In the beginning of this year I read an article by one of my favorite podcast hosts Patrick O’Shaughnessy about strain and one by the author Ryan Holiday about not being hard enough on ourselves. Lately I was thinking a lot about those topics so I want to share some thoughts about them.
O’Shaughnessy has a pretty interesting view on setting goals for the year: he thinks those are a too short term concept. Think of diet plans. People do their best to eat healthy for weeks or even months. As soon as they finished – as soon as they reached their goal and finished the plan – they fall back into old habits and start getting back to their initial weight again. Therefore O’Shaughnessy suggests starting with only small changes and be consequent with them. You will build up habits and routines over time and get exponential returns in the long run.
But who has the patience to do that? This is where strain comes into play.
Being hard on yourself
Strain is about not taking the easy path, about avoiding shortcuts. It’s about learning for your life and making a lasting step forward in your self development. It’s also about taking care of yourself and do what’s good for you and not what’s the most comfortable option in the moment. Ryan Holiday writes about how hard that is. He is a scholar of the great stoics like Marc Aurel, Seneca or Cato.
And I think he has a point: We live in a world where it’s easy to do our standard job, go home after 8 hours on a regular day, throw our stuff in the corner, watch Netflix & eat unhealthy stuff for the rest of the evening. We complain about our job, our life and how everything is rigged against us. We don’t strain, we just take the easy path and are the victims of our environment. We are all guilty of behavior like this.
Strain in everyday life
Lately a friend of mine said to me: „I envy you, your life is so easy. You are interested in so many things and always seem to know what you want to do“. I didn’t hear such a thing the first time and I couldn’t disagree more on that statement. A direction in life and an interest does not come by magic. It comes with curiosity about the world and a proactive mindset exploring it. In other words: it’s work. It gets enjoyable at some point because you start to understand bigger connections but it’s also really hard sometimes. It requires discipline. It’s about taking an hour (or two) trying to understand the spooky remote effect because you’re just curious. It’s about following through with texts that provoke your thoughts by not confirming your point of view (and being critical about them). It’s about admitting your own failures and trying to learn something from them.
I think this mindset can make many things in life more enjoyable and interesting.
For instance, take relationships. Strain in that context means exploring the partner’s interests, concerns, perspectives and opinions. Also that is work and it requires time. It’s sometimes admitting that one was wrong, it’s sometimes about saying something you know your partner does not want to hear. Or, even harder: It’s about listening to something that you don’t want to hear and accepting it without „firing“ back.
I think relationships are particularly hard in that regard because we want to live up to roles that are defined by society, although relationships should be the place where we can rely on acceptance of how we really are. What we sometimes need to remind ourselves, is working on our skill to listen deeply, our (subconscious) judgement and on our openness to explore the viewpoints of our partner.
At work I was talking to a colleague the other day about honesty at the workplace. Sometimes it’s just the easier way to not tell the truth because we think people can’t handle it. We think by expressing some false optimism and confidence that people get motivated and don’t get afraid when facing controversial news. In my opinion that is just an easy excuse.
Honesty and transparency require empathy and a high level of trust. It may happen that one has to admit not knowing an answer to a question, not being sure about a decision or that there was a lack of alternatives. But people can feel and see if you are insecure or they might already add up all pieces of information and gather a very different conclusion than you. Also (if you hired the right people) they are intelligent adults and can handle the truth. In my opinion it’s your duty as a leader to strain and be honest and transparent with information in that regard. Everything else will sooner or later backfire.
The strain mindset also applies to how you care about your body. In today’s world we experience many types of extremes: From obesity, smoking, anorexia to alcoholism, extreme sports, body building, and so on. It seems as it’s easier than ever to lose touch to your own body because of whole industries focusing on making us crave for unhealthy food & habits.
In my opinion strain in this context means prioritizing the healthy habits over the comfortable habits: Getting past the mental barriers that prevent you going for a run instead of watching Netflix, cooking a fresh meal instead of putting that junk food pizza into the oven. Saying „enough“ at some point during the night, when your friends and your inner self is talking you into having another drink that will make your next day a mess. Listen to your body and recognizing when your behavior harms you more than they do good.
How can we change our mindset?
We all know those moments, when we know we should do the one thing, but are tempted to do the other because it’s easier. It’s hard to resist (See my last post). My point here is, that it’s very worth the effort, not only in your relationship, not only at work, not only at your health but for your life.
So here are 3 short ideas how I try to live the strain mindset – I’m also just in the beginning of a journey, so if you have ideas, resources, etc. please let me know!
I believe one key is not accepting failure – or at least having very high tolerance for failure. This is what world class athletes do when they struggle with a particular task: They keep doing it over and over again. They just never give up, trying to make their weakness a strength.
The same concept applies to learning: If one doesn’t understand some abstract concept, try to figure it out step by step. In the process one might stumble across different resources like wikipedia articles, university lectures and more. Even if it does not feel like progress sometimes, one builds on is mental models about the world, and without even being aware one gets curious about how things work. In that case, try to keep in mind:
Be persistent, never give up – exercise your mental muscle!
Sometimes we know about the challenge but just have too less time to get it done. If I really want to do something, I take my calendar and allocate time for it, because the calendar is my main time management tool. We all live in a busy world, therefore actively blocking time for something important is really helpful.
Last but not least – as I wrote in my post about fasting and failing – I think that social motivation can be incredibly powerful. I ran my first two marathons with my dad and did a triathlon with a friend at work. There is always a way how to reach your goal and if you walk that way together, it’s even more fun and you will have a lot easier time following through!