Glass half empty or half full?

I always have mixed feelings when I start something new.

On one hand, it’s intimidating. There’s so much you don’t know or can’t do yet.

On the other, it’s exciting. There’s a whole new world to explore and in the beginning, you’re like a sponge. You pick things up fast.

They’re two sides of the same coin. But like glass half empty or half full, your mindset matters. If you focus on how little you know, it’s paralyzing. If you look at how much you can grow, it’s energizing.

My first gym experience

It’s always daunting to start.

I vividly remember my first experience at the gym.

It was freshman year of college. A friend invited me, so I accompanied him. I didn’t think much of it until we got there and he went his own way.

Left to myself, I immediately felt out of place.

I was scrawny. Everyone else was jacked. (I’m sure there were exceptions, but isn’t it interesting how we don’t register them?)

I was clueless. While others were laser focused on their workout, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I was overwhelmed. There were so many options. Treadmills. Machines. Free weights. I wandered around aimlessly, no idea where to even begin. Meanwhile, everyone else knew exactly what they were doing. (Or seemed to, at least.)

But, I was here now. I may as well do something while I wait for my friend to finish. So, I used a few random machines.

I felt like an imposter, though. I don’t belong here, I told myself. The feeling stuck for a long time. As a result, I rarely went back to the gym for the entirety of college.

In hindsight, this was a mistake. I wish I knew then what I know now: it would only get easier with every visit.

Two failed attempts at bulking

Between then and now, I tried to bulk twice. Both attempts had limited success.

The first time was when I joined Google. One of their perks was guided workout classes with experienced coaches. I pounced on the opportunity to learn how to lift. The morning hypertrophy class quickly became a fixed part of my schedule.

It was great. The trainers decided what exercises needed to be done when. All we had to do was show up and do the work. But though I got stronger, I didn’t get much bigger. (I would later find out that my diet was lacking.)

That brings me to the second attempt. I had just quit Google and I decided to focus even more on exercise. This time, there were no trainers to curate the routine. I had to build it myself. So, I chose calisthenics for its simplicity and functionality.

It worked amazingly for a while. Since I was intentional about my diet, I gained muscle quickly. I also progressed rapidly in the exercises.

Then, I injured my shoulder.

This is a common problem in calisthenics. Unlike free weights where you only have to learn proper form once, progressions in body weight exercises require entirely new movements. You can’t just add more weight; you have to learn new form every time. This puts you at greater risk for injury. And that’s exactly what happened.

Third time’s the charm

Fast forward to the present. Two years of doctors visits and physical therapy later, my shoulder is mostly back to normal. I decide to bulk up again.

So, I got a gym membership this year. Third time’s the charm, right?

When I stepped foot into the gym last week, I was reminded of my experience in college. The same feeling of overwhelm rushed back.

Sure, I have more experience with weight training now. Still, it’s the first time I’m designing my own gym routine. And I didn’t have a trainer to always keep an eye on my form. (Yes, I could have gotten a temporary one but I need to do it on my own eventually.)

I walked around, clueless again. Just like the last time, I tried out a few random machines. There was something different about this visit, though. I wasn’t going to let my lack of expertise stop me. I would go back home and do research. I was going to fight through the problem.

That’s exactly what I did. I found a tentative routine and two days later, I went back. Much better. My regimen was taking shape. Until halfway through, I realized they didn’t have all the equipment I need. No problem. You have to adapt, I told myself. I finished what I could and surveyed what they had. Back to the drawing board.

Since I knew exactly what machines they had, I prepared my workout in advance. Two days later, I went again. Though I knew what to do, there was a different obstacle. The gym was absolutely packed - it was MLK day and everyone had the day off. Due to the long wait times, I couldn’t do my exercises in the ideal order. Note to self: avoid holidays and peak times.

Today, I went back. My workout was smooth as butter. I knew what to do and went at the right time. I finished the entire routine in under an hour. It was a well-oiled machine.

The progress was incredibly motivating. I went from being overwhelmed to having a well-defined workout in four sessions. All it took was systematically identifying and removing my obstacles. First, the lack of expertise. Second, the equipment constraints. Third, traffic at rush hour.

Low-hanging fruit

If these sound like trivial obstacles, they absolutely are. Yet, they hold people back. It’s always the small things - what running shoes to buy, what to name your non-existent company, what notebook to journal in.

Analysis paralysis gets the best of us and prevents us from taking action. Even worse, it creates the illusion of progress. We think our “research” is moving us along, but it’s really just a form of procrastination.

Instead, the optimal approach is to start with “suboptimal” action and continually unblock yourself. When you do this, the momentum is addicting.

Just with picking up a habit, there’s so much low-hanging fruit. Consider my example. Every time I went to the gym, I made it easier for myself the next time. It didn’t take long to land on a routine that worked.

This extends to all new skills. I began running in a similar fashion. I didn’t know proper form, what to wear, or the pace/distance to run. I just started and adapted on the fly. When my knees felt sore, I looked up how to adjust my form. When I overheated, I learned to dress down. When I noticed my pace was inconsistent, I bought a running watch.

Even when the habit is established, the progress continues. Especially at the start, the rate of improvement is steep. When you start lifting, it’s easy to add 10 pounds to an exercise. When you start running, it’s easy to shave 30 seconds off your time.

Cherish this initial period. The curve flattens with time. The better you get, the more effort it takes to squeeze out incremental gains. Professionals spend months training to add pounds to their personal record or shave seconds off their mile. You’ll never improve as quickly as you do in the beginning.

So while the skill gap between a beginner and an expert may appear daunting, you can cover most of that ground in a short period. It’s your choice whether to be paralyzed by the chasm or excited by your rate of progress.

I know which one I’m picking. Do you?

This post took redacted minutes to write.

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P.S: You can find more of my thoughts on Twitter @_suketk.