Mistakes & Miracles in Fitness

I have made countless mistakes, all of them, by my own hubris; stretching from romantic blunders to financial faults. I’ve accepted when I should have declined and rejected when I should have approved. My capacity for gaffes have been boundless; almost an expert-level display. In exercise, this has been no exception. In my youth, I’ve injured myself during a miscalculated and greedy repetition, and prematurely returned into the arena; seduced by the cliché, “no pain, no gain.” I played out a real-life game of chutes-and-ladders; ascending the rungs, only to slide into a pit of ice packs and aspirin. Mistakes are infuriating and disheartening, however, they are our most sobering and effective teachers, and illustrate the splendor of what it means to be human.

The recipients of the Academy Award for Best Picture have ranged from the magnificently epic, to the uninspired and dull, from The Godfather and Casablanca to Crash and The English Patient. In 1969, a unique movie took the grand prize; the first and only X-Rated motion picture to win. It was the account of an Escort played by Jon Voight and his pimp, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman; Midnight Cowboy. Even those who have not viewed the film may remember its most iconic scene, or at the very least; its famous line. On the crowded intersection of 58th Street and 6th Avenue, Joe Buck (Voight) and Ratso (Hoffman) are crossing, discussing the management and orchestration of male prostitution. Without warning, a taxi nearly strikes Hoffman as it plows into the crosswalk. Hoffman, visibly irritated, slams his palm on the hood of the taxi, shouting, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” If that phrase sounds familiar to you, but couldn’t place its origin; there you go. On the surface, it’s a scene just like any other, with one major exception: it was not supposed to happen. The taxi driver made a mistake and almost hit Hoffman, who made a last-moment decision to stay in character. The director liked it so much, he decided to keep it. The improvised scene was honored in 1989’s Back to the Future II, and again in another Best Picture winner, 1994’s Forrest Gump, with Lieutenant Dan delivering the famous line; the irony being, Lieutenant Dan was confined to a wheelchair. The mistake made movie history.

the movie poster from “The Midnight Cowboy”

Forty-years earlier, in 1931, Sir Winston Churchill paid a visit to New York. He took a cab ride down to 5th Avenue and 76th Street; a stretch of pavement two miles away from the crosswalk in Midnight Cowboy. Churchill, unsure if the building he saw was the one he was looking for, asked the driver to stop so he could exit and confirm. We take for granted, the flow of traffic in the United States, particularly since many other countries move in the opposite direction. Churchill, being from the UK, glanced to his left for oncoming cars; he saw none and assumed he was safe; failing to look to his right. As he crossed, a vehicle smashed into the British Bulldog and left him on the ground; a shapeless mass. The impact was the equivalent of falling onto concrete from thirty feet high. Even if he made it across, he was at the wrong address; the exact building was half-a-mile away. Churchill was admitted to Lennox Hill Hospital with broken ribs, a gaping scalp wound, and possibly worse. While doctors tended to his damaged body, he lamented, “I shall not be able to give my lecture tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Whatever will my poor agent do about it?” When police arrived, he identified himself, and after their shock had dissipated, he emphatically took full responsibility for the injuries; acknowledging his mistake.

What if he died, there on 5th Avenue, or later in the hospital? What if he suffered brain trauma that kept him from Public Service? What if he took legal retaliation against the driver, potentially soiling his own image and character? What would have happened in response to Hitler’s onslaught? How can we not put ourselves in the driver’s shoes? The man, Edward Cantasano could have killed the 20th Century’s most important figure. Winston felt terrible for the lad and met with him at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel over tea, giving him an autographed copy of one of his books. After the incident, Churchill wrote an article describing the evening titled, “My New York Misadventure.” In one hundred and forty words, we see the dignity, strength, and fearlessness of one who admits and learns from a mistake.

Sir Winston Churchill being pushed away from a car in a wheelchair with bandages on his face

“Such in short were my experiences on the night of 13 December; and the message I bring back from these dark places is one of encouragement. I certainly suffered every pang, mental and physical, that a street accident or, I suppose, a shell wound can produce. None is unendurable. There is neither the time nor the strength for self-pity. There is no room for remorse or fears. If at any moment in this long series of sensations a grey veil deepening into blackness had descended upon the sanctum I should have felt or feared nothing additional. Nature is merciful and does not try her children, man or beast, beyond their compass. It is only where the cruelty of man intervenes that hellish torments appear. For the rest— live dangerously; take things as they come; dread naught, all will be well.”

For better or worse, the term “perfectionist” is familiar, and since I have neither the expertise nor the desire to devise a better term; it will suffice for this discussion. In this context, it shall describe someone who desires to be successful. In my fitness coaching practice, I have recognized two types of perfectionism, adaptive and maladaptive. The maladaptive perfectionist considers each mistake a catastrophe, each one signaling that the sky is falling. They are under the false premise that they cannot, and will not commit an error, and upon their occurrence; are horrified by them. They are inclined to deflect blame, experience demotivation, and seek the next-best-thing, or simply the next thing. Some wear their maladaptive tendencies as a badge of honor, often boasting the on-off, all-in-all-out, go-big-or-go-home mentality. A forkful of “forbidden cheesecake” becomes an unfettered weekend buffet while planning to resume a militant diet the following Monday. When exercising, if the maladaptive is not sore to the point of paralysis; the workout was in vain. Each repetition is carried to failure and a workout only counts when nausea occurs, or when their activity monitor explodes from overload. This is a hornet’s nest of mistakes, which happen in rapid succession, exasperating the cycle.

The adaptive perfectionist accepts mistakes as an inevitable part of the process. They own-up to mistakes, tend not to overreact, and try not duplicate the mistake. I won’t cast any illusions, and declare that it’s a pleasant feeling to make a mistake; it’s not. To this day, it stings knowing I committed an error. How do we feel the burn of the mistake, yet still advance from maladaptive to adaptive? JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings coined the term, Eucatastrophe. The prefix “eu” comes from the Greek “good,” or “well;” referring to a good mistake, or circumstance that, although feels crushing, winds up helping you succeed. The difference between you and a fairytale is, there is no author scripting your outcomes. You must produce a conscious effort to find the Good and Well in your mistake. Errors will always happen but can lead to brilliant outcomes, provided you recognize them and treat them as Eucatastrophes. A failure to accept error and ignore the lessons they carry obstructs your goals and suspends your growth as a person.

Alexander Pope said, “to err is human; to forgive, divine.” I’d like to focus on the first part of the proverb. To err is not only human but part of what makes us human. The capacity for a mistake to exist in the first place is connected to our uniquely Human attribute of Free Will. We make mistakes because we are free to do so. Every decision is ours to make; they are not made for us. Existing liberated, and pursuing that which makes us Happy, is fastened with the risk of mistakes, error, and failure. This is not a frightening proposition but should inspire celebration. There are some who wish for a world without the possibility of making a mistake; a world without heartbreak or failure. This would not catapult us to citizens of a blissful Utopia but diminishes our humanity to automatons or puppets; moving and behaving in accordance with someone else’s will and delight. Yes, the potential of a mistake is abolished, and with it, our Being.

Albert Einstein and Theodore Roosevelt, both giants of the last millennium, shared the same sentiment, “The one who never makes a mistake is the one who does nothing.” Mistakes aren’t solely austere teachers, but a glimmering quality of humanity. There’s nothing admirable concerning mistakes made through recklessness or imprudence, but mistakes made during the virtuous pursuit of Happiness, not only makes us Human but the Nature of Human of which we were intended; Free.