What can pushing yourself at the gym teach you about pushing yourself at work?

A week ago, I was emailing one of my mentors to keep me accountable for a few goals I had set for myself.

A week ago, I was emailing one of my mentors to keep me accountable for a few goals I had set for myself. I dutifully emailed him saying I had completed the tasks in hand, and he emailed me back with the observation that ‘only you know how hard you’ve actually pushed yourself’, and then suggested that I monitor how hard I was pushing myself in my working life with a score out of 10 every day. When I read this email, I was checking my phone in between sets of lifting weights, and laughed as the parallel struck me: if you are serious about getting stronger in the gym, it is good practise to monitor how hard you are pushing yourself at any one given time. Similarly, if you are serious about success at work, progressing is dependent on you self- monitoring how hard you are monitoring how hard you are pushing yourself.

To explain. In weightlifting, each time a lifter completes a lift (say a squat, a deadlift of a bench press), they track how many times they lifted that weight, and how challenging it felt. For example, let us say I bench pressed 40kg three times. I would self-assess how challenging it was for me to complete this set of lifts using a scale known as RPE or ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’. One (1) means I could lift that weight for hours, and ten (10) means my muscles are so fatigued I am unable to lift the weight another time – I have worked to ‘failure’. So, if my bench press at 40kg had an RPE of eight (8), I could add more weight onto the bar or done more repetitions. If my RPE was ten, I have pushed myself as hard as was possible for in that moment.

Therefore, to be a successful weightlifter who gets stronger, you need to be honest with yourself: did I really push my limits on that lift, or could I have worked harder? Applying this self-honesty to a working life could be very revealing: 'Did I really try my hardest today to build my business, or could I have pushed harder?' I believe it only by being truly honest with ourselves that we can understand where our limitations really are.

I see a lot of parallels between successful businesspeople and athletes who build upon their skills over a lifetime. Deliberate practise, the will to iterate something until it is good, and the acknowledgement that failure comes with pushing limits are the crucial ingredients I perceive long- term success to be made of. I have been listening to Freakonomics Radio’s excellent new podcast No Stupid Questions with the psychologist Angela Duckworth. She has dedicated years of her life to studying excellence in individuals and has concluded that grit (a willingness to continually push yourself) is a characteristic shared by many individuals successful in their working lives.

It is uncomfortable to turn the mirror so closely onto yourself and ask, ‘could I have done better?’ It is a raw experience where you must examine all your own flaws and mediocrities, and work out how you can push beyond them. However, I believe this self- evaluation is one of the most effective ways to measure your own progress at work. Implementing a scoring system within our working routine where we self- evaluate can help us understand if we are really pushing ourselves to new heights or just coasting. In the same way a scoring system of ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ helps us push ourselves to get stronger in the gym. If we all thought like athletes, imagine what we could achieve individually, and collectively, in the world.

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