Striving for Greatness. Lessons from my Father.
My father was the greatest weightlifter of all time. Yet he never won a gold medal. He never appeared on television. You've never heard of him. Still, I am convinced this is the truth.
When I was little kid, we had a makeshift weight room set up in the basement of our two-flat apartment building in Chicago. This was old school. My father put it together in the early 1970s and it showed. Nothing but metal on metal. No frills. No comforts. Just a dingy, poorly lit basement, a stereo, and chalk for his hands.
My father was the greatest weightlifter of all time. He spent hours, weeks, years, down in that basement pumping iron. Reading muscle mags. His heroes were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu. There were no "supplements" in his day. At least not for the average Joe. Arnold may have been on steroids. My father only knew about protein shakes. I watched him make them.
At his peak in the late 1970s my father bench pressed around 400 pounds. That may not sound like much today. However, my father is an amputee: right leg, above the knee. To get an idea of how difficult this is, next time you sit down on the bench, put your left foot on the ground and keep your right leg extended straight out so it is completely suspended in air. Now try your bench press. It increases the difficulty quite a bit. Now try doing squats! My father would stick his right, prosthetic leg out in front of him, then bend down on his left and squat using only his left leg. People were in complete awe whenever he lifted weights in their gym.
Not only was he overcoming a massive disadvantage to become the greatest weightlifter of all time, he was working, going to night school for his MBA, and raising a family on a lower-middle-class income. Tough. Son. Of. A.
But he's also a kind, caring, goofball. So I'm going to share some stories about my father. Maybe there are lessons for our life and investing.
Sometimes You Need To Ignore The Pain
I still remember the X-Ray even though it was taken twenty years ago, at least. My father’s first prosthetic was a big bulky hunk of wood. That thing weighed a solid forty pounds. To walk, he swung it in front of his body using his core muscles. Step by step, all day every day. What you might miss from watching this exercise in madness was the tremendous pressure it put on his good left ankle. It hurt all the time, but it never slowed him down. He still did those squats, after all.
One day on a checkup, the doctor asked him if he had any discomfort in his good ankle. “Always.” So they took an X-Ray and found a 3 inch long needle-like piece of shrapnel lodged in his ankle from his Vietnam injury. This is maybe 15 years after his discharge. It had been there that whole time, tearing up his only good ankle.
How can you go that long, putting that much pressure on an ankle with something like that causing you discomfort? He ignored it. He figured that’s just the way it goes. If he wanted to walk, if he wanted to lift weights, he was going to have some pain. “No pain, no gain,” is probably my dad’s favorite saying. But when he says it, you can always detect a faint smile come across his face, like he really knows what pain is.
You get tough breaks in life. We all do. Sometimes, you have to ignore that pain to get what you want. When I think about that X-Ray, I can’t do anything but shake my head. I’ll never be that tough, but maybe I can complain a little less about my predicaments.
Know Your Limits
My dad never used a spotter. A spotter is a work out partner that helps you, motivates you, and most importantly, makes sure that you don't drop the weight on your head. It's not that my father didn't like people. He just didn't like baggage. A regular work out partner was baggage.
So every night, he went down to the basement alone. He put the weights on the bar and tried to give maximum effort without killing himself in the process.
One night he was on his final set of bench press, adrenaline pumping, last repetition. “I can do one more. Just one more.” But he couldn't make it. The bar went up halfway from his chest to the top of the rep. Then it stopped. And back down it came, slamming into his chest with 350 pounds of fury.
Ever since that day, my father advised me, “listen to your body. Know your limits.” It's something I took to heart.
Don't mistake this for giving up. Years later, I'd go out running in the 120 degree desert heat when everyone took the day off. I listened to my body. I knew when it was time to slow down. I knew when I could speed up. I knew my limits. I knew when I could push myself and when I had nothing left. You have to listen to your body. I could run on “Black Flag” days (the military term for conditions that are too harsh for physical fitness training) when no one else could. I knew what my body could take.
This is about knowing how to push yourself. You want to stay up all night studying for a big exam? It doesn't work. Know your limits. You should be studying all the time, pushing yourself on the days your body is ready to respond, pulling back on the days you don't have it. This is about understanding what it is you desire and how to get there. The all-nighters, the five hour energy drinks, all that nonsense is making up for the fact that you didn't do the work. So you have to ignore your body and scramble to make the grade. That's not a recipe for sustained success.
