Focusing too much on the best of us sometimes diminishes the rest of us
I originally wrote and published this essay in January 2016.
The word “outlier” wasn’t yet in my vocabulary the first time I benefited from one.
My first book, The Testosterone Advantage Plan, included a nine-week training program, and we recruited a group of coworkers as our test group. Nine weeks was chosen, I shit you not, because the Body for Life program was 12 weeks, and my editor wanted to create the illusion that ours would work faster.
But there’s an obvious problem: A random group of genetically ordinary adults simply aren’t going to achieve visually exciting results in nine weeks. The before-and-after photos used to sell Body for Life were chosen from thousands of entries. We had a couple dozen, and 25 percent less time to get them into shape.
So we cheated. Kind of. One of our guys had lost 30 pounds before he started our program, lost 25 more in nine weeks, and then went on to lose another 27 afterwards. Altogether he lost 82 pounds and 12 inches off his waist. We explained all that to readers in the book excerpt that appeared in Men’s Health magazine. But there’s no way to know how many readers looked at his dramatic before-and-after photos and assumed it was all from our nine-week program.
It still bothers me, all these years later. We’re talking about one guy. One guy who had let himself go for many years, and then called on near-superhuman determination to drop a third of his body weight.
What bothers me even more: The search for the outlier is now the default option for anyone writing a weight-loss book.
A year ago, when The Lean Muscle Diet was new and struggling to gain traction in a very crowded market, I looked at the New York Times’ bestseller list in the Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous category. Three of the top 10 had nearly identical promises on their covers:
“Lose up to 16 lbs. in 14 days”
“Lose up to 15 lbs. in 10 days”
“Lose up to 18 lbs. in 2 weeks”
Of course we know what “up to” means: The authors hand-picked a group of highly motivated individuals to test their program and then coached them through it, with the goal of finding one whose results would sound impressive on the cover.
It’s a new version of a stunt that goes back at least 43 years, to the notorious Colorado Experiment. That’s when Casey Viator, a 21-year-old bodybuilder, allegedly built 63 pounds of muscle and lost 18 pounds of fat in just 28 days. Even more remarkable, he achieved this transformation doing just one set of 12 exercises every other day, all on Nautilus machines.
There was a caveat, offered at the time and frequently repeated: Viator wasn’t gaining new mass during those 28 days in Colorado. He was regaining mass he’d lost following an industrial accident in which he’d lost part of a finger, which was followed by a near-fatal reaction to a tetanus shot a few days later.
Still, we’re talking about adding 45 pounds of body weight in 28 days, 140 percent of which was muscle — a result that would surely make Gilbert Forbes roll over in his grave. And somehow this feat of fantasy physiology has been cited for decades to validate both the machines and the training methods used to achieve the claimed results.
Oh, did I mention the “drug free” part? Yes, that’s part of the official story.
Arthur Jones, owner of Nautilus and a muscle-marketing genius in a lineage that includes Charles Atlas, Joe Weider, and Bill Phillips, had an obvious commercial interest in creating and promoting the Viator story. What I don’t get is why anyone else would believe it, much less find inspiration in results achieved once in human history, and even then only by suspending all skepticism to accept the word of eyewitnesses with every reason to exaggerate.
Nor do I understand why so many people are inspired by a 77-year-old grandmother who competes in bodybuilding; or the 32-year-old fitness model and beauty-pageant champion who fat-shamed almost every living adult woman with a picture of herself in perfect shape after giving birth three times in four years; or for that matter decades-old pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose physique was so singular that today even casual meatheads can identify it at a glance.
Part of me wants to say this outlier worship is mostly harmless. If it gets someone excited about working harder, what difference does it make?
But another part of me has been in this business too long to believe it’s entirely benign. An outlier who’s also a gifted marketer can dupe a lot of people into believing their extraordinary physique resulted from a special supplement or training regimen — a product or program that they or their sponsors are happy to sell to you.
Then there’s the outlier whose results came from that mysterious intersection of genes, hard work, drugs, and perhaps a bit of cosmetic surgery. When the manufactured outlier then promotes a product or system that’s unlikely to have produced the physique they’re advertising, we’ve stumbled way past “harmless” and into the realm of fraud.
To me, an outlier is fundamentally different from the rest of us. They can do things we can’t and achieve results we can only fantasize about. I’m glad those individuals exist, both for the wonder of their achievements and to give us a signpost marking the outside edge of human possibility.
But I can’t understand why anyone looks to a genetic or chemical outlier for motivation.
I guess in that sense — and only that sense — I too am an outlier.