Don't Be Afraid Of The Circus
According to legend, Mithridates IV, King of Pontus in Asia Minor 135-63 BC – known as Rome’s most successful enemy, got himself some protection against poisoning by ingesting sub-lethal doses of toxic material in progressively large quantities. This immunity got him into trouble later as he attempted to take his own life by poisoning, but failed having fortified himself against the drugs of others.
To get stronger or fitter in the gym we lift weights and apply intensity to movement that breaks down muscle fibres and causes inflammation to cells and tissues. Then with the right amount of rest, recovery, sleep, and nutrition – the fibres and muscle adapt and grow back stronger and larger in order to deal with the imposed stress.
When you starve yourself of food (fasting) it is the bad proteins that are broken down first and recycled by your body – process called autophagy. Natural selection that kills the weakest for fitness. Same with lions when hunting a heard, there’s a natural order to everything. Everything improves under the right amount of stress – weak links get destroyed or upgraded.
Organisms like harm, poison, or stress in order to evolve and improve – think antibacterial resistance. The harder you try to harm bacteria the stronger they grow back and the survivors become. Being deprived of stress makes us fragile and the road to development and adaptation starts with a modicum of harm.
This next story is taken from Admiral William .H. McRaven, when himself and his swim partner Marc Thomas were in SEAL training. They both had just come last in a group swim:-
“You two just made The Circus list.” The Instructor shook his head. “You’ll be lucky if you survive another week.”
The Circus. It was the last thing either Marc or I wanted. The Circus was held every afternoon at the end of training. The circus was another two hours of additional calisthenics, combined with nonstop harassment by SEAL combat veterans who wanted only the strong to survive training. If you did not meet the standard on any event that day – calisthenics, the obstacle course, the timed runs, or swims – your name was on the list.
What made The Circus so feared by the students was not just the additional pain but also the knowledge that the day after The Circus you would be exhausted from the extra workout and so fatigues that you would fail to meet the standards again. Another Circus would follow, then another, and another. It was a death spiral, a cycle of failure that caused many students to quit training.
As the rest of the students completed the day’s events, Marc and I, along with several others, assembled on the asphalt grinder to begin another long session of calisthenics. The Circus was punishing. Hundreds of flutter kicks as well as push ups, pull ups, sit ups, and eight-count body builders. By the time the sun went down Marc and I could barely move.
Failure had a price.
The next day brought more calisthenics, another run, another obstacle course, another swim, and unfortunately another Circus. But as The Circuses continued a funny thing happened. Our swims got better, and Marc and I began to move up in the pack.
The Circus, which had started as a punishment for failure, was making us stronger, faster and more confident in the water. While other students quit, unable to handle the occasional failure and the pain it bought, Marc and I were determined not to allow The Circus to beat us.
As training was coming to an end, there was one final open ocean swim, a five-miler off the coast of San Clemente Island. Completing it in the allowable time was essential to graduating SEAL training.
The water was bitterly cold as we jumped off the pier and into the ocean. Fifteen swim pairs entered the water and began the long journey out of the bay and around the peninsula. After about two hours, the swim pairs were so spread out you couldn’t tell where you were in the pack. Four hours into the swim, numb, exhausted and on the verge of hypothermia, Marc and I crossed the beach. There waiting at the surfs edge was the instructor.
“Drop down,” he yelled.
"Once again you two officers have embarrassed your class."
"You have made all your teammates look bad." He paused. "Recover, gentlemen!"
As Marc and I got to our feet we looked around the beach and suddenly realised we were the first swim pair to finish.
"The second pair isn't even in sight," said the instructor smiling.
In life you will face a lot of Circuses. You will pay for your failures. But if you keep at it, if you let those failures teach you and strengthen you, then you will be prepared to handle life’s toughest moments.
You can’t avoid the Circus. At some point we all make the list. Don’t be afraid of The Circus.
Make Your Bed by William H McRaven
Anti-Fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb