How I beat my inner doubter to become a firefighter weeks from my 39th birthday and how to overcome yours.
Part 1 of several.
This is it. Test day. I have worked hard to prepare for this day, and I am both terrified and excited.
I am standing in the gym at station 14 where the first elements of the Firefighter entry physical test are in progress.
The room is small. It’s a gym where the station 14 firefighters work out while on shift.
Although it is a gym, this is not LA fitness.
There is No treadmill.
Just bars, weights and racks.
The benches scattered about the room show their age with white stuffing visible in the cuts and holes of the thin black vinyl padding.
There is no bench for this test element, though.
For this test there is a bar with weights totaling 85 lbs and a line drawn on the floor, 4 inches from the wall.
You can hear the gentle squeak of gym shoes on wood as our body weight is shifting nervously from sneaker to sneaker.
I swallow and my throat is dry.
My palms are sweaty.
The air in the room smells of dampness, mold and nervous sweat.
A small group of candidates and I are in line are watching the other candidates in front of us while waiting our turn to complete a standing 85 lb bicep curl.
The test proctors are firefighters here to assist the training division.
We all watch them. They are the chosen few. They have one of the most coveted jobs in the world – a professional firefighter.
At the end of the test, we watch the proctor quietly hand the candidate’s test sheet back to them.
There is no overt celebrating.
Body language says it all.
Slumping shoulders and downcast eyes or toothy smiles and a quick step to the next testing element gives away the result.
I need one rep. That’s all. Just one repetition or successful lift will get me to the next test element.
But this firefighter entry test is infamous.
It was created in the 70’s when both fire and police across the nation were required to open up the all-male work force and include women among their ranks. There were enough men that wanted to keep women from these positions, so a physical entry test was designed with that in mind.
The 85 lb standing bicep curl is intimidating.
When I first heard of it, I thought it was impossible. That’s more than half my body weight! But I really didn’t want to go back to being a litigation attorney. I wanted to be a firefighter, and this was the test to get in.
So, here I was.
As the line became shorter, I’m quietly telling myself, “I can do this. I. Can. Do. This.”
Of course, that was very different from what I first told myself. When I very first heard of the testing requirements, I heard an inner voice something like this: “Are you crazy? You can’t do that! You don’t even lift weights!”
At that point in my journey, my inner doubter was right! At that point in time, I couldn’t do an 85 lb bicep curl.
But I really wanted to be a firefighter.
So, I made a decision. I would do everything in my power to reach that goal.
After that decision, I did two things: I created a plan and took action.
As I put in more hours at the gym and could see my strength growing, I notice my inner doubter getting quieter and my inner encourager getting more excited.
The testing phase had several steps. First, you had to pass a written exam to be invited to even take the physical entry test. Most of my time was focused on the physical entry test since that is where the 85 lb bicep curl sat like a huge boulder blocking the entrance to the coveted position of firefighter. Those successful enough to pass moved on to a series of interviews, psychological testing and medical reviews.
While I was focused on the physical test, I hit my first major challenge.
I signed up for a neighboring city’s written exam for practice. Sitting in an auditorium in a chair with those little flip desks, I was filling out the bubbles on my scan sheet when, out of nowhere, one of the test proctors yelled something. It broke me from my concentration.
Looking up, thinking we had some sort of intermission, I gazed around realizing the auditorium was nearly empty.
The test was over, and I was not done.
I am an attorney and I had spent two hours successfully arguing with myself over every option on the multiple choice test.
I was humiliated. Several years before I had successfully passed what many think is the hardest exam – the 3 day essay bar exam to be licensed in WA state as an attorney.
Here I had failed a two hour 100 question multiple choice test.
I was devastated. I didn’t want to go to the gym. I didn’t want to do anything. I was so disappointed.
I realize, I have a choice to make. I can quit and give up on my dream. I can choose to stay humiliated and depressed. Or, I can suck up my pride, get some help and learn how to take multiple choice tests.
I chose to get help. I chose humility. I adopted a beginner’s mindset. I gave myself permission to make mistakes and learn from them.
And then, I got to work. I took the action steps to learn this new skill.
And I got help.
This was hard for me. I usually just muddle through things on my own.
I had already hired a personal trainer. I also found a mentor and a community of women practicing for this test.
I bought every book I could about taking multiple choice GED exams and Firefighter entry tests. I practiced taking multiple choice tests many times a week.
I didn’t know it at the time, but getting help, getting a mentor and getting connected to a community of support was vital to my success and something I continue to struggle with.
And, when the written test came, I passed and received my invitation to the physical entry test.
And now, It’s my turn.
I walk over to one of the proctors.
He looks like most of the people in the room.
Male, 6 feet or so in height, and visibly ripped.
I hand him my test sheet and take my position.
Lining my heels up just in front of the line drawn on the floor, I position my butt and shoulders against the wall.
The proctors’ hand me the bar weighing 85 lbs. The weight of the bar feels heavy as it lowers to rest in front of my thighs.
I look straight ahead but out of the corner of my eye I can see two of the proctors – one on either side of me. The one on my right is squatting down so his head is 12” away at the height of my butt against the wall. The other proctor is leaning over, so his head is at my shoulder height about 12” away. They are watching to see if either my butt or my shoulders come off the wall, instantly disqualifying me.
The beginning of the lift is the hardest part. Since I cannot move butt or my shoulders, I can’t use any body English to get that first bit of momentum.
I remember thinking – I can do this.
Taking a deep breath, I give it everything I can, and the bar begins to move.
To be successful I need to get the bar to a full 90 degrees. In my training, I had notices that at about 70 degrees the lift can stall and eventually stop which would disqualify me from continuing with the test.
As the bar moves closer to the goal, it stalls a bit. Keeping as much momentum as I can, keeping my butt and shoulders glued to the wall I see the bar at a full 90 percent. One of the proctors said something I couldn’t hear, but I know, I have done it. I have lifted more than half my body weight in a bicep curl!
Way more importantly, I have proven to myself and my inner doubter that I can do something I previously thought impossible. And, you can too.
We all have two voices in our heads. The inner encourager and the inner doubter or inner critic.
Which voice are you listening to?
Looking back, I successfully achieved this dream because I followed these steps.
Now, as a coach, I help people, like you, realize your dreams.
Be. You. Optimally.
Reach me at [email protected]
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