Becoming a Person Capable of Chasing Excellence

Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while that we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence. (Vince Lombardi Jr)

For those who don’t follow the sport of Crossfit, Ben Bergeron may not be a familiar name. However, if you look him up—and the athletes he’s coached—you’ll quickly discover that he’s figured out how to catch excellence and has the credibility to write a book titled Chasing Excellence.

Crossfit, if you haven’t heard of it, is a fitness phenomenon turned sport that strives for physical mastery in all domains of athletic performance—everything from weight lifting to sprinting to swimming to rope climbing and more. The pinnacle competition in this sport is the annual Crossfit Games, which crowns the world’s Fittest Man and Fittest Woman. This event is no joke. As Bergeron points out, the weight lifting performance to just get to this competition would have qualified athletes for the Olympic team a few years ago. These are serious athletes who embody excellence.

Bergeron is a coach in this sport who trained both the Fittest Man and the Fittest Woman in the 2016 Games. His coaching prowess is widely recognized by those who follow Crossfit, and his athletes—Mat Fraser, Karín Davidsdottir, and Cole Sager— demonstrated incredible growth to move past significant limitations and dominate their competition.

Chasing Excellence is structured around the story of the 2016 Games. However, it is not fundamentally a book about Crossfit, or even about athletics. Although it draws on sports imagery, Chasing Excellence is really about the framework Bergeron has uncovered for achieving excellence in any endeavor.

The lessons from Chasing Excellence are worth digging into, and so instead of a normal book review, this is going to be split into three parts following the three major sections of Bergeron’s book.


Chasing Excellence starts by discussing the framework Bergeron uses to approach training his athletes. He asks the question—when your competitors are the best, how can you be better than the best?

His answer starts with this pyramid:

He points out that most people focus on the top two rungs: Ability and Strategy. Football teams, for instance, put a lot of effort into strength and conditioning, practice, and developing a solid playbook. Bergeron’s approach is different:

It starts with the development of the person, of the character traits necessary to achieve at a high level. These character traits enable my athletes to follow a rigorous process designed to utilize every minute of every day toward improvement and progress. The process allows us to maximize every ounce of their abilities, which in turn shape our strategy.

We will discuss the process Bergeron mentions next week. This week, we’ll delve into his explanation of what is involved in developing the person.

Bergeron specifically calls out five character traits necessary to be a person capable of achieving excellence:

  • Commitment
  • Grit
  • Positivity
  • Embracing Adversity
  • Confidence

In recent years, the philosophical practice of Stoicism has gained in popularity as an alternative to the consumerism that is so pervasive in our society today. It is not at all surprising that a book on chasing excellence would include an emphasis on embracing challenges with a positive outlook and steadfast endurance.1

Commitment

Bergeron’s approach to commitment consists of identifying the areas necessary for success and then becoming obsessed with each and every one of them, working harder than you could ever imagine working to improve them. He quotes Tim Grover2, who wrote, “There are no secrets, there are no tricks. If anything, it’s the opposite: Whether you are a pro athlete or a guy running a business, or driving a truck or going to school, it’s simple. Ask yourself where you are now and where you want to be instead. Ask yourself what you’re willing to do to get there. Then make a plan to get there.”

Bergeron’s application of this concept is to imagine that you are a machine or a robot, and then design the optimal routine, fuel, and programming to make this robot version of yourself successful.

Grit

If commitment is the overall dedication necessary to become excellent, grit is the quality of being able to maintain that dedication consistently day after day. I love this quote from Bergeron:

“What is grit, really? It’s a word that’s been used to describe everything under the sun, but it means something specific: when things get hard, you push harder; when you fail, you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, but you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion—that’s grit.”

Positivity, Embracing, Adversity, and Confidence

Common sense tells us that a positive attitude will result in being happy, but most of us don’t realize that positivity or negativity can dramatically affect the tangible aspects of our performance. Bergeron explains the surprising results of scientific studies that correlate the state of our attitude with our ability to perform, whether it’s playing a classical instrument, typing, or competing in athletics. This principle provides the basis for Bergeron’s unbreakable gym rule, in large letters on the wall:

NEVER WHINE. NEVER COMPLAIN. NEVER MAKE EXCUSES.

Bergeron explains, “This is easier said than done. Not only is negativity hardwired into our DNA; it’s become ingrained in our culture: almost two-thirds of English words convey the negative side of things. Positivity, therefore, must be a learned behavior.”

For his athletes, positivity is a skill practiced just like lifting weights or climbing ropes. He explains it as “telling the right story”, and provides some examples from athlete interviews at the Crossfit Games to illustrate this. Positivity involves not whining, complaining, or making excuses—but also involves the proactive behavior of framing challenges, suffering, and adversity in a positive light. As his athletes practiced this approach to handling struggles, it transformed their mindset to automatically see the good things in their environment.

”An optimistic mindset is a distinguishable characteristic of elite performers because what the human mind focuses on and talks about is what we see more of. Stanford professor Arnold Zwickau calls this the “frequency illusion,” which is essentially a phenomenon that cause you to see more of the things you’re already focused on.”

This ties in with the quote Bergeron places at the front of one of these chapters: “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” (Henry David Thoreau).

Becoming a Person Capable of Excellence

The person—the characteristics and traits of an excellent performer—is the base of Bergeron’s training pyramid. When we think of what becoming excellent looks like, we usually focus on our specific abilities or on training methods. Bergeron’s approach upends this and places character above all else.

This mentality is consistent with both Stoic philosophy—which holds that one’s personal character and mindset is far more important the external realities of career or performance—and also with Biblical principles of Christian living 3. Becoming the right person allows one to consistently grow in the Process, which we will discuss next week.

  1. Stoicism embraces the pursuit of various character qualities, including αρετη (arete). While most commonly translated as “virtue”, αρετη also embodies excellence. Chasing excellence, in the sense Bergeron (or Vince Lombardi) use it, could be aptly phrased as “Chasing αρετη”.
  2. Personal trainer to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and the author of the book Relentless.
  3. N.T. Wright has explored this in-depth in his book After You Believe, which I will be exploring in some later posts.

Productivity: Doing the Right Thing and Doing Things Right

There’s a common saying that goes, “If you want something done, ask a really busy person.” Why is that? Productivity author Laura Vanderkam answers this way: “A good juggler can juggle more.”. Being busy forces a person to figure out how to be more productive by developing better processes for managing tasks, time, and output. Throughout my professional career, I’ve handled constant onslaught of increased responsibilities and growing commitments by honing my own approaches to productivity. I’ve been fortunate to come across great books on the subject and to read the works of people like Merlin Mann, whose blog 43Folders was a tremendous resource for me, and David Sparks, a lawyer whose carefully crafted ebooks on productivity have been a helpful resource.

Over the years, I’ve developed a systems approach to my own productivity that has enabled me to tackle a lot of projects and responsibilities. Over the next several weeks, I’ll share what’s worked for me, including concepts like:

  • The Hedgehog principle for evaluating opportunities
  • How good goal setting starts with facing your brutal reality
  • Why goal setting may not be in your best interest
  • Different approaches to keeping track of tasks
  • Why I carry a notebook everywhere
  • And more….

Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

The first concept—a foundational one—is that productivity alone is not enough. Strictly speaking, productivity is defined as increasing output. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I get 30% more done unless what I did helped move me towards my goals.

Similarly, having great aspirations is not enough. I can go through vision quests and goal setting exercises, define my mission, state my SMART goals, and make plans—and accomplish nothing if I am not productive.

My real objective—in life—is to glorify God by working hard and helping people. That looks like adding value to others through the gifts, talents, opportunities, and resources God has given me. Knowing how to do that well requires both productivity and planning.

Take a look at this diagram:

Accomplishment requires both planning/effectiveness and productivity/efficiency.

This illustrates the balance needed to maximize my lifetime accomplishment. On the one side, the value of planning is emphasized. Without a careful process of evaluating opportunities, understanding my strengths, and setting future goals, I will not be effective, I will not be able to get the right things done. On the other side, the value of productivity is included. Good plans require good execution, and thus knowing how to get things done right—efficiency is key.

Both sides are important and over the next several weeks, I’ll explain my approach to understanding and improving each of them.

Application for Today

Productivity advice is useless if it can’t help today or this week. Accomplishment requires both big-picture planning—“where are we going?”—and a focus on greater efficiency—“how should we go there?”. Take some time today and consider how the tasks and projects you are working on are moving you towards your longer term desires. And at the end of the week, review what you did and ponder how you could be more efficient in what you did.

