The Rent Axiom

“A well built physique is more than vanity. It shows discipline, dignity, and dedication. It requires patience, passion, and self-respect. It cannot be bought, stolen, or inherited. It cannot be held onto without constant work.” So reads a poster displayed on a wall in a gym I go to. I enjoy reading this poster when I am at the gym. Not because of a well built physique but more because the message seems to be that good things are built on continued commitment and effort over time and there’s a deep pride and purpose to that. The most rewarding things in life take time to achieve. It is through hard work and struggle that we get things worth having.

What words could we insert in place of “physique” and the message hold true? How about health, reputation, competence, credibility, integrity, trust, or wisdom as possible examples? Any of these would seem to be things that imply both time to develop as well as ongoing effort to preserve. We aren’t born with any of these. We can’t buy any of these. Each of these represent things that are built bit by bit, day by day. Moreover, whatever we build can be lost when we stop working. Discipline, competence, credibility, trust, reputation, and success all simmer slowly like a brisket on a smoker. None of these magically manifest like popcorn in a microwave. There are no shortcuts to earning any of these. A separate commonality is that we would likely agree that they are desirable. They represent objectives that are good. It’s less about creating a masterpiece or a magnum opus and more about crafting a corpus, our entire body of work over time. Longevity over one hit wonders. Less lotto ticket and more 40 years of monthly contributions to a retirement plan.

Consider competence, for example. We can’t buy competence. We don’t just show up somewhere and pick it up like a loaf of bread. We can’t cut corners to find competence. We can’t cheat to get it. It isn’t passed down to us through genetics. We have to earn it, with our efforts, over time. We progress in a field from beginner to expert with direction, effort, and time. We apply what we’re taught over and over until we become better. We all start from zero and work our way forward to higher levels of competence. In The Way of the Fight, Canadian MMA and UFC legend, Georges St Pierre writes, “Nobody becomes great overnight. Nobody crams information if he wants to be able to use it over the long term.”  Consider your personal resume for a moment, what did it look like when you applied for your first job? How many pages was it? As we’re starting out, our track record for performance, by definition, is pretty thin. Filling even a single page for a resume when we’ve never had a job isn’t easy. Over time, as our experience grows, we are able to detail the expansion of our skill set. Our resumes roll out the record of our responsibilities listing them one after the other reflecting accomplishments earned by efforts over time. You can’t rush your resume. If you have no education or experience, you’ll be left with a blank page. You can’t hack or shortcut your way. Just like we can’t demand respect, trust, or credibility, we must earn each of these independently.

Our reputations are built by how we show up daily. Are we reliable? Do we show up when we say we will? Do we get the job done? Are we good at what we do? If we are both reliable and competent, we develop a reputation that communicates this to others. We hold this reputation for as long as we continue to be reliable and competent. As soon as we aren’t able to sustain either of these our reputation may slip. Similarly, no one is born wise. There’s no such thing as a wise child. Wisdom is earned as we learn. It takes time. Wisdom is reserved for those that have been around the block and both absorbed many lessons of the world while supporting those lessons with their own experiences. Both of these require time and effort to build. Again, even where wisdom is achieved, if the learning stops, the lessons may be lost or forgotten.

Author Rory Vaden in Take the Stairs introduces the idea of The Rent Axiom. Vaden writes, “Success is never owned. It is only rented—and the rent is due every day.” Just like in our gym poster, we can replace the word success with others to see where else the Rent Axiom applies. In The Way of the Fight, St Pierre offfers, “My life isn’t very exciting most of the time… I get up and I go to the gym to work out. Then I eat. Then I work out again, get a therapeutic massage—so I can work out again later—and then I eat more. Then I go back to sleep. That’s it for most days, and I love it. In fact, I wouldn’t know what to do other than follow the routine.” In Take the Stairs, Rory Vaden introduces an approach of a successful friend writing, “…. His extraordinary production is more a function of his commitment to staying on a regimented routine. ‘I have a goal and I have a plan that I know will take me to the destination I want. It is broken down to exactly what I need to be doing every second of every day, and I’m irrevocably committed to working according to that plan. The results always must seem to take care of themselves.” Success follows a process. A process that is pursued over and over. St. Pierre writes, “It’s like chewing a bite a hundred times to make sure you taste every single morsel of food: it makes things easier to process. And now I know: this is how I get better.”

