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Understanding Misery
By Donny Shankle

I have been asked by my teammates on more than one occasion - “Donny, how do you come into the gym and train everyday, not hurt, tired, or just lacking motivation?” I always give the same perverted answer - “Be miserable and love it!” Considering I try very hard to be a positive person, my response has always baffled me. Why was I telling my teammates and closest friends who are seeking advice something which on its surface sounded so negative? Where did this approach to training come from? I knew I was right to be thinking this way. But I wanted to know where this way of thinking came from and what the advantage was to thinking this way.

To me, I understood the concept of misery as a positive, and the word is a badge of honor. It was when I likened the word to honor, that I ominously came across these words in Steven Pressfield's book “The War of Art” and remembered my own time in the Marine Corps.

“In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps. There's a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.

The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.

This is invaluable for an artist.

Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candy-asses don't know how to be miserable.

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell. “ - Steven Pressfield

After reading this, it dawned on me that this way of thinking during training was magnified in me due to my service in the Marine Corps. Even before then, I can remember taking a special pride in adversity. This is one of the reasons I joined the Marine Corps and not another branch of service. I understood them to be the best and the hardest and I was curious to see if I could measure up.

Pressfield was talking about writing, but the great weightlifter is also an artist. He continues to perfect his discipline with hard work and patience. What makes the weightlifter or any athlete more special than any other artist is his character. This is strengthened from publicly failing and waiting for the moment to compete again. He cannot hit the backspace button if he does not like his choice of words. He cannot throw the canvas in the dumpster if he feels he could have captured the light better with a brighter combination of paint. He cannot do another take in the recording studio. When it is time for the weightlifter to show his artistic ability, which is his strength and confidence, he only has one shot before an exhilarated crowd that lasts seconds. Either he gets it right at that moment or he must wait to do it again. Unlike the writer, painter, and singer the athlete is usually on a short clock. This increases the pressure they feel and it is this drama everyone loves to watch.

If weightlifting has taught me anything it is how to interpret and endure feelings of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. Those same words chosen by Steven Pressfield. These feelings are to be embraced and later overcome with hard work and rugged persistence. You do this with discipline and by finding happiness with yourself. Aristotle said the man of virtue is the man who finds peace with his own company and he does this by working hard.

Uncle Abadjiev would speak of being the champion. He said, “It is lonely at the top, but it is the only way to live!” When a man devotes his entire self to accomplishing a dream he must learn to endure the misery, which comes with it better than any other man. If he can do this, he will be the champion. If he can do this he will learn his misery can strengthen him by forcing himself to look within. If you can do this in the gym during training, you will be the great weightlifter when it is time to compete.

Competition is your time to prove it because you understand comfort is complacency. Complacency kills both in the combat zone and weightlifting. Those marines and other service men out in the desert fighting know they are miserable but they accept and deal with it. They do not let their misery cloud their judgment because they do not want to go home in a body bag. They turn their misery inside out and use it to stay sharp and vigilant. Do the same as a weightlifter, deal with your misery and let it make you stronger!

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Nietzsche

Be miserable and love it. Besides, your misery in the gym is not that bad especially if you love what you do. True unhappiness is not knowing what you want out of life. It is waking up each day without pain in your body or a sense of purpose in your heart. Yes, it is painful at times. I also know how frustrating it can be to get so close to a personal record only to confront what in your mind you think is exhaustion. It is not exhaustion. You are stronger than you think you are and to achieve excellence on the platform only hurts, it is not impossible.

“Don't quit! Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”. - Muhammed Ali

That is why I tell people to love their misery. It means you are continuing the fight and have not given up. There must never be an ache or pain so unbearable it causes you to lose sight of what you set out for. Find the joy in your training each day by remembering what initially brought you to the barbell. Constantly remind yourself that you are a weightlifter and yes you will feel miserable at times but this is what you chose to do. Admire that about yourself and take pride in it. Not everyone knows what they want to be, or they might but, they are not willing to get on the battlefield.

Besides, did you really think weightlifting was a leisurely activity? What Pressfield said also applies to weightlifting. “This is war baby, and war is hell.” Did you really think it would come easy?