The Definition of Success

"The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."  -Michelangelo

If only it was this easy!
I have only told a handful of people in my life about my upcoming endeavor.  Responses have been mixed...mostly positive, some a little concerned that my objective is too large, too challenging, that maybe I should take some baby steps instead of jumping in with both feet.  Granted, these are the people who know me...and my love for my substances...the best.  All of their thoughts and comments helped me start asking myself some questions.  How do I define success?  When have I been successful in the past and why?  What will it take for me to be successful now? 

For most of my life, success has been equal to nothing less than perfection.  Maybe it's the "first child syndrome", but all I know is when I did not live up to my own demanding standards, I felt frustrated, defeated, and just plain "not good enough."  As life breaks down my perfectionism bit by bit, my definition has morphed into a more loving one:  success simply means doing my best in each moment.  And we all know that our best will change according to context.  That frosty brew in my fridge might not even phase me on a relaxing Saturday as I'm leaving for a hike, but that same hoppy deliciousness will quickly be bubbling in my tummy after a grueling twelve-hour day of teaching and parent teacher conferences.

When I think about times when I have felt most successful, it is always a time when I dare to attempt something I considered to be totally out of my reach.  I've completed a half Ironman race, learned how to climb ropes, do muscle ups, and complete ungodly amounts of pull ups and push ups.  I've taught for six years in a high needs school, each year bringing me to many breaking points where I sob on the phone with loved ones, not knowing how I'll have the strength to keep going till June.  The strength always comes and I'm rewarded by amazing moments with kids and families.  I have pushed past my fear of sucking on stage to have outrageous, gut-busting scenes with my improv teams. 

Undoubtedly, one of the hardest struggles and, consequently, one of the greatest successes I've experienced was a nutrition challenge at my gym, Crossfit Verve.  For eight weeks, I committed to eating totally clean: no processed foods, no dairy, no grains, no sugar, no alcohol.    At one of the nutrition lectures, an incredible owner and trainer at Verve, Cherie Chan, said two things that have stuck with me.  First, food is a drug.  Fact.  Second, that what you put in your piehole is THE most difficult habit to change.  (I may have paraphrased that last one, although it's entirely possibly that Cherie said "piehole".)  When I started, I had never really "dieted".  I ate what I craved, so as you can imagine, the thought of regulating what I put in my body was utterly and devastatingly overwhelming. 

Thinking back, I can identify a three factors that were crucial to this journey and to any other significant success in my life.  On the first day of the challenge, I was in the gym when Matt Chan, gym owner/trainer extraordinaire, pulled me aside and let me know that as he and Cherie were making informal wagers on who would win, he was betting on me.  WHA??!!  Really?!  He believed in me.  He believed that I could do it!  Later that night, sadly only hours after the challenge had started, I almost succumbed to the raging sugar cravings in my body.  I stood for nearly a minute in the ice cream aisle, then, with Matt's voice echoing in my head, I replaced that Ben and Jerry's and walked away, feeling triumphant (oh yeah...and shaky as hell from withdrawal symptoms).  Factor 1: Someone needs to believe I can do it...even if it's not me.

As the challenge wore on, I relied more and more on the community at the gym.  What a relief it was to talk to people going through the same thing I was, to be validated and encouraged and inspired.  Socially, I felt as though I had allies who would also be having lettuce wraps and iced tea instead of burgers and beer.  Without others to lean on, I would've been much more likely to give in to temptation.  Factor 2: I need a supportive community who understands my purpose and keeps me accountable.

Over those two months, I discovered that eating clean was not as hard as I thought (after the painful two week withdrawal period where your body is screaming, "What the [bleep] are you doing to me, you idiot?!").  I spent my Sundays and Wednesdays doing food prep and was always sure to have a bag of tasty snacks to gnaw on whenever tempting junk food would be around.  I found amazing fruit and veggie based replacements for my go-to stress cravings: ice cream and french fries.  At the end of the challenge, what I was doing felt normal and, dare I say it...easy.  Factor 3:  Always be prepared and seek replacements if needed.

Well, long story long, I won the challenge, based on measurements and the before and after pictures below.  Did perfection get me this success?  Heck no!!  When I did slip up, I loved myself by accepting it and moving on, determined to do better next time.  Because I didn't give up after a mistake or two, I experienced one of the most rewarding successes of my life.  Obviously, my body changed.  I was leaner, my clothes fit better, I got more attention from men.  Here's what I didn't expect...my mind had changed as well.  My moods were stable, my baseline a cheerful, energetic state no matter what my context.  I was confident and more open.  I thought clearer and I prioritized better.  You can literally see the difference in my expression in the photos. 

A weird discovery for me was that people constantly questioned and often belittled my choices, asking why I was so strict, why I was depriving myself of so much.  I have to say that what others saw as deprivation was an eye opener for what life should feel like.  I loved waking up feeling cheerful, refreshed, and walking through my day thinking about life, not about what food item or beverage would get me through the next few hours.  Even though I was abstaining from the majority of what I normally would put in my body, it was without a doubt the most "whole" I've ever been. 

