Picture a guy stepping up to a barbell in a crowded gym. He’s doing a 1RM, a one-rep maximum effort lift. He wants to deadlift as much weight as he possibly can for one rep. He’s got a weight on the bar that he’s never lifted before. It’s close to, but just beyond, his established 1RM. He walks up to the platform, stamps his foot, pounds his (possibly bare) chest, grunts, grabs the bar, completes the lift. He’s got a new PR, a personal record. He can say without a doubt that he’s getting stronger. He’s just recorded data to back it up. His training is justified, his life choices have meaning, his actions have propelled him one increment closer to his goal. This is a big moment, and he’s, very correctly, elated. He slams the bar down, shouts, pulls a face, eyes wide, neck bulging, maybe high fives his buddy, maybe picks up the nearest gym chick and carries her off into the sunset to pass on his numerically verified virility.
This is a man whose fire burns hot. His energy is high as a blazing bonfire, and he signals to everyone nearby that he’s about to ramp up the heat. Everyone sees his energy. Everyone feels the warmth of his enthusiasm. He’s a beacon that’s hard to ignore. Lesser fires are smothered by his smoke.
There’s nothing wrong with this at all. Many people go their whole life and never even get warm. They smolder low and discretely until life quenches them. The spark of life in them goes out. Their energy and passion and virility, if they possess any, fades away on the winds of history and leaves no trace. It’s a damn shame to see it happen.
Considering the finitude and uncertainty of our most valuable resource, time, we must live as much of the life we are given as is possible. To continue with the fire symbolism I began with, we must burn as hot as we can for as long as we can. We could all do with a little fire in our bellies, a little of that spark of life which is codified in the Norse Rune Kenaz.
But there are different ways to burn.
Many men benefit from burning brightly in the sight of all who would stand witness. They need to “psyche up” or “get in the zone” before shooting for glory. They thrive on the attention and feedback they get by broadcasting their efforts to others. They are the howling berzerks, Cuchulain in his riastrád, Thor smashing giants, a warrior in his frenzy, Samhain bonfires. You could argue that this is the default energy of men, particularly younger men.
But some fires burn cold. Some fires spread no smoke. Other men function to their highest level when they are detached, emotionless, inconspicuous, cold. They do the work quietly, not drawing attention to themselves. Their energy is not high and mighty but laser-focused. When they achieve victories, crush records, surpass previous limitations, they share the achievement only with themselves or those who might be interested. I consider myself one of these men, the cold ones. I have never felt comfortable in the spotlight, almost as though there were something wrong with seeking praise for an achievement or taking credit to heart even when it wasn’t pursued.
One gym I used to frequent had a PR bell. A real brass bell you were pressured to ring when you made a new PR. It was a gym rule. When you rang the bell, everyone clapped. It was cool and served its purpose well for motivating and validating people’s efforts, especially newbies, and we all got a little pulse of energy when we heard that bell ring. It meant someone was moving ahead, so you better step up your game, or you’d be left behind. But I never once rang that bell. A lot of PRs were smashed while I trained at that gym, but I did it in silence. One day one of the gym owners, a friend of mine, said my arms were really bulking up. “What have you been doing?” he asked. “Strict muscle-ups on the rings,” I said. He said he’d never even seen me on the rings, despite us being in the same room three or four nights a week for two years.
That’s how I prefer to operate, always has been. When I was in Army training, one of my instructors told me I was “the ultimate Grey Man.” The Grey Man, in military parlance, is the guy in the group who meets all the standards but doesn’t excel to the point that he stands out. He doesn’t fail, doesn’t cause problems, but doesn’t draw attention to himself either. He just meets the standards he’s required to meet, keeps his head down, his mouth shut, and gets through the training or mission like a professional. No big deal. Many soldiers view the Grey Man in a negative light. Some instructors want everyone to stand out, to show their strengths and weaknesses. That makes their job easier and gives them something to write in their reports. But most, I think, respect the Grey Man. He’s not the best, but he’s always there, and he always gets the job done. He’s reliable to the point of being forgettable.
If I really was the ultimate Grey Man, it certainly wasn’t intentional. That’s just my nature. When I succeed at something, I indulge in a private moment of self-validation before moving on to the next target, executing the next mission, beginning the next right action, crossing the next horizon. The thing about being the Grey Man is that he usually gets found out once those in a supervisory position get enough exposure to him. “We figured you out,” said my instructor in Basic Training. After he “figured me out,” he pushed me harder than he previously had. He gave me responsibilities beyond the remit of a mere recruit, watched me in PT, tried to make me crack. But as usual, I kept turning up, kept performing somewhere in the upper middle of the pack, and kept getting things done. Such is the life of the Grey Man. Seeking glory is neither in his nature nor on his list of priorities.
