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Why do we drown when we try the most

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

As we near the first quarter of the 21st century, finding meaning, having a clear goal, and a good life is still problematic. Today the crisis we face is more fundamental. Unlike our ancestors, our crisis cannot be solved with the same tools, as what we face is not a worldly crisis. We have plenty of food and water, social structures to rely on, and safe shelters. Yet we feel miserable, numb, and unable to achieve life. The older generation is often shocked at how we can be so clueless. They call us snowflakes, and with their good intentions, the older generation tells us the stories of how hard life was and gives us some valuable life lessons; all-in-all makes us feel even more miserable and helpless, if not annoyed.

If the above lines sounds are familiar to you, rest assured you are not alone. Especially positions requiring mental efforts with no physical outcome tend to suffer more. Of course this my anecdotal observation and not a scientific figure. So, I would like to explore why we drown more each time we try more with an engineering approach.

Please bare with me for a moment. Here, let us take a deep breath; Lao Tzu once said:

“Stop trying to leave, and you will arrive. Stop seeking, and you will see. Stop running away, and you will be found.”

Unlike Lao Tzu, the modern conventional self-help advice tells us to visualize success and think about the type of person we want to become, usually reinforcing the idea that we are not it. Like the older generations’ advice, the intention is good, but the result is not. It transcends our life into a never-ending horse race with no winner and prize. With the internet, the race is getting tougher by day as there is an infinite amount of things we can now see or know. There are also endless ways we can discover that we do not measure up and that we’re not good enough, that things are not as great as they could be. We taste the bittersweet emotion of knowing all the things we missed or could have been.

Our job is associated with our identity, and the neighborhood we live in is associated with our identity. Almost all are related to money, power, status, and knowledge. To put this into a better perspective first let me tell you a few things about eVTOL or drone design.

Suppose that you have a drone and you want to extend the flight time. One of the most intuitive approach is to increase the amount of fuel which in this case is the battery. But does it really extend the flight time? Because you have added new weights, which in turn increase the power consumption of the flying platform. Maybe the new weight surpasses the maximum take-off weight and now the platform can not even take off. What should be done? Maybe we can change the engines with bigger ones that can drive bigger propellers. But now both our power consumption went up as well as added new weights. I guess this is enough to spot the vicious circle.

In essence this is also how our lives often feels. The circle of life may be optimized like the drone in the above paragraph. Or does it?

Actually the relationship is complicated but explainable. First to grasp is that the reward versus effort is not a linear relationship. We sometime think that working twice as long will produce twice the results. That caring about a relationship twice as much will make everyone feel twice as loved. That yelling the point twice as loud will make it twice as right. There are many things in life that cannot be improved with greater effort. Sometimes, life requires that we step back. Maybe to achieve greater flight time we should not increase the battery but in contrary decrease it.

You’re sitting in the desk, staring at the screen, listening to music. You have no idea how long you have been like this, but it must be a few hours, at least. Work now, you tell yourself. Just concentrate and on last grind: Go. Work. Now. You open your eyes wide, force your body to stiffen, and wait for the blissful motivation to come. But, nothing happens. More minutes pass and… nothing happens. It’s 3 p.m., and you’re still staring at the screen.

We have all been in this situation. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to consciously will yourself to work in that moment. It is like forcing to sleep. Sleep comes to those who let their mind wander and focus on anything other than sleep itself. Count sheep, control your breathing, listen to an audiobook, or whatever — so long as it turns your mind from wanting to sleep.

The law of reversed effort

The Law of Reversed Effort was first coined by the author Aldous Huxley, who wrote:

“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.
“Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent unknown quantity may take hold.”

It’s the idea that the more we try to do something, the worse we become at it. Suppose, for instance, that you are learning how to ride a bike for the first time. You are told to hold the handlebars a certain way, to push off with this foot, to pedal at that speed, to sit in a specific position, to hold your balance here, and so on. There is a small book’s worth of micro-instructions when learning to ride a bike. When we ride a bike, we know all these things, but we do not try to do them. They just happen. In Huxley’s words, it’s “combining relaxation with activity.”

Of course it is important to not confuse this law with laziness. It is an art of serenity to learn, thrive, do the best; but being in a relaxed state. It is not to stare at the screen and not work with being calm. It is to sometimes take a step back, to see the bigger picture, assess the situation, relax and continue with happiness and motivation. Now this circle will positively feedback into better state each time. After all isn't the life we live now? After all isn't that work constitutes a big proportion of our lives? Why not try to make it a more enjoyable and more productive journey?

It is not some lazy torpor, or an excuse for a duvet day and Netflix binge. In fact, it is often the very opposite. Accepting is to appreciate, recognize, and accept the pull of forces far greater than us. It is to walk the path that opens up and push the door that gives. Call it gut-feeling, intuition, fate, divine calling, or whatever, but the law is to stop doing what you think is right, and to let yourself be pulled by some other power.

The law is the reed bending in the wind. It’s the stick riding the current. It’s surrender and humility. It is, in short, the law of reversed effort — to recognize that some things need patience and space.

Practical applications

That’s nice, you might think, but how does that actually translate to real life? The problem with a lot of philosophy of this kind is that it rather leaves us no better off than before. How can Huxley’s law of reversed effort be seen not as an ideology but as a practical guide? The fact is that “not doing” is fundamental to the nature of many tasks. Here are just a few examples. If you think of more examples please leave a comment!

Writing: For an author, there is nothing so terrifying as the blank page. If you have been told you have to write something, especially on a deadline, the mind often can go into meltdown grasping for something — anything — to write. It’s much better to let ideas come and write them in a notebook so they don’t get lost.

Technical skills: When you are learning a new sport or skill, you have to learn the technique. You go through the motions, ticking off steps in your head, and eventually end up succeeding. But there comes a point when overthinking is detrimental. It’s probably why your favorite team are rubbish at penalty shoot-outs.

Stress and anxiety: We all get stressed about things. All jobs involve bottlenecks and crunch points. Life has good days and bad days. But when we obsessively run things over in our heads, we actually make anxiety worse. There is a reason why “mindfulness” is such a breakaway phenomenon, and why Headspace is a $250-million business. Stepping away, taking a breath, and doing nothing are good for you.

Conversations: When it comes to how we talk to people, less really is more. A bad conversation involves you talking too much and your “listening” consisting of simply waiting to talk again. Yet research shows that active listening gives more “conversational satisfaction” and leaves the partner feeling more understood.

E-VTOL: It is best to take a step back and analytically model the aircraft to see the bigger picture instead of going directly an "obvious" resolution, such as increasing the battery weight to increase the flight time. It is best to write the optimization routines with a clear goal. This way the design would be optimized best for the intended purpose.

“Take the piano teacher… he always says, relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity…”

Take any project that rushed overly, often ending in spectacular failure. Thus I think that hard work and rushing should be done according to a plan to be successful! So the message is not that the thing can not be speed up or done better it is to say that there are more elegant ways to be quicker and have higher output. If the result is the same why not take the joyful path?

You can’t force it

There are many moments in life when trying harder makes things worse. When you have a mosquito bite, a broken bone, or a nosebleed, you leave it be. Picking, prodding, and probing only exacerbate the problem. So, too, with a lot of life’s major moments.

Perhaps it is time to step away from what you are doing and enjoy the law or inaction. After all, if I tell you not to think of pink space shuttle, there’s only one way to do it.

As Warren Buffett put it:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

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