Our skills won’t be maintained without sustained efforts. Creating change through fitness or diet efforts takes time. It doesn’t show up overnight. Any gains take four to six weeks minimum to materialize. Even more depressing is that as hard won as gains are, they are lost much faster. As George Sheehan observed in This Running Life in 1980, “I also discovered that training is not like money. You cannot put it in the bank and save it. You have to go out continually and fight again and again for the desired improvement.” Taking time off due to lethargy or injury eviscerates gains in just a week or two. Think of the effort some go through to lose weight in advance of taking that dream cruise vacation. They pay attention to what they eat for months in advance in order to enjoy a new outfit or two and a good time on board. Yet, while they’re sailing for seconds to the buffet table they give back what they lost in just a few days. Gains disappear a lot faster than it takes to create. We don’t welcome the idea that to sustain any gain takes ongoing effort.

Too many of us live our lives like how we rode in the back of our parents’ car as kids on a road trip. We keep asking, “are we there yet?” We want to know when we’re going to arrive at our destination. We want to know when we can stop working. Will we be able to relax and bask in our accomplishments? No. The work doesn’t end. You’re always journeying. Good things aren’t like credentials which may be won and the work done. Here’s St. Pierre, “When you stop moving, you’re done.” He goes on to observe, “Life, after all, is all about motion, whereas stasis is equivalent to death.” His continuous efforts from childhood to becoming a UFC Champion across weight classes is a testament to the Rent Axiom. A key figure in St. Pierre’s development, Kristoff Midoux worked with Georges for years. Midoux reflects St. Pierre’s steady commitment to process, noting, “Georges secret is no secret at all. He just has to get up every morning and go to work. Like any other businessman. I have never seen him miss a day of training. Not once has he said, ‘Hey, I’m tired,” or ‘I’m hurt,’ ‘I’m not sure,’ or ‘This part of my body is in pain, let’s take today off.’ We’ve never postponed a workout.” In fact, success is built on commitment. St. Pierre quotes a friend of his, “You don’t get better on the days you feel like going. You get better on the days you don’t want to go, but you go any way.” St. Pierre remained committed to his cause over time realizing, “Growth is a long term game, and the crappy days are the most important.” Current UFC fighter, Cody Garbrandt, affirms the necessity of investing effort daily writing in The Pact, “As fighters, we might not be clocking in every day and getting a paycheck every week. But if we didn’t check in and do the work every day, there was no way we’d ever get paid from our fights.”

In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday offers another way to view the idea of The Rent Axiom. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.” What Bolelli is talking about and the Rent Axiom reinforces is the Greatness of the Grind. That which is mundane isn’t necessarily a pain; to the contrary, it’s the path to gain. Patience is a virtue for a reason and that’s because all good things take time to create. Progress follows patient persistence. We simply can’t cram for credibility. We can’t cram for competence.

This idea is also referenced as The Law of the Farm. Stephen Covey offered the farm as a metaphor for success. We can’t plant seeds in fall expecting a fruitful harvest in days. A bountiful crop only follows patient and consistent efforts applied over time coupled with plenty of help from mother nature. Seeds must be sown in the Spring and tended to every day for many months. We also need the sky to rain and the sun to shine. As the seed germinates, takes root, and grows, it becomes, in time, something we can harvest. The harvest takes effort and its reward only lasts so long. The soil must rest and then the process repeats. Success on a farm isn’t a destination, it is a continued commitment to a process. In his book, Dedicated, Pete Davis refers to “Spadework.” This is the work of preparing the soil for action. Author Anne Lamott has referred to gardening is one of “the two great metaphors for humanity.” Davis writes, “When we plant a garden, we dedicate ourselves to doing a lot of work without immediate gratification—all with hope in some beautiful bounty that may (or may not) emerge at some point in the future. Gardening is not quick and mechanical—it’s slow and organic.” “Gardening, like commitment, requires a certain level of rootedness. You have to tend to plants consistently—you can’t chaotically bop in and out of gardening.” “The writer Janna Malamud Smith argues that ‘the good life is lived best’ by those with a garden or ‘the moral equivalent of a garden’: ‘Life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create.’”

