Part 2: A Fourth Group, the "Negative Novice," and Moving Between Groups
A Fourth Group?
Before I go any further, I must discuss a fourth group. If there is a fourth group in the Fitness Society, which I only exclude because they may not yet have truly entered it, that group is undoubtedly the Novice.
There are two types of Novice. The Positive Novice sees fitness as a new world of discovery and self-improvement, where health and fitness can be explored as one would explore the high seas. An adventure, in other words. The Positive Novice’s mind is open and flexible. She seeks an outlet for a newfound potential passion that she hopes to make a positive part of the rest of her life, one that is exciting, liberating, challenging, and rewarding. She’s not sure what she’s looking for and she doesn’t care. Her enthusiasm is not measured by her own self-image or insecurity. It just is.
We should all try to maintain this type of feeling, and hope to befriend a Positive Novice in our lifetimes.
But the more common type of Novice is the Negative Novice, whose goals and desires are entirely defined by their own perceived failings. The Negative Novice often seems to want the results of the Fighter (the foremost athletic and aesthetic prowess and ability in the greatest number of areas), the mentality of the Challenger (because it seems less intense and strangely more independent than that of the Fighter, which it is), and the lifestyle of the Citizen, one of mindful but enjoyed indulgences, and a wide array of experiences above and beyond “fitness” itself.
The error inherent in the Negative Novice’s mindset is that it is defined by what they are unwilling to sacrifice.
This is, of course, completely backwards. At this point, the Negative Novice mistakenly believes that one’s results are directly and primarily related to what one wants, not what one is willing to do. They believe that they know what they want without having any concept of what is required to accomplish it. Therefore, they also lack any understanding of what they are willing to do to accomplish it.
“If I want ripped abs, a huge upper body, a 5-minute mile, and the thighs of an ox, like the models on Instagram, that is what I shall receive, and I shall receive them in less than a year, for anything longer would be excessive.”
Would that it were this simple. And this screed often continues along these lines:
“Additionally, I must be allowed to drink beer, eat Swedish fish, and get 5 hours of sleep per night, because anything else would intrude too heavily on my lifestyle. I have kids and work a 9-to-5, and that will not change. And I don’t like running, jumping, or doing burpees, because they are uncomfortable. And in the midst of my chronic back, shoulder, hip, or elbow pain, I won’t see a medical professional because despite following through on no single route of care in the past and making no effort to change my lifestyle or habits, nothing has ever worked to improve it. So I’m ready to work through the pain, because I’m a Fighter.”
It is unfortunate that the Negative Novice has absorbed only the most superficial elements of what makes entrance to each group a great and worthwhile goal. There is nothing inherently “wrong” about being a Novice, Positive or Negative, and one can be both alternatingly or at the same time; it is a starting point, like any other. But just as one cannot remain a child forever, the state of being a Novice is also not to be sustained indefinitely.
And I would not wish a lifetime of Negative Novicehood on my worst enemy.
Beware The Spirit of the Negative Novice
Each group in the Fitness Society has a “spirit,” which I will discuss more in overall detail below. But just as the spirit of each group lives within each of us, so does the spirit of the Novice.
The spirit of the Positive Novice is nothing to be afraid of, as I described earlier. In fact, it is best to hold onto some of it indefinitely. This helps preserve fitness as an exciting, dynamic, and liberating pursuit. But the spirit of the Negative Novice is entirely different. It is very important to understand this spirit and be able to recognize it as one is moving forward into the realms of the Citizen, the Challenger, and the Fighter.
Almost all of us start as the Novice in some form or another: aware of shortcomings in our health, physique, or sense of self, and wanting to address them through exercise. But we move on from it.
Yet even after having graduated to the Citizen or even to the Challenger, it is possible for a sense of entitlement, incredulity, laziness, or personal insecurity to creep in as one moves towards one’s goals. This is the spirit of the Negative Novice, undermining one’s own sense of competence and confidence and making one feel something along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m doing,” even if one has been doing it successfully for a month, a year, or a decade.
This tendency can ruin an otherwise high-quality progression, because the person—regardless of their level of competency—feels like a Novice in their own mind. It derives largely from a bout of insecurity and low self-esteem, for which a misguided sense of entitlement crops up to compensate: “I should be doing better, seeing more success. I must be doing something wrong.”
It is possible they are doing something wrong, but the “wrong” that the person is doing more often relates to not “trusting the process.” More specifically, the Novice does not trust themselves to survive the process. Or their sense of entitlement is such that they feel they should be exempt from it. As a result, they do not adhere to it, and their results suffer.
Here is an example. A Challenger who has been working on her weighted pullup for six months sees another Challenger whose weighted pullup far exceeds her own, and rather than feel admiration for and inspiration from this person, she considers giving up on her own pursuit, or wonders what she is doing wrong despite making steady progress for a full six months. Or, she denigrates some aspect of the other Challenger’s physique or performance to make herself feel better.
This is an instance of a Challenger that has been infected with the spirit of the Negative Novice. Such infections are depressingly common. In fact, they are so common to Challengers, I essentially included them in my description of the Challenger: the type of person who denigrates the efforts of Citizens and trivializes the seriousness of Fighters, who feels they need to point out failings in other Challengers that have nothing to do with those Challengers’ goals, and who require a high degree of external validation for their own pursuits to be worth anything to them.
