Know Your “Why”

I sat in a cheap motel room in Salt Lake City with my friend Dan. It was June of 2009. I’d been up for a few days smoking crack and shooting heroin. I had isolated myself from my friends and family, and abandoned the support system I had used in recovery. I had lied to my therapists, my AA sponsor, everyone. In spite of my best efforts, I had once again let myself slip into a dangerously depressive state. The shame was a sharp edge, cutting unbearably deeper every day. I figured if I did enough drugs I could forget about it momentarily, or at least dull the pain.

Fast forward two years later, and I’m standing atop the Crossfit Games podium with my teammates from Hack’s Pack Ute. I was happy, and free of any desire to use drugs anymore. How did I make such a dramatic turnaround? Through purpose. Not the kind you lose and rediscover, but the kind you invent. Since my relapse nearly six years ago, I’ve experienced emotional highs and lows like anybody else, but I’ve never returned to that same level of depression and self-loathing. I’m not writing this article to tell you how I stopped hating myself. Rather, I’m writing to tell you how, through a mindful practice of compassion and gratitude, I overcame my addiction, reclaimed my life, and achieved a level of happiness I had never thought possible.

Salt Lake City, 2009

2008 and 2009 were busy years for me. On top of finishing 12 months of inpatient rehab, I also ran the Salt Lake City Marathon (winning my age division), and got nearly straight-A’s in the Honors Program in my first semester of college. I had exceeded every marker of what I considered “success,” yet I had never been more miserable. After leaving inpatient treatment, I was convinced I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to stay clean: work hard, be honest, and help others. I still live with these basic principles in mind, and while they briefly kept me on track after rehab, I didn’t then, as I do now, have a clear understanding as to why, other than the fact that these principles helped align my actions to be more consistent with them. But soon my moral instrumentation began to fail me, and with no tangible purpose guiding my purported principles, I gradually began to veer off course, focusing more on being cool, having sex, and convincing everyone around me of my own self-importance. Any sense of humility all but disappeared. My brain was in turmoil, wrangling with my blatant hypocrisy. I was regularly doing things that didn’t align with my core principles, and the depression and anxiety that had fueled my drug addiction returned. Rather than fight to find my way back to the clean path I had set, I wandered back into darkness, to drug use, and relapse, eventually hiding away in a cheap motel desperately trying to numb myself against the realities of the world outside.

I had a long road to walk after I got clean. My relapse administered a much needed dose of humility, which I credit with saving my life. Practicing that humility though rigorous honesty and service to others became a huge part of my life. In fact, it became the most important thing in my life. From mentoring other people in recovery, to housing recovering addicts (sometimes for months on end), I was dedicated to doing whatever it took to stay free of my addiction. In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, the author cites a sense of purpose as one of the three most important aspects of human motivation. I felt like my purpose in life was to help others. My service filled me with gratitude, and a newfound sense of fulfillment. Service became my why, my purpose, around which everything in my life revolved. I began studying psychology with the goal of becoming a social worker. I believed (falsely) that every action I took was completely selfless. Truthfully, I was then, and am now, a more selfish person than I aspire to be. But, after my relapse, I was more aware of my mistakes, and willing to hold myself accountable for them. My sense of purpose had repaired my moral instrumentation, but I still wasn’t completely certain about my direction. I was still missing a key ingredient, the pursuit of mastery, necessary to motivate the profound changes I wanted to make in my life.

Until I found Crossfit, the only thing I had really been passionate about since getting sober was not losing (which is entirely different than winning). The fact that when I started Crossfit I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, had lost a ton of strength during rehab and marathon training, and was consequently finishing last in daily workouts, was enough motivation for me to stick around. Service was my purpose, and Crossfit reignited my passion and desire for mastery, but I didn’t know how to tie those things together—until I started coaching.

As much as I had learned about the workings of the mind as a psychology major, I knew very little about the mechanics of the body, in spite of the fact that I had played five sports in high school. Through Crossfit I became enthralled by the capabilities of the human body. After realizing I lacked the emotional fortitude to be a social worker, I spent the next couple years contemplating going to medical or physical therapy school. Those seemed like the safest routes to take.

My plans were still congruent with my why, my stated purpose of a life spent in service to others, but my actions, same as before, started to run counter to that purpose. I didn’t relapse, but my focus once again turned inward, my desire to serve others devolved to a desire to serve myself, and competitive Crossfit became the all-consuming focus in my life.

I wasn’t miserable during this time. I wasn’t even particularly unhappy, per se. But my competitive success didn’t bring the same sense of fulfillment I had felt years prior when I was first drawn to social work. If my dad has taught me anything (other than how to get a rise out of someone), it’s the importance of creating balance in life. As an addict, that’s a tough line to walk, because most everything in my life has been firmly black or white; everything, or nothing at all. I reintroduced meditation into my life, and put more emphasis on my relationships with my friends and family. Learning to live a life driven by purpose doesn’t happen all at once. Sure, I’ve had some revelatory moments in my life, but where I am today is largely the sum of the smaller, conscious decisions I’ve made.

