I first came across this strange man on the ‘Big Think’ Youtube series in late 2014 (1). One of my worst habits is letting Youtube autoplay eat up hours of my life (I know I can switch it off but I secretly don’t want to). I don’t watch cat videos. For me it’s interviews, lectures, documentaries, 4 hour podcasts on the Spanish-American war. I love learning about stuff. But there comes a point where you’ve hit critical mass: you’ve absorbed enough. You need to go out and apply that knowledge.
On this occasion, I was listening in the background. I heard that strained, gravelly voice. Henry Rollins was talking about his dead end job scooping ice cream at a Häagen-Dazs store. One day, he answered the call to adventure. He became the lead singer in his favourite punk band, Black Flag. I’d never heard of them or listened to their music, although I love some of their contemporaries. Regardless, his story held me. Something resonated. Then the next video started playing and I forgot all about him.
Then I came across his essay, ‘The Iron’:
Full text can be found here.
I touched my first weight aged 17, when a close friend (and fairly serious athlete) took me down there at my behest. I couldn’t even bench press the bar. My skinny arms shook with exertion. I know now it was my nervous system struggling to deal with the paltry 20kg weight. My friend lifted it off my chest and laughed, embarrassed for me.
I couldn’t throw a ball at school. I once gave myself a nosebleed attempting to shoot a basketball (imagine that). I touched the ball in a game of football approximately once in my 5 years of secondary school. I ran the length of the pitch. It was glorious. I could hear the roar in my ears, imagining how my life would be different now – then I missed an open goal and it over in an instant.
So that was the sole experience I had of my physicality before I started tangling with ‘The Iron’ on a regular basis. In between then and now (about 6 years), I’ve probably put on about 45lbs – some of that’s puberty of course. But most of it is what I put myself through in the gym. Before I knew it, I could deadlift and squat over double my bodyweight. I could do 100 push ups in a row, 20 pullups.
Now, I can’t imagine living without exercise – it grounds me every day. I started running a few years ago, and it’s the same story there. Incremental improvements, battling yourself every single time you run, and being humbled every time you pound the pavement. 5 kilometres is always 5 kilometres. Yoga presents a new dimension, another paradigm shift. It’s about looking after the tissue that holds you together – that’s important. Fitness is an infinite, challenging, joyous journey. But the benefits aren’t purely physical. As Rollins says, ‘…when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts’. And so, I came to the realisation:
My confidence in my ability to have an impact on anything was founded in first enacting physical change in myself.
Rollins expressed everything I feel about lifting weights so eloquently in ‘The Iron’. I felt understood. Over the years, I’ve revisited it time after time. For that essay alone, I want as many people as possible to discover him. He has a furious work ethic. He lives an unconventional life. We can all learn something from Henry Rollins.
Remember the whistling scythe
Death is a subject Rollins is not afraid to tackle. In fact, it’s one of his primary motivations. His best friend was murdered right next to him in an attempted burglary at Henry’s apartment in LA in the 1990s (2). Henry nearly died too – bullets whistled past him. Maybe that’s one of the things that brought the realisation that this thing that we call life can be gone in a moment. And if that moment isn’t now, it is coming, at some point in the future.
It’s actually not a morbid thought. Instead of wallowing in despair, use this knowledge to inspire action. It’s about making the most of your time on this planet. Rollins demonstrates this self awareness in the sense of urgency demonstrated by his insane work ethic (27 books is not bad going). Getting yourself in that headspace is how books are written, races run and business built.
In the face of his impending death, Oliver Sacks (3) wrote this in his final book (the short and incredibly powerful ‘Gratitude’):
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written… Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
You are not a sheep
He started a book publishing company for his books. That way nobody could tell him what to write, or when to write it. Rollins was self publishing before it was in vogue, before the framework existed. He literally stapled and printed the cover of his first pamphlet by hand. He doesn’t care about that book now, because he’s constantly onto the next project. He discusses his creative process in detail in this episode of the Joe Rogan Experience (4) if you’d like to hear more.
Some say he’s a terrible singer. Henry admits that he is. But he doesn’t care, and there are enough people that love that energy that it doesn’t matter. He gets to keep doing it.
Eventually someone convinced him to try acting – he knows he’s not an actor, but he turns up and does it anyway. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I heard a clip of him talking about how he auditioned for a role in Armageddon and just absolutely blew it in front of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. That could have been an oft revisited, reviled moment of absolute failure for him. Instead it became a story for one of his shows… He’s always thinking, documenting, creating. The most interesting stories often lay in failure. It’s where most valuable lessons are found.
So forge your own path in the world. Opt for the road less travelled. Heed the advice of Seneca:
“We should not, like sheep, follow the herd of creatures in front of us, making our way where others go, not where we ought to go.”
Look at the world with curious eyes, record your thoughts, and create stuff about what you think. You can decide what that stuff should be. Share it. Be relentless in trying new things. Nobody is going to stop you but yourself.
Don’t lose the night fearing the dawn
Although he can be extraordinarily self indulgent, Henry doesn’t dwell on past failures. Instead, his focus is entirely on what he’s doing right now.
I wish I’d not let family circumstances and my own teenage stupidity affect my A level results. I guess if I’d gotten the grades I (and everyone else) was expecting, I’d have gone straight to a Russell Group university.
But there’s nothing I can do to change that – and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. I wouldn’t be me. It’s by learning from our failures and putting those lessons into action with full focus right now that we find satisfaction.
The process of writing the article, from conception, to draft, to publication:
Look at the size of that neck!