Be Careful What You Grasp For
Learning to overcome your unconscious and impulsive grabs for comfort.
Hello good people, this is an exciting week! Today we’re looking at developing an awareness of the unconscious desire to grab for the easy and comfortable path. Before we get into it, I’d like to announce that Shane recently published a fantastic article on Quillette: Grade Inflation Is Ruining Education.
I have a few more things to share at the end, but first, let’s talk about discomfort.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining altogether. However, if a seemingly appropriate time arises to act on it, don’t be overcome by its comfort, pleasantness, and allure—but against all of this, how much better the consciousness of conquering it.”
— Epictetus, Enchiridion, 34
ONE FROM TODAY
“The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”
— Dune by Frank Herbert
ONE FROM US
To reach the top of a route, a rock climber must use the tiny features of the rock to establish control in hundreds of different body configurations. Finding a smooth sequence of holds is important, but, ultimately, stability comes from how well they use the holds available to maintain the body tension required to stay on the wall. Essentially, climbing is to move from one position of relative control to another.
When climbing near the limits of my ability, or under heavy fatigue, or on a particularly tricky sequence, I often feel the temptation to rush through the different moves. I’ll want to skip obvious sequences of small holds, and lurch for a larger one that I think will offer more ease and stability. Climbing in this way loses all grace and finesse. I’ll fail to find the best way to grip a hold before putting my full reliance into it. I’ll fail to discover the best body positions to maintain balance throughout the sequence. A sense of mild panic follows that usually leads me to fall. If I happen to scrape through to a restful position, I feel none of the graceful control that makes climbing so pleasurable.
Experienced climbers have an obvious advantage of strength and technique over a novice. But the true mark of an expert climber their grace and calm. They remain comfortable with the hold options they have within reach rather than pining for better ones. They invest the time and consideration into performing each sequence well rather than scrambling to the next position of comfort.
Training to become a better climber requires the obvious development of footwork, an iron grip, and core strength. But to utilize these new hardware upgrades to their true potential, a climber must also upgrade their software. The most effective skill for a climber to have is the confidence that they do not need the next hold.
I practice this type of grace with a training drill on easier routes that helps break my reliance on the next hold. With each move, just before grabbing the new hold, I pause with my hand hovering an inch above it, poised to grasp and establish my new position. The pause forces me to use my core strength and other remaining holds to find stability without relying on the next handhold. More importantly, the pause allows me to practice finding comfort while lacking something that I very much want to grab.
In Dune, author Frank Herbert defines this as “spannungsbogan,” or the ability to insert a measured pause in the moment between seeing something we want and reaching out to grab it. This is, in a word, intentionality—developing a conscious awareness of unconscious patterns.
Most people live their lives as a sequence of hasty grabs for one piece of comfort after another. By always acquiescing to this impulse, they never allow themselves to develop comfort with discomfort. At the first sliver of boredom, we reach for a screen to suppress it. When we walk past a plate of cookies in the break room, we find ourselves munching before even realizing we’ve grabbed one. We insulate ourselves from uncomfortable conversations by having them through text, if at all. But just as in climbing, constantly pining and lurching for the next piece of comfort means skipping over all of our opportunities for improvement.
We know that willpower is trainable like a muscle. Yet we also know that willpower is not a magic spring from which all positive changes flow. We need to design a plan for change in accordance with the principles of habit formation and environmental design. Even though we cannot rely on willpower alone to bring about change, no one has ever built a new habit or broken a destructive one without it. We need a plan and willpower is the life force that animates that plan.
Just as in my climbing training, learning to insert a momentary pause between a flash of desire and the next action that you take allows that action to come from a place of more conscious control. We need to develop the ability to catch ourselves during moments of potential change in order to have any chance of applying our willpower. To train this awareness, we can find (and create) the moments that allow us to exercise our willpower most. Practicing discomfort helps tune your awareness to pick up your unconscious tendency to lurch down the easiest path. Frequent bouts of purposeful discomfort make it familiar feeling. This teaches us to see discomfort not as something to be avoided but rather as the source of growth.
If you’ve been reading for a little while, you have no doubt seen Shane or I discuss cold showers. A cold shower is a perfect planned discomfort. It is available to just about everyone, only takes a few minutes, and there is no way to avoid the discomfort. You’re either in or you’re out. You did it or you didn’t.
I step into cold water every day within two minutes of waking up. This might seem crazy but I actually crave it. The internal warmth and spike of alert energy that follow a cold shower come even on day one, yet every morning for the first few weeks my mind searched for every justification to skip a day. I needed weeks of momentary pauses and applications of willpower to create a positive association. I often caught myself with a hand hovering over the warm tap, just like that next enticing climbing hold, poised to open it up and skip a day. I had to learn to catch myself grasping for comfort. Now, I often find myself laying in bed at night eager for my cold shower when I wake up.
We can find countless ways to practice discomfort, from cold showers to a gut-check workout to intense breathing practices. Regardless of our methods, we need to seek some form of discomfort. Modern life has very few inherent difficulties, yet growth always comes from taking the uncomfortable but far more beneficial path. And beyond the simple benefits of discomfort, these experiences make us more self-aware by showing us what it feels like when our subconscious mind impulsively grasps for comfort.
Thank you for reading this week. If you enjoyed this, please forward it along to someone you think might enjoy it too.
In case you haven’t yet, be sure to check out Shane’s article on Quillette.
I’d also like to share this article from Bari Weiss: You Have to Read This Letter. It is a letter from a parent at Brearly, an elite, all-girls school in Manhattan. A regular IHD reader shared this with me last week and it is a wonderful examination (and refutation) of the trends developing in many schools.
Also, we have been working very hard on several new aspects of IHD and are proud to say that we will share them with you in the next two weeks. Stay tuned! If you want to find out right away, subscribe below if you haven’t already.
Thanks and remember,
Life is too short to be normal!