Embrace the Journey – Lessons from the Pull Up Bar

by Carl Phillips on October 3, 2017

Carl Phillips and Danny Kavadlo

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few.” –
Shunryu Suzuki

Too often in life we want to rush ahead. We want to be better, more informed, more polished. What we don’t always want to respect is the process required for getting to that point. Our strength and fitness training journeys are a case in point.

The truth is, earning our stripes and getting good at just about anything in life takes time. It takes energy and focus. It takes a lot of hard work. It isn’t always pretty but the work involved in getting better is absolutely necessary.

Practice, persistence and patience are often requirements for improving. Not as sexy as “8 Minute Abs” or “Deadlift 500 pounds with These 5 Secret Steps,” but we know from bitter experience that the snake oil pitches rarely work. Hacks and shortcuts aren’t usually the road to our goals we hope they’ll be.

Learning to Appreciate the Grind

A certain amount of grind—showing up and doing the work—is necessary in most endeavours. Sticking points are inevitable the further we move away from beginner status. The more we spend time and effort engaged in a particular task, the more chance of hitting the point of diminishing returns.

How do we retain our enthusiasm for our goals when we hit these points?

One potential answer is to learn to embrace the journey. We immerse ourselves in the process of just trying to get a tiny bit better. We focus on incremental increases. and throw away comparisons to others. We’re doing this for us so the only point of comparison should be to ourselves, when we started out. Acknowledging and appreciating how far we’ve already come.

Personal Examples – Tussles with the Pull Up Bar

A personal example may be in order.

I’m a practitioner and fan of calisthenics. I’ve included some form of bodyweight basics in all my workouts for over two decades. As I’ve grown older, more and more of my workouts have become bodyweight based. It has been a constant for me. I find this form of training endlessly fascinating. I love the raw simplicity. I find the type of strength it develops to be so much more impressive than just lifting ever more external weight. A perfect front lever or pistol squat is a beautiful thing to witness.

However, along the way I have often run into spells of frustration with a perceived lack of progress, or when I hit plateaus. This frustration gets me nowhere fast and just leads to me enjoying my exercise sessions much less. Even dreading them a little at times, looking for an excuse not to practice. Not ideal.

Enter the Kavadlos

Along this journey I’ve sought out the lessons learned from those ahead of me, who possess a larger degree of expertise. In the world of calisthenics, the Kavadlo surname kept on popping up on my radar. The tattooed brothers from New York not only walk the talk, but also write with a stripped back clarity that is rare in the fitness realm. I became an immediate fan.

In a world of fitness bombast and dogma, the Al and Danny’s message was that many ways can work. Yes, they presented ideas and frameworks for their readers from their own hard won success and experience, but they also encouraged us to find our own way. To experiment and find what works and fits best for us.

The brothers approach their work applying an almost Zen-like “Beginner’s Mind.” They know that although many of us seek them out as experts, they are also still students in strength themselves. Never afraid to challenge their own ideas. Never afraid to learn more.

This message resonated with me deeply. I read every book the brothers put out. I nodded along, laughed at the humour and appreciated the deep wisdom in some of the words. What I wasn’t always good at was putting what I read into practice. There was a gap in me applying some of the lessons I was learning when it came to working out. This was particularly true in the case of embracing the process for its own end, rather than being focused on an external goal (more pull ups, less fat etc).

I’m pleased to say this changed in a big way last year. A major catalyst for this change was that I actually got some in person time with Danny Kavadlo.

Carl Phillips and Danny Kavadlo

While both the brothers are incredible writers from my perspective, nothing can really compare to an in person experience. I sought out some of Danny’s time on a visit to New York. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be able to get any time with him as I knew there was a Dragon Door PCC workshop in town during our stay. However, I got lucky and Danny was able to find some time for me to not only have a 1 to 1 work session, but also spend a little time talking about his approach to life. The talk turned into a series of posts elsewhere (here, here and here.)

Danny has a motivating presence. He is truly the larger than life character you hope he will be. He also just seems a great guy, both interesting and interested. He exudes an energy and confidence that is tough to fake. In short, he seems very much like the real deal.

The lessons from that sunny and hot day on the legendary Tompkins Square Park bars will stay with me forever. It is an experience I truly cherish. One of the biggest takeaways from the many I had that day was the fact that there really are no shortcuts. No tricks that will get me to double my pull ups overnight. No hacks I was missing out on. We have to embrace the grind at a certain point. It’s part and parcel of the journey. However, our achievements are also all the richer for this journey.

The time with Danny inspired me but it also made me re-evaluate. It made me take stock. It has led to a shift in how I approach my workouts. I have chosen to embrace the journey. See the plateaus as a necessary part of the journey. Understand that sometimes they’re my body’s way of telling me to back off a little and/or change something. I hope to be at this for my entire life, so really, what’s the rush?

The result of this renewed approach is I get frustrated much, much less. I enjoy my workouts a whole lot more, even approaching them with a practice mindset at times (trying to refine a skill) rather than beating myself into the ground. As importantly, this has led to improved performance in a few areas of focus. I’m no Olympic level gymnast but I’m okay with that and that’s never been the aim. As long as I am improving from where I started and have been, something is going right.

For me, getting some expert tuition and cues from someone far ahead of me in capability and experience has been a game changer. I would encourage anyone interested in strength and fitness to seek out the same in person experience. If you are a bodyweight enthusiast like me, you can do no better than getting some of Danny or Al’s time (or both at a PCC).

The Obstacles Will Always Be There

I try to let this approach, and the lessons I’ve learned from it, spill over into other aspects of my life. Embracing the journey for its own sake in whatever I am applying myself to. I don’t always achieve that goal and still get frustrated at times but I’m getting better. I’m more consistent.

The pull up bar will always be there. However good I get at getting myself up to it, someone else will be able to do more reps, with a cleaner technique and that’s okay. It’s inspiring. All I can do is be committed to make my reps the best they can be for that day. Clean up my own technique, try not to leak strength or waste effort. Drive for that perfect pull up. Know that I gave the bar my best today and commit to showing up again and again to do more of the same.

We can all decide to embrace and appreciate the journey. Doing so often proves so much more fruitful than fighting it. The journey is where we spend a part of ourselves. Where we work towards our goals, where we earn our own prizes.


Carl Phillips writes short books full of big ideas and is the proud owner of Frictionless Living which is focused on helping readers live simpler, finding focus and clarity in distracted times. He is also a calisthenics enthusiast.

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