Emerson wrote that “so much of our time is preparation, so much routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.” Think about that. In all the days, weeks, years, and decades of our lives we may accumulate a few hours of brilliance. It sounds staggering, but consider the average day of the average person and you’ll see that it’s true. We constantly prepare, organize, and review; we make list upon list, complete task upon task, and amidst it all our life is being lived without our taking notice. It’s as though we spend all our time framing the picture with little concern for the depth of its color.
You might argue that the average person doesn’t care for “genius,” but observe how we worship our heroes and you’ll see your mistake. Musicians, actors, and athletes are worshiped like gods. Fortune 500 CEO’s are petitioned for their opinions and advice. Doctors and lawyers are universally respected and admired. We have an undeniable fascination with the brilliant but demand of ourselves little more than organized drudgery. We’re hypocrites of expectation, and distracted ones at that.
This is the way I sometimes feel about fitness. Everyone waxes on about the sports they used to play, the soreness they never used to feel, and the good old days before video games. They obsess about how their bodies will age, if they’ll ever be content with the way they look, and what type of kids & grandkids they’ll raise. These are basic human fears and concerns, and I get that—we all feel the same doubts about our future and the same nostalgia for our past. But all of you out there hiding behind the things you might or used to do, wake up! Your situation, your stories… they’re not unique! Your injuries, illnesses, and general physical incompetence in the present are not offset by the memories of a healthy youth. The only person I respect less than the guy paralyzed by his limitations, is the guy content to stay that way.
Now, I’m not saying it’s bad to look back on what we’ve done or ahead to what we’ll do, but a wide lens makes for grainy resolution if never focused in. That’s what this article is about: zeroing in on the present and taking action. Everyone is quick to tell me how fit they used to be or will soon become—the reality is that talk is cheap. Stop settling for average and start maximizing those few hours of genius you have left.
What is Genius?
This is the PR lift, the burst of energy at the end of a workout, or the conquering of a once impossible skill. It’s the satisfaction felt during a day spent skiing across the mountains or swimming in the ocean. Often it’s found in our deepest, most absolute exhaustion. The proof of this brilliance are the moments of clarity and peace that inevitably follow it; when you’re certain you will be more successful, more adventurous, and more fit every day thereafter. This is our intended state: extremely focused, super-conscious, and happy.
Moments like these are usually few and fleeting, not because they are hard to come by, but because they require a particular purity of thought that we rarely find ourselves enjoying. Typically our brains are so overwhelmed with the shit storm of duties and expectations that we can’t help but be distracted from the job at hand. This is the guy who racks his nerves before every snatch attempt, or grips his driver so tightly that his knuckles turn white. There’s no way this guy is going to perform well consistently because there’s too much internal tension polluting his actions. What’s more, he won’t fully enjoy his accomplishments when he does succeed because his brain will have already moved on to the next pressure packed situation.
Contrast this with the calm, decisive behavior of someone who is alone in the moment. For this individual, no problem is too big to handle, no set of circumstances too overwhelming. His brain and body are free to act without restraint, rendering life simple, lucid, and real. He is connected to the present and sees only that which he needs to see. Safe to say that he hits more PR’s and more fairways than his buddy. Also safe to assume he enjoys his success more.
What does it take for us to perform this way consistently?
First, we must learn to live in those moments. And not the cheesy, jump out of an airplane today because you might die tomorrow kind of living in the moment. I’m talking about stripping away all the white noise and truly tuning in. Imagine yourself in a state of mind so vital that every second demands your immediate attention. It shocks you for its sharp edge, shakes you from your autopilot slumber and thrusts you back upon the real world. Never were you so focused, so calm, so self-reliant. The rightness of it is exhilarating and free, prompting an immediate self-reflection as to why so much life has passed since you felt this alive.
This is what it’s like to be in the moment. Time dissipates because it no longer winds you. Space retreats because it no longer places you. Your being is all-encompassing and uniform, satisfied with solitude and breath. In this state the concepts of past and future are meaningless. Expectation and stress pass like rumors through your brain. You are the unfiltered, unquestionable, uninhibited self to whom all is clear and uncomplicated.
It shouldn’t be hard to get to this place because each of us secretly wishes for more moments like this, where each breath and thought comes thick as oil. Stop ignoring them as merely temporary highs and beckon back. Truly, this is the slip of the soul into its proper rhythm. The relief and balance found there need not be the reprieve from your staccato life, but the re-definition of how you choose to live.
Exercise is a pathway toward this awakening if we allow it to be. The difficult nature of it forces us to forsake life’s many accompaniments and focus only on the now. Having done this, we are liberated from our habits and routines, creating for ourselves a pocket in time where nothing else matters. A truly unaffected moment. Our brains get out of the way—we stop thinking, planning, and calculating outcomes, and are content to simply train, and train hard. Think of the time your coach snuck 10 extra pounds on the bar and you PR’d without knowing it. Or the time you ran a mile with nothing in your head but the rhythm of your feet and the breath in your chest. You weren't stressing over the outcome or worrying about your career. Genius in the moment offers itself to the willing, but most of us are too distracted to recognize it. We ought to be rising to meet the present at every stroke like consciously raging bulls, moment seizers, chasers of the light.
Second, we must acknowledge and commit to the fact that everyone can improve. Gone are the days of “I used to…” this and “before my kids” that. You’re not too old. You’re not too hurt. You’re just scared and lazy. You like living in the past because it’s easier than dealing with the present. You prefer to explain the reasons why you can’t do something because it’s easier than fighting for the reasons you can. It’s a mental shift from inaction to action, from spectator to player, from middling to genius.
Sometimes our greatest honor is that of designated outlier. So stand alone. Be the one your friends tell stories about, the one that looks half their age and isn’t slowing down. Embrace the present and excel. If I never hear someone tell me, “When I was your age…” it’ll be too soon. What do I care what you could do at my age? For that matter, what do you? If we’re out hiking together and I break my ankle, you sure as hell better not tell me some story about what you could’ve done to help when you were my age. Pick me up, bear my weight, and get me home. Emerson would respect that and so would I.