Bill Phillips, Moby Dick & the Situation

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This weekend, I did something pretty cool.

I killed a white whale.

Well, okay, not really. Or at least, not literally. I killed a figurative white whale.

I’ll explain in due course.

To begin at the beginning, I spent this weekend out in Los Angeles. Along with a number of other fitness professionals, I was invited into the home of best-selling author Bill Phillips to brainstorm, mastermind and discuss new and old ideas about the fitness industry at large.

Bill is a great guy, very different than I’d imagined he’d be…and I don’t mind saying that I’d imagined meeting him a lot. After all, as a young guy, I used the program in his best seller with success, read his magazine, and generally looked up to him as one of the most successful people of the industry.

It was kind of surreal—I remember being an 18 year old kid going through the Body-for-LIFE program and thinking what it must feel like to be Bill; to have written a program that was helping change people’s lives and bodies must feel awesome.

Now, 10 years later, I have written my own programs and books; and while I haven’t (yet) gotten them into the hands of as many people as Bill, I do feel pretty grateful—and awesome—to have been able to do that.

It’s pretty amazing to me that I was invited to meet and hang with Bill, share my ideas, and be part of this elite group of professionals who have really made big changes in the industry and in the lives of their readers and clients.

I’m certain that a lot of people will be surprised to hear me say this, but I am not so wholly consumed by arrogance that I can’t step back and be honored by inclusion into such august company.

In any event, I didn’t write this post so that I could involve you in the introspective musing on the dichotomous nature of my personality. I wrote to talk to you about some of the things I’ve been thinking about since my discussion with some of the people in attendance.

This being an all-star event with the Who’s Who of both fitness and marketing, it’s not surprising that conversations with such intelligent people lead off onto tangents not necessarily related to those fields.

In fact, while on the way to the event, I was having a conversation with Craig Ballentyne about some of the books we’ve been reading lately. I told you about most of mine in a recent post, but as it happens, I also just finished reading Here’s the Situation by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore fame—which was a surprisingly funny and fairly clever little book.

Craig, for his part, was reading Moby Dick, which ironically has turned out to be a bit of a white whale for him, as he’s having the hardest time finishing the book.

That tome has long been fascinating to me because of the way it has changed in the public consciousness over the years.

First and foremost, the book was written as an allegory about the whaling industry, a fact that remains lost on most of the current readers. This is often true of most allegorical works; while some of them (Moby Dick included) are often good enough to stand on their own, the topic about which they were written ceases to be socially relevant. In the case of Moby Dick…well, the whaling industry is hardly a hot button topic in our society.

Instead, Moby Dick is seen not as a work of allegory, but rather serves as a literary metaphor for drive, perseverance, and (ultimately) the price of obsession.

Told from the perspective of the sailor Ishmael, the book relates the tale Captain Ahab, who is completely obsessed with finding a specific whale. This great white beast, the titular Moby Dick, previously attacked Ahab’s ship and bit off the captain’s leg.

Ahab, for his part, is so completely obsessed with revenge that finding the whale becomes the sole driving force for his entire life.

He does this, of course, but in the end it costs him his ship and the lives of his crew, as well as his own.

Moby Dick, regarded by many as THE Great American Novel, and the story contained therein has worked it’s way into our the fabric of our society to the extent that it’s become part of the lexicon; that is, to term something your “white whale” is to describe it as the focal point of your attention, and obsession, and usually carries a negative connotation.

One of many reasons I enjoy the book. Another is the author himself.

At the time of Moby Dick’s publication, Herman Melville saw his fame skyrocket. However, after enjoying his celebrity for only a brief time, his fame suffered a precipitous decline, and never recovered during his lifetime.

In fact, there is a story that Melville died in such a state of destitution and obscurity that the New York Times misnamed him in his own obituary, listing him as “Henry Melville” instead of “Herman.” (This is not, in fact, true but rather serves to drive the point home).

While his other work enjoyed a bit of success, Melville and Moby Dick were, for all intents and purposes, the literary equivalent of a one-hit-wonder.

All of this stirring in my head, I sat down on the bus ride and began to let my mind wonder.

Seeking to draw parallels everywhere, and in everything, I let my mind flit over Melville, Ahab and even the Situation. And I’ve come up with some interesting stuff.

