The Milo of Croton story – Start small and never give up

9 minutes reading time
Italy - Calabria - Crotone

Source: BBC

Croton(e) is a small town in Southern Italy, which was also a Greek colony in the ancient times (6th century BC). The town was known for producing excellent athletes who dominated the Olympiad.

The last big name of Croton was the best renowned wrestler in antiquity named Milo. Milo of Croton was an Olympic winner six times in a row.

He also won many other prestigious athletic titles, including 32 wrestling competitions, and achieved an important military triumph for his hometown.

Milo had an extraordinary approach to training that we can all learn a lot from. In summary, here are the main lessons from his training:

  • In the beginning, people will laugh at you, especially if you take innovative approaches
  • Always start small and be consistent
  • Slowly progress to bigger challenges and make sure you never give up
  • Facing the dips and setbacks are real character tests
  • When you reach a plateau, find a new way forward

And two bonus lessons from Milo of Croton’s life:

  • Always have a mentor
  • Don’t make stupid decisions (the final lesson of how Milo died)

So, what was his training all about?

He decided to carry a newborn calf on his shoulders. Day by day, for more than four years, he carried an animal on his shoulders. While people were laughing at him, the small calf slowly grew into an adult ox and Milo got stronger and stronger along the way. What an awesome idea. Every day, when Milo woke up, he lifted the calf, put it on his shoulders and carried it around all day. After four years, Milo was lifting and carrying around an impressively big ox. By then, people stopped laughing a long time ago, when they saw Milo’s muscles and strength grow.

Do you wonder what Milo did in the end, when the ox was fully grown and he couldn’t life it anymore? Well, he ate it. He didn’t bother why he can’t lift it anymore. He moved on and found new ways to improve himself.

Now let’s look at the main lessons of his training and improvements.

The Milo of Croton Story

Acquiring any new skill starts with very small steps

Milo didn’t start by lifting a big heavy ox. He started with a calf. That gave him the chance to master the fundamentals.

He went with a smart approach to take on a manageable challenge and slowly develop strength and self-confidence; even though people were laughing at him. Deep down he had a long-term vision that was much bigger than the short-term pain of being laughed at.

No matter what skill you want to learn or which area of life you want to improve, you have to start small. You have to start with the fundamentals. Because you can only build a majestic skyscraper of success on strong foundations.

Think big, have a great vision, but start small. Don’t overestimate what you can achieve in a year, but don’t underestimate what you can achieve in five years.

In five years, you can dramatically improve your health, wealth, relationships, competences, happiness or whatever your goal is. But start by saving a few dollars per day. Start with walks in nature, then progress to jogging, running and weightlifting. Read one page per day and then add an additional one every day. And choose maximum one or two areas to improve at once.

While doing that, don’t compare yourself to other people who are already masters. Beginnings (after the initial motivation wears off) are always hard, but the hard road becomes easy with time. Thus, manage your expectations and keep the long-term view in mind.

And remember, if your expectations are too high when you undertake a new challenge, you will be greatly disappointed and give up sooner or later.

Long-term thinking means that you plan the great results to come in years, not months or weeks. Overnight success comes after years of hard work.

Milo of Croton knew that consistency is key

Hard work beats talent every time. But hard work is hard, since it demands almost bulletproof consistency and focus.

Hard work requires putting effort into your goals on a daily basis. That means you have to cut the bullshit and focus on what really matters. Day by day.

You have to persistently follow a carefully orchestrated process that leads you to your big vision. Consistency and never giving up, while staying flexible, are the key to everything. Milo knew that and thus wherever he went, he never left the growing calf behind.

Practical examples

Here is what consistency means in very practical terms:

  • It’s better to exercise five times per week for an hour than one time for five hours.
  • It’s better to learn a new skill every day for 30 minutes than for three hours on a Sunday night.
  • It’s better to put money in your savings account with every paycheck than to put in what you’re left with at the end of the year.

Consistency is especially important when you face the first setbacks. In the beginning, enthusiasm drives you, but then the enthusiasm wears off and you find yourself in the dip. You realize that achieving your goals will be much harder than you assumed.

You feel like you’re running out of time, money or passion. You fail again and again, and that damages your ego. Persisting in such a situation is hard as hell.

Of course, you have to make sure you persist at the right thing (here is how), but following the process in hard times is what creates great people (and also following the process when you’re already super successful).

What the Milo of Croton story teaches us is that the more adversity you face, the more determined you must become. That’s how you grow and progress in life.

The more adversity you face, the more determined you must become.

Make sure you combine consistency with progressive overload and interleaved practice

Consistency is only one part of the equation. Lift. Carry. Put down. Rest. Pick up. Practice. Lay down. Rest. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

The right kind of consistency helps you focus, lay strong foundations and master the basics. The second part of the equation is progressive overload in combination with interleaved practice.

Practicing something with the same amount of effort and in pretty much the same way sooner or later becomes easy. Your comfort zone stretches, and when that happens it’s time to put more effort on your shoulders.

The calf needs to get bigger and bigger. With that kind of an approach, things never get easier, but you always get better.

