How To Stop Judging Yourself – Finding Meaning In The Mountains


I was born deep in the mountains of Montana. I was raised in the land of Mt. Fuji. I’ve lived for over two decades in the cradle of the Cascades.

Now – as if by inertia – I’ve moved to Asheville, NC… smack in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains.

I suppose my Shikona (nick-name, see below) should be Tetsuji no Sangaku – The Iron Samurai of the Mountains.


I have found many people here in North Carolina have a rather low self-esteem regarding the height of their mountains. You might call this a Napoleon complex.

Here’s a typical conversation:

Nick: The mountains here are much smaller than I’m used to.
Napoleon: Hey! We have mountains here. And they are much older than “your” mountains.

That is like if I said, “the apples on your farm are much sweeter than the ones on my farm. And you respond by saying, “Your apples are green.”

It may be true, it may even have relevance to the “why?” question… but it doesn’t render my OBSERVATION untrue. Height of a mountain is a number measured in some system like kilometers or feet. Age is not that.

It is a fact that the Smoky Mountains are significantly shorter than the mountains in the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, and a hell of a lot shorter than Everest. That is not a VALUE JUDGEMENT… it is a fact.

Height is – by definition – a relative thing. Something is “tall” or “short” relative to something else. As mountains across the world go, the Smokies are like me: short. Mt. Hood, the mountain overlooking Portland, OR is a bit over 11 thousand feet, and has snow on its peak year round – people ski in the summer. Everest is over DOUBLE that height. At its peak, the air is so thin, most humans require supplemental oxygen.


Here in Asheville, I’ve found myself missing the familiar white caps off in the distance that have watched over me – like a protective grandmother – my entire life. There are no white capped mountains in my view here.

I often joke that you can’t really call something a mountain if it lacks a timberline. But is that true? Or rather, is that a good definition of a mountain? If so, it’s a rather clear one.

I am a mathematician by education, so I do have a strong preference for clear definitions! (Most of the definitions we use for things in our regular lives are murky at best, and this causes much strife and argumentation that could be easily avoided. Clarity goes a long way towards preventing conflicts.)

Definition One: Character

Many geologists don’t classify something as a mountain unless it has at least two distinct climactic zones. By rising higher into the sky, the climate changes, and thus the surrounding vegetation will also change. After a certain point, trees can’t even grow anymore: That point is called the timberline.

Not all mountains will be high enough to have timberlines, but by this definition, so long as they are high enough to produce more than one climate, they are classified as mountains.

Definition Two: Process

Another definition in heavy use by geologists is that a mountain is something created in one of two ways:

  1. Volcanic Mountains: created by volcanic eruptions and the build up of molten rock as it cools.
  2. Tectonic Mountains: created by geological forces that deform the earth, thereby creating massive elevation.

This gives us (at least) two working definitions of what a mountain is: a “character/trait” definition; and a “process” definition. In the first, you are mountain if you possess the correct traits. In the second, you are mountain if you went through the right process.

The Great Smoky Mountains ARE short… but, they are also mountains. They were formed via volcanic “action” some 400 million years ago. Done.

Most of my life, I’ve lived near volcanoes – giant ones. Now I get to experience an old wise volcano, and listen to what it has to tell me.


The trouble my Napoleonic friends seemed to have is a mismatch of “observation” with “judgement”.

To call ME short is not a value judgement, it is an observation of fact. (Remember that the word “short” is relative by nature.) Relative to the average height of males in this country – 5 foot 8 inches – I am short. I’m only 5 foot 6 inches, on a good day.

See what I just did?! That LAST phrase in the sentence I wrote “…on a good day…” WAS a judgement!

Can you see the difference? In the first, I was simply stating the FACT that I am shorter than the average American male. That’s not a “good” or “bad” thing. Value plays no role in a statement like that.

But when I said, “… on a good day,” I was – in a joking manner – making the judgement call that being shorter than average is somehow bad.

Why does this matter? And what in the world does it have to do with weightlifting?

Students of weightlifting – YOU – are doing this type of Judgement/Observation mismatch ALL THE TIME, in nearly every training session. And it is resulting in you feeling sorry for yourself, skipping out on workouts early, freaking out, etc.

No matter what happens, you are constantly adding a layer of judgement to it. You are embroiled in a state of negative thinking that stems from your inability to see the world AS IT IS – not better or worse – not with some external value attached to it – just simply as it really is.

  • A rose is red. Is that good or bad?
  • It is raining as I write this. Is that good or bad?
  • The Smoky Mountains are short. Is that good or bad?

Every time you take an observation and turn it into a judgement, you are setting yourself up for failure because it obscures reality. It makes you think that your judgement IS the reality. It isn’t.

Your judgements are like a pair of shit-colored glasses ensuring that everything you see looks like crap.

Did you just fail on a snatch, a squat, a jerk? So what.

That is simply a fact. It doesn’t mean you are a horrible lifter, that you clearly suck, or that you will forever be a miserable scumbag.


Every day, twice a day, I want you to practice DESCRIBING the world as it is. No judgements, just observations.

I want you to stop, and look at what is in front of you, and start describing everything you see. Out loud. Keep describing it, in vivid detail as though you are trying to paint a very clear picture in the mind of a blind friend.

Do this for a minimum of 5 minutes per day, twice a day. A FULL five minutes. Keep describing, there is always more to say.

Begin with the physical stuff, as that is easier. Once you have been doing this for a while, you will be able to translate it to the non-physical, the situations of your life.

Things are going to happen – that is life. Observe, don’t judge. Practice this.

The ancient Samurai found that by practicing this skill they became far better sword fighters – and were therefore far more likely to stay alive. The irony is that by not getting emotional about a stressful situation, by not attaching to it a value (good vs bad), you are better able to navigate your way OUT of that stressful situation.

As always, if it works for those in life/death situations, don’t pretend like it won’t work for you in your peaceful life.

I expect compliance from my athletes – that means you.

Go: meditate, observe, act.

Be like a mountain. Sit there, be chill. Erupt when the bar hits your hip… but otherwise, simply hang out and observe. You are above judgements… literally.

END NOTES (can be skipped)

  1. A Shikona is a Sumo wrestlers “ring” name, or nick-name. Here at Weightlifting Academy, everyone eventually gets one. The Sumo folk are, after all, our closest cousins. They are called “rikishi” in Japanese, which means (literally) “strong samurai”.
  2. In Japanese (and from what I read, in Chinese too) the word “the” basically doesn’t exist. One less thing to worry about when learning the language!
  3. If you are a Japanese buff, you might be wondering where I got that word “Tetsuji” to mean “Iron Samurai”. Tetsu means Iron. Shi means Gentleman/Warrior/Samurai, and is often pronounced in a way that sounds more like Ji than Shi, especially after the letter “u”. Since I’m writing this in English, I opted for a spelling that makes pronouncing it easier. Also, Tetsuji is a rather common name in Japan – though the meanings vary widely based upon the kanji used. In short, I am The Iron Samurai, I do what I want.
  4. Sangakudo literally means “The Way Of The Mountains”. “Do” is the Japanese translation of Tao, the Chinese concept that forms the basis of both Taoism, and Zen. That’s why you keep seeing “do” at the end of all of those Japanese martial arts names, like Judo and Aikido.

If you’re ready to take your training (both physical & mental) to the next level, and have real-live coaching along the way, join us inside The Samurai Training Grounds.

Now go lift something heavy,

Nick Horton