Some of you may be familiar with one of my favorite quotes, often attributed to the Roman poet Virgil:

is the wellspring
of both
genius and

Ahab is so obsessed with the whale that it drives him mad and leads him to his doom. However, the genius of Melville shines through, and we are gifted with a fabulous novel and a cautionary tale.

And I began to wonder…

Who among us has not been obsessed with something, pehaps to our detriment?

I remember when I first became involved with bodybuilding…the single-minded pursuit of developing my physique certainly had some consequences. I lost some friends because my lifestyle was not suited to the social scene college.

I frequently had fights with my family, who contended that I was endangering myself with either extreme dieting to get lean, or by supplementing with “dangerous” things like protein and creatine. That seems laughable now, but at the time the blowout fights with my mother were stressful.

I remember becoming obsessed with strength, and a 700-pound deadlift became my white whale. I wanted to badly to break that number that I trained that movement 4-5 days per week.

I remember training with a fervor that I’ve never been able to recreate, an intensity that I now realize I could not long maintain. Rather than simply lift, I sought to conquer. Each workout pushed me to the brink.

On many occasions, I remember pacing nervously around the bar between sets, glancing at the clock in anger during my rest periods, as if I resented the very passage of Time itself for daring to stand between me and my Whale.

It didn’t kill me, but damn if it didn’t get close.

I remember an extremely bleak period after a break-up with a girl I just couldn’t get over. I was completely obsessed and I don’t mind saying that those six months may have been the darkest of my life.

(In retrospect, I’m pretty happy that particular whale got away.)

And, not so long ago, I had made it my goal to climb to the top of this industry—to become published in every big name fitness magazine, to train professional athletes, models and actors, to help people through my programs and to become one of the most popular fitness writers in the world…the kind who gets invited to charity events at Bill Phillips’ house.

Not exactly a white whale, but there were periods just before FPFL came out that I remember sleeping 2 hours per night and working past the point of exhaustion. It seems to have worked out. As Virgil’s quote implied: sometimes your obsessions drive you crazy, and sometimes they make you feel like a genius.

Moving briefly back to Melville, I think it’s pretty obvious that he will be remembered as the author of Moby Dick, rather than the broke novelist who died ignominiously.

For his part, while he has certainly taken on other projects, Bill Phillips’ will probably be remembered as the author of Body-for-LIFE, and helping to change the lives of over a million people.

Of course, that remains to be seen—with his project, Transformation, Bill’s goal is to completely transform America: as he puts it, take us from “worst to first in health and fitness.”

From what I know of Bill, he seems to be the type of person who will take on this task with fervent dedication and work at it in earnest until death claims him. I don’t know that the pursuit of the goal will yield his undoing, but I do not doubt he’d work himself into the ground to achieve it.

Which brings us to the Situation. Here is a guy who has somehow managed to become famous because he’s got a big personality and a decent set of abs. Interestingly, he also seems to have an exceptionally shrewd business mind, and seems savvy enough to play up a lot of what he’s doing. He may, in fact, be a bit of a satirist.

I think it unlikely that he’ll ever escape the character he’s created, and will be remembered for being the guy who lifted his shirt on TV, but depending upon what his obsession is—if it proves to be anything other than fame—we may be surprised.

And now, we come to you, and to me.

I want you to think about two very specific things:

  1. What is your obsession? What is it that you are working hardest for, the thing that drives you towards your goals.
  2. What is it you want to be remembered for? What, after all of this is over, do you want people to say about you?

Once you have those two answers, I want you to ask yourself one more question.

Are those goals in line?

If you achieved the thing you’re working hardest for…would it help you to be remembered in the way that you want?

If not, perhaps it’s time that you reassessed your goals, the passion you have for them, and start thinking about how you can change the world.

As for me…

Well, I just want to be famous for having nice abs.


Hey, it could happen.