Shortcuts to success leave you alone in a basement, rolling 350 pounds from your chest down to your waist. That was my dad's close call. He learned from it. He learned about limits.
Water Makes You Weak
I never “out-lifted” my pops even when I was in the Marines. I'd come home on leave. We'd go to the gym together and he'd whoop my butt. It was never close. I was in my early 20's, my athletic prime, and he was 25 years older. Worst of all, I'd be gasping and dehydrated trying to keep up with him. He'd never be fazed though he never brought anything with him to the gym. No power bars. No Gatorade. No water. So I asked him how he could get through an entire workout without even taking a sip of water. He simply said, "Water makes you weak."
I thought he was crazy, but experience proves him correct. If you're drinking water during your work out, it's too late. You should have drunk water before you exercised. If you drink water in the gym (or anything else), you fill your belly with liquid and that's it. It makes you weak.
But there's something else here. It's psychological. Water is a crutch. You can't be the best weightlifter if you need a crutch. My father's been lifting weights for 40 years. Not one sip of water. Not one drop of PowerAde. That's crazy.
Throw away your crutches. Learn to walk without them. That's the message here. The great ones don't need them. They have singular focus.
I was never able to get rid of my crutches. When I'm working hard on a problem, I still drink coffee to “increase my focus.” Or so I tell myself. I'm sure I have others. To be great we need to identify our crutches and throw them out.
If You're Here, You're Ready
My father's approach to warming up is similar to Tallahassee’s pre-fight routine in Zombieland. He doesn't believe in it. “Did you ever see a lion limber up before taking down a gazelle?”
I'd ask my dad, “don't you ever warm up?” He would reply, “I'm as ready as I'll ever be.” As I've gotten older, I'm embraced this philosophy. You don't need to get ready to be ready. You're here, aren't you? You're ready. That doesn't mean you won't make mistakes, put on too much weight or 'gasp!' hurt yourself a little bit.
For many people, warming up is just procrastination. The toughest fight is getting in the batter's box, not swinging and missing. You have to get up to the plate. Put the practice bat down and take some real swings. You're here. You're ready.
I read a dozen books on investing before I took my first swing. I warmed up for 8 years. Just warming up. Never stepping up to the plate. And you know what, when I finally took a swing, I missed. I lost money.
Nothing is going to be handed to you. Just don't mistake “warming up” for procrastination. Get in there and take some swings. In investing. In life.
When my dad got a little wealthier, he started working out at the bourgeois gym on Chicago's North Shore. A quick note about my father: he always wears pants at the gym. No shorts. It's not that he's embarrassed by his prosthetic. He's a little old for that. He just doesn't want it to be the center of attention.
If you didn't know any better, you might think he just has a hip problem. Perhaps hip replacement surgery or something like that. It's a limp and nothing more. Besides, what man in his mid fifties works out for an hour and then spends 45 minutes on the treadmill doing hills with a prosthetic leg?
A crazy person, that's who.
One day, my father is doing his usual treadmill routine when his prosthetic leg fails. These newer devices come with microchips that tell the knee and ankle when to bend. Sometimes these things fail. When that happens, the entire leg can be jarred out of place. It looks like your leg has snapped in half!
So try to imagine the scene here. My father is hopping along on the treadmill trying to shut it down, while his right leg dangles from his body, the prosthetic obscured by his gym pants, and his fellow gym patrons in horror.
He manages to extricate himself from the treadmill, shakes off offers for help and hops to the Men’s Room. While he’s in there, he re-adjusts his leg, makes sure that its working, etc.
Now for most people that would be a sign that maybe today just isn’t your day and it’s time to go home, but not for pops. So after he gets his pants back on, he strolls right back onto the gym floor and gets back on the treadmill.
Again, try to imagine the looks he got from these North Shore folks. It was like he had visited Mr. Miyagi in the Men’s Room.
The lesson here: be extraordinary. An ordinary person goes home when something embarrassing happens, like your leg falling off in the middle of a work out. Extraordinary people put their leg back on and finish the job!
I hope you enjoyed these tidbits.
David in Qatar