Rejoicing in Suffering

In 1 Peter 4:12-16, Peter exhorts his readers to rejoice when they encounter “the fiery trial” and gives specific instructions on how to respond to this suffering. These are a short few verses, but they are packed with useful instruction and warning.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

1 Peter 4:12-16 ESV

So, if you suffer for being a Christian, according to Peter, you

  • Not be surprised (vs 12)
  • Rejoice (vs 13)
  • Not suffer for our wrong deeds (vs 15)
  • Not be ashamed, but glorify God (vs 16)

Let’s explore each of these instructions.

Do Not Be Surprised at Suffering

Suffering has not been foreign to the Church, and in fact, wasn’t unknown to Peter’s readers. There is some evidence to support the idea that this letter was written during a lull in persecutions: the church in Israel had come out of the initial wave of persecution described in Acts, and had entered a period of explosive growth throughout Asia Minor. The readers of this letter likely had not encountered significant trials, however, the Domitian persecution was around the corner and it is hard not to see a prophetic note in Peter’s tone in verse 12.

American evangelicals are often surprised when we encounter suffering. We shouldn’t be; as Peter alludes, suffering is not something strange or unexpected for Christians. Jesus warned that we, as disciples, will not be treated differently than the master. If He is maligned and abused by our culture, we should be as well.

After explaining how we should respond to suffering, Peter then explains that judgement is coming for everyone.

…But Rejoice In It

In this passage, Peter is not focused on understanding the suffering, but instead is explaining how we should respond. Instead of being surprised or dismayed, we are to rejoice. Why do we rejoice? Peter offers three reasons for rejoicing in the face of suffering:

  1. We rejoice because we get to share with Christ. Paul talks about this idea as well (Philippians 3:10, 2 Corinthians 1:5), which is rendered as “the fellowship of his sufferings” in the KJV. A different way to phrase this is, “To the extent that you are suffering in common with Christ, rejoice!” Since Christ told us we would share in his suffering if we were his disciples, sharing in his suffering should bring us joy—we get to participate in that fellowship.
  2. We rejoice in suffering so that we may also rejoice when His glory is revealed. This phrase commonly refers to the return of Christ in glory—we will rejoice and be glad at that time because of our place in His house, which we are getting to share in at this present moment. This phrasing does lead to a question: If I don’t rejoice when I suffer as a Christian, will be excluded from rejoicing at His return? Jesus warns, in the parable of the sower, about those who fall away from the faith when persecution arises, because they had no root in themselves (Mark 4:1-20). He also warns about those who will arrive at the judgment showing the mighty works they did in His name but will be rejected because He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). This implies two things: First, it is possible to be in the church, serving in ministries, and not have saving, justifying faith in Christ. In other words, to look like and act like a Christian, to hear the Word of God with joy, but end up in hell. Secondly, suffering for Christ is a litmus test for this kind of Christian: if your faith enables you to rejoice in suffering with Christ, then that faith will carry you home to rejoice when His glory is revealed. Put another way, if persecution and tribulation are enough to cause you to fall away, you never had true faith to begin with. The act of rejoicing in tribulation does not cause us to be saved, but does prove that our faith is saving faith.
  3. We rejoice because we are blessed. In verse 14, Peter explains that when we are mocked because of Christ, we are blessed—the Spirit rests on us. This echoes Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These promises are great fuel to power our faith in the midst of persecution. When we are insulted as Christians or suffer because of Christ, we are uniquely blessed. That is cause for great rejoicing!

Not All Suffering is Equal

Throughout this epistle Peter distinguishes between suffering in Christ and suffering for our own wrongdoing. In verse 15, Peter warns, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” Peter sandwiches this warning in between encouragements: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed,” and “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.”

Peter’s main thrust in this passage is how we should respond to suffering for Christ. He describes two specific aspects of this suffering in this passage: First, the “fiery trial” that has come to test us, and second, that this suffering comes upon us because we are Christians and associated with Christ.

This is not suffering because we’re stupid, sinful, or dumb. If we’re getting in trouble because of our foolish mistakes or evil deeds, our response shouldn’t be rejoicing but should be repentance. Proverbs is full of examples of how foolish or wrong actions typically result in unpleasant consequences. Those consequences are not “suffering for Christ”.

However, we are easily deluded. Our hearts lie to us, and our minds justify our behavior. It is easy to excuse our meddling in other’s business as “loving on them” or “speaking truth into their lives”. Our response to suffering ought to include careful, prayerful self-reflection to ensure we aren’t just reaping the consequences of our own wrongful deeds.

