining Obsession

If you were to look at my YouTube viewing history for the past week two major themes would be evident: dirtbag rock climbers and C.T. Fletcher.

Some further explanation is needed…

“Dirtbag” is not a disparaging title in the climbing community; it’s actually a compliment. Dirtbags are considered to be ultra-committed to the craft of climbing. They live out of their cars or in tents year-round as near to the rock faces they’re climbing as possible. They forego pursuing traditional careers and building families in order to spend as much time climbing as possible.

C.T. Fletcher is on the opposite end of the physical spectrum from the dirtbags. While they are lean and wiry, he’s massive. He’s a former world-champion, record-holding power-lifter who has certainly earned the moniker that he has given himself: “The Original Iron Addict”. Today C.T. is a gym owner, fitness personality, and motivational speaker with an over-the-top persona that uses profanity as often as a valley girl uses the word “like”.

Now, I have no aspirations whatsoever to be a power-lifter or an elite climber. So, why have I been watching these videos for hours on end? To put it simply: they speak to my heart. Their subjects have taught me a great deal about having lofty dreams, setting equally lofty goals, and doing what is necessary to realize those dreams and goals. So, this is the first part of a four part series about what I’ve learned from these dirtbag climbers and the Original Iron Addict.

Lesson One: Redefining Obsession

Talking to people about obsession gets a little tricky, because, by most people’s definition, it has a negative connotation.

Merriam-Webster defines obsession like this:
a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling

A Google search will lead you to this definition:
an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind

Neither one of those definitions seem like they would or should be part of a healthy, well-balanced person’s life.

The dirtbags and C.T. would say that they are obsessed with being masters of their craft, in fact many of them are. When they talk about the obsession that mastery requires they don’t use words like “disturbing” or “intrusive”, but rather they talk about being passionate, determined, and focused. They talk about elevating their dreams and accomplishing what most would consider to be impossible.

What is most amazing to me about C.T. and the dirtbags is that they openly admit their obsessions carry little weight outside their small spheres of athleticism. The world isn’t more peaceful because Everest has been summitted and we aren’t any closer to finding a cure for cancer because C.T. has 22-inch arms. But that certainly hasn’t been a deterrent.

I'm beginning to understand that healthy obsession must be deeply personal. No one would put in the necessary effort to attempt, much less achieve these feats because they wanted a pat on the back, hear “atta boy”, or get a piece of paper to frame and hang on the wall of their office. These obsessive endeavors begin as ideas and only mature because the individual themselves puts such a great value on striving towards them.

In addition to changing my personal definition of obsession, the dirtbags and C.T. have also inspired me to start dreaming about what my own magnificent obsession can be.

What is worth devoting my time, my heart, my mental faculties, and my physical strength to?

What is worth losing sleep, maybe some blood, or even my life for?

What goals require a path which, if travelled upon regardless of outcome, will be more rewarding than the possible accomplishment itself?

I personally have a very simple answer to these questions. From a distance my magnificent obsession is simple and beautiful. But a closer look reveals complexity, an intricate orchestration of thousands of tiny details that together become grander than their simple sum.

So, what’s your magnificent obsession? What are you willing to do to accomplish it?