Silver light fell from street lamps. It shimmered on the far corner of the subdivision pond, the barest sliver of color in a black-and-white predawn world. Everything about it was fake, manufactured, unnatural, but it was beautiful nonetheless. High above, a shooting star streaked across the sky, west to east, long enough for me to gape in amazement. At last it frittered out.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine named Jeremy Ward jogged around the corner at the west end of that manmade-but-still-gorgeous pond. His heart pounded in his chest, his lungs heaved and his legs pumped and pumped and pumped some more. He was a third of a mile from the end of a particularly brutal workout, and he was loving and hating life in gloriously equal measure.
He was sweating and heaving and striving as part of “Make America Burpee Again” (MABA), a monthlong project in which Ward, the five men out there with him that morning and 400 or so other members of F3 Nation, a free men’s workout group, attempted to do 3,100 burpees apiece over the course of January 2021.
You are capable of more than you think
If you had told Ward a month earlier that he’d run two miles and do 150 burpees in the wee hours of the morning for fun, he would have laughed derisively at you and considered the suggestion preposterous. But the deeper into January he got and the more burpees he did, the more burpees he could do—and the further away he got from his own limits. With every burpee, his limits moved.
As he ran toward the hint of the rising sun, glimpses of purple emerged in the sky. The sight of that pushed him over the edge. A rumbling built up in his chest. What a blessing, he thought to himself, to be out here destroying my body and restoring my soul. The rumbling in his chest grew stronger until at last bliss shot upward from his inner depths and came out of his mouth as he howled in delight. “A war cry,” he called it.
That’s one name for it. I’d call it the joy of doing more than you think you can.
To do a burpee, you put your hands on the ground, kick your legs out so you’re face down in a plank position, lower and raise your body, kick your legs back in, jump up and clap your hands over your head. If you watch people do burpees, it looks like they are falling down and getting back up.
The motto of MABA was “Fall down. Get back up. Together.” We envisioned it as a way to learn resilience after so many of us spent so much of 2020 falling down and getting back up, but far too often we did both alone.
I wrote a MABA newsletter and sent it to participants every other day. Responses flooded back to me. The men involved took great delight in the misery of physical exertion. Over and over again, men thanked me for “making” them do 3,100 burpees. (Umm, you’re welcome?!?)
Like Ward, they told me they were surprised they could do it. As they were passing this test they thought they would fail, they resolved to set the bar ever higher. Like Ward, they learned by falling down and getting back up that they were capable of more than they thought they were.
One man said 31 days wasn’t enough, he was going to shoot for 100. Another said he hated burpees before, but now he was enjoying them so much he was going to do them “in perpetuity.”
And then there was the man known as Disco Ball.
Challenging yourself to do more
Michael “Disco Ball” Leahy is a father, an Army veteran and a man bent on finding the outer limits of his own abilities. When he heard about MABA, well, it sounded cute. One hundred burpees a day wasn’t enough for him. He was already doing 150 as part of his normal fitness routine. But he wanted in on the togetherness of MABA, so he tailored it to his standards: He doubled his daily output from 150 to 300. When he realized that would put him at 9,300 burpees for the month, he upped the challenge again. “If I’m that close, I might as well do 10,000,” he said to himself. So that’s what he did.
He did at least 325 burpees every day of January. He finished with 11,001. With gentleness and respect, I asked him what the hell was wrong with him. He said he was in the midst of reading Can’t Hurt Me by retired Navy SEAL and endurance athlete David Goggins, which had inspired him to push himself. In the book, Goggins argues that most people use only 40% of their abilities. That idea drove Leahy throughout MABA.
Unlocking your potential by persevering
“I am trying to learn how to unlock part of the 60% of potential most people never unlock,” Leahy told me. “So (MABA) is a physical challenge, but maybe even more important it’s a mental challenge. To learn how to push yourself mentally through pain and fatigue and do it for a challenge that means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, that’s an invaluable lesson that most refuse to attempt to learn. It’s almost always the mental aspect of life that people never learn to break through to unlock their real potential.”
He compiled the burpees in chunks of 25, he told me, day after day after day. He used burpees like some people use meditation—as a way to calm and recenter himself. If he got annoyed at work or stuck on some problem he couldn’t figure out, he’d rip off a set of burpees.
He also turned MABA into a game with his 3-year-old daughter. “We play hide and seek. She has until I knock out 25 reps to find a hiding spot, then I go find her,” he says. “That’s usually good for 100 reps. It all adds up.”
Persevering over perceived limitations
It all adds up. Those are words Goggins would endorse. He writes that continual dedication to improvement, like Leahy described, is how you can exceed whatever your perceived limitations are.
As Goggins put himself through difficult challenges—Navy SEAL training, Ranger school, impossible-sounding endurance events—he repeatedly asked himself, “What am I capable of?” The answer changed and grew every time he asked as he ran farther distances, faster speeds, longer durations.
Goggins’ career as a Navy SEAL marked a stunning transformation from early in his life, when his weight ballooned to 297 pounds. As he says, he was not born an endurance athlete. He became one by working hard.
In the same way, you’re not going to fall out of bed this morning with zero experience and do 325 burpees in one day like Leahy, sell 10 houses, woo a dozen clients or whatever audacious goal you could reach but think you can’t. But if you do five burpees today and six tomorrow, or sell one house today and two tomorrow or whatever goal it is you’re trying to achieve, soon you’ll be doing more burpees, selling more houses or wooing more clients than you ever thought possible.
Goggins wrote his book to help readers identify and remove the part of their mindset slowing them down, telling them they can’t or shouldn’t push themselves, that a goal is out of reach. He illustrates his philosophy with his own physical training, but the same principle applies to whatever limits you think bind you. What are you capable of? There’s only one way to find out.
“The only person you are playing against is yourself,” he writes. “Stick with this process and soon what you thought was impossible will be something you do every f—ing day of your life.”
And not too long from now, you’ll be howling in joy like Ward.
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock