Updated: Jul 16
“Be humble, be hungry, and always be the hardest worker in the room.”
- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
I joined a new gym a few weeks back. Since my oldest son was born ten and a half years ago, I’ve largely worked out in my basement or at the fitness center at work. For a fifty-two-year-old hoping to cling to the shreds of his youth for a few more years, it was a little bit intimidating. I saw people doing strange exercises and using unfamiliar machines. I wondered if I should be doing what they were doing, or at least be doing something different.
So I sought advice from various fitness sites and blogs, and found many of them geared to people who were training for some sort of competition or were aggressively focused on fitness goals. There was a lot of talk about having a positive attitude, “making gains,” and constantly going for personal records in terms of weight, repetitions, time, etc. And more than a few of these sites encouraged readers to always “be the hardest worker in the room.”
“I’m just trying to stay out of the emergency room,” I mused as I read these articles.
What I don’t respect is the self adulation of professional athletes and fitness celebrities who tout their own “hard work” as the key, and perhaps sole reason for their performance and/or physique.
Now I’m a big believer in the value of exercise and training for athletic performance and overall health goals. As a child, I was slow, clumsy, and chubby, none of which puts you on the express train to athletic success. I also had a very late birthday and a late growth spurt, which meant that I was almost always competing against kids who were bigger, stronger, and faster than me. I started working out pretty regularly when I was an adolescent and got my first Joe Weider bench and sand-filled weight set when I was thirteen. I’d jog, lift weights, and run individual drills, not in the hopes of becoming a star player, but just to be able to make the team or get off of the bench. Though I never played a varsity sport in high school or college, the exercise was good for me, so I’ve continued going to gyms and working out to stay in shape.
Furthermore, I’m certainly not against hard work, and have great respect for it, as most people do. I know that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but that it is an important component to achieving one’s goals. What I don’t respect is the self adulation of professional athletes and fitness celebrities who tout their own “hard work” as the key, and perhaps sole reason for their performance and/or physique.
“Hey, look at me,” they announce to the world. “I can do what I do, or look the way I look, because I work harder than anyone else.”
. . . [T]he hardest worker in the room is not the one who is lifting the most, or going the fastest, or grunting the loudest, or sweating more heavily than anyone else.
There are a lot of reasons for success, not just one. First, when you look at those who are very successful in athletics or fitness, most of them have had a support system of coaches, trainers, mentors, agents, and teammates to help them achieve their goals. Secondly, the most successful athletes have been able to avoid or overcome injury, and while physical training definitely helps with this, good fortune also plays a role. Thirdly, there is a lot of undisclosed (though sometimes ridiculously obvious) use of performance enhancing drugs among professional athletes and fitness celebrities. I’m not saying the people who use PEDs don’t work hard, but touting your success without mentioning this chemical assistance seems a wee bit disingenuous.
But more than any of this, experience has taught me that the hardest worker in the room is not the one who is lifting the most, or going the fastest, or grunting the loudest, or sweating more heavily than anyone else. It’s the person whose work and its results aren’t easily observable. I met one of these individuals several years ago, and her story forever changed how I see people.
When I was nineteen, my best friend and I landed summer jobs as trainers at a local fitness center. Our responsibilities were basically to evaluate members’ progress and assist them in accomplishing their fitness goals. We worked a lot with new members, showing them how to use various pieces of equipment and planning workouts tailored to their needs.
That’s how I met Ivy. She was dragged through the front doors one day by her friend Lily. Ivy was a little over five feet tall and weighed right around three hundred pounds. Lily was a few inches taller, but weighed about the same. Both Lily and Ivy were single and in their late twenties. They both seemed to be middle class with decent jobs: enough money to afford a gym membership, but not enough to drive fancy cars or go on expensive vacations. And they both had been more than a hundred pounds overweight for several years, which contributed to mobility issues and a lack of cardiovascular fitness.
Here was a woman who had been injured both physically and psychologically by the crimes perpetrated against her.
