I never thought I’d be quoting Socrates between pushups and lunges.
Something weird happened this week. Two things I hate—philosophy and guys at the gym who give out unsolicited “advice”—collided just as I was in the middle of a set of bench presses.
Call me a cynic, but I truly believe that going to the gym brings out the worst in people, myself included. I get irritated by the people who stand right behind you when you’re on the machine they want (hint: it makes me go slower). I get annoyed when people neglect to wear deodorant, and can’t help but roll my eyes at the guys who bust out complex yoga when it’s clearly not yoga class. Subsequently, I get cranky. But the guy that annoys me the most is the one who offers unsolicited advice.
Here’s the thing: if you’re a personal trainer and you’re looking to drum up some business by pointing out how to lift better or safer, then I’ll give you a pass. I respect the hustle. It’s the self-proclaimed fitness “experts” or “enthusiasts” that incense me. Why do these guys think they know everything?
Just this past Wednesday I was on the treadmill when I noticed the guy next to me, roughly my own age, trying to get my attention. I took off an earbud and he pointed out that he “couldn’t help but notice” that I’d gotten right on the treadmill without stretching. He was correct of course, because I’d gotten to the gym around 8:55 and Modern Family started at 9:00. I told him this much and was prepared to reinsert my headphones when he pointed out all the damage that not stretching could do and offered to show me “the best” stretches for preventing injury. I declined as politely as I could and turned up the volume.
The next day I was back at the gym, about to finish a set of bench presses when a different guy, a tad older than me, stopped to say that he couldn’t help but notice my technique was off and would I mind if he showed me how to fix it. I declined but he persisted, saying that he’d pulled a muscle doing what I was doing. I asked him if he had any professional training. He said he read a lot of Men’s Health and worked out a ton. He knew what he was talking about. I politely informed him that I was OK, and that unless he was a certified instructor that I’d take my chances on injury. “You don’t have to be an asshole about it,” he told me, “it’s not like you know everything,” and huffed away.
The thing is, I don’t think I do. While I do sometimes have a hard time asking for help, I’ve never been one who’s claimed to know everything. Quite the opposite actually. I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about a topic. As for working out, I’m no slouch. I too read Men’s Health and have been going to the gym with some frequency for a number of years. I know enough to talk with you and could even answer some questions. I realize though, there’s a lot I don’t know. Why can’t more people adopt that mindset?
And it’s not just the gym. How many guys do you know who are experts at everything? They will argue with you about politics, sports, religion and whatever their chosen profession is and never claim to be wrong or admit that they don’t know how to do something. It’s everywhere. I’d hazard a guess that they believe this makes them appear smarter. They’ve obviously never studied philosophy.
I said I hated philosophy and I’m sticking to that for the most part. I went to a Jesuit college (University of Scranton) where we were required to take so many philosophy credits to graduate. My freshmen year philosophy course was awful. It was at 8am, the instructor talked non-stop for almost the entire hour, and I found the entire thing far too deep and cerebral (especially for 8am). However, the one thing I do remember is Socrates’s assertion in The Apology. I’m paraphrasing here: a wise man admits to knowing nothing.
As someone who often knows nothing, this stuck out to me, and all these years later is still something I firmly believe. If I really think about it, all the smart people I know — the people I truly admire for their intelligence — have no problems admitting they were wrong, no problem admitting they don’t know something, admitting that there’s more for them to learn or openly asking questions in order to gain more knowledge. That’s what Socrates believed, that by asking questions and opening up a dialogue we learned and that we never truly stop learning, that the wisest of us are cognizant of this.
Once you’re aware of this it’s then hard to pretend to be the authority on anything, even things you are very knowledgeable about and even if you are informing others of something you’re somewhat of an expert on. It makes you self-aware of the way you come across. It’s been an incredible philosophy to use as a teacher, I want the students to see that I’m not the end-all know-all being and that I too could learn, and that has lent me much more authority than never being wrong.
On a very basic level it’s being self-aware, and since I am self-aware I’m going to stop before I come across as the guy who has all the answers to life because, as I mentioned, I don’t.
And that’s the story about how I thought about Socrates and Plato at the gym. While it’s a valuable lesson, I hope it doesn’t happen again anytime soon.