Pull-ups and Hard Work: From Avoidance to Embracing

As an executive coach, I often spend time with my clients supporting them to be more effective by focusing on and enhancing their strengths. This always made sense to me. It's more efficient to build upon your strengths than to commit to the heavy lifting of addressing weaknesses, particularly with no guarantee of success. Why else would there be an entire industry (and book shelf at Barnes & Noble) dedicated to strength-based assessments and development?

Recently, at the gym, I had an epiphany. Three months ago, I engaged a personal trainer to get stronger. I'm finding my new strength motivating, and want to continue building upon it. Last week, after a discussion about my future fitness goals, I blurted out, "I want to be able to do a pull-up." The dreaded pull up: it's been my nemesis since childhood. Attempting to climb the ropes in gym class brought tears to my eyes. I could never traverse the monkey bars. Decades later, I still avoid push-ups and any exercise that requires arm strength.

For more than 30 years, I've been telling myself that I have 'weak and wimpy' arms, and I can't and won't ever be able to do a pull-up. Not. Even. One. I've been fine with that and have focused on exercising my arms in other ways, and staying fit and healthy.

Imagine my surprise when my trainer confidently, and with great certainty, informed me that I will be able to do a pull-up before I'm 50--a mere 16 months from now. She was very clear about the path forward and how I would achieve a physical feat I had written off as impossible.

My reaction? At first, complete skepticism. My tired, old narrative ran on continuous loop in my head. "My arms are too weak...this is how I am...I've never been able to do this and never will be." Then I experienced a moment of possibility and imagination: what if I could be one of those strong women who can do a pull up? This new narrative piqued my interest. Then reality set in, as I wondered how much work it would take. My self-doubts bubbled up. Am I really up for this? Can I commit any more time and energy to physical fitness? I often teach about defining SMART goals, with the A standing for attainable. This goal just didn't feel SMART.

I expressed all of this to my trainer, and she moved me forward anyway. Her clear vision of what it will take for me to achieve this goal, and her encouragement, allowed me to get excited. While I never imagined that I could have strong enough arms to pull my own weight, someone else now believes I can and has given me a road map forward.

Since that day a few weeks ago, I've been working more on my arms while at the gym and finding very small chunks of time each day at home for exercises to build my back and arm muscles. Over time, I've begun to believe I may be able to do a pull up, and I'm excited about it.

My own excitement over working on a weakness has led to an epiphany about my work with others. Moving forward, I'm going ask some new questions of my clients. They might include:
•What is one thing you think you're really bad at, and wish you could do better?
•What goal have you given up on in the past, because you thought it would be impossible for you to accomplish? What would it feel like to actually accomplish it?
•What have others told you not to waste your time on that you're actually interested in pursuing?

These questions challenge the assumption that developing a weakness is fruitless. Not being good at something doesn't negate the worth of attempting to improve at it. Incremental change can have significant impact. The motivation I now have for working out is exponentially bigger than when I was just trying to stay in shape, because I am working toward a goal I previously thought was out of my reach. Working hard, heavy lifting, slogging to the finish line has its benefits.

What is your pull-up...what do you think you could never do or change? If the idea of attempting it holds an inkling of excitement and possibility, start planning your path forward. It may take some time, and it may be worth the investment. I'd love to know what you're willing to work hard to do.

Philadelphia-based leadership/executive coach Julie Cohen, PCC, is founder and CEO of Work. Life. Leader., a leadership and professional development program for emerging and developing leaders. She is the author of Your Work, Your Life...Your Way: 7 Keys to Work-Life Balance, a blogger for Working Mother and a columnist with The Philadelphia Business Journal. Follow Cohen at www.Facebook.com/WorkLifeLeader or @jccoach on Twitter.