The Mindset is the Ultimate Hack
“The impeded stream is the one that sings”
-– Wendell Berry, Our Real Work
Most people find change really hard, especially when they’re trying to modify ingrained, default behaviors, things they don’t think too much about, if at all. This seems to be true whether they’re trying to eat healthier or start a new exercise regimen or take up a meditation practice.
The drill typically goes something like this: at first they throw themselves into the change with gusto, but then, in times of stress or as the luster of the shiny new thing fades, they slowly backslide into old, default behaviors. Then they’re flooded with shame at not being able to stay disciplined and stick with the things they’ve committed to doing, that they’ve set an intention to manifest in their lives, leading them to shy away from attempting future changes. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’ve found that people find lifestyle changes difficult to sustain because they often put the cart before the horse: they start with the what (quitting sugar, starting to run, taking up meditation) or the how (the diet plan or the training routine or the mindfulness app). But the what and the how are merely the tools; they’re the things you do to implement the change. Before you implement the change, however, you need to know why you’re implementing it. You need a mission.
Why do you want to be healthier?
Why would you willingly upend your lifestyle and risk alienating family and friends and co-workers?
Why would you give up things that you’ve been doing for as long as you can remember?
Why, this time as opposed to all others, are you going to make different, healthier choices?
Discovering the why is always the beginning of the Health Warrior Way journey. Before we make any changes we have to understand what these changes are in service to.
Unearthing the why will lead you to discover what’s most important to you, and this will provide fuel for the changes you’ll make. Knowing why you’re making these changes will provide the emotional and behavioral framework you’ll need to sustain the changes once the novelty wears off.
Embracing the why lends meaning to the changes (and the accompanying sacrifices and challenges and difficulties) that’s more enduring and galvanizing than simple (but still worthwhile!) goals like losing 10 or 20 or 50 pounds or setting a personal record in the 5k or even eliminating dependence on medication to treat a chronic illness. This is a key element of the HWW framework: we always start with why.
The why creates urgency; it transforms a vague want or desire into a calling. Your why could come in the form of a chronic illness (for me, it was prostate cancer) and the desire to avoid surgery or a life-long dependence on expensive medications that cause terrible side effects (which, in turn, require more medicine to treat). The why could hit you out of the blue (the loss of a job or the end of a long-term relationship or a parent) or you could purposely manufacture it. It doesn’t matter how you discover your why so long as you do, and it has to be strong and enduring enough to build your health and wellness foundation upon. It has to stand the test of time because you will be returning to it, over and over again. It will become your North Star.
Only after you know your why can you start to build your HWW plan: those things you will do, every day if possible, to strengthen and protect your mind, your body and your spirit. Your why will infuse those things with a sense of purpose, a meaning that will help you show up on those days when you would rather be doing anything but.
Because there will be days when you won’t want to do what you know you should be doing to take care of yourself. That’s a given. You will make less than optimal choices. You will get tired. You will get lazy. You will want pizza.
But what’s pizza in the face of your why?
There will always be challenges. There will be things that tempt us or try to knock us off our path or distract us from our mission. These challenges, which often feel like existential threats, can be our greatest teachers. This is the Health Warrior Way mindset: there’s always something to learn by facing the challenge head-on. This relentless optimism “hack” means that we actually look forward to whatever comes next. Whether it’s going to be good or bad is not within our control, only how we respond to it is. Nietzsche, channeling the Stoics, called this amor fati; we don’t “merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.” This, to Nietzsche, was the “formula for greatness.”
This relentless optimism, an almost eager anticipation of what comes next, stiffens our spine to meet challenges head-on, without flinching, because we know that this is where the growth is. No more wasting time or energy avoiding the challenge or pretending it’s not there or numbing ourselves; no longer will we try to circumnavigate the challenge or wish it away or retreat from it.
Health Warriors constantly reframe obstacles as opportunities; we learn to wait, patiently, until the hidden meaning within the obstacle or challenge is revealed. We know that we are better because of the challenges we’ve met head on. We welcome the things that test us because we know they make us who we are and that we grow stronger with every obstacle we face and overcome.
“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Health Warriors know that the end of something, no matter how painful or disruptive, is always the beginning of some other potential. Something is cleared away to make room for something else to emerge. Rather than grasp at the thing that’s slipping through our fingers we just let it go, say goodbye, mourn for a bit if necessary, and then make ourselves receptive to what will come next. Because something always comes next.
Once you hack your mindset, everything else becomes more or less transactional. You'll figure out which Nutrition hacks and which Love hacks and which Community (and other) hacks you need to incorporate into your lifestyle to live your best life possible, your most joyful life, your most meaningful life. Master the mindset and there's nothing you won't be able to endure, no situation you won't be able to negotiate or manage or navigate.
Trust the process. Start with your mindset. Remember: what doesn’t kill us does indeed make us stronger.
This is the Health Warrior Way.