Human Performance Guru Kelly Starrett On Manhood, Raising Daughters And Rites Of Passage

"Forging the shape of masculinity, for me, is about being vulnerable."

Kelly Starrett. 

Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond.  As part of it, we're asking a wide range of men across industries, ages and background to answer questions about what masculinity means to them. Read more about the project here. This conversation is with Kelly Starrett, the Crossfit guru, physical therapist, cofounder of Mobility Wod, and co-author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance.

Thrive Global: First of all, how would you define masculinity?

Kelly Starrett: Without going off the rails here, I am a single child of a single working mother. My estranged father was never in my life. I don't think I was masculine-conscious initially. I wasn't meta-masculine aware.

In the third or fourth grade, I had like twelve knives hidden in my room. I was obsessed with hucking my body off tall objects. I was a budding pyromaniac. I made my own swords. I watched Excalibur and Mad Max a million times. I was obsessed with all sorts of dangerous things, and risk taking.

TG: I can relate to a lot of what you're saying, especially the lack of constancy in male role models.

KS: I really hear that. I was never given a route, like, "This is what men in our family do." That's a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I didn't fall into the same generational traps and carry my dad's baggage around. But on the other hand I had to teach myself how to shave.

I was taught early on that my job was to make everything okay and solve problems. What that meant was that I was really, really excellent at dissociating stress from self—the more stressed I got, the more I'd be like, "I just need to go to bed for an hour."

Being able to dissociate, to remove my feelings from what needed to be done was a strategy that worked very well when I was a professional athlete, and it worked very well in terms of conforming to very simple ideas of masculinity. I could just say, "I'll make it okay.”

My family didn't talk about our feelings. And then lo and behold, I have these two extraordinary daughters and I'm married to probably the most extraordinary woman I've ever met. And what I can tell you is that forging the shape of masculinity for me is about being vulnerable.

TG: Tell me about that.

KS: As a man, I have blind spots that I can’t see, and when I touch the traits on the feminine side what I see is that I am a more connected, more able man.

TG: Who in your life has shaped your view of masculinity?

KS: I had a lot of ideas from the reading I had done. Early-on I was a Robert Heinlein fan. I stumbled into the quote where he says ‘specialization is for insects.’

I think it's worth noting that men can change a diaper, write an aria, plan an invasion, make a delicious meal, or pick up the phone.

I read somewhere that when dolphins are under attack, they put their mother and baby dolphins in the inside of this three dimensional ball. Then they put the teenage boys on the outside,because they're aggressive and compulsive. If you lose a teenage boy dolphin, it's not a big deal. They're not that important, but they occupy this role very well. And I remember feeling like a teenage boy dolphin.

I can take risks, be wild, I'll rail against the system and whatever. I'll burn the bridge down only just to show you that I can do it without a bridge. And now, in my mid-forties, I see that a lot of the men that I hang out with have the same commonalities. Like their ability to manage—the stresses are higher, the stakes are higher. But instead of pretending that everything's OK, these men have done a much better job connecting with other men and building alliances.

They're still bad-asses, they do extraordinary things, they're rock stars. But they've tempered that teenage dolphin self with the idea that it's OK not to go binge drinking with your buddies, and instead make pancakes for your kids.

TG: How does masculinity influence your work?

KS: I’m aware of some of the man-ness or male energy or whatever you call it, because I'm confronted with needing to tune that up and down. When I'm teaching fifty 12-year-old girls do their strengthening and conditioning for volleyball, how I act and behave and move and present myself is very different than with boys.

The way my wife and I run our businesses, part of my role is to create a space for other people to be really good at their job and be successful. That means that I have to be ego driven enough and powerful enough to be okay with that.

TG: How do you think society's view of men has changed since you were a kid? And especially, how have you, in your setting and your peer group, changed or matured or refined your ideas of manhood versus what you received when you were young?

KS: I think we've become more nuanced about what manhood means. I come from a long line of alcoholics who were probably trying to self-medicate in some way. They couldn't talk about feelings—five generations of that shit. Now it's easier for me to have permission to ask for help. That's actually seen not only as not weak, but a sign of strength—that you can collaborate and co-lead other people.

I'm in this really interesting group of men who are collaborative and transparent and nurturing -- I'm talking about the most badass, hardcore, legit coaches on the planet who are all about process and meta-awareness and feedback. It's like you go to battle with a whole bunch of warriors.

One of my mates is a guy named Georges St-Pierre, who's a pretty extraordinary MMA fighter.

GSP is the greatest student I have ever met. He holds the world record for the most time spent in the octagon, and is one of the greatest fighters of all time in any sport. When he comes to you as a student he is vulnerable, and open, and so coachable. He is arguably one of the most dangerous, competent men on the planet. And maybe it's because he's Canadian, but he's goofy, and he can poke fun at himself. And he also remembers to send my kids Christmas presents, which I feel like makes him even scarier.

TG: What do you think children should be taught about masculinity and ‘man-ship’ as you describe it?

KS: I think your actions and attention speak more than anything you could possibly try to instill in your kids in a fake normal way. We have certain processes around the table where we talk, and everyone is self-reflective about the day. I am grateful that I have friends who have boys because I think raising boys is trickier. I feel like it's easier for me to raise girls, to see this other side.

I have one daughter who’s fearless—she’s eight years old and goes off the high dive. We call her “the Bear.” Not “cutie bear,” but “Bear.” She’s like the toughest human being I've ever known. Still, she spends more time role playing with dolls than anyone I’ve ever seen.

But one thing I do talk about with my friends constantly is that there's no rite into fatherhood. There's no women's group, no pregnancy, for men. You just struggle into fatherhood on your own and maybe your Dad was great or maybe your Grandfather was great, maybe he wasn't.

I think we lack ritualization of transitions from boyhood to manhood. And I think we fuck it up a lot because there's no path or ritual or rite about what it means to be a man. Thank goodness my wife's been patient enough with me to grow up. She was a woman, and she married a boy—and I've probably come to age under her tutelage.

TG: Was there a moment where you felt like you have become a man?

KS: When I was maybe 26 or 27, I had moved from Durango. I'd finished racing professionally and moved to be with my wife Juliet. I felt like I was sort of done with boyish things. I had lived in a truck, and I had kayaked, and I had traveled, and I had raced, and I had been irresponsible. And I remember feeling like I was ready for a different set of challenges.

I had read this thing about in Borneo how you weren't a full human being as a member the tribe until you had a tattoo, which was literally like saying you can be seen by human beings. So I got a traditional tattoo, which was like 30 hours or 25 hours of being stretched and tapped. For me was a stupid little ritual, a ceremony, that mean I was no longer a boy, and that I was ready to be a different member of my community.

When you hold your baby the first time—that was the second time for sure.

Redefining Masculinity