Hard work is at the core of every single thing that's worthwhile to achieve. Everyone has their unique take on what that is, how to achieve it and their version of hard work. The only viable metric to know if you're advancing or not is competition.
Competition is good. It pushes us to do better than what we think we're capable of doing – because we all want to win. Competition lets us know where we fall short. I won plenty of hardware in my career. But I never captured the greatest prize in bodybuilding – the Mr. Olympia. In that competition I always had a mountain named Lee Haney blocking my path. I didn’t have the genes to produce the freakish width of his clavicles or the naturally narrow waist he had. I knew there was only one way in the world I was going to beat him. I was going to have to outwork him.
I learned this lesson early on in my bodybuilding career. By the time I was 14, I was working out like a mad man. When I got to high school I was well on my way to benching 400 and squatting 600 pounds as part of my regular workouts. Even though I was really strong for my age and size, I wasn't ready to compete. Until Paul came along. This kid was a year older than me; he had been in some competitions and brought home some medals. The other kids in the gym looked up to him. He was admired. Me? I was just a gym rat. And, one day in the gym, Paul let me know it. He flat out told me I was nothing compared to him. He had “competed” after all, and brought home hardware. Well, that was a giant mistake. Little did he know he just woke up the dragon slayer. At that moment I not only decided I could beat him, I was committed to beating him. I found out what show Paul would do next and I registered for it too - Physique ‘79.
I trained with everything I had for that show. I was so focussed. All I could think of was beating Paul and earning the respect of the guys at the gym. Well, show time came around and when the dust settled I had taken sixth place. Not a very auspicious start to my competitive career; it would take me three more years to not only win the youth section of the event, but the overall as well. But, the good news was, sixth place was good enough to beat Paul. I still had a long way to go to become a champion, but, beating Paul gave me the confidence to believe I could achieve what I set out to do.
Even though Lee Haney was indeed the preverbal mountain in my path to winning an Olympia title, I never thought I couldn't beat him. I believed it with every fiber of my being. When I think back on that time even I cringe when I think of some of my workouts. I basically doubled what everyone else was doing and did two sessions a day. Why? Simple - I wanted to beat Lee. I never got him though. I knocked on his door three times, but he never let me in. But, training with him and competing against him pushed me to achieve levels of greatness I would never have approached otherwise.
I’ve told Lee more than once that I thought there was at least one year, maybe two, where I had him beat. He laughs and tells me I might be right, but the Sandow is staying at his house. To become a champion, you have to beat the champion. And, in a subjectively judged competition like bodybuilding, it can’t just be by the narrowest of margins. You have to be the clear winner. You have to knock out the champ. I couldn’t do that, but I still reached new heights by trying with everything I had in me.
The lesson I learned was that the greatest competition I could face was not Paul or Lee Haney. It was with myself. Even though I was trying to beat these guys, and many more in between, it was the standard I set for myself that I had to beat. When Usain Bolt runs the 100 m or 200 m and sets a new world record, is he competing against the field or himself? Since no one is within three strides of him, the only way he can get better is to compete against himself.
Did the late Steve Jobs, the legendary CEO of Apple, sit in his office all day worrying about how he could beat Bill Gates? I’m sure the two men felt some personal competition. But, if Steve had spent all his time thinking about Bill, he wouldn’t have had the brain space to think of so many breakthroughs where he bested what he had done before. He competed with himself.
So, let me dare you. It’s time for you to get up on that stage- in what-ever venue of your life that you need a challenge. It’s time for you to show how far you’ve come and where you're headed. Here’s who you have to beat—you! You have to beat who you were when you were in the very best shape of your life. You have to beat you from a week ago and a month ago. And to get the trophy, you can’t win by just a little. You have to show up and score a knockout. Are you up for the challenge? There's probably someone like Paul who says you're nothing; they're going to whoop you.
What are you going to do about it?