In matters of physical training, my only validation is the number I log in my training journal and the contentment of a job well done. I prefer to burn cold, in cover. So, in that gym, I never rang the PR bell. But I did make PRs, and that’s what I really wanted.
So what’s the difference between the cold fire of the Grey Man and the inferno of those with high energy? In the areas which matter most, the results, there’s no difference. Some men get results with open aggression, while others get results by quiet determination.
Sometimes you assault the enemy from the front, sometimes you sneak around his flank. Some fights require a fist to the chin. Some fights call for a little limb manipulation and a choke. There are multiple avenues of approach to every goal. Neither method is better or worse, only more or less relevant to the individual in question. It’s essential t
o know your default mode of operation and know when that mode of operation matches the situation. I don’t actively strive to be the Grey Man, to control my energy, to go unnoticed. That’s just my nature. If my nature were otherwise, I’d behave otherwise in the pursuit of my goals. But except for those situations which require more heated aggressive action, my default mode of operation is very effective for me.
Before I lift, or run, or wrestle, or tackle any physically demanding task, I quieten my mind, breathe slow, focus my vision, and get to work. Stephen King describes this state as “Gunslinger cold” in “The Dark Tower.” It is a forced silencing of thought and internalization of awareness. When I’m in this state of coldness, my mind isn’t empty. Rather, any internal or external distractions which arise simply slide off my mind like rain running down a glass dome. I can literally feel these distractions seek me out and feel them sliding down into nothingness. It’s a physical sensation, and it’s very relaxing. The point is not that I empty my mind. That’s impossible. I simply close my mind and focus on one thing at a time. Breathe. Brace. Lift. Return. Breathe. Then my mind can open again. This is how I approach lifting weights and my work in general, and I’ve found it to be successful, but other men find success using different approaches.
But as is the case with all strengths, weakness is never far away. Strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin. While my discreet, clandestine nature serves me well in many of my undertakings, there’s also a downside. I’m the Grey Man, the one who works but doesn’t seek attention. This is a problem if you’re trying to, for example, promote a book, or a website, or a product, or a brand. For writers like me, promoting our work is an essential part of the whole process. What’s the point of putting seventy thousand words into a document, reading over it multiple times, revising to make it as clear and relevant as possible, painstakingly correcting typos and poor grammar, packaging it in an attractive and original cover, and then not telling anyone about it? Or if you do tell people about it, doing it ineffectively because to be overly loud and self-aggrandizing contravenes your Grey Man nature.
I’m guilty of this weakness, this failure. At the time of writing, I’ve written three published books, one of which was on the subject of brand promotion (which is ironic considering that I don’t always practice what I preach in that book), and yet I didn’t effectively market or publicize the first two of my books. I’m in the process of writing multiple other books, some of which have many thousands of words down, yet I have let my social media presence wane. Part of the reason for this is that I’ve been focusing my energy elsewhere in my personal life, but a large part of it is the fact that my fire burns cold, so to speak, meaning that I’m very capable of doing the work behind the scenes, but less inclined to talk about it, to promote it.
So this operating system of mine is not without its flaws, but neither is yours. What matters is that we recognize what our default behavior is, identify where that behavior is strong or weak, and adjust our behavior to achieve the desired result. Recognize your weakness, then use the fire of your mind to burn that weakness up in the engine of conquest. Your fire might be hot, or it might be cold like mine, but what matters is that we do as much as we can with whatever we’ve got. I’m putting mud fire to good use. I’m creating art and working on my flaws. Are you? If so, contact me and let me know what you’re working on.
The thoughts in this essay were ignited by the phrase “smokeless fire,” which I first read in an article by Paul Waggener who said,
“Make of your bodies a temple, of your will a weapon, of your mind a smokeless fire that reduces this world’s lies into ashes.”
This expression stuck with me, but it was only a few years after I read it that I concluded that the smokeless fire of the mind could take different forms. Hot or cold. Visible or unseen. Both effective in their own way.
Find out how your inner fire burns, hot or cold, then feed that fire your own inadequacy, your weakness, your doubt, whatever is holding you back. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t fight the enemy on his chosen territory. If the frontal assault isn’t working for you, sneak around the side. If aggression isn’t working, try manipulation. If your fire doesn’t burn hot, then be the coldest man in the room. Either way, do the work you’ve got to do, in the most effective way you can, to get the results you need.