William James was a philosophy professor at Harvard University at the turn of the 20th century who wrote an article for the academic journal Science titled “The Energies of Men”.
The premise of the article is that people regularly fail to live up to their potential. James explains why this is the case and also offers advice on how we can realize our true potential on a daily basis and be the best version of ourselves possible.
Stop Quitting So Easily
James opens the article by flat out saying people are eager to quit any type of work at the first sign of adversity:
"On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer of fatigue."
I agree with this wholeheartedly. Whether we admit to it openly or not, most of us are quick to stop any activity at the first sign of fatigue. Fatigue can mean many different things in different settings:
When lifting weights it means literally being physically exhausted after doing a certain amount of sets. When trying to live more frugally it means the slight lifestyle discomfort we experience once we hit a certain savings rate.
For most of us the visceral reaction to adversity is to quit simply because there are no obvious consequences of quitting. But the ugly truth behind quitting at the first sign of struggle is that you are subconsciously telling yourself this is an acceptable reaction.
Each time you quit at the first sign of struggle you are reinforcing this behavior and creating a habit of quitting. Luckily, James goes on to offer a remedy to this behavior. He states that if you push on past the first sign of adversity you will notice that:
"The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed."
This new level of energy he is referring to is more commonly called our “second wind” that we experience after doing an activity for a long stretch of time. James even goes on to say that there may even be a third and fourth layer of energy waiting to be tapped into if we only continue at a task for long enough.
This is an incredible idea. Each of us has tapped into this “new level” of energy before:
- If you have ever stayed up late in college finishing a project the night before it is due you have forced yourself to find the energy and effort needed to complete the project.
- If you have ever ran a marathon you have undoubtedly accessed a second wind that propelled you through a particular challenging part of the race.
- If you are a new parent you have likely found energy to stay up with a crying child all night and then gone into work the next day on little to no sleep.
Unlocking Our Second Wind
Where does this energy come from? James is making the argument that it is always there. We simply rarely have a need to use it. I like to picture dealing with adversity using the image below.
The light red represents when we first start a task and things are going well. The darker the shade of red, the more adversity we face and the more we feel the urge to quit. But miraculously, we have far more energy to expend towards any given task if we simply push beyond the dark red phase, and break through to the next level of energy.
Notice that if you can simply will yourself beyond the dark red phrase (the first sign of adversity) you will unlock your second wind. Our second wind essentially allows us to have a burst of energy similar to the energy we had when we first started the task.
Pushing Past the First Layer of Fatigue
But sometimes forcing ourselves beyond the first layer of fatigue to unlock our second wind is far easier said than done. So how do we make a habit of doing so? Here is some practical advice on overcoming the first layer of fatigue:
1. When working on a difficult project, leave your phone in another room. This prevents the reflex of getting on social media or mindlessly surfing the web at the first sign of adversity. This forces you to face the problem head on and find a solution.
2. Avoid complaining at all costs. Complaining is the first step to quitting a difficult task. It allows you to convince yourself that the difficulty you are facing is too overwhelming and needs to be handled at a later time. Do not complain at struggle. Embrace the struggle head on.
3. Find any solution to the problem you are facing. It doesn’t have to be the right solution and it doesn’t have to be the final solution. When you produce a solution to a problem, you are at least setting a base layer for yourself to work from. Once you build on that initial solution you’ll likely find that you can think of an even better version of it later. But you must at least produce an initial solution so you have something to build on.
Forming A Habit of Unlocking Second Winds
It’s encouraging to know that we have a huge amount of energy that we can all access whenever we need to overcome a challenge. But can these deep levels of energy be depleted? If we push ourselves to overcome initial fatigue on a daily basis does it just wear us down?
Lets see what James says:
"The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use. But the very same individual, pushing his energies to their extreme, may in a vast number of cases keep the pace up day after day, and find no "reaction" of a bad sort...for the organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair."
It turns out that regularly overcoming adversity doesn’t wear us down, but instead we learn to adapt quite quickly to this behavior and we can even turn it into a habit.
As humans we are constantly trying to be in a state of equilibrium, meaning we always strive to maintain our current state from day to day. This also applies to behavior. We naturally tend to behave the same way we did yesterday. So to change the way we behave tomorrow we need to start with the way we behave today.
If you overcome adversity today you are subtly sending yourself the message that you should overcome adversity tomorrow. If you overcome adversity tomorrow you are reinforcing the behavior that you should overcome adversity the next day…
You Are In Control
The fact that we have a deep well of energy waiting to be put to use towards our daily challenges is evidence that we are the ones in control. The problems we face do not control us.
Don’t be fearful that on a daily basis you might encounter adversity. I have some bad news to share: you will encounter adversity on a regular basis. But I also have some good news to share: You possess an unbelievable amount of energy and willpower to overcome your daily adversity if you are only willing to push past the first sign of trouble.
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