Salt Lake City, 2012

After college the plan was to apply for physical therapy school. It seemed like something that would fulfill me. However, the end goal of being a physical therapist didn’t really excite me. It didn’t seem like the “full package” I was looking for. Around that time I was offered a job at Southern Utah University as a strength and conditioning coach. I had honestly never even considered it, but when it was mentioned I was immediately interested. Being a strength and conditioning coach had the excitement factor I was looking for. I saw it as a way to get paid to do something both exciting and fascinating to me.

I took the job and entered a Masters program in Sports Performance and Conditioning. The practical experience alone was priceless. I had the opportunity to work with several D1 programs, some of which I was entirely in charge of in terms of strength and conditioning. The best thing that happened to me at SUU was meeting the assistant strength and conditioning coach, Jake Hutton. He was and still is the best sports performance expert I’ve met. He instantly became a mentor to me. My narrow view of strength and conditioning rapidly expanded. It went from a passion to nearly an obsession. I spent hours on end reading books and scouring through articles online, and I think I subscribed to about 10 different sports performance websites within a month.

The choices I make, good and bad, reflect a choice to behave either in accordance with, or contrary to, my purpose. When I act contrary to my purpose, it’s more often than not reflective of a desire to immediately satisfy some need. I’ve had to repeatedly learn to resist what I want now to get what I want most.

The desire for instant gratification is powerful at times, overwhelming at others. In 2012 I attended a SealFit Kokoro Camp with my Hack’s Pack teammates, and was confronted with a choice: endure the pain in my back and feet for the sake of my teammates (who were hurting just as much), or quit, and put an immediate end to my physical discomfort. Regrettably, I chose the latter, and committed one of the most egregious offenses against my “why” to date. It was the worst I had felt since my relapse. I was embarrassed and my ego was bruised, but more than that, I had violated my family credo: no quitting. No matter how tough, no matter how much you may not want to, provided there’s no risk of serious, long-term injury, there’s no excuse for quitting. So I signed up for another Kokoro Camp, and completed it a week after the 2013 Crossfit Games.

The day after Kokoro I began the opportunity of a lifetime, which is to work with the LSU strength and conditioning staff under the renowned coach Tommy Moffit. The practical experience alone of working with world class athletes was priceless. I also gained an enormous amount of valuable knowledge on everything from speed and agility, to hypertrophy methods, to mental toughness, etc.

At the end of 2013, I underwent a long needed lumbar fusion surgery. I was born with a condition called Sponylolisthesis, and football, powerlifting, and Crossfit compounded with that pre-existing condition to produce neurological damage. To say that I was humbled would be an understatement. I had never felt physically incapable in my entire life. Sure Kokoro was painful, but in a different mindset I would have been fine. After this surgery, I couldn’t walk for more than 400 yards for the better part of a month. I was absolutely crushed. However, as always, this challenge ignited another huge positive shift in my mind. I had always identified myself as an athlete and put a disproportionate amount of my self-worth on my athletic success. The recovery period from surgery gave me a lot of time to consider getting back into Crossfit and ultimately to accept the fact that I may never be a competitive athlete again.

So I made another move. Working at LSU was extremely exciting, but I wanted more autonomy. Call it cockiness or just human nature; I wanted to create my own thing. I had an offer from my old teammate, Tommy Hack, to buy one of his gyms in Salt Lake City with Jake Hutton. Owning a gym had never appealed to me, but the prospect of working with my good friend and mentor again attracted me. During the past year I had also been training a number of Crossfit athletes online with another one of my best friends, Matt Bruce. When I decided I was going to move, Matt, Tommy and I started our new company, brUTE Strength, with an entirely new vision.

First off, I saw the opportunity to do something entirely different from any other Crossfit Training program. I observed that several of the most successful coaches were one-man shows. I wanted to create a team of coaches, like most other professional sports, that would work together for our athletes and clients.

Just as with our Crossfit programs, I wanted to create the absolute highest quality training programs for average joes, whether in or out of Crossfit gyms. To be completely honest, this was the most attractive part about starting this company. It helped me align my sense of “purpose” with something exciting and fun.

When your decision-making is based on your “why,” your purpose, you naturally gravitate to the people and vocations that are most likely to provide you with long-term happiness. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do (I didn’t for the longest time); it’s about values. Try different things, but make sure whatever you’re doing is in line with those values. Also, remember that you are human, and you will make mistakes. It’s an inescapable part of the learning process, but those mistakes, as painful as they can be at times, are opportunities to grow. Don’t let the pain from failure, or the fear of failure itself, deter you from pursuing what you are most passionate about. In moments of self-doubt, remind yourself why, and how will become clearer.

I doubt myself every single day. I get scared on camera. I often eat poorly and fail to make my bed. I make selfish decisions. I can be lazy as hell. The thought “I’m a fraud” and “I’ll never amount to anything” constantly try to pull me in. Despite all of these things, I choose to act in a way that aligns with my “why.” I do things I’m afraid to do every single day. I get shut down, and I try again or just find a different angle.

I hope this helps some of you, even just one of you, to find a little hope, inspiration, or just perspective.