Feed The Right Wolf: The Undeniable Pull of Influence
Approximate Read Time: 11 minutes
An old Cherokee man sits by the communal fire crafting a message in his head. Staring into the flames alongside his grandson, he finally breaks the silence:
“A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too.”
The young man thought on this for a while, before finally asking his grandfather, “which wolf will win?”
“The one you feed.”
Damn. Mike drop.
Maybe this legend is too Kumbaya for you. Feel free to Spartan it up a bit. There is certainly room for nuance in our explanation of compassion and kindness. Contrary to popular norms, it is not kind to endear learned helplessness and entitlement. Furthermore, truth and faith were both dropped under the good category, but its important to note that any value, particularly faith, can be perverted if truth is not primary. An earnest quest for truth must trump comfort and dogma.
You can define the core values for yourself, but the principle behind this grandfather’s wisdom remains the same: you become what you surround yourself with. If you determine to be a certain way, your environment must support those ends.
We pay lip-service to such messages. They align with all the clichés that pop into our heads when we hear other people’s problems. You are the sum of the company you keep; you are the average of your five closest friends, etc. But upon reflection, do we honor the wisdom of these aphorisms? In other words, what wolf do you feed on a daily basis?
“You are just so jealous that you can’t get a Bentley and you’re trying to ruin my moment for me.” –Kim Kardashian
There is evidence to support this Cherokee elder. A recent study from the London School of Economics has made headlines with the claim that watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK) actually makes you a worse person. More accurately, the study concludes that watching just 60 seconds of content that “glamorizes fame, luxury, and wealth,” like KUWTK, makes us more selfish and less inclined towards empathy.
It turns out the Cherokee legend is more insightful than we could have imagined. Humans have two very powerful, yet incompatible bio-evolutionary drives. We are communal, seeking deep connection and meaningful pursuits worth sacrificing for, while also being very self-interested with an ever-expanding appetite for personal promotion, material comfort, and what philosopher John Stuart Mill called, lower pleasures.
Comfort and primal pleasure are not inherently bad, but they are very unfulfilling priorities. A series of 2013 studies concluded that personal well-being improves as people “place relatively less importance on materialistic goals and values, whereas orienting toward materialistic goals relatively more is associated with decreases in well-being over time.” Past research has indicated materialistic television shows increase stress, anxiety, and life dissatisfaction. These negative effects seem to be most damaging to younger audiences who have more difficulty separating reality TV from reality.
We all have guilty pleasures and I’m not advocating a monastic existence. In fact, I’d argue our world has gotten too consumed critiquing and obsessing on portraying the right image, rather than flowing, playing, and having real fun. I don’t plan on giving up Game of Thrones, or the catharsis I get from occasionally hearing a funny Bill Maher rant, but I do recognize the negative potential of excessive, passive entertainment and a lack of intentionality.
Self-development is not about learning more for its own sake, but, rather, becoming a greater version of ourselves. This begins with an honest investigation into our environment, experiences, personal weaknesses (we all have plenty and denial only fuels them).
A Steady Diet of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Indulgence
“You become what you give your attention to… if you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will and their motives may not be the highest.” –Epictetus
This Epictetus dude said the above quote before the age of advertisement gave rise to the current consumerist religion. Imagine how much more important this wisdom is today, immersed in smartphone culture and exposed to anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day. In this environment, awareness is essential if we want any chance of ending up where we’d like to be. Without intentional boundaries our lives are lived at the direction of marketers and their all-knowing algorithms as we surf, scan, and scroll for distraction. Data is collected and the masses are funneled through an evermore alluring web of impulse. We are literally allowing other people to turn us into who they want us to be.
We become what we experience. In the modern environment that is most likely:
advertisements with a subliminal message indicating that buying things will make you happy—you deserve (enter product here)
reality television emphasizing people who live in extreme pampering and luxury, usually by no merit of their own, or people who are patently dumb, or both
social media highlight reels of every acquaintance we’ve ever made, carefully curated to convey how awesome their life is, or how uniquely arduous their struggle—either way a primal part of us is jealous of the attention they garner
news media who prioritize gossip and outrage over nuanced reporting on stories of actual importance
If this experience dominates our conscious hours and those of the people we surround ourselves with, then who are we becoming? We’d all like to believe that we aren’t subject to subliminal messages and that our urges for phone scans and French fries are intentional choices, yet we know that is not the truth. Our modern environment effectively brainwashes us to pursue deeply ungratifying ends that leave the masses controlled by dependency and addiction.
