When developers talk about mastery, we usually do so in a technical sense. We strive to be masters of our particular area, from the languages we write in, to the tools we use, and the domain we work in. We spend time researching the best patterns, practices, and work to hone our skills. To become a true outlier, we must work to master more than programming. Indeed, we must work to master our greatest asset: ourselves.
“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
– Leonardo DaVinci
The Path to Mastery: Physical Fitness
There are times at work when I am unmotivated to do anything. I have my tools open, waiting, but I just can’t get anything done. I find myself on Reddit, Feedly, or Gmail, hoping to find something to distract me. The best way for me to overcome this is to put some headphones with calm music on, set a timer for 25 minutes (a Pomodoro), and force myself to work. Usually, within a few minutes, I’ve overcome the inertia, and by the end of the timer, I’ve made progress and am ready to start another Pomodoro.
This shows the importance of the first form of mastery, physical. Self-mastery is about impulse control, reaction management, and intentional action. It involves a lot of mental energy, so starting with the physical helps jump start the process. By physical mastery, I am referring to eating and weight. There’s a stereotype of developers being overweight and consuming large amounts of pizza and pop. Regardless of how true that stereotype is, programming is certainly a sedentary activity, which can lead to an unhealthy weight gain. This can be especially true in situations where we’re asked to put in long hours, or when the office we work in constantly offers us free lunches. Perhaps we think we don’t have the time to eat healthy foods or go to the gym.
According to the CDC, obesity has become a national epidemic. In January of 2015, the Washington Post reported that 75% of men and 67% of women are considered to be an unhealthy weight. The impacts of obesity are well known, including physical ailments such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. There’s also impacts on our mental health as well, such as depression and isolation. Even more so, obesity impacts our cognitive functioning abilities.
When I got married, I was close to 300 lbs. Over the course of the next two years, I lost over 100 lbs. My life has definitely improved. I have more energy to play with my kids. At work, I am more focused and disciplined. My self-esteem has greatly improved. When I tell my story to people, the typical response is a question asking about my methods. I didn’t go on any of the diets that are marketed to us. Rather, to quote Michael Pollan, I changed my diet so that I “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” In other words, I examined what I ate, and when I could, I substituted in plants. I used to eat a bag of baked chips at lunch, which I swapped with carrots. I cut out lunch meat in favor of peanut butter. I weighed and measured my food, being intentional in my choices. I got into the habit of packing a lunch the night before, and I usually eat lunch away from my computer. I stopped drinking soda. I reduced the number of times I ate dessert to once or twice a week.
I’ve always been (and will be) a regular gym member. I go 3 times a week, early in the morning, and I follow a pretty regular routine of 30 minutes of cardio, followed by 45 or so of weights. I weigh myself daily.
With the exception of weighing and measuring, I’ve kept up these practices, and I’ve maintained a healthy weight for 7 years now.
Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.
– John F. Kennedy
This is not to say what I do is what you should do. I’ve learned that a person’s diet is very personal, and not everyone enjoys going to a gym. Beyond, that, there are other factors at play. The Atlantic featured a study that suggests that even with the same levels of diet and exercise, people in the 80s were in better shape than current day people. A changing environment, differences in foods, changing lifestyles are all contributors
Even with these challenges in place, though, getting and maintaining a healthy weight is essential for being an outlier. Physical fitness is the ultimate discipline. It can help stave off the effects of aging on the brain, and improve cognitive function. It boosts mood and energy. It is a challenge everyone needs to undertake, no matter where you are in life.
Getting started is perhaps the hardest part. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there. A quick search on Google reveals all sorts of diets and workout regimes. People talk about micro and macro nutrients. It’s easy to get discouraged. Even so, getting started doesn’t have to be a challenge. I can recommend to great resources for anyone just looking to get started. Sites like Nerd Fitness, podcasts like Get Up and Code, mobile apps like Fitocracy are all available for people looking to start the change. There’s never been a better time than right now to start.
Starting to get move around and eat better is just the first step. Once you overcome the initial inertia, a healthy lifestyle is like a snowball down a hill, its momentum increases and it gets bigger as it picks up more snow. You’ll start for looking for ways to incorporate a lifestyle beyond the gym and the kitchen. One place to do this would be the area where you spend a quite a bit of your time, your office. There’s been quite a bit of news in the past few years about how sitting all day is a health risk. To combat this, periodically getting up and taking a walk (especially when you’re stuck) is a low cost way to get moving. I tend to walk after lunch. If your office can afford it, you might want to request a standing or a treadmill desk. Not only will you get moving, you’ll also be more alert and creative (exercise has been linked to improved creativity).
Perhaps, however, the pinnacle of physical mastery is when you find yourself doing things when you’re just out and about. For example, I tend to jump on benches, and balance on curbs. When my kids are at a playground, I don’t just sit on a bench, I’ll find some simple exercises I can do, including some stationary ones I don’t get a chance to do in the gym. This is reminiscent of the parkour discipline, which is probably one of the most intense and demanding disciplines around. People who practice this are adept at moving quickly and efficiently. To me, it’s the next level beyond the gym. Of course, you don’t need to go there.
You just need to get moving! So get up and go!