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Dangerous Ideas: Bodybuilders Should Be More Successful

November 16th, 2007 · 8 comments

The Bodybuilder ParadoxDumbbell

Allow me a bold statement: bodybuilders, as a group, should be disproportionately successful in life. The halls of congress should be crowded with broad shoulders. Our most revered authors and business tycoons should sport 6-packs. It should be almost cliché to quip: “those bodybuilders really have it made,” like saying, “kids are spoiled nowadays,” or commenting on the weather.

But this is not case…

To try to understand why one might expect this success for this group, and, more importantly, why this expectation remains unfulfilled, will help shed some unexpected illumination on one of the thorniest problems of the human experience: why do some ambitious people get ahead while others wallow?

To grasp these connections, we must start at the beginning: What do we think we know about success, and how might we test this…

The Persistence Theory of Success

I’ve been interviewing and profiling unusually accomplished young people since 2002. The core mission of the majority of my writing has been to understand what these people did differently. As I’ve mentioned before, the most consistent trait I observed was an addiction with completion. Most of these achievers, when they got a project idea in their head, would do whatever it took to get it implemented.

Is this the full secret? Train yourself to be a completion addict and success will follow? The self-help author in me wants to latch on and start preaching the good word. But the scientist in me is putting on the breaks. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s do some testing…

Falsifying The Persistence Hypothesis

We can state our intuition about the persistence theory of success in the form of a falsifiable hypothesis:

Hypothesis: Groups that exhibit a willingness to persist through hard work in the achievement of difficult goals should be on average more accomplished than other groups without this trait.

This is where we get into trouble. Bodybuilders are a perfect test of this hypothesis. To get ripped takes a lot of intense work over a long period of time. This includes regular pain-inducing activity (weight-lifting), a commitment to a difficult schedule (regular gym visits), and, typically, lifestyle sacrifices (careful nutrition).

This indicates that body builders have the right temperament and willingness to take on (really) hard projects and follow through. So why are they not also very successful in other endeavors?

Our hypothesis appears falsified. There must be more to this story. Following the scientific method, I returned to my data in an effort to refine my hypothesis. In doing so, a new idea arose. The core of this new idea: information.

The Information Theory of Success

There is a big difference between becoming a bodybuilder and, say, becoming a published author. If you want to get strong, an expert can sit you down and walk you through the whole process. The steps are hard, but the outcomes are known. You do this workout, for this long, and you’ll gain about this much muscle. In other words, body building, for most people, is a full-information goal. Going into it, you know exactly what to expect.

Becoming a published author, on the other hand, is for most people a minimal-information goal. It’s unclear exactly how this might work. Sure, you might have some basic insight: It’s useful to have some writing credentials; an agent should come before the pitch. But for most people setting out on this path, the steps ahead remain saturated in shadow.

This lack of information makes it hard to keep plugging ahead. Enthusiasm dies. Even the most committed completers eventually give up if they can no longer figure out what they are trying to complete. The project withers. Then dies.

The core insight of this theory is that information is crucial to accomplishing a goal. We can state this as follows:

Hypothesis: Groups that have a large amount of experience and information regarding the accomplishment of a specific goal are more likely to achieve it than those groups with less information.

Evidence for the Information Theory of Success

Once we calibrate our expectations to this idea, we begin to notice more and more examples of people accomplishing hard goals, aided by the use of detailed information. For example:

  • Earning a College Degree: This requires an immense amount of work. (Think about the tales of all-nighters and sacrificed health we hear so commonly on this blog). But students are undaunted. They have full-information. Attend this many classes, do the assignments, earn at least these grades, and you will get a degree. The information here facilitates (and greatly simplifies) a huge effort.
  • Growing a Popular Blog: The most successful bloggers I know tend to have gathered information from existing popular bloggers before setting out on their own. They understood the quality, quantity, and consistency of content they would have to produce. They knew that hours a week would have to be devoted to networking and linking and working with other blogs in their niche. And they knew the long time frame required for significant traffic growth. Armed with this information, they could put their head down and confidently slog away until they hit the big league. Most amateur bloggers start strong, post a lot, get frustrated, start throwing up link bait, then give up. Usually within 2 – 3 months. Their work ethic isn’t lacking. They simply don’t have the information necessary to focus their energy.
  • Being Fit: To return to our motivating example, those who succeed in getting fit are almost inevitably minor experts on the physiology of their sport. Talk to the pumped up guy at your gym, and he can probably walk you through a complicated lecture on muscle fatigue and regenerative factors. Talk to the enthusiastic, hyped-up young guy in the designer sweats — the guy who will probably disappear within a month — and his knowledge probably doesn’t go much farther than a basic knowledge of the bench press.