Striving Against the Standard Model
This year, like every year the three most common New Years Resolutions are:
Get in shape/ Exercise More
Lose Weight/ Eat Healthier
Clean up the Finances
Yet, if history is any indicator, nearly all of these people will fail. In fact, 80% will quit by the end of January. Resolutions are started because we intuitively know that we need growth—that we won’t be happy looking in the mirror until we are proud of the person that we see. But growth is hard. It requires a consistency of discipline and effort that swims against the stream of modern norms.
The biggest reason New Year’s Resolutions fail is because of environment. We’re all immersed in a culture of mass consumption. When you are surrounded by people indulging every impulse, guilting you into having a brownie, popping sodas in front of you all day, who measure worth by cars and gadgets, whose interests rarely extend past a social media feed, and whose only conception of fun is an expensive night on the town, then these habits are likely to become yours. Any value or desired action that goes against the grain is unlikely to stick.
We live in the age of information overload. Drowning in stimulation most are pulled in a million directions allowing fatigue to funnel them to the paths of least resistance. What separates the few who succeed from the masses who fail? Not psychosis, but a change in values that usually comes from the decision to embrace a healthy counter-culture.
Let’s take two hypothetical people who have the same background and personality. Both have no understanding of the foundations of health and fitness. Person A finds a H.I.I.T. training program online and decides to do this program Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and to jog two miles on Tuesday and Thursday.
Person B moves to a much more health-conscious town in Colorado. The only person he knows there is his friend from high-school who works at the local CrossFit and loves biking, kayaking, and snowboarding on his days off. Person B moves in with his healthy friend and gets a membership at his box (gym).
Obviously, person B is far more likely to experience long-term health and fitness improvement because his environment nourishes those values. Person A has good intentions, but his road will be filled with far more pulls away from his goals.
This dynamic works with anything. Person A begins working at a job where his co-workers spend the day complaining about other workers or associates, whining about bad breaks, fantasizing about the lottery, looking for shortcuts, and telling stories of drunken debauchery. He likely obsesses on similar unfulfilling topics.
Person B starts a challenging job in a culture of excellence. The people there are clever, innovative, and eager to help each other. When they have free-time, conversation leans towards literature, psychology, policy issues, philosophy, and thrilling stories about their fascinating life experiences. Person B is far more likely to seek more learning, skill development, and exciting challenges.
While these examples note extremes, we can all create the positive momentum experienced by Person B and we don’t have to move cities or switch jobs to do so (although these drastic leaps can force tremendous growth). You are the culmination of all the patterns you reinforce through daily thought, action, and exposure. In the age of impulse, intentionality and awareness are the only avenues to success.
If You Don’t Like the Outputs, Change the Inputs
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind.” –Marcus Aurelius
What you need is to create clarity about what exposures are nutritious and which bring out the worst in you. If you eat lunch in a negative environment find a new group. Or, find a nice quiet park bench and a good podcast. Militantly resist guilt. This is a boundary issue. You have no obligation to remain a lesser version in order to make others happy. Ruthlessly reflect on your flaws and the influences that are exacerbating them. From there you can begin to craft an environment that propels you towards the person you want to be.
As social creatures, our relationships tend to have more influence on our behavior than anything else. We must seek out the right people. These could be disciplined, positive, purpose-driven people in your community, or even an organization that pulls the best out of you.
As a Strength and Conditioning coach I’ve been to hundreds of hours of clinics and coaching round-tables. Every time I go to one I meet amazing like-minded people who are similarly excited to learn and grow.
You can find good communities outside the work sphere as well. There are phenomenal organizations that bring people together in support of deeper ends. For example, Team RWB is an activity-based organization of veterans and non-veterans that is in most major metro areas. Hobby and passion are often the best way to inspiration. Consider learning a skill like ball-room dancing or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that requires group classes.
Writing for Breaking Muscle has been one of the greatest choices of my life. I’ve always loved writing. Taking thoughts in my head, clarifying them, and getting the message right is therapeutic on a level that nothing else touches. But after college I didn’t have much occasion to write anymore. Frustrated, one day, I just started writing and sent the finished product to my favorite fitness website.
