Sometimes All We Need Is Tough Love

Joel Litman

I developed a very bad habit as a young teen...

I took up cigarette smoking in my teens. I remember it being addictive, smoking in the morning before school. During the day, I even took full advantage of my high school's designated smoking area. 

I smoked a cigarette as soon as the last class was finished and later in the afternoon while hanging out with friends.

I was smoking way too much. 

I tried to quit a few times because I didn't feel great in the mornings. And yet, I was so compelled to have that first cigarette of the day. 

I knew that smoking was bad. But that wasn't enough to stop. The cultural distaste for smoking wouldn't pick up for another decade. It was still hip to be seen with the cool kids dragging on a cigarette.

At that time, I was small for my age. Maybe smoking had something to do with it.

I was thin and relatively weak. Earlier in high school, I tried out for and was cut from a few sports teams. I couldn't keep up with kids my age. 

I got tired of being so small and developed a desire to go to the gym.

I heard of a new gym opening in town, and I thought, 'Here is my chance to get bigger...' 

That alone wasn't enough to help me quit smoking. I thought I could do both.

When Mathieu's Fitness Center opened in Oakland, Maine, it was new and still quite empty. I met the gym owner, John Mathieu, who naturally wanted to grow his client base. And he made me a great offer that I didn't expect. 

Mathieu said that for my gym membership alone, he'd give me free personal training. In exchange, he asked me to tell my friends about the gym – straight-up word-of-mouth marketing.

What a great deal! I couldn't afford personal training. So, I took his offer.

I didn't realize at the time that this gym owner in the middle of Maine coached the U.S. powerlifting team. The U.S. team even won the World Powerlifting Championships under his coaching. 

What an awesome opportunity I had in front of me, by complete luck. So I began training with Mathieu. He was a fantastic coach and showed me how to do each powerlifting exercise meticulously. 

He'd say things like "technique before intensity." He told me to learn the exercise perfectly before putting any strength into it. By doing this, you greatly reduce your chances of injury. Furthermore, it's a technique that will get you to push or pull the big weights someday. 

I followed Mathieu's training program, including the exercises, "set and rep" numbers, rest time, and the weekly weightlifting schedule – f our days per week. I carried my notebook into the gym, and I wrote down every exercise, ensuring to follow the regimen prescribed to me.

Getting healthy took more than lifting weights...

Mathieu coached me on the importance of eating right. Technically, your muscles aren't built in a gym. You grow your muscles while sleeping and resting in response to consistent and proper weightlifting and eating.

It was like I stumbled across a treasure trove of information back before the Internet existed as we know it today. I told my friends at school about it, as promised, and many joined the gym. 

During those personal training weeks, Mathieu instructed me as if I were his only client. 

Over time, as I began lifting on my own, following his regimen, making some gains. (Well, I thought they were gains.) But after a while, I plateaued. Whatever I did, it seemed like I wasn't getting any stronger. My progress hit a wall.

I made an appointment with Mathieu. With my notebook in hand, I showed him how disciplined I had been to his program and that I was following his regimen to a "T."

I wanted to ensure he knew I followed what he taught me.

To my surprise, John was dismissive. He seemed uninterested… and even rude as I showed him my exercise-by-exercise efforts in my notes. He glanced over it, nodding as if only to get me to finish talking.

He appeared uncaring. Then he looked at me and said some words that I remember as if they were yesterday: "Do you smoke?" 

I paused. I wanted to lie. It felt like my heart fell into my stomach. Then I thought, "I can't lie to a guy who has given me so much great advice and training." I admitted to him what he knew already… 

Yes, I did smoke.

John replied bluntly and forcefully, "Well, either you smoke, or you lift. But you're not going to do both if you're at my gym."

He threw an expletive in there to drive the point home. Then, he walked off with me, just standing there, frozen and speechless.

That day, I went home and changed my life for the better...

I went home that afternoon, and I threw out all my cigarettes. I quit smoking, this time for real. And the next day, I went back to the gym, smoke-free. 

Had it not been for Mathieu's bluntness and the time he spent teaching me, I'm not sure I would have ever been able to quit. 

I didn't speak with Mathieu much for the next few months. I was too embarrassed, feeling like I let him down. 

Instead, I focused on what he taught me: eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and closely following his coaching. And I didn't smoke.

Over the next year, I gained 40 to 50 healthy pounds. It seemed like I had a late teenage growth spurt to accompany all the weightlifting, eating, and sleeping habits. 

Inhaling smoke is not great for your body's natural healing and growth. Quitting made a demonstrative difference in my life. It set my foundation for lifelong exercise and health. Who would have thought? 

To this day, I remain a powerlifter, and I don't smoke cigarettes. 

Over the years, I've become good friends with Mathieu, who is incredibly kind and still trains those who ask. 

From time to time, I tell my old trainer how he very bluntly told me off and then walked away. He says he doesn't recall it. He says something to the effect of, "Yeah, I was a lot harsher back then." I'm glad he was.

Making decisions about your health isn't too different from fine-tuning your stock portfolio...  

Instead of eating the right foods and picking the best workout regiment, it's about selecting the right stocks. 

It can be all too easy to get distracted by the ups and downs of the market, what's supposed to be the next hot initial public offering ("IPO"), or misleading as-reported data. 

A healthy investment portfolio takes the same type of dedication: making the right decisions day-in and day-out to see long-term results.

I was lucky to have learned this lesson early on through some tough love about my health, and in the process, I learned how to apply the same mentality to the market. 

We try to instill the same lessons to you, our readers, so you can learn to be better investors, too.


Joel Litman
August 6, 2021