The Biggest Loser = The Biggest Learner

I’m learning a lot about learning in my job as a teacher. I’m discovering how adept we humans are at finding the loopholes – ways to “meet the standard” by any means possible, without truly learning anything. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of “successful” people in my life, but by very few true learners. I realize that my goal in starting The Music Within Us was to create a community of learning. That means, a community of dedicated learners – both parents and children. Sometimes learning means acknowledging our failures and trying something different. Other times learning means celebrating successes and moving on as a different person. I would argue that our culture over-celebrates success, and under-recognizes the failures that support most success stories.

This is why I love NBC’s The Biggest Loser so much. For those of you who don’t know this about me, I am fascinated with this show. I literally well up with emotion when I see the transformations that occur over the course of the seventeen-week seasons. The producers of the show clearly know a lot about learning, and they continue to learn each season about what it takes for real humans to undergo total transformation. They are also clearly going for nothing short of miraculous, total inside-out metamorphosis. Morbid obesity is a reflection of so many of our society’s failures. It is visible, so it grabs our attention. It makes for good television, which is another central part of our culture. It’s the perfect medium to reach the audience it intends to inspire – the millions of sedentary “couch potatoes” who have succumbed to what is so easy to do in our culture. By that I mean, to go through life doing what is popular and easy to do. In order to even try out for the show, each of these contestants has reached a breaking point in their lives, and recognition of the need for profound change. They enter this process with a willingness and commitment that has yet to be put to the test.

The contestants on The Biggest Loser may seem very different from “the average person” because of the way they look physically. Those of us who do not have weight problems might say, “Boy I’m glad I never let myself go like that.” But we would be wrong to think so. These people are humans, like all of us. They happen to have the genetic and behavioral combination that causes all of their lack of discipline in their lives to manifest as extra weight on their physical bodies. When they are not in control of their habits, it shows up as weight gain. It’s visible to the world. And in America, image is everything. At least on television.

So what better way to put these people and their process on display than in a competitive reality TV series, where each week they compete to lose the most weight, with elimination of one player per week, and, at the end of the season, have one of them ultimately be crowned “The Biggest Loser”?

If this were merely a weight loss show, where we tuned in to watch interpersonal dramas and see the numbers on a scale each week, I would have no interest at all in the show. If it were about contestants pleasing a panel of judges or acting in outrageous attention-getting ways, I would also have no interest.

But The Biggest Loser is truly about total transformation and learning. The show acknowledges that the only way to conquer a “weight problem” is to conquer YOURSELF. Sure, the contestants are placed in an environment of intense focus, daily grueling workouts, and strict dietary control. These are the tools of discipline. These are absolutely necessary to establish new habits after a lifetime of neglect or resignation.

But the diet and exercise, if only imposed from the outside as “rules to follow”, are not sufficient for total transformation. Going through the motions when told to do so by an instructor only gets you halfway there. It may allow you to “win the game” in the short term by posting the numbers on the scale. But if this is the only change that happens, it will not last.

This is where another piece of wisdom from the show’s producers reveals itself. At the end of the show, the final three contestants must return home for 30 days and try to continue losing weight until the season finale, airing live on national television. The pressure is on, the motivation is there, and the top prize is $250,000 cash. But often it is when the contestants return home that they face all of their demons again. Without the strict environment of the ranch, and with all the temptations of their old lifestyles, they come face to face with everything that got them to the show in the first place. If they face these realities with only a new body, but without a new mindset, they will fail. Lucky for them, they will be able to see this failure in the form of pounds on the scale. It’s not subtle. It’s obvious. In a way, it’s a blessing to be able to see into yourself by looking at the scale. Most of us don’t have such a barometer for our well-being and self-awareness. The contestants have to retrain their brains to value the state of mind they achieve when they move in the direction of health, something that had been replaced by the feeling they got from eating sweets or taking in sedentary entertainment.

Some of us who feel that we have a handle on our physical exercise and nutrition may find it hard to relate to the people on the show. But think of any area of your life in which you haven’t taken the time to examine what you really want, or how you really want to live. And imagine it spiraling out of your control, while it silently eats away at your motivation, your relationships, your overall well-being. It’s more insidious than weight gain, because it’s not visible to the outside world. It takes more than a scale to measure it. It’s easier to hide than a bulging body. It may not threaten your life in an obvious way, like through high blood pressure, diabetes, or arthritis. But it is your opportunity to become not The Biggest Loser, but instead The Biggest Learner. We often don’t choose to pay attention to things until they become diseases. We don’t invest enough in our own well-being until we are forced to look at the area that spiraled out of control.

Each week in my studio I see a mirror of everything that happened in the home that previous week for the student. I don’t see what actually happened, but I see the results of the practice process. I can see if the student understood what I was saying, tried to change, or continued to do things in their habitual way. I can see what kind of effort was put in. It’s the analog of the “weigh-in” on The Biggest Loser. On that show, the results are conveniently displayed in a number – an “objective” measure of what happened that week. Certain weeks, when a contestant thinks they’ve really “given it their all”, they end up with a less-than-stellar weight loss number. That’s feedback. It’s a potential catalyst for more learning. It’s a signal that says, “What I think is enough may not be enough for what I’m trying to accomplish.” The contestant may respond by saying, “I need to come back next week and do a little more. Next week I’ll do better.” Or, “I’m not capable of doing what is required of me. I worked as hard as I possibly could and still didn’t lose the pounds, so I give up.” How the contestant responds to their weight loss numbers, and not the numbers themselves, is the actual  measure of their learning. The final contestants on the show typically show motivation and determination that is independent of what the scale says – they have learned to motivate themselves from within. And, as a result of that motivation, they also happen to keep posting big weight loss numbers each week. So the feedback is necessary. But the feedback isn’t sufficient to drive transformation.

We learn over the course of the season that the things that prevented the contestants from exercising before the show are only rarely physical limitations. Last night’s episode was evidence of that. 54-year-old Ron weighed 430 pounds when the show started 17 weeks earlier. Now he was to walk 26.2 miles – an entire marathon. Ron’s lifelong battle with obesity – he weighed 200 pounds at age 9 – had been passed down as his legacy to his sons, one of whom made it to the final four as a contestant on the show with him. At the age of 54, he is determined to change his story, and to leave a different legacy behind. With only one good shoulder, one good hip, and two artificial knees, Ron completed walking the marathon, against all odds, including the doubts of his doctor and his trainer, in 13 hours 19 minutes. He arrived at the finish line flanked by six previous winners of the show, who all walked the last seven miles with him, and was greeted by his son, Mike, who had finished in 8 hours 58 minutes.

Believe in yourself,

Trust the process,

Change forever.

– Bob the Trainer, The Biggest Loser

Bob the Trainer’s comment on Ron’s marathon completion was this: “In deciding to finish that marathon, no matter how long it took, no matter how much pain he was in, Ron was finally showing me the determination I needed him to show. I was SO proud of him.”

I underline “needed” because the way Bob said that word really resonated with me. I felt that. A good trainer, coach, or teacher, has to feel a need for his students to show something. A good trainer (like Bob) doesn’t just stop where the client gives up. A good trainer feels the pain himself when this happens, because he knows this is an impediment to his client’s progress. He knows that this behavior will limit his client’s ability to meet his goals. A good trainer, like Bob, “takes the personal personally.”

What I do for a living is to try to get people to take ownership of their developing minds, bodies, and spirits. There is nothing different from the work that I do and the work that Bob the Trainer does from a human perspective. What I’m asking is nothing short of total transformation and miraculous levels of change. My medium is violin. Bob’s medium is the physical body. But both processes require the integration of mind, body, and spirit, in order to work. My clients are children and their parents. Bob’s clients are adults whose obesity has reached a life-and-death level of crisis. We both work with people who want to discover what’s possible for themselves. My work is complicated by the fact that I really have two clients in every situation. There must be alignment of all three players in order for the process to work. In the ideal scenario, both the student and the parent are learners. They work together with me on the journey, and we address challenges and obstacles by working in the same direction, doing what it takes for the student to become a learner, and keep on learning. On the opposite end of the spectrum are cases where there is resistance from either the child or the parent. Resistance can be passive or active. Sometimes there are family situations that provide obstacles to success. Regardless of the source or type of that resistance, it must be identified and removed if the process is to work. Habits need to be changed. Discipline is required. Unfortunately the real world is not reality TV, and we have no Biggest Loser Ranch equivalent where adults can go to do the personal work necessary for change. Nor is everyone willing to do what’s necessary, especially for something that’s not viewed as life or death. In the middle of the spectrum are those who are neutral to the process – neither resisting nor actively learning. They are harmless, but not necessarily enhancing, to a learning environment.

The kinds of clients I’m seeking are true learners. I’ve tried screening candidates in various ways, and have tweaked my selection process over the years, but I’m realizing that sometimes it just takes going through the process to know how someone will react. Like watching the numbers on the scale at the weekly weigh-in, it’s how a person responds to the feedback that determines whether they will succeed as The Biggest Loser, or in our case, The Biggest Learner.

I push people not to be satisfied with the illusion of results, but to ask the deeper question of what’s going on in the mind and the heart. Is there understanding? Is there resilience? Is there determination? Is there meaning? I need to see these things emerge in my students, and I will not accept excuses. The process may seem grueling, but the results are liberating. Forever.

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