This set off a chain reaction that has stoked a level of productivity and growth I wouldn’t have known was possible. Editors consistently prodded me to better writing. I connected with other Breaking Muscle writers and learned from their experience. The CEO took great interest in my development and continues to mentor through regular calls. Working on the Breaking Muscle Podcast, I had the opportunity to consistently speak with the industry elite, met a book author who pushed me to write the book in my head and has mentored me throughout the process, and I first connected with my philosophical brother, Justin Lind. Without Justin, IHD would be a shell of where it is, I’d have grown far less as a person, and I’d be missing an amazing friendship.
None of these networks was built overnight. A lot of study preceded my envelopment into these worlds and a lot of initiative was required at many inflection points. Even more, I’ve had to say no to a lot of other pulls in order to get this work done and find the time to continue learning and developing skills. It’s been a consistent work of reflection and intentionality.
“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” –Japanese Proverb
The lesson is clear. Consistently seek out networks of impressive people. Seek out projects that expose you to the right people and, through your efforts, create the conditions where mentors organically develop. School ends, but without growth, we are dying. We must always have mentors. The lessons and support of the right mentors will be more valuable than any class. They’ll prompt you to books, articles, podcasts, and an earnest thirst for growth. Seek them out both formally and informally. Most people will be more than willing to help if you ask for their advice. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing potential and helping someone get to the next level.
Feed the Wolf Through Self-study
“Leisure without study is death—a tomb for the living person.”
If all of this sounds a little intimidating, I get it. Start small. Just begin to dip your toe in more nourishing environments. The magic of today is that you can surround yourself with the most unbelievable people with barely any barrier to entry. You can immerse ourselves in the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or learn from any of today’s greatest minds on any topic.
Again, examine your environment and ruthlessly identify the media, books, magazines, and cultural messages that are pulling you from where you want to be. Then take the time to replace one or two. I recommend:
Podcasts: These are like on-demand radio and they offer amazing conversations and world-class education for free. For apple products use the podcast app and for others use Stitcher.
Audible: For under $15/month I can get almost any book in audio form. In this way I’m able to digest far more than I could normally read. If a book is especially long (I’m currently in the middle of Robert Greene’s 30-hour tome, The Laws of Human Nature), book credits build up for later months. I hear that many libraries are beginning to offer a similar service for free.
Books: Even with the mobile availability of audiobooks, I find actually reading books allows for an even deeper dive and more focused experience. A daily reader like the Daily Stoic, is an inspiring, focused, and therapeutic addition to any breakfast routine.
Other non-traditional media: There are amazingly instructive blogs (perhaps, IHD?), Ted-talks, Khan Academy, and even really great movies and documentaries that can excite us and open our minds to better ways of living. The problem with simply opening up Google, YouTube, or Netflix is that the infinite possible growth they offer is buried under even more garbage. When you wade into these waters it can be very important to have clear distraction boundaries. Try these tools. We’ve all been down that YouTube autoplay rabbit hole.
“If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” –Josh Waitzkin
The idea is not to consume more media, but to consume better. If you are unsure of where to start, please check out the IHD resources page. These are the Podcasts, Books, and websites that Justin and I think are most impactful and perhaps, essential, to pulling you towards an amazing life.
For more direction taking control of your actions and thoughts, please check out our new Free E-Book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery. At under 25 pages it is concise, actionable, and extremely effective at distilling the principles of deliberate action within the age of impulsivity. Justin and I had a blast putting it together and we hope you will love it!
There have never been more pulls on your time and attention funneling you towards actions you’d never objectively choose. The good news is we also have more power to change our trajectory than any time before. All the wisdom and ground-breaking ideas of the human history are a few keystrokes away. We can move countries, change jobs, start new hobbies, join charities, enlist in the reserves, or begin to learn almost anything.
Question of the Week:
You become the people, ideas, and experiences you consistently expose yourself to. Who or what influence can you subtract today in order to make your own growth more likely? You don’t have to go all scorched earth and quit your job (although, it might be awesome), just identify pulls that keep you limited and work to create boundaries that mitigate these influences. This might require a hard conversation. Militantly resist guilt. You have one life, so what the hell are you waiting for?