About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

Comments for This Entry

  • Rachel

    Roman, Thanks for posting the link to this entry on FB today - I needed to read it at exactly this time in my life. My answers to the questions you asked trouble me, because they are not in line. I'm not sure how to bring them into alignment, but I'm working on that and have been for a few months. I just can't seem to give up my obsession yet. The bit you wrote about being obsessed with your physique, about wanting to conquer - that's where I'm at right now, but I've been pushing so hard at that for such a long time that I'm coming to the end; I can't keep this up much longer. I know I have to reassess the situation and square with some hard truths.... Anyway, thanks for posting this. It was helpful and powerful, more than I can tell you. -Rachel

    August 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

  • John Balash

    Another insightful and well written post John. Having goals is important but your Moby Dick metaphor reminds us that goals and obsessions are not the same things.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:44 am

  • air max 24-7

    Very interesting post, I had no idea that you fought with your family over bodybuilding... exactly what is happening to me (and here I thought my family was the only one like that!) and over the same things: creatine and protein = steroids. Anyway, my obsession now is finally finishing my studies, becoming an environmental engineer and making a name for myself.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  • John Romaniello

    @Joe - thanks for the kind words, sir. You make a good point - overall, I think, though, that the word "obsession" has an unfair negative connotation. After all, approaching anything with a single minded devotion is bound to yield good results, even if you do have to make sacrifices to get it. But that's all semantics. You're right when you say that living with passion is the key--and that's what it's all about. Thanks for commenting, sir!

    January 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

  • Joe

    Your blog is awesome and thought provoking! People tend to use the word obsession as if they have a sickness. I believe if a person sees it as a sickness they do one. I want to believe I have a passion for living healthy, being productive and happy. Helping others can have a positive impact on my passions. The ABS are the bonus.

    January 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm

  • Matt Kittoe

    I really enjoyed reading this as it's a huge contrast to the things TC has said about Mr. Phillips over the years. I was always under the impression that he was this steroidal infant with self esteem issues, which sort of derailed me from ever taking his stuff seriously. I might have to give Body For Life a read. As for obsession...yeah, been there. I've had family members lump creatine, protein and steroids together in the same group and not support my training, as well as a couple of girls that took way too long to get over. Those times were rough. I trained with such intensity I'm surprised my heart didn't explode and in turn make the autopsy results read "Crack overdose." Unfortunately I was doing a program that wasn't optimal for me (Gregg Avedon's push/pull.). These days I'm just working on a health/humor blog for nerds such as myself, designing logos with my artist friend in order to make the blog name into a brand name for t-shirts, and pretty soon here I'm going to go for my personal training certification. Smalls goals, sure, but I'm pretty damned excited about it. I've always had somewhat of a hero complex, so really I'd like to just be remembered for saving the world from certain destruction. If the chance to do so never comes...well, I guess I'll settle for helping people look like heroes themselves. ...Now that I think about it, the people who follow my blog (or at least wear the t-shirts) could be my army when the time comes. Hmm.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:25 am

  • Bangkok Jay

    A moving post. With more eloquent posts such as this, you'll surely disarm readers who may stereotype you by your brawn. Great stream of consciousness. YES, you should have included this in your newsletter. I was lucky to come across it happenstance today while showing your site to a mate.

    November 23, 2010 at 7:47 am

  • John Romaniello

    You know, I wasn't sure what the reception to this post would be, so I didn't link to it in my newsletter. I'm really, really glad you guys enjoyed it, and I truly appreciate you being willing to share your goals, obsessions, and insights with not only me but this community. And Jess...I may be kidding. Well, I'm kidding. I don't want to be famous for having nice abs. I DO kind of want to be famous for helping and entertaining people, so I assume I should keep the abs nice =)

    November 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

  • Shaun

    Best blog post thus far. I will not answer the questions via comment but via diary so I can further dissect. But, in general i'd say my goals are slowly but surely becoming my accomplishments.

    November 20, 2010 at 8:22 am

  • dr brad campbell

    Very inspiring post Roman. Great article.

    November 18, 2010 at 1:46 am

  • Roldan

    1) My obsession? Weighing 190 pounds at less than 10 percent body fat. Currently working on the body fat part, will bulk after that. 2)What I want to be remembered for? I want to be remembered by my friends and family as a guy who worked hard for everything he wanted, no matter what it was.