Don’t be Ashamed of the Name

At first glance, this admonition seems to contrast suffering as a Christian with suffering due to our wrongdoing. We should feel shame when we encounter consequences for our evil deeds. But there’s more to this. This verse echoes the words of Jesus in Mark 8:38: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” This same idea is repeated throughout the New Testament: if we are suffering because we belong to the family of God, we should embrace that and not be ashamed by it. We should glorify God that we are counted worthy of being called by His name, not deny that we know him. Instead of being embarrassed by our association with Christ, we should glory in it!

Suffering is a good thing!

Peter, James, Paul, and other apostles emphasized the value of suffering as a test for our faith. Like purifying precious metals in a forge, the “fiery trial” of suffering for Christ purifies us, forces our flaws, our doubts, and our sin to the surface, and results in the strengthening of our faith.

Peter’s main point in this passage is worth remembering: Don’t be surprised when you suffer as a Christian, but rejoice in it. Don’t be ashamed of your association with Christ. Glorify God that you get to share in His suffering.

In America, we’ve had it pretty easy as Christians. We don’t suffer often, and organized persecution is rare. That has not been the historic norm for believers and is not the case in much of the rest of the world. Furthermore, that appears to be changing here as well: witness the cases in the news where Christians are being discriminated against or punished legally for adhering to their faith. At a time like this, Peter’s message on responding to persecution is critically important.

Bible Reading for Bibliophiles

As the New Year rolls around, I’m reminded again of a profitable Bible reading practice I implemented several times in the past. Like most avid readers, I consume a lot of information from many authors and many genres over the course of the year. At the recommendation of some mentor—unfortunately I forget their name—I decided one year to put down all my other reading on January 1 and read only the Bible, cover to cover. The idea was to renew my mind but cutting out any distractions and focusing in on the Scriptures. I discovered three amazing benefits to this practice:

  1. I gained a deeper sense of the unity of Scriptures. There is a place for slowly reading Scripture and studying it deeply. However, reading the Bible quickly, over a short period of time, helped me see how it ties together much more readily. Stepping back from the detail allowed me to see the broad strokes of God’s plan for salvation.
  2. My mind was renewed. It is easy for me to become caught up in ideas, philosophies, and pursuits that are distractions from the pursuit of God. By sinking deeply into God’s Word over the period of a few months, I was able to refresh my focus and my priorities.
  3. I was able to reevaluate my information diet. In 2012, I read an interesting little book titled The Information Diet. The book itself was not that great, but the central premise changed my approach to media consumption considerably. Reading the Bible straight through at the beginning of the year—to the exclusion of all other reading—functioned like a Whole30 for my brain. After stepping away for a time, I returned to my books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers with fresh eyes and was able to curate my information diet.

For most Christians, reading the Bible straight through seems overwhelming. However, when compared to reading other books, it seems fairly doable. The Bible has about 750,000 words. Compare that to over a million words for the Harry Potter series, 455,000 words for the Lord of the Ring series, or 560,000 words for Atlas Shrugged (admittedly, this last book is unnecessarily verbose). Reading the Bible straight through is a large task, but not an impossible one, and for an avid reader, shouldn’t take more than 2–3 months.

I did this for several years. Each year I would choose a different plan or order for reading the books—topical, chronological, historical, etc. And each year, I found a deeper appreciation for God’s Word and greater insights into His redemptive plan.

Book Review: Future Grace

The title of this book does not do it justice. Paired with the subtitle, it makes a little more sense: “The Purifying Power of Living By Faith in Future Grace.” Even then, it still fails to accurately convey the compelling, life-altering teachings found in this book.

Future Grace seems to be much more essential than Piper’s other works. Some of Piper’s works—such as A Peculiar Glory (which I recently reviewed), God is the Gospel, or The Pleasures of God—are focused on theological concepts. While each of these books does have significantly practical implications for daily living, they approach this by investigating and defending theological ideas.

This book is different. Piper veers a bit from some of his core teachings—although they are still present—to focus with great intensity on a single, foundational idea, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Piper structures thirty-one chapters around an exploration of this idea, unpacking it to explain that we live righteous, Godly lives through faith in God’s promises of future grace. This grace is undeserved favor or merit, which we should recognize at the present; apprehending God’s great and glorious promises for future grace empowers a life of holiness now.

The book’s argument starts with the problems of the “debtor’s ethic” and gratitude-driven Christianity teaching that pervades evangelicalism today, and then considers the place of faith in future grace in the Scripture. One of the more insightful sections explores how the righteous in the Old Testament—pre-Christ—lived by faith in future grace, not by works. Piper’s exploration of this idea shatters the notion that God’s people under the old covenant were saved by works.