Scientific research has shown that learning something in the same way over and over again is also not an efficient improvement strategy. It’s better to incorporate different concepts, approaches and techniques in the same learning session.

You have to be on the edge of the learning zone (not entering the panic zone) by adding more load and new ways of practicing.

Milo was definitely adding more load on his shoulders automatically. Let’s hope he also interleaved the practice by carrying the young calf in different ways and doing all different sorts of exercises while carrying the animal.

The best effect of progressive overload and interleaved practice is that they lead to the domino effect and when the time comes to reap the efforts, the rewards can be really great. Improve yourself just a little bit every day, and the accumulated efforts will lead to success.

In sports, there are many ways to add load to your workouts. Here are seven most common ones:

  1. Improving your form (it’s always harder to lift when you do it correctly)
  2. Increasing the load you are lifting
  3. Doing additional sets or reps
  4. Performing the same workout in a shorter time
  5. Adding additional workouts to your weekly training plan
  6. Doing new, more complex workouts or remixing the workout routine
  7. Doing more work on the same muscle group

No progression means no muscle growth or performance improvement.

There are also several ways how to interleave practice in sports. For example, in badminton, there are three types of strokes you can do. Blocked practice would mean practicing one stroke throughout the training period. Interleaved practice would mean mixing the practice of all three strokes in one session.

The same rules apply for improving other areas of life. Be consistent. Constantly add load. Interleave practice.

Be prepared to take a step back in order to make two steps forward. That’s how you’ll progress the fastest, no matter at what you want to improve. That’s how you can become the best version of yourself in the fastest way.

Progress is always slow

As good as the story might sound, progress is never linear

There is one thing that the Milo’s story doesn’t tell. Progress is rarely linear. Usually it happens with “one step back, two steps forward” or even in “a few steps back, one quantum leap forward” way. That means progress is full of ups and downs.

You practice, you work hard, but the progress is really slow. Or maybe you get sick, or a little bit fed up with everything and you simply must take a break. Those kinds of situations can make you extremely frustrated.

But if you keep persisting (maybe by adding one more pause or two), one day you wake up, go to your practice, and suddenly see a big improvement. The reward always follows the effort, if you practice right, it just takes time for things to settle in and for you to reap the rewards.

That’s why following a plan with linear progress rarely works. You have to keep your plan lean and agile. You have to adapt to the feedback you get from your body and your environment.

You have to innovate your way out of setbacks, look for ways that work best for you, and stay flexible without any fixed ideas. With that kind of a mindset, you can always find new ways to improve when you reach a plateau or face a setback.

Non-linear progress is seen in sports very well. Here are a few examples of what kind of setbacks you can encounter, and how you can find a way to go forward:

  • You might get sick, and need rest. But that can also be a good time to work on your flexibility and stretch regularly.
  • Maybe you get injured and must rest completely. But that can also be a good period to study your competitors, gain new knowledge as well as get some proper rest.
  • Sometimes you get fed up with a certain type of workout, and you can try a new sport, just to relax and keep the diversity high.
  • From time to time it might seem like you work out like an animal, and there’s no improvement. But then you change your exercises a little bit, and when you try the old exercises after a while, you see great improvement.

There’s always a way to push forward, you just have to keep your mind open. Winning is always based on a superior mindset. In the winner’s mindset, the most important thing is that you don’t give up if you don’t see the results immediately after the first few practices.

The new neurons need some time to grow, and they can’t grow if you don’t plan the proper combination of pushes and breaks. The same approach is needed when the time to break a plateau comes.

In the end, make sure you never give up

If consistency, progression and interleaved practice are the key to success, that means the most important thing is to never give up.

You should never be afraid of slow progress, the only thing you should be afraid of is to stop trying. There’s a simple secret how to make sure you never give up.

The secret is to start with why. You need a strong emotional reason why you want to achieve something. You must empower your doing with a mission, which is greater than any setback on the road. When you find your why, you don’t have a problem with motivation anymore.

Nobody gets motivated by savings or an exercise plan. People get motivated by life visions, missions and meanings.

Emotions are the fuel that drives people forward. You absolutely need a good plan, but even more importantly, you need to feel something deep in your bones. You need to feel that you were born to do something.

Knowing something won’t ignite a change, feeling something will. That’s how change happens.

Always have a mentor and don’t make any stupid decisions

Suvee Joseph Benoit - Milo of Croton

Source: Wikipedia

Milo was supposedly good friends with the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. Pythagoras was the first man to call himself a philosopher or lover of wisdom.

They became friends after Milo saved Pythagoras’ life when a roof was about to fall on him. There’s also a possibility that Milo married Pythagoras’ daughter. I’m pretty sure that Milo had the chance to learn a lot of life wisdom from Pythagoras.

That’s another lesson from Milo’s story – always have extraordinary mentors.

But I guess he didn’t learn enough life wisdom to not make a very stupid decision at the end, and so he died a foolish death.

Milo, already an old man, wanted to test his vigor. He found a cleft tree trunk and wanted to split it in half with his fist. But he got his hand caught in the tree trunk and trapped himself. Soon he was devoured and eaten by wolves.

So the final lesson is: absolutely test your boundaries, but never make stupid decisions.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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