Information-Centric Goal Setting

Assuming our hypothesis is true, what are it’s implications? For one: it should change the way you think about goal setting. Having a clear desired outcome and a well-defined first step will not necessarily get you all that far in the world of big league accomplishments. The information theory of goal planning tells you that you need extensive, almost overwhelming expert research regarding the path before you.

What’s the most effective way to complete this planning stage? Here’s a simple three step process:

Step 1: Become an Expert on Your Path

You need to develop a well-honed sense for how others before you have accomplished the same goal you desire. Here’s some ways to accomplish this:

  1. Read the relevant sections of biographies in which the subject completes something similar. The more accounts, the better.
  2. Ask someone who has done it before to chat. Try to get past the generic, self-lauding banalities, and dive into the details of what actually made it happen.
  3. Search for articles in which people describe related experiences. No one article will give you a crystal clear picture. But the combination of many can go a long way.

Step 2: Identify the Catapult Points

After you’ve developed a broad understanding of your path, it’s time to analyze the data. Consulting the sources from the previous step, attempt to identify the catapult points for you goal — the places that require the most work or creativity and yield the biggest leaps toward final accomplishment.

For example, in book writing, an important catapult point is coming up with a book idea that is very compelling and that you are in a unique position to write about.

Keep seeking sources until you can identify 6 – 10 unique examples of successful catapult points for your goal.

Step 3: Make Your Plan

With this information in mind, you can come up with your concrete plan. The best such plans are habit-based. Like the blogger writing a certain number of posts and doing a certain amount of linking each week. The hope is that the extensive information gathering from the previous phases will make these long hauls more tolerable.

Here’s the tricky part: make sure you are integrating serious time into your plan for coming up with a great solution to your catapult points. These are the gatekeepers to accomplishment. Now that you’ve identified them, you need to focus on how you can best conquer them. Getting this right is the final real obstacle in your way. Fortunately, knowing exactly what you are trying to figure out, and being armed with examples, makes this task eminently doable.

Conclusion

Being a compulsive completer is still necessary for being accomplished. The hypothesis falsified here is that it is also sufficient. The information theory of success predicts that in addition to being able to work persistently, you need to also arm yourself with the most relevant possible information. If this information is not available, you might consider another goal.

How might your work on your biggest goals change if you were to conduct a serious intelligence gathering mission?

8 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: Bodybuilders Should Be More Successful

  1. MC says:

    Look at Ahnold for example, you should have mentioned him in your post. Definitely an achiever and someone extremely successful.

  2. bruno balvedi says:

    Bruno from brazil…
    Another great post!

  3. I have hard time reading your site with safari browser, you have to update your site

  4. Andrej says:

    I don’t see how you falsified the first hypothesis. Just because most successful people aren’t ripped, doesn’t mean people that are don’t fare better in general. Just because A doesn’t imply B, doesn’t mean B doesn’t imply A. Or did you just go by personal observation and anecdote?

    I know the point of this article was to pitch the information theory, but I was just going through your old posts, and though I’d comment on this.

  5. Mary says:

    On Andrej’s comment: ripped people are NOT successful in other ways. People do not admire them, although this seems to be their ultimate goal. They tend to pose. When Mr. Universe [Arnold, long ago] came to this country, he told PR people in NY he wanted to be rich, successful, famous, and they laughed at him. Finally, a smart PR exec [Harvey Zarem] came up with the idea of getting him a movie role. People should be ripped because they do hard work. Barbells don’t need lifting; luggage does. Paint an old lady’s house if you want to do hard work. It should be useful work.

  6. Mary says:

    Sorry, I should have said Bobby Zarem. Harvey’s his brother.

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