| 1043 words

I continue to amaze myself by how many different ways I'm capable of keeping myself busy. I know I've said this dozens of times before, and I'll probably keep saying it dozens more, but that's because it somehow just keeps being true. It's hard to recognize my life a year ago, when I essentially went to work and then came home and did nothing really exceptional on the weekends.

Anyway. Something special about physical activity is that it makes you realize how high your potential is, and how rarely you reach it. I think the idea that you can always try harder if you really need to exists for most activities, but it never feels as salient as it does when pushing yourself physically. It's all mental.

I've been running recently. When you're doing a long run, the speed at which you can go is essentially limited by your cardiovascular capacity. When your heart and lungs can't process oxygen any faster, you slow down. However even more than that, you're limited by your own willpower and comfort level on the run. And that limit is all the more grating, because it's something you can directly control.

You almost never run at 100% of your potential, because doing so doesn't feel good. It's hard to push yourself to your limit - it takes a lot of mental energy. I think it's never more starkly clear how strong your willpower is at pushing through discomfort than at moments like this, because you can directly tie it to a number. And seeing that number stay small even though you know that you could make it bigger if you cared enough is a strange feeling.

After experiencing this, it's worth noting that this kind of mental performance boost can be applicable to just about everything you do. It's just easier to delude yourself in non-physical activities. And to be fair, you don't always have an extra 10% brainpower reserve you can dip into the way you can physically. Still, I think the analogy applies.

I wonder how many people have never pushed themselves right to their limit. I know I have almost never done so, because I didn't until very recently. I always considered one speed to represent my top effort when running. Recently when running with a friend, I pushed myself a little harder to keep the same pace for longer. Then, when he got tired and I ran ahead on my own, I reverted to my old top speed even though now I was certain I could have gone faster if I wanted. After all, it's all mental.

It's amazing how the limit of what you believe you're capable of, which directly impacts what you're actually capable of, is so fluid. Maybe with a different friend I might have discovered I have an even higher, even faster limit. And, most interesting, was that even after I knew I could go faster I defaulted to the more comfortable pace. I didn't break through the mental barrier. Maybe I didn't want it enough. Maybe I couldn't.

I think that this is another way that competition brings out the best in us. Somehow, I find myself striving harder and reaching ever greater heights when I have people around me, whether they be foes opposing me on the battlefield or friends urging me on. Having that little added pressure of others' expectations (in a healthy way) can do wonders for making us become our best selves. Or perhaps that's just me, I don't know.

Sometimes I hear stories about great athletes or superstars, and the common thread binding any extremely successful person is how insanely focused and committed they are to their calling. There are a lot of people who are incredible as basketball. The NBA is full of them. Each one is at the abolute top of their game, better than 99.99% of people at what they do.

Despite all that, what did they say about Michael Jordan in the peak of his career? "Michael Jordan's the only player that could ever turn it on and off. And he never frickin' turned it off. It's not just that's it's all mental, it's incredible just how mental these things are. It's the consistent willingness to push your willpower just a little bit past the comfort zone every day.

The counterpoint to all these ideas about physical activity is that it also makes the process of growth and improvement incredibly rewarding. Since it's easy to track precisely how well you're doing, it also means that the moment you're able to do something new and use less willpower than you did last time is incredibly rewarding.

I think gym bro culture is an interesting example of this. I imagine you could make a case that some of them are a little bit too attached to making arbitrary numbers go up, maybe even addicted to the point of steroids. However you also have to acknowledge that showing up every day for months or years and putting in that amount of willpower consistently is an impressive feat. Once the habit is formed I wonder how much continual effort it takes? After all, once you expect the endorphin rush maybe it no longer takes very much willpower.

I guess that's how it works for most hard activities. Once runners get used to runners high it becomes way less hard; that's how they end up running marathons and more. But where does it end. Was it easier for Michael Jordan than for other NBA stars because he was so competitive that putting in that effort came naturally? Do hard physicial activities always demand the same willpower, or do most people get complacent with it eventually once they're good enough to satisfy their own personal goals.

I guess that's why competitive activities are the best, because you can never get complacent. As long as you have an equally competitive friend, they'll always push you to try harder just as you will for them.