"Just Show Up"
By Tim Paulson
My name is Tim Paulson. Some of you may know me from a noon or 9am class the past few years, and some may know me from failing 50 consecutive handstand walks at the 2022 Sadie Slam final (sorry Alie). Either one is fine.
I’ve been at COL now since December of 2019 - crazy how fast almost 4 years goes by!
When I heard that Jason, Sarah and Carter were looking for member content for their CrossFit City of Lakes blog, I decided to reach out and offer to share something I wrote about CrossFit back in November of 2017, just a few months after I started at my old gym CrossFit MyTown in Medina MN.
Truthfully I’m not one to jump at the chance to share my thoughts publicly with a large group of people. That being said, I’m choosing to share this because I think CrossFit matters. A lot. I think there’s a huge physical, mental and emotional void in our society at large (exacerbated by Covid) that CrossFit can help fill through the health and communal aspects it helps foster. I don’t think it’s CrossFit exclusively, and I’m not making the case that it’s perfect, but I think it’s a pretty damn powerful tool for physical, mental and emotional health delivered through fitness and community. Plus we have fun doing it. Fun also matters. A lot.
Through my job I’ve traveled all over the country and dropped in on probably 50+ CrossFit gyms over the years. I can tell you that what we have at City of Lakes is not typical. Our coaching is impressive and focused on the right things (stimulus, form, encouragement), and we have a community that I’m proud to be a part of and feel a responsibility to actively contribute to.
“Third Places” is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. It refers to places that are separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and work ("second place"). Typically they’re churches, cafes, clubs, gyms, bookstores, parks, etc. They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships. Ray argues that they’re important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place. I’ve found CrossFit City of Lakes to be the perfect form of a third place. It allows us to build all sorts of healthy physical habits, but perhaps more importantly gives us a sense of community, a sense of place, and a sense of pride in all of those. I truly believe this place is good for the soul.
I’m going to give some background on me personally so you have some context when you read the letter I wrote to the owners of CrossFit MyTown back in February of 2018. Hopefully someone has a chance to read this someday that’s considering starting CrossFit and this can help provide some confidence to just get started.
Tim Paulson Background
I’ll be 34 years old in September of 2023, married 8 years in October, and my wife and I have an (almost) 6 year old and a 1 year old. Back in October of 2017, we had our first child. I remember thinking after a few weeks that if I don’t get in some form of fitness more consistently, I could slip into being very unhealthy, very quickly. A month later my wife and I joined CrossFit MyTown in Medina where Molly Miller, now also a member a CrossFit City of lakes was our first coach.
The letter you’ll read is me as a 28 yr old with a newborn writing to Molly and her brother Johnny after my first 3 months in CrossFit. I’m now ~6yrs in, and what I wrote then rings just as true today. Everything I say here about MyTown is echoed at COL.
I’ll offer this in closing: The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last 6 years is that consistency trumps everything. You don’t have to beat anyone in a workout or feel like you’re about to die for this to work. Just show up. You don’t have to be great at the “sport” of CrossFit, just show up. If you just make it a habit and keep showing up consistently, you’ll be stronger, healthier, more flexible, and more capable than you ever realized you could be. Especially as a parent.
Just Show Up!
Letter from 2.14.2018
One of my favorite books I've ever read is called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It breaks down basically how we develop a talent in something - scientifically, socially, physically and emotionally. If you want to understand truly how people perfect a skill or talent or craft, then go check that book out.
I mention that because Coyle just released a new book that I'm in the middle of reading: The Culture Code. He explores where great cultures come from, how you build and sustain them in your group, and how to strengthen them. He goes inside and studies some of the most successful organizations in the world, everything from Navy Seal Team Six to the San Antonio Spurs.
I just recently started reading the book and I can't help but draw comparisons to CrossFit MyTown as I read it. One thing about me: I'm annoyingly curious. If something or someone is great, I want to understand why and how? What specific factors made someone or an experience become what it is? Why is one thing more enjoyable than another?
Throughout the first couple of weeks coming here, I've been thinking and wondering a number of things constantly: Why the hell have I been excited to get up at 4:45am to go workout lately, even after I've had to get up in the middle of the night with my nearly 4-month old? I've worked out my whole life, I've been an athlete most of my life, why am I more excited about this? Why is this connecting so much more significantly than what I've been doing at Lifetime for the past year and a half when I'm doing literally the exact same physical movements? Is it "CrossFit" or MyTown specifically that brings that out? Why is my wife all of a sudden motivated and excited to come to a group fitness thing less than 4 months after having a child when she's never done this kind of thing in her life? Why have I been consistent with my healthy food habits for over a month? I always cheat on these things - why do I not have the desire to cheat this time??
It can't be only the physical aspect of "CrossFit" - plenty of us have done similar exercise things, individually or in groups, and not had the same type of following, loyalty or excitement that this seems to generate.
It's fascinating to me, and through reading The Culture Code I think I'm starting to understand why.
Coyle noticed 10 things specifically when he spent time with these various high performing cultures:
- Close physical proximity, often in circles
- Profuse amounts of eye contact
- Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs)
- Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
- High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
- Few interruptions
- Lots of questions
- Intensive, active listening
- Humor, laughter
- Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.)
Sound familiar at all??? Holy shit - if I had to describe my experience the past couple of weeks, that might be what I'd write word for word.
Coyle goes on to explain that the underlying foundation for high performing cultures is the concept of psychological safety, and our primitive and unconscious emotional ties to it. Psychological safety is basically how our brains intuitively respond to social belonging cues.
"We have a place in our brain that's always worried about what people think of us, especially higher-ups. As far as our brain is concerned, if our social system rejects us, we could die. Given that our sense of danger is so natural and automatic, organizations have to do some pretty special things to overcome that natural trigger. The key to psychological safety is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it. He says, "a mere hint of belonging is not enough; one or two signals are not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over."
That occurs every day at MyTown. Not just from the coaches, but from everyone. I was shocked at how many complete strangers were genuinely excited about me getting a stupid muscle up! One of my first days, a woman (I can't remember her name) was telling me 'not to worry if I have to do less weight than the Rx for the workout - you'll get there!' In my head, I was thinking, "uhhhh ok lady….I'll be just fine." But subconsciously it was another signal of belonging confirming my psychological safety in this environment. (p.s. she was so right. I definitely couldn’t do the Rx)
I've also realized how incredibly significant both the Beyond the Whiteboard app and the active Facebook group is to the whole experience and culture here. When you constantly see others experiencing and sharing the exact same actions and emotions as you are, it directly correlates to a significantly increased effort from you. Check out this other passage from the book:
Let's take a closer look at how belonging cues function in your brain. Say I give you a moderately tricky puzzle where the goal is to arrange colors and shapes on a map. You can work on it as long as you like. After explaining the task, I leave you to your work. Two minutes later, I pop back in and hand you the slip of paper with a handwritten note. I tell you that the note is from a fellow participant named Steve, whom you've never met. "Steve did the puzzle earlier and wanted to share a tip with you," I say. You read the tip and get back to work. And that's when everything changes. Without trying, you start working harder on the puzzle. Areas deep in your brain begin to light up. You are more motivated -- twice as much. You work more than 50 percent longer, with significantly more energy and enjoyment. What's more, the glow endures. Two weeks later, you are inclined to take on similar challenges. In essence, that slip of paper changes you into a smarter, more attuned version of yourself." Here's the thing: Steve's tip was not actually useful. It contained zero relevant information. All the changes in motivation and behavior you experienced afterward were due to the signal that you were connected to someone who cared about you.
In comparison, the "tricky puzzle" here are obviously these ridiculously difficult workouts and elaborate movements we go through every day. The notes that are slipped from another participant are the combination of scores we see on the Beyond the Whiteboard app and the notes of advice and encouragement that we see in the Facebook group. It's not even the actual content of the advice or the scores, it’s the reminder that we're part of this culture and, as Coyle puts it, we are "connected to someone who cared about you".
One last passage from the book and I'll be done:
On brain scans, this moment is vivid and unmistakable, as the amygdala lights up in an entirely different way. "The whole thing flips," says Jay Van Bavel, social neuroscientist at New York University. "The moment you're part of a group, the amygdala tunes in to who's in that group and starts intensely tracking them. Because these people are valuable to you. They were strangers before, but they're on your team now, and that changes the whole dynamic. It's such a powerful switch -- it's a big top-down change, a total reconfiguration of the entire motivational and decision-making system." All this helps reveal a paradox about the way belonging works. Belonging feels like it happens from the inside out, but in fact it happens from the outside in. Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues:we are close, we are safe, we share a future.
It all sounds really simple -- and it is -- but it's not easy to create and sustain. From what I feel in my first few weeks, you've created a place that gives "a steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues." It's a pretty cool thing and you should be proud of it, as I'm sure you are. I'm excited that Missy and I are a part of it now.