The Cautionary Tale of South Park’s Underpants Gnomes

Do yourself a favor and don’t collect any more "underpants" for the time being.

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Gotta go to work, work, work, work! We won’t stop ’til we have underpants! —The Underpants Gnomes, South Park

I want to tell you a cautionary tale. I must warn you: if you’re not careful, you could look back years from now and realize that all you’ve really done is collect a giant pile of underpants.

I promise this will make sense.

It all starts with the show South Park. In the small, fictional mountain town of South Park, Colorado, a group of small underpants gnomes sneak into people’s houses during the middle of the night and steal their underpants, delivering them to a massive underground chamber each night. They even have a theme song that they sing while working: imagine the seven dwarves of Snow White fame, but with more underpants: “Gotta go to work, work, work, work! We won’t stop ’til we have underpants!”

You might wonder why these gnomes are stealing people’s underpants, which is a valid question. It turns out they’re collecting underpants because it’s part of their master plan to build a highly successful business. However, when a gnome is questioned as to why he is collecting underpants, he always says, “Collecting underpants is just Phase 1!”

When somebody inevitably asks, “What’s Phase 2?” every gnome replies with “Phase 3 is profit!” So they know collecting underpants is Phase 1 and that Phase 3 is profit, but Phase 2 is a complete mystery. Nobody has any idea what it is! They consult their business plan, and Phase 2 is just a giant question mark. So, rather than trying to figure it out, these gnomes spend all day and all night dutifully collecting underpants without having any clue as to how to move onto Phase 2, which would then eventually get them to the all-important Phase 3.

The gnomes' three-phase business plan.

The gnomes’ three-phase business plan.

Whether you realize it or not, you are an underpants gnome! Any time you read an inspiring news story, watch a YouTube video of somebody doing something amazing, or read a book that encourages you to make changes in your life, you are collecting underpants. In fact, most of us spend all day reading, watching, or listening to things and then going, “Whoa, it would be so cool if I could do that!” Then we dutifully move on to the next nugget of knowledge or inspiration that makes us say, “I’d love to do that some day!” Each time we do this, we are contributing to our pile of underpants. Whether it’s scanning a fitness site for advice on completing a marathon, reading a phrase book to better learn French, watching a video of somebody doing parkour, attending a TEDx conference and learning about volunteering opportunities in Africa, or even just reading this very book, we are all making mental notes of the things we’d like to do. This is the equivalent of collecting a pile of underpants.

Welcome to Phase 1.

Phase 3 is what you hope to accomplish after starting to build your pile: your life when you are firing on all cylinders. You are embarking on adventures, you are challenging yourself, you wake up excited, you feel purpose each and every day. Which brings me to my point: you must learn to dominate Phase 2. You can spend all day every day learning and collecting and researching. You could read my book so many times that you memorize it cover to cover. In fact, you could become the best information gatherer in the entire world, for hundreds of subjects. Gathering information is a great start—Phase 1 is a crucial part of the equation. After all, it’s tough to solve a problem if you don’t study it, and it’s tough to work out a solution without understanding what you hope to accomplish with it. However, if you only focus on Phase 1, all you’ll be left with is a big pile of underpants!

Phase 2 is about figuring out what to do with that knowledge you’ve been collecting so that you can advance to Phase 3, which could be health, love, happiness, adventure, or any combination of the things that remind us it’s a damn good day to be alive.

People who dominate Phase 2 are action-takers. They understand that collecting a few underpants and then immediately trying to do things with that knowledge is a much faster path to Phase 3 than just collecting more and more underpants!

Phase 2 is about learning, trying, failing, backtracking, trying again, and learning even more. Phase 2 is about going for your first hike despite not having the best gear. Phase 2 is about attempting your first push-up even if it’s ugly. Phase 2 is about trying to build your first mobile app instead of reading yet another book about programming. Phase 2 is about conversing on Skype with a native speaker of the language you are trying to learn (in broken phrases, if necessary) instead of reading yet another book on that language. Phase 2 is about approaching somebody you’d like to meet rather than reading yet another book on social skills.