Another example: a dieter starts to see results, but the restrictions of her diet begin to limit her capacity for pleasure. Rather than seeing results and a new world of positive feelings as adequate motivation to continue, as a Positive Novice might, she fixates on her own weakness and her dislike of discomfort (both of which are only human). She does not attempt to proactively address the problem, but rather she internalizes this sense of herself as “weak”, and it functions essentially as an excuse to backslide and undermine her progress.
This was the spirit of the Negative Novice, which told her, “you shouldn’t have to sacrifice or be proactive to lose weight. [entitlement]. You should be able to do it without thinking about it or changing anything. [entitlement]. Because if you are required to think about it or change anything, you won’t succeed. [low self-esteem].”
The spirit of the Negative Novice is an insidious pest that can infect and re-infect any member of the Fitness Society at any time. In fact, it is an inevitability: that failure (or fear of failure), insecurity, impatience, entitlement, fatalism, indifference, or any other number of debilitating emotions will arise at some point in one’s fitness journey.
But being able to recognize them for what they are, and being able to calmly accept their existence and move past them, are trademarks of having arrived in the Fitness Society to stay for a long time to come.
Can a Person Move Between Categories?
Can a person change from a Citizen to a Challenger and from Challenger to Fighter? Can one be all three, or none?
Yes, one can move between categories, but the mistake that is often made is trying to be in a category beyond the one to which you are presently inclined. Notice the phrasing: “presently inclined.”
A common Novice error is to attempt to enter the life of the Fighter before having become a Citizen: before having established routines and goals, before having learned what one likes and doesn’t like, before having even learned how to enjoy exercise. This says nothing of the safety hazards inherent in starting a program of exercise at too high a level than one can tolerate.
Just for a moment, look at fitness as you would your own profession or field of study. Let’s say you are a lawyer. Does it make sense to represent a defendant in a murder trial if you’ve never even read a single law book?
Or imagine being a student of literature. Imagine being asked to digest dense literary theory texts like Barthes and Cixous before even having grasped basic reading comprehension. This is a coarse illustration of “putting the cart before the horse.”
Fitness is exactly the same way. There is nothing wrong with being a beginner, and then an intermediate, and then an expert. Or even stopping at intermediate. Nothing wrong whatsoever. Just as we all entered this world naked, screaming, and terrified, we all started in any pursuit or endeavor as a functional incompetent. Also known as: a novice. If we believed anything was objectively wrong with that, we would cease to learn or excel at anything.
And anyone who denigrates the beginner for being a beginner is still naked, screaming, and terrified in their heart.
So then, how does one move between categories? It happens with experience. As one tries different things within the fitness world—different exercises, tools, sports, methodologies—one can discover that one or another is actually an enjoyable activity. One may begin to see the results of fitness, and to view these results as a worthwhile end.
In other words, a person begins to see themselves in fitness, as in a mirror. No longer is it a purely external or obligatory activity, done by rote and without passion. Some part of their “heart” plays along with it, or is expressed in it. This can be in the form of letting out repressed feelings through the activity, or pinpointing a better self-image through it. That is, fitness allows them to imagine, and act upon, a better version of themselves, and therein lies its appeal.
This is what I call a “physical identity.” A physical identity starts out small, insecure, uncertain, unrooted, and grows into something stronger, more stable, more permanent. This is the process of a Novice becoming a Citizen.
The Citizen spends time enjoying their newfound freedoms, the positive feelings that come with them, and the equally significant external feedback they might receive from their loved ones, doctor, or even strangers. Their physical identity—their comfort level as a physical, moving, dynamic entity—is developing.
Once the Citizen has decided what activities they like, and decided to dedicate more time to them than is necessary to enjoy the freedoms that I describe above, their physical identity is moving towards that of the Challenger.
In some rare cases, and often rather quickly, the Challenger will decide that fitness is the main thing they want to focus on; their physical identity has become their dominant one. It gives them the most fulfillment, the most passion, the most drive and direction. And in starting to push their freedoms to the absolute limit, they may enter the storied world of the Fighter.
Why is this rare? Because while the spirit of the Fighter exists within all of us, it is the dominant spirit for very few. Why? Some people believe it is because of “participation trophies” and that “men are not allowed to be men anymore.” I agree it is because of societal factors, but not those factors.
For one, nurturing the spirit of the Fighter exclusively often comes at the expense of other pursuits or obligations, such as jobs, families, friends, and the like. Therefore, a person’s stage of life is often central to the question of whether they would ever be inclined to become a Fighter in the Fitness Society.
More generally, the spirit of the Fighter is rare because we are taught from a young age to fear failure. We are taught that being different is bad. We are taught to respect authority. We are taught to “remain inside the lines.” We are taught to avoid confrontation. When someone victimizes us or picks on us, we are often taught to ignore them, or to appeal to an authority figure to help us. All of these learned, non-inborne habits represent the stifling of the spirit of the Fighter, not just in the Fitness Society, of course, but in general.
And in truth, there was never a time when they were “prevalent,” as in “common to most people.” Modern, civilized society relies on these ideologies to function. Even in ancient times, yes, there were mass conquerors, but there were also massive social systems of conformity, almost always enforced with the threat of violence.
And this threat, whether of violence or social alienation, persists today. And I don’t blame people for it. We have no control over where we’re born or what we’re taught as children. But it is important to recognize where it comes from, and to resist blaming ourselves for not being able to alter our entire personality and lifestyle for the sake of someone else’s idea of “good enough.”