New Year, Same Memes

If I had a dollar for every time in the last fortnight people have said to me, “You must be getting all the ‘new year, new me’ crowd in the gym at the moment ha-ha”, I would probably have about $11. The same script is trotted out every time the calendar year ticks over, almost without variation. The Facebook crowd can share the memory of the meme they posted last year rather than having to find a new one (which says essentially the same thing anyway). However, this year is different; this year my web guy said it would be a good idea to do a blog for Amplify Fitness. So here I am, thinking and opining about why we do this every year.

Two analogies spring to mind when I think about our collective desire to level up every 01/01. For those of you who don’t know, I have a karate background and spent a lot of time with the art. One of the things you learn is that the way we practice today has become modernised and westernised. Karate in a lot of cases has been commoditised which means that it has to offer a value exchange that’s more material than they joy of training for your dollars. Similarly, in Western society, we value milestones; ‘things’ to mark an achievement.
Time for a little history lesson. Karate, as you may know, rose to prominence in Japan. In the early days it had to be practiced in secret as the Samurai, the noble class, forbade learning combat and having weapons for the lower class – the peasants. Thus, farmers would gather in secret and practice these techniques and hone their skills so they knew how to fight and defend themselves. This is why the Ninja Turtles weapons mostly resemble old timey farming implements. The practitioners used what they had available and developed the art around that.
As you might expect, the Sensei and their karateka (karate practitioners) didn’t really have the luxury of planning a grading ceremony and awarding all the hard working individuals with their new belts, a nice certificate and posing for a selfie.
A peasant who was allowed to train was given one belt which they would wear while training. It was made of simple cloth which was undyed and therefore basically white. As the student trained, the belt would absorb the muck from training in a barn and the blood, sweat and tears of the wearer. Over time the belt would become mouldy and begin to change colour, turning more yellow, then green and gradually darkening as the muck absorbed into the belt. After many years of training eventually the belt would become almost completely black. This is where the black belt concept comes from. It was a literal indication through years of built up grime that a person has achieved a certain level of mastery and should be treated with respect. There was no milestone or ceremony, respect was given because it had been earned.

That method doesn’t really fly in our fast paced, reward based society. These days, students practice their techniques for a period of time, have a grading ceremony where they show off what they have learned and are awarded the next colour belt as they progress towards a belt that is actually black. The colours you progress through are designed to represent the original peasants’ belts from back in the day as they transformed through wear: White, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown and finally black. Different systems vary the order but that is the theory behind the colour progression.

Ok, thanks for the history lesson Dan; not really what I signed up for. What was the point of that tangent? I hear you say. Well, my friend, the point is this: We are conditioned to seek outcomes. We have a need to be rewarded for our effort. We want the next colour belt. If I put in all this effort then it makes sense that I should have something to show for it at the end right? Otherwise what was the point? For the peasant in Japan training in secret with the same belt their whole life, the point was the training itself. There was no reward other than the experience gained and the skills learned. There were no milestones. You were as you were and you either had the skills when needed or you didn’t. I feel we could adopt more of this approach in our lives.
No mugger ever stopped in their tracks because their victim waved a black belt certificate in their face. Muggers generally choose their victims because they believe they can overpower them. In that instant, the selfie with your instructor and your nice certificate could not be more meaningless; you either have the skills to defend yourself or you don’t.
Similarly, the moment the clock strikes midnight 01/01 really has no meaning to your life, you are either changing your circumstances or you are not. Either answer is fine by the way.

For the second analogy let’s dive into pop culture. I’m a South Park fan. As someone once pointed out to me, South Park kind of grew up as we did. At the start it was all fart jokes and crude humour and now while it still has that element; it’s much more satire and political commentary. Rick and Morty is another show that specialises in this duality. The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy are further examples of shows that do this well.
However, the most poignant example of this is arguably the Team America movie (made by the creators of South Park). It’s probably clear to any slightly critical thinker that this movie is making fun of the overly patriotic side of America. However, many people who watched the movie believed it was actually celebrating patriotic America. The aforementioned critical thinkers at this point tend to think they are pretty clever for figuring out that the movie is really making fun of the people that think that the movie is pro America. The truth? Knowing the way Matt Parker and Trey Stone operate it’s most likely they are making fun of both camps in equal measure because more than anything, they like taking the piss.

Ok, interesting insight. Once again, what does it have to do with the new year, new me crew? Let me tell you. For every new year, new me meme and post you scroll through, there will be a matching one mocking them. These are the clever people from above. Like Stone and Parker though, the clever people are in the crosshairs just as much as everyone else. Sometimes there is depth and nuance to an episode of South Park and sometimes South Park is laughing at people who think there is depth and nuance because there is none, only more fart jokes.
Yes, the new year, new me crowd can be annoying and insincere, but no more so than the people who mock them. Both can miss the point in their own way. When someone comes to Amplify and says they are considering joining the gym, the first question I ask is: “You’ve clearly been thinking about this for a while, however, there was something in your head that twigged to take it from looking for a gym to sending the message or making the phone call to book an appointment, what was that?” For better or worse, we are a society of milestones and markers. If turning the page on the calendar is a marker that helps a person cross the bridge from thinking to doing, so much the better. While we should spend more time appreciating the experience for the experience’s sake; it is not wrong to want a nice outcome and a reward for your hard work and time spent. The old fisherman saying of “you gotta catch ‘em before you clean ‘em” springs to mind. If new year, new me gets you into the gym, that’s fantastic. I’ll do all I can to help it become a healthy habit rather than a fleeting burst of motivation that disappears at the end of January.

So yes, we will continue to roll out the same script every year and every year I will continue to smile and nod as people ask how many new year, new me clients I have busting down the door (I’m up to $13 now) and as much as I hate on the faux inspirational posts, memes and predatory marketing, I can appreciate that it is a clear opportunity to turn the page for some people that really need it. For those of you who put on that white belt on 01/01 and quietly go about collecting grime and mould on it, you have my admiration and an offer of help should you wish.   

As for me, I’ll keep on keeping on, but I do think there should be more fart jokes.