The Deadly Paradigm of Mind vs. Body


Once in college I went to the gym. And then I never went again.

I decided that me and the gym just weren’t meant to be. My decision was aided partially because I felt deeply uncomfortable there. In college, there’s a lot of super ripped dudes showing off for the ladies. As hyper-skinny, tall, lanky guy, I also liked to show off. But I found the gym was precisely the wrong place to do it.

As a calculating and methodical man, I instantly knew that I needed to choose a battlefield more suited for my advantage in my competition with other dudes for the attention of women. So, I chose the classroom and the improv stage, where I could dual-wield my mind and wit in my attempts to impress the opposite sex. Alas, my efforts rarely succeeded (and when they did, always to disastrous effect).

My story and avoidance of the gym strikes at the core of a lot of misconception around mental and physical performance. Most people believe there are two types of people: physical performers and mental performers. We paint ourselves into one of two camps, drawing all sorts of assumptions about what that means for ourselves and for others.

Don’t believe me? Listen to the way people talk about jobs. There are people who perform “mental work” and people who perform “physical work.” There are “knowledge workers” and “manual laborers.” There are those who “work with their hands” and “paper pushers.” Between these two groups, there’s a wide chasm, with both frequently holding disdain for one another.

When I went to the oilfields and did manual labor for a year, I betrayed my “knowledge work” culture and stepped into something new. When I was there I quickly learned that confessing to holding a college degree was a bad move, as very few people had one and it made you sound pretentious when it came up. I made deliberate attempts to sound less educated so I would fit in with this new culture. What I learned there is that people working manual labor jobs often feel those in the office are idiots who don’t have a clue about how things actually work. And those in the office often reciprocate those feelings.

We often believe that those who excel at manual labor lack intelligence and that those who excel at knowledge work lack physical skill. We play perfectly into this false paradigm where it’s physical versus mental, as though these two are diametrically opposed to one another and have no overlap.

Picture this: You’re walking through the mall and you see a massively ripped guy walking in front of you. A little further up, you see another guy wearing skinny jeans with glasses.

Of these two men, who has the higher IQ?

Are you sure?

There’s another toxic idea of the “meathead” in the gym. These muscle-bound dudes often get portrayed as uneducated brutes in media and culture. Every once in a while, you find a “nice” one like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The fact that The Rock gets commented on for being “nice” is precisely because people don’t expect muscle-bound guys to be nice. Which is strange. Because somehow we imagine that having big muscles automatically makes you a jerk.

In reality physical and mental performance are not at odds with one another. Instead, these two attributes are synergistic, with physical performance improving mental performance and mental performance improving physical performance.

This is why high-level business executives are so often into long-distance cardio. This is why many of the greatest craftsmen are brilliant intellectuals. This is why the High School Valedictorian was also the quarterback of the football team and why Shaq is actually Dr. Shaq (having earned his PhD in 2012).

The fact that physical performance is enhanced by cognitive ability makes sense. After all, it’s the brain that controls all action and activity of the body. Thus, enhanced mental performance should result in an improvement of your physical abilities. This sort of synergistic relationship is most readily apparent among the artists. There’s a reason why some of the brightest minds in history produced such brilliant art; they were able to translate their mental capacity into physical capacity.

This relationship works in reverse as well. When we exercise we engage our mind and literally improve our neurological processes. Sedentary lifestyles dull the mind and weaken our brain’s capacity to to learn and absorb information. Some of the brightest thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries would prime their thinking by taking long walks. This is because our minds and our bodies are inexorably linked.

The reason it’s important to remove the false mind versus body dichotomy is because it’s hurting both our minds and our bodies. Too many people put themselves into one of these two camps at the exclusion of the other. The intellects who won’t come close to a gym are just as much of a problem as the bodybuilders who won’t crack a book. Both play to stereotypes about what it means. And these stereotypes are fundamentally wrong on a physiological level.

There’s a reason why as knowledge work has increased in this country our level of physical fitness has reduced drastically. Most knowledge workers don’t see the state of their physical bodies as being related to their mental performance. And often their bodies and minds fall into a state of disrepair together. It is thus that the idea that physical activity has no connection to mental activity results in many people not taking the time to take care of themselves and get the exercise their bodies and minds so desperately crave.

All of this comes because we don’t value the mind and body equally and see them both as being valuable parts of what it means to be human. If we value either one over the other, we fall into a state of being unbalanced. This unbalanced state produces chronic diseases (due to inactivity) and a reduced ability to appreciate the subtle complexities of life (due to a lack of knowledge).

By embracing the connection between physical and cognitive abilities, we embrace the dignity of both knowledge work and manual labor, as to do both with excellence often requires keen mastery of knowledge and skillful application of abilities. For this to be true in our companies, we must recognize that the C-suite and the shop floor are both dignified and have their place for thoughtful, hard-working professionals to find meaning and fulfillment.

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