But Lily and Ivy were also different in some important ways. Lily loved to joke around and was extremely good natured about her fitness adventure. She’d laugh at herself as she got the hang of certain machines, and took the soreness that comes from doing new exercises in stride. Ivy, on the other hand, continually expressed self-doubt about getting in better shape. She’d complain about how difficult it was to change her diet, or about how hard the exercises were, or how slowly she was losing weight. I’d explain that all of the changes she was making were creating stress on her body, which was used to being at her current weight. I asked her to be patient and encouraged her to stick with her program.
So she did, and with Lily’s infectious good humor, Ivy’s attitude began to improve as well. Sometimes she’d stay and do some additional exercises, or walk a few more laps after she’d completed her scheduled workout. Her weight loss was still slower than she wanted, only about a pound a week, but she was making real progress. She’d smile and joke with me when she came in for workouts, and it felt good to see her doing so well.
However, one day, about two months after joining, Ivy broke down. She was walking with Lily on the second-level track, warming up for their session, when she just sat down on the steps and refused to go any further. She curled herself up into the fetal position, hugging her knees and staring blankly into space. Lily put her arm around Ivy, trying to console her.
“What’s wrong?” I inquired.
“I’m . . . I’m scared,” she answered weakly, tears welling in her eyes.
“Scared of what?” I shrugged.
“ I didn’t used to be like this,” she sobbed.
After several more minutes of Lily’s soothing, Ivy calmed down enough to tell me what was going on. She explained how, when she was eighteen or nineteen, she had weighed around a hundred pounds. She was thin and self-confident, and a lot of men found her attractive. But one night, walking back to her apartment from visiting a friend, she was accosted and sexually assaulted. As if this wasn’t horrifying enough, within a few months, she found herself a repeat victim of the same crime, but by a different perpetrator. To my knowledge, neither of the offenders were ever caught.
At that point, Ivy started to put on weight, intentionally. She believed that she was being targeted because she was small and thin. If she was big and heavy, she reasoned, she’d be less likely to be victimized again. For almost a decade, in her mind, the added weight she’d acquired had been her armor, shielding her from sexual assault. Of course women of all shapes and sizes have been and continue to be victims of sexual crimes. But Ivy hadn’t been attacked again since gaining weight, so this reinforced her belief that this was the cause. Despite the health problems that she’d experienced, she saw her condition as one that increased her safety.
Judging someone by . . . any superficial characteristic, isn’t just a problem because it can bolster prejudices. It’s a problem because it can keep us from learning more about that person, something about their struggles and their courage.
Kneeling down next to her, watching her wipe the tears from her eyes, I realized that Ivy was the hardest worker in the room. It wasn’t just that exercise was really hard for her because she had been out of shape for so long. It wasn’t just the insecurity she must have felt being in a place in which she routinely endured scornful stares and snickers from unkind observers. Ivy was the hardest worker in the room because of the work that she was doing inside of herself, inside her mind and her spirit, which was even harder than the work her body was doing.
But even more than that, the progress that she was making with her physical health was taking a toll on her mental health. Here was a woman who had been injured both physically and psychologically by the crimes perpetrated against her. With every workout and pound she lost, Ivy felt as though she was peeling back another layer of protection against the very predators who had victimized her. The fear which that brought was no doubt accompanied by flashbacks and other re-inflictions of the wounds that she had suffered.
After she left the gym that day, I never saw Ivy again. Lily would come in by herself a couple of times a week, but without her friend. Due to some unforeseen budget cuts, I got laid off about three weeks before my summer position ended. I don’t know whether Ivy ever went back to the gym, or whether she found some way to deal with all of the trauma she’d experienced. But I’ll never forget what she taught me.
Ivy taught me that a lot of people struggle with some really terrible issues that we can’t see. Judging someone by their size or shape, or their expressed enthusiasm or cheeriness, or really any superficial characteristic, isn’t just a problem because it can bolster prejudices. It’s a problem because it can keep us from learning more about that person, something about their struggles and their courage.
In the years since I met Ivy, I’ve met other people who are also the hardest workers in the room, such as those who have been injured during military service, or those rehabilitating from an accident or recovering from chemotherapy. Individuals such as this are, like Ivy, working much harder than anyone sees, and in ways that many of us can’t understand. Those are the people I look to for inspiration, not just as I train, but long after I’ve left the gym.