10 Insights on Writing From 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 2

A while back, I shared some of my musings in response to the wit and wisdom of world-class strength coach Dan John, who wrote a pair of articles for T-Nation.com chronicling the wisdom he’d gleaned about both life and sport from his four decades of training experience. What follows is the second of this two-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

The following list was adapted from Dan John’s article 40 Years of Insight, Part 2 on T-Nation.com. The insights are listed here in the same order they appear in the original article.

Put your money where your mouth is

Although John warns against getting suckered by quick fixes and miracle cures, he does advocate taking the time and investing the money necessary to read reputable books/articles on your profession and to attend clinics, seminars, workshops, etc in your field. John claims (with a touch of hyperbole) to read “nearly every new book and DVD on the market” and to spend a lot of time in the front row at conferences and clinics. He also seeks out one-on-one time with respected trainers and coaches in order to pick their brains about recent publications.

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I wasn’t studying up on strength training. I’ll freely admit, however, that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time learning about writing. I read a couple of books per year about teaching writing, but this is a very different animal (and it’s generally focused on a very different style of writing). I buy my annual copy of the Writer’s Market – I even read the articles on craft, technique, etc…at least the ones that interest me – and I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, but I’ve never attended a writing workshop or been part of a writer’s circle. I’ve mostly been learning by emulation, imitation, and trial-and-error. Now, I don’t want to undermine the importance of practice and experience, but there’s also something to be said for some old-fashioned, hands-on instruction. And that’s something I should probably be seeking out. To paraphrase a genius, madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Maybe it’s time to seek out professional help and regain my sanity.

Yes, intensity trumps everything. But…

Or, as John says, “I think we’ve lost sight of the importance of ‘easy'”. As far as strength, conditioning, fat loss, etc are concerned, John advocates making time for activities that are relatively easy on the body and – more important – enjoyable. Even just a leisurely walk can count for a lot, and it doesn’t require you to stress sets, reps, and time.

Now, in case you couldn’t tell, I take myself way too seriously as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote something that was just plain fun. And I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything I’d be willing to call “fluff”. Much more troubling, though, is the recent realization that I almost never tell my daughters stories. I read to them a lot, but I rarely if ever just make up stories for them. If that’s not the writer’s equivalent of an evening stroll with the family, then what is?

Stop judging everything!

As much as I would like to go off on a rant about trolling and inappropriate reviews and the like, that’s not really what Dan John is getting at. The point, as he explains it, is to never judge your work or yourself based on one performance or one outcome. But how easy is it as a writer to hang your head at the first criticism you receive or to simply want to quit after the first rejection letter? John shares how he often tells inexperienced shot-putters and discuss throwers, “Sorry, you just aren’t good enough to be disappointed”. I wish someone would have told me that when I was a teenager and got my first Thanks but No Thanks letter in the mail. I’m sure a lot of you can relate.

Last lift/best lift. Las throw/best throw.

Here’s a typical scenario: A weight-lifter is feeling great, having an awesome workout, and just set a personal best on the day’s main lift. What does he do next?

If he’s like most lifters, he throws on a little more weight and tries to squeeze out one more set.

And he probably fails.

We always want to push ourselves too far. And when we do, we reach a point of diminishing returns. In weight lifting, this not only ruins today’s workout, but also compromises the next one because of the detrimental effect it has on your ability to recover.

Now imagine this: A writer is kicking ass, cranking out words by the hundreds, and just blew past the day’s goal, finishing a pivotal chapter in record time. What does he do next?


Do yourself a favor. Save your work, push yourself away from the keyboard, and leave some in the tank for next time.

List out your “Highs” and “Lows”

Dan John shares an experience from which he learned a vital lesson about life: After being instructed to write two lists – the lowest and highest moments of his life – he realized that most of his worst experiences led directly to something on his best list.

For me, the lowest experience of my life – making a stupid mistake, losing a job that I’d scratched and clawed to earn, having to move back in with my parents – was a stepping stone to everything I have now. I met my wife a month after moving back home (she literally appeared on my doorstep, a story for another time). Six months later I was starting both graduate school and my first coaching job. The basic premise of my novel Rottweiler was born out of another of my lifetime lows, and it’s a novel I never would have written without my wife’s support, encouragement, and feedback.

So whether you’re feeling like you’re at rock bottom in your personal life, your job, your writing, whatever, just remember that you’re on the first step towards one of your all-time highs.

Keeping the “Little Red Book”

John keeps a tiny spiral notebook full of inspirational quotes from influential people (both famous and otherwise). For right now, my little red book is scattered throughout my house. It’s spread through hundreds of books filled with little bits of paper marking important pages with passages that were particularly meaningful to me.

Unfortunately, I have a bad track record for poor foresight. Most of the pages in question have no markings on them. And whenever I stumble across one of my makeshift bookmarks, I can’t remember for the life of me why it’s there.

So much wisdom – or at least so many personally meaningful quotations – lost to time. In the future I should really try writing them down. Or at least highlighting them. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

Follow the Leaders

Or, more accurately, catch up to the leaders. John writes the following: “Find out what the best are doing. Look at what you’re doing. Now shrink the gap”. For a lot of us, this might overlap somewhat with the first item on this list. But the point is simply to figure out where we think we’re headed – as writers, teachers, professionals, parents, etc – and to start developing a road map to get there. What we do along the way is up to us, but starting with what’s worked for the best isn’t a bad way to get yourself rolling.

It’s not “hydrating,” it’s drinking some damn water

Actually, I just thought this was pretty damn funny. And so true.

Make of it what you will.

You will wish you did it earlier than later

Yeah you will. No matter what, we’re all going to get older. But what are we going to do with our lives as we age? In four years or ten years or twenty years, what are we going to be able to say we’ve accomplished? And how much will we regret it if all we have to show for those years are extra candles on our birthday cakes and wrinkles on our faces?

I finished my first novel near the end of the 2003. I knew that the next step was proofreading and editing so that I could start the query and submission process. And then that novel sat on my laptop until 2008. I don’t know what kept me from completing it sooner – laziness is the most likely candidate, then intimidation by the process – but pretty soon I began to hate myself for leaving the job unfinished. Eventually the self-loathing alone was enough to keep me from going back to it. I just didn’t want to be reminded of my own failings.

By the time I finally sucked it up, finished editing the manuscript, and started the query process, the bottom had dropped out of the economy and the publishing industry was closing its ranks. I had simply waited too long. Eventually, I went back to the drawing board.

The first draft of Rottweiler was done by summer of 2010. Yet it was another two years before I was ready to start editing. The whole time I lived in terror that the story was going to pass its prime and lose its relevance.

With my current project – Children of Genius – I’ve finally learned my lesson. I’ve gone through a first round of editing, and now the manuscript is incubating with some beta readers until rugby season ends. I’m not messing around this time.

I can’t say for certain if I’d be anywhere different right now if I hadn’t dilly-dallied with my first book. Let’s be honest, the thing was an unpublishable train-wreck. But who knows what I might have been capable of if I’d learned that lesson ten years ago instead of five. I can’t get those years back. But I can keep myself from losing out on any more.

In forty years, a lot of great people are going to pass over into the next existence

To quote Dan John, “it’s becoming woefully obvious to me that my torch is burning dim and I’ll be passing it along sooner than later. That’s why I write. That’s why I keep lists. That’s why I answer the same questions over and over and over again. Our time on this precious earth is short. Good health and a measure of strength can help you live a better quality of life. And that’s the greatest lesson of my life.”

I couldn’t possibly say it better myself.

As always, thanks for reading.



One thought on “10 Insights on Writing From 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 2

  1. Pingback: 10 Insights on Writing from 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 1 | Christopher V. Alexander - Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author

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