Using Disadvantage Advantageously

This morning I woke up to gripping discomfort in my gut.

I’ve spent a lot time and energy slowly rebuilding my health since a low in 2003 and as a result, I firmly believe that I’m healthier than most people in my cohort.

Still, I have a long ways yet to go, and episodes like the one I had this morning, while much, much rarer these days, are a not-so-gentle reminder of the healing left to be done.

After a few dark moments thinking “why me?”, it occurred to me that such bouts of unpleasantness could be precisely why I am generally so healthy. It’s never fun to be in pain or reminded of harder times, but those reminders also trigger the behaviors and strategies that have been so helpful in the past. I think that this a phenomenon might be true much more generally.

I don’t make much time to read blogs these days, but I always enjoyed Melissa McEwan’s blog Hunt Gather Love. I really appreciate the focus on paleo and sustainable agriculture, as well as boot reviews. However, there are a few areas where I would take issue with her. For one thing, I have zero desire to re-introduce wheat into my diet, and for another, I am not entirely dismissive of Dr. Andrew Weil.

Much of the criticism from Melissa and others may be warranted, in fact I have not read a whole lot of Weil’s work. But, during a period of transition, I read Spontaneous Healing and, specific recommendations aside, I found the book’s hopeful outlook very valuable.

One of the most important ideas I took away from Spontaneous Healing was the idea of accepting your condition. This does not mean giving up, but rather, the idea that, in order to move forward, you must truly know where you stand. Chris Kresser has also written on this theme, but I heard it from Dr. Weil first.

There are probably many reasons why this type of acceptance is important, but I think one reason may be that it can help to catalyze a shift in mindset.

What’s more, I think this is a lesson that can apply much more generally in life.

My first aikido instructor in college often drew on the oeuvre of fitness guru and über meathead Matt Furey. As a result, I was myself on the Furey email list for a while, and I remember him telling the story of Max Sick, a famous turn-of-the-(last)-century strongman, who was actually a sickly weakling as a child.

I found Maxick’s story very compelling, and, as someone who always struggled to put on any kind of weight, I definitely mused on it more than once.

Allow me to introduce one more thread before I tie them all together.

A while back I watched a TED talk by Eduardo Briceno where he discussed Josh Waitzkin, growth mindsets, and the work of Dr. Carol Dweck (who has a TED talk of her own). I thought it was in one of these two talks where the topic of gender-specific types of praise came up, but I couldn’t find it. Googling now, I can’t seem to find the talk or interview where I heard it, so her op-ed piece with Rachel Simmons on CNN.com will have to do for now.

Starting in infancy, parents tend to give boys more process praise, an advantage that results in a greater desire for challenge, and a growth mindset, later on. In the classroom, teachers give boys more process feedback, inviting them to try new strategies or work harder after a mistake. As a result, boys learn to see challenges and setbacks as things they can tackle with the right plan.

Girls, perhaps seen as well-motivated already, are given fewer messages to try harder or again. They are left to wonder whether their challenges reflect something deeper about their ability.

In this talk or interview I’ve been unable to find, someone talked about how the differences in the praise boys (who often struggle mightily to concentrate and sit still) and girls (who tend to struggle with this somewhat less) receive affects their outlook and subsequent development.

Paradoxically, the boys tend to start at a bit of a disadvantage, but the praise they receive tends to instill a growth mindset which benefits them down the road.

I believe a very similar effect is occurring in the story of my health and Max Sic’s strength.

The closer you start to the bottom, the easier it is to effect some improvement with concerted effort, and this feedback motivates you to further efforts, setting off a virtuous cycle.

The initial progress you make might be easier – when you’re at the bottom there’s nowhere to go but up. But I think the really powerful part of this effect comes later.

With early improvement  you are more likely to see effort tied to results, and so you essentially entrain a growth mindset. As you approach the mean, where the pace of improvement is likely to be slower for everyone, what separates you from someone who began at the mean is the power of a growth mindset. Your disadvantage might have paradoxically given you the momentum and mental toolset necessary to increase your ceiling.

Do I enjoy the occasional bout of discomfort? No, but it triggers a trained set of behaviors that will only make me healthier.

Do I expend more effort than others to maintain my high-ish level of health? Yes, almost certainly. Sometimes that seems unfair, but [insert favorite fairness aphorism here].

When you let go of your need for fairness and truly accept your disadvantage, you may find it becomes your most powerful tool.

(Actual results may vary.)

Starting with a disadvantage sucks, but that’s no reason to let it go to waste.

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