The truth is that there is never a better time to start than right now. I can promise you that “eventually” never happens, and that “someday” never comes. I receive emails every day from people who say things like: “I’ve done the research, I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t have the motivation to start on my journey. Can you give me some please?”

Unfortunately, I can’t. The desire to change, live better, look better, feel better, and then have the guts to try things out and see what works (essentially, what you do with your pile of underpants) has to come from within you. Phase 2 is about the ability to fail repeatedly and continue to attempt new and different ways to succeed. As Winston Churchill declared, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” And don’t worry, if the idea of failure or the unknown scares you, we’re going to solve that problem, too.

People often ask me how I built a life around my love of games and helping people get fit. It’s simple: I started. I was working a normal job, I lived a normal life, and then I read a few books to give myself the shot of confidence I needed to start making some changes. Then I started writing and helping people in my spare time. I didn’t spend more money on blogging classes, Internet marketing books, SEO strategy, or writing courses (that’s a lot of expensive underpants). Instead, I started writing crappy articles that got less and less crappy with each publication. I put my focus on helping people and learning how to make more of an impact with my writing, made plenty of mistakes, and learned from them. Years later, here I am.

Ask Jim Bathurst of BeastSkills.com how he became the amazing gymnastics guru he is today: he taught himself! He read some books and watched videos, he observed other people doing the things he wanted to do, and then he went out and tried to do them! He fell, busted up his body repeatedly, and struggled at the beginning, but over time and bit by bit he improved—and now he does one-handed handstands and teaches people this stuff for a living.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: spend 10 percent of your time and effort on Phase 1, and 90 percent on trying out the new things you are learning. Paint your first terrible picture. Write the first chapter of a book that will never be read. Ask somebody out and get shot down. Save money for a trip and book the damn thing. Start a crappy blog. Record a few awful podcasts. Pluck a few wrong notes on a guitar. Pronounce words incorrectly in a foreign language.

Why?

Because you’re actually doing something! Nothing comes of collecting more underpants other than a bigger pile of underpants. Until you learn what to do with them, you’ll only ever have a pile of underpants and never arrive at the happiness you are seeking. I cannot complete Phase 2 for you: You’re gonna have to get up off your ass and do that yourself.

“But, Steve,” you might be thinking, “I don’t know where to start.” As in any game, there will be times when you see many paths ahead of you, and you have no clue which one you need to take. I hear you, and I know that it can be overwhelming. However, the worst thing you can do is sit down on the ground and complain that you don’t know what to do. More information at this point isn’t going to help, either. That’s just more underpants! Instead, why not just make an educated guess, pick a path, and see how things work out? Think of it like becoming the main character in a Choose Your Own Adventure book—it’s tough to find out what happens if you don’t turn the page.

Speaking of books, my favorite example of this comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The gang is lost in a cave and stumbles across a path that leads in three different directions. After sitting in that spot for hours, unsure of which path to take, how do they eventually decide? Gandalf simply decides that the air doesn’t smell so foul down one of the paths.

When you are faced with a similar decision, just start. It’s going to be tough for us to save Middle Earth if we never leave the hobbit-hole, right? It’s going to be tough to hack the Matrix if we take the blue pill and do nothing. You can’t save the world, and you can’t find the end of the maze by sitting on your butt wondering which path to take. Research and a logical decision-making process helps, but sometimes you just have to move.

So do yourself a favor and don’t collect any more underpants for the time being. As you are reading, don’t be afraid to put it down and get started and come back to it as you find different paths along your journey. As Ellie says in Pixar’s Up, “Adventure is out there!” Let’s go find it.

Steve Kamb is the founder of Nerd Fitness, a business built out of his love for comic books and fitness. His book, Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story, is available January 12, 2016.