Davis goes on to share thoughts of a restauranteur, “What’s strange about building a restaurant is that it requires putting on a great show one day, and then the next day starting all over again from scratch. In processing the repetitiveness of her commitment, Irene has been taken by the idea of ‘track record’.” “’When we are able to establish that we do something a certain way and we’ve done it that way for a long time,’ she said, ‘that holds real value.’”

Several thousand years ago in Italy, Seneca, too, observed that building takes time. It doesn’t matter whether we’re building reputations, buildings, or empires, all follow an investment of effort over time. Seneca also recognized that these accomplishments weren’t permanent. He wrote, “The growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter…nothing is durable.” Before Seneca, another stoic, Epictetus, offered, “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.”  More recently, in 1940, Albert Gray, an insurance executive with Prudential wrote a book still circulated today called The Common Denominator of Success. In it he writes, “Any resolution that is made today must again be made tomorrow.” Progress on the things that matter that we hold with deep value takes time and must continue to be earned. The numerous ways the idea of The Rent Axiom and The Law of the Harvest are presented across varied contexts and time all compound its credibility. The consistent message being reinforced is the value of patient pursuit of a process. The application of attention over time. It’s about the power of patience. It’s achieved by dedication not dabbling. By immersion not browsing.

The bad news is that what separates us from desirable traits like competence, confidence, reputation, credibility, and wisdom is time and effort. The good news is that the only things that separate us from any of these is our own investment of effort over time. Time and effort are our friends. Our efforts are one thing we can control. Every day. Boxer Larry Holmes said, “Hard work ain’t easy, but it’s fair.” The path may not be well worn, but it is well known. Each of these desirable characteristics is accessible to us. If we do our part, consistently, and continuously, we can set ourselves apart from those that won’t start. Consistency is more important than intensity. It’s not about being the hardest worker and sustaining this pace until you breakdown. Success is built in the present. One of St. Pierre’s coaches, Firas Zahabi offers, “People can cheat or rob you of almost any possession, but hard work belongs to you and you alone.” What you do today determines the progress you show tomorrow. This is a good thing. It makes earning something valuable. Who you become by putting out the effort is worth it. Davis offers a friend’s observation, “Through commitment, he explains, ‘you are demonstrating to yourself that you are someone of substance.’” St Pierre writes “I don’t ever want to start by being the king. It doesn’t work that way. A person can’t be good from the beginning.”

In order to help us embrace our place and pay our rent daily, perhaps we can consider changing the definition of success. Success becomes getting up and being able to do the same things again tomorrow. Our goal becomes to get in the game and stay in the game. Pick a pace and run your own race. Ryan Holiday in his book Perennial Seller reminds us that “Art is the kind of marathon where you cross the finish line and instead of getting a medal placed around your neck, the volunteers roughly grab you by the shoulders and walk you over to the starting line of another marathon.” Seth Godin puts it slightly differently in a blog post titled The Daily. Godin writes, “the long run is made up of short runs.” Marshall Goldsmith and Alan Weiss write in Lifestorming, “Legacies are created daily. Every day you’re writing the story of your life—another page, another chapter.” Aikido instructor George Leonard writes in his book, Mastery, “’How long will it take me to master Aikido?’ a prospective student asks. ‘How long do you expect to live?’ is the only respectable response… What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”

Do the work. Be patient. Time is your friend. We don’t start at the end. The Rent Axiom is like the tag phrase for the Ads for Timberland’s Pro workboot, “Always Do. Never Done.”