Another contrarian perspective woven through this book is the concept of conditional promises and the implications that one could appear to “lose salvation.” Piper is renowned as a Reformed theologian, but he argues powerfully against the misapplication of the doctrine of perseverance. In an exceptional chapter on lust, Piper quotes Christ and apostles to drive home the conclusion that failing to actively fight lust will result in eternal damnation—not because Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t effectual, but because faith that saves is also faith that fights sin. A person who is not fighting lust shows that they are not saved.

Future Grace is explicitly intended to be read slowly, one chapter at a time, almost like a devotional. This, in part, explains the thirty-one chapters, one for each day in a month. It is laid out with two or three chapters on principles and concepts, and then one chapter directly applying these ideas to specific areas of Christian struggle.

This book is a must-read for every Christian. It challenges erroneous ideas of how to live the Christian life and provides directly applicable instruction for taking the power of the promises in the Word and applying them, through faith, to our day-to-day walk.

Tensions and Theology

It is natural to strive for resolution; to leave no question unanswered, to connect all the dots, to make sense of it all. Somewhere deep within me is an urge to put everything in nice neat little boxes and have everything make perfect sense.

This drive is helpful sometimes. It has motivated me to deepen my understanding of how the body works and integrate diverse concepts into my teaching. And it certainly makes completing my studies easier.

However, this desire to resolve all questions, when applied to theology, has mostly led me astray. Continue reading “Tensions and Theology”

Book Review: Mushroom: The story of the A-Bomb Kid

On a rainy afternoon a few years ago, I spent some time at my favorite DFW-area coffee shop, Buon Giorno, while waiting for my flight to somewhere. I ended up spending an hour conversing with a total stranger—a grey-haired retired consultant who shared a love of books and a similarly broad range of interests. He recommended a couple good books, including this one, which I eventually found in a used book store.

This is the self-reported story of John Aristotle Phillips, who achieved national fame by designing an atomic bomb as his Junior physics project at Princeton University during the height of the Cold War. Phillips had deep philosophical concerns with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the relatively weak safeguards around fissionable materials. Although he was a below-average physics student, he set out to design a working atomic bomb using only declassified materials and the basic knowledge available to him as an undergraduate physics student. He succeeded in this task, and the popular attention his effort got helped to achieve one of his primary aims: improving protections measures around nuclear materials. Continue reading “Book Review: Mushroom: The story of the A-Bomb Kid”

Domesticated, Inoffensive Godliness

And when God raised him from the dead, he called the church to follow him into the same dangerous field called “all the world” (Mark 16:15). But are we willing to follow? In Ermelo, Holland, Brother Andrew told the story of sitting in Budapest Hungary, with a dozen pastors of that city, teaching them from the Bible. In walked an old friend, a pastor from Romania who had recently been released from prison. Brother Andrew said that he topped teaching and knew that it was time to listen.
After at long pause the Romanian pastor said, “Andrew, are there any pastors in prison in Holland?” “No, ” he replied. “Why not?” the pastor asked. Brother Andrew thought for a moment and said, “I think it must be because we do not take advantage of all the opportunities God gives us.” Then came the most difficult questlon: “Andrew, what do you do with 2 Timothy 3:12?” Brother Andrew opened his Bible and turned to the text and read aloud “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” He closed the Bible slowly and said, “Brother, please forgive me. We do nothing with that verse.”
We have I fear, domesticated the concept of godliness into such inoffensive, middle-class morality and law-keeping that 2 Timothy 3:12 has become unintelligible to us. I think many of us are not prepared to suffer for the gospel. We do not grasp the great truth that God has purposes of future grace that he intends to give his people through suffering.
From Future Grace by John Piper, pg 346

Book Review: A Peculiar Glory

I got this book signed by the author after hearing him lecture at the Lanier Theological Library.

This work is an exceptional study into the reliability of Scripture. While many books on this topic start from the standpoint of the historical and logical reasons to believe the Bible, Piper explicitly eschews this approach, preferring to argue that the Scriptures testify to their own reliability by showcasing, in unique ways, the indubitable glory of God. Along the way, he reviews the origin of the canon, the nature of textual criticism and transmission of manuscripts, and the unique authority of the apostles. Continue reading “Book Review: A Peculiar Glory”