Well, I guess I have arrived unexpectedly full circle to a point where I have to look at myself, my lifestyle, and my current choices and sternly but gently ask, "Tiffany, why are you depriving yourself of so much?" 

Before the nutrition challenge...after about six months of CrossFit but little attention to diet choices.

Me after 8 weeks of clean eating and continued exercise.


Tiffany said...

*From a Facebook friend to me*

Thank you so so much for posting and writing this!! I so badly battle with food. And as I read no dairy or sugar, I am wondering what in the heck you ate?? I have been gluten free for 4 years, so the easy grains are gone. But when I am ...stressed or emotional (um, all the time stressed or emotional) I always go to dark chocolate or ice cream or cheese.
At one point in college I weighed 200 lbs, and after exercising and eating healthier I lost 30 lbs. Sadly, I have fought at this same weight for several years.....maybe losing 5-10 lbs and then regaining it. It's because of the food = crutch equation. I work out plenty that I should carry less fat. I even ran a 1/2 marathon a couple years ago. I am strongly contemplating joining your year of clean eating.I will be testing for my black belt in 43 days, and am in the best physical condition I have ever been in (which isn't the best), yet I have not lost weight as I continue to ride further on my bike, do more pushups, etc. I stress eat and it is bad. I so want to join you in your challenge but I believe I would fail on no sugar. Also thank you for writing about turning 31. Strangely I turn 30 in 46 days, and I have dreaded it ALL year long. And I agree with Erin, you are an excellent writer!

Tiffany said...

Thank you so much for writing to me so openly! I can connect to everything you're saying. First, I want to recognize the amazing hard work you are doing and your active lifestyle!! You have truly accomplished so much! And changing your food is going to help you excel even more in these areas!

I have learned a lot about nutrition from lots of different sources. I've tried lots of different approaches. Here's the one that has worked for me: Eat vegetables, lean meat, fish, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. This is basically the philosophy of the Paleo diet. Sugar is what triggers huge jumps in insulin (the "storage" hormone) which is also the culprit in sugar cravings...once the insulin spikes, it then plummets resulting in a huge need for sugar again. The secret for me was eliminating sugar from my diet. Then, after about 4-5 weeks, I ceased to have ANY cravings for it!

So, if you are thinking about a challenge for yourself, I'd encourage you to take on one major goal for a period of time that you feel is good for you (and that you'll start seeing changes): maybe no sugar (including processed food products with sugar in it) for 6-8 weeks. I guarantee it will be hell for a while, if you are like me, but if you can stick it out, you'll start feeling great and seeing changes! I'd also recommend keeping a food journal...really easy to eat something naughty and forget about it, but if you're recording what you eat, you can spot patterns or understand why changes are or are not happening.

Craving substitutions were huge for me: I had a bag of frozen fruit in my fridge for the cold, sweet cravings and would saute green beans in garlic salt for my crunchy salty cravings. Always stuff something healthier in your mouth when you're craving something...it will help.

Let me know if you decide to try something!


P.S. The thirties are AWESOME. =)

Eran Shileikis said...

Hi Tiffany,

Admittedly, I feel a little odd posting here. While we're still "Facebook Friends" (whatever that means these days), I realize we don't really interact beyond this kind of random event.

Anyway, I guess I felt the need to state that pretext to put the impact of your writing into context. For no good reason (literally, I think i saw your profile pic on the "Friends who changed to Timeline"), I click on your profile and browsed for a couple minutes. Yadda yadda, and then I come across this "Nutrition" post.

I just wanted to take a minute to say Thanks for Sharing. While I've never had an body image issues, or body-oriented fitness Goals, my desire to "Climb Better" took a turn awhile back that lead to me begin considering "Training" and "Nutrition". As I increasingly look into the Nutrition side of the house, I've become increasingly disturbed by not only the Food System in this country, but by the Culture (or lack thereof), that drives it.

....I could go on and on w/ Details about Types of Fats, Glycemic Index, Stevia, Amino Acids, Whole Foods, Paleo/Vegetarian, Cultural Eating (e.g. Japanese/Mediterranean) etc., Eating Disorders, but I'm an Engineer by training, not a Writer.

But what stuck out most in your post, was the "community of like minded people". Is it just me, or are the excessive choices of the American Lifestyle more of a problem, than a Freedom? So much so, that when it comes to "Food", we're not even sure if what we're "Buying" should even qualify as "Food"? Even in my less formal/timeline oriented goal for eating healthier, I've began to intimately notice the social ramifications of bringing consciousness to Food Selection.

Tiffany - The Clean Year said...


Yes, long time no talk. But thank you for your comment! I think another side worth bringing up and talking about with whomever is willing and interested. I find myself thinking more and more on the issues you talk about and the more global/societal/cultural patterns and impacts the food industry have. How to make it better? My best answer is education...that's the only way I became empowered and inspired to begin making better, more informed choices. I love that there is so much more of a focus on our food...or "food"...as the case may be, in the mainstream. Anyhoo, thank you for the comment. I wish you well on your nutrition travels. Maybe better performance be the reward. =)