    November 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

  • Roan-Paul Spölmink

    LOL Roman! I'm having these arguments with my mom now too. She hardly understands all this. My obsession is also getting one of the most sexiest sixpacks ever. Girls surf the internet and use me as porn. That would be awesome. I have this obsession because when I was a little kid, I was the fattest. I had no social life and I didn't know what to do. I remember getting looked down upon because of my weight. Not want to make you pink a tear away, but you're getting the idea. Though I decided I didn't wanted to be like that. I wanted to become the most respected, fun person I could imagine, what they could imagine. And now I am. Then I changed and lost weight, I'm now 53 lbs lighter and am in the best shape I ever was. Now I'm looking to adding more muscle to my frame. The only thing that really is in the way, is the leftover skin I have on my belly. I have to see when I can change this, I'm only 19 and I can't afford the surgery (insurance doesn't pay). And of course I learned how to be social, I have so many friends now and I easily make new ones! I'm always having fun with everyone. Also I try to do random things with girls, being unpredictable and living life to the fullest. In this I am looking for clues when I can improve, I try to seek the next level everytime I can. I want to keep improving myself on so many areas. Having this mindset gave a lot of fulfillment in all areas in my life. I want to be known as that fun guy, that guy that works hard for his dreams and you could see as an inspiration. I want to help people to achieve their ideal bodies, to advance in their social life and mental health. All things I am teaching myself to become the master in. Those goals are only in line if I use my gain knowledge to help others, though I am struggling to find people who are as passionate as I am. Nonetheless, I'm giving advice now and then, but I really want to personal coach someone through the whole game. That would be really cool. Anyway, I love talking about myself, but I want to put my hands down for you Roman. You're one of my big inspirations, although I just got to know who you are not so long ago. Oneday I will feel that I know everything about fitness I need to know.. then I'm gonna slap myself and start looking for new things to learn.

    November 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm

  • Matt Crandall

    Great post Roman, very thought provoking. I've always had the problem in the past of having too many goals at once and not having a "white whale". I decided that getting to an optimal fat loss level was my immediate goal and started working with you. The focus and dedication of having one large goal has really helped me focus and I am almost at my goal. While this is my current white whale and a small one at that I hope to move on to bigger and better goals in my life. In achieving my goals I would like people to be able to gain inspiration from me to better their lives.

    November 17, 2010 at 7:23 am

  • Jessica (Aust)

    What an eloquently expressed stream of consciousness Roman. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come across as patronising but to me at the core of this post is a reflection of a maturity of mind and soul: a looking back on aspects of your past and taking those lessons and applying it to the future. That being said do you really just want to become famous for having nice abs? Seems a pretty shallow goal for someone who is also such a contemplative and perceptive thinker. Interesting. Guess it’s all part of that dichotomous personality you mentioned. Me? I don’t “do” intense; obsession is simply not part of my personality. Virgil could have also made the observation that in addition to madness or genius obsessions make people as boring as bat guano. Not quite as poetic perhaps but true nonetheless (or at least in my opinion). There have been times when I’ve been focused on achieving particular goals ie completing my PhD but I’ve always had the attitude that nothing I do is so important that if I start losing perspective, I can’t walk away from it for a while. Fortunately I’ve been able to recognise those times when I am losing my grip on perspective and have walked away accordingly. My driver is to do what I do to the best of my abilities and the reward comes from making a small but hopefully valuable contribution to my field of research but not to take myself seriously at the same time. People will remember if you are successful but if you do so while also being monumental arsehole then that will ultimately be what you are remembered for regardless of your achievements. I’d like to be remembered as not only being good at what I do but also as a really good friend and who was rewarded with equally good friendships in return. You can’t do that if you’re obsessive, self focused and take yourself too seriously. So the attitude works for me both personally and professionally.

    November 16, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  • Pats

    Very interesting post, I had no idea that you fought with your family over bodybuilding... exactly what is happening to me (and here I thought my family was the only one like that!) and over the same things: creatine and protein = steroids. Anyway, my obsession now is finally finishing my studies, becoming an environmental engineer and making a name for myself. I want to be remembered for making a difference in this world, even if it's just a tiny one! Also, your abs >>>> The Situation's tiny abs (+ hes a moron)

    November 16, 2010 at 3:17 am

  • Ted

    1) What is your obsession? What is it that you are working hardest for, the thing that drives you towards your goals. Being a model human being. Socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. 2) What is it you want to be remembered for? What, after all of this is over, do you want people to say about you. "He had one of the greatest hearts I've ever met. Great ambition. Driven to succeed in the minds of others." I think they are, yes. Really thought - provoking post, Roman. Thank you.

    November 15, 2010 at 11:51 pm

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