Dev 📓 Journal

Notes and rants.

How The “Never Give Up” Narrative Failed Me

Right about every gym across the USA parades a horde of inspirational messages through their dusty halls. Many of them are corny, recycled versions of the same idea: “Never Give Up.” It’s a simple message that resonates through the walls of the concrete jungle, harvesting momentum from every grunted out PR rep, unrelenting in its judgment of gym denizens. All of this comes for good reason, as consistency is the foundation for results when it comes to gym goals, be it strength, endurance, weight loss, or what have you. It’s no secret that trainers and fitness guides stress consistency as the most significant factor in achieving one’s goals. This is due to the fact that we’re creatures of habit. If you can get into the habit of doing something, your body adapts to excel at that. Fitness is no different. So, it should come as no surprise that “Never Give Up” is the paraphrased slogan of gyms, sports, and fitness communities everywhere.
Ironically, the problem with the “Never Give Up” ideology is that it set me up for failure.
I started my fitness journey 5 years ago as an 110-pound vegan coming out of a grueling final semester at Oberlin College. The summer following my graduation, I fixed laptops and printers 9–5 at the campus IT department, where I’d worked part-time since my freshman year. That summer was meant to be a time for reflection, an invaluable break between the rigor of college and the grit of the “real” world. Since school was over and, like many in my position, I didn’t know what I was doing next, I had a lot of free time. Too much of that free time was more or less wasted playing Dota 2 with one of my best friends. However, thankfully, one of my coworkers convinced me to spend at least one hour after work every day hitting the gym before locking myself away to video games.
Truth be told, I’d only set foot in the gym a handful of times throughout my college career, and at least 75% of those times were to fix the printer. I was as scrawny as they came, and had been ridiculed for being an underweight vegan my entire adult life. This was especially infuriating, as I struggled to explain to people that my weak stature had nothing to do with my diet, which was true, to an extent. While I could’ve eaten better, I had been weak and skinny my entire life, certainly long before I was vegan.
So, that summer I determined to change all that. I set out to show people that I could be strong and gain muscle, and I’d do it all on a vegan diet. I laid a workout plan for my metamorphosis, and with the help of my coworker, who had years of strength training experience, I pushed myself to see results.
I succeeded.
By the end of the summer, I had put on 10 pounds, evened out my frame, and felt strong for the first time in my life. More importantly, I developed the technical knowledge and confidence to continue exercising outside of the infamous Oberlin Bubble, which is notorious for being nothing like the “real” world. I was still a long shot from where I am today, but it sparked my fitness journey.
Fast-forward one year.
I can’t afford to rent my apartment in Madison, WI because I have neither job nor savings. I move back home to help my separated parents fix up the house I grew up in. I have no long term plan, and perhaps fueling all of it, I haven’t worked out in months.
What happened?
Well, after leaving college I found a gym membership at an overpriced gym downtown. I won’t name it, but it was one of those trendy gyms with vague fitness buzzwords all over the walls (Agility, Speed, Endurance, Winning). A real damn fool, I started my gym membership before I even got a job (do not recommend). I did eventually find a job.
Things were going well, until I got sick with a stomach flu and missed a few workouts. Those were the first I’d missed since starting in college, and I remember beating myself up for them. Would I lose all my gains? Would my body be confused by the few missed days? Was I going to have too big of shoulders and tiny legs because my routine was off? What if my abysmal bench press suffered?
It ended up being no big deal. I got back to my plan, followed the motto, re-energized myself. “Never Give Up.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t last. Between dissatisfaction with my job and a rough breakup, I started to collapse, bit by bit. At first, I poured my frustration into my workouts, expecting catharsis. Instead, I found it made the gym feel like an enemy. I quit my job in an attempt to reinvent myself, but this made things worse. In early 2016, I fell out of my rhythm and turned to video games as a crutch. Things got worse and worse, until finally I ran out of money and was forced to go home.
By that time, I didn’t look at my workouts the same way. They felt foreign to me, and I was ashamed that I’d squandered my progress. Though I had only lost a little strength, I felt demoralized. I kept up a facade to my friends that I was stronger than ever and still working out because the thought of losing my confidence terrified me. In reality, the thought of working out made me want to vomit. I did the only thing all of the training guides and articles said not to. I gave up.
At this point, thank god I went home. If you take away nothing else from reading this, let it be to not underestimate the healing power of returning home. There’s no shame in it, either. That said, it was far from ideal — my separated parents had to work together with my younger siblings and me to fix up the house. It was a recipe for constant tension and regular shouting matches, but underneath all of that I had a chance to return to my South Virginian roots. I spent the mornings walking around the neighborhood I grew up in, nights reminiscing with old friends and my siblings, and all the time in between doing manual labor. I was content in the simplicity of it all, and the goal of fixing the house gave me something tangible to ground me when I was feeling down.
At the end of that May I landed a gig back in Madison as a programming instructor for iD Tech’s 2016 Summer Tech Camps. This was another stroke of luck, not because it was more in line with what I wanted to do, but because teaching kids is exhausting. I didn’t have time to be sad, and if I did it felt like the kids deserved better. Honestly, I didn’t have time for anything except the occasional quick beer on the terrace with old friends. I biked to work every day since I had no car. From the biking I slowly started to rekindle my athleticism. It took me months of mental gymnastics, inexplicable grief, and tip-toeing around my lack of confidence, but eventually I found my way back into the gym. I also started rock climbing, which turned into a near obsession by the end of the year.
Much to my surprise, I hadn’t lost as much strength as I expected. All of the technique was still there, though a little rusty. I doubled down on relearning what I had forgotten, and found a whole new desire to train. Somewhere deep down, my brain shifted from being ashamed that I’d given up, to happy that I’d had the opportunity to utterly fail. I was no longer afraid of giving up because I knew that I could start again.
Over the course of my training since then, I have given up more times than I can count, sometimes for a brief break, sometimes because life was too much to focus on training, sometimes for no clear reason at all. My exercise— and more importantly my expectations for myself — feel completely different than they did all those years ago in Oberlin’s gym.
So, now when I see these motivational signs telling me to not give up, I admit I feel a strange mix of pity and unease. I get that it’s meant to be inspirational. But I can’t help but wonder how many people take those messages to heart and lose faith like I did.
How many of those people could be empowered if, instead, we focused on encouraging people to find their own limits, exceed them when they can, and stop when it feels right? What could fitness look like if instead of focusing of a fickle, idealist routine, we encouraged people to fail on their own terms, to not be ashamed to give up?
As Health and Fitness are prominent industries in the modern world, it’s important to call in the culture when it gets away from us. The well-being of these industries relies on dedicated patronage. There’s nothing evil about that inherently, but it should give us all the more reason to pause and criticize the messaging they feed us. If the “Never Give Up” attitude works for you, great. I won’t tell you to abandon what works for you. It is motivational. What I will tell you is to remain critical of the macro-level culture pervading these industries, and how you fit into and influence that. Empowering your local workout communities (gym, running buddies, lifting circle) to talk about this is a good first step.
I’m more determined to push myself than I ever have been. I’m sitting healthy at around 135 pounds with a 300 pound deadlift on a good day, and damn it I’m happy. It’s because I know I can draw the line in the sand if I need to. I know now that I’m in control. I’ve learned that it’s possible to give up and still be consistent. I’m motivated by the fact that I can always return.
If you’re out there reading this and feel like you’re against the wall like I did, it’s okay to give up. It’s okay to start over. It’s the best thing I ever did for myself.
In the timeless words of Chance the Rapper,
“Today I missed my work out, but it worked out.”

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Devon Wells © 2022