Strain to Gain

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before gratitude handing it in to future generations.” - George Bernard Shaw

Heat and pressure privilege any lump of coal humble enough to admit its origins, patient enough to endure the struggle, and bold enough to blossom. Diamonds are borne of heat and pressure.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that my most meaningful personal discoveries often emerge from the periods of greatest strain. Since determining that meaning produces my happiness, and strain (especially when coupled with reflection) produces meaning, I’ve concluded that strain leads to personal happiness.

-Strain doesn’t just come from “valleys” (the things nobody wishes for); it also comes from “peaks” (the things everybody wishes for). Usually, the process of getting to peaks requires a lot of time straining in the valleys, which creates an experiential contrast that can deepen the appreciation we feel at the peaks. We also tend to overestimate the satisfaction of reaching the peak: the feeling of achievement flees just as soon as it arrives. Moreover, we tend to underestimate the additional strain–responsibility, pressure, stakes, momentum–that new levels of achievement bring. As the Zen proverb goes: “When you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing.”

-Strain is natural. I re-read the Tao te Ching recently and it got me questioning whether all my interest in the concept of strain was misguided…that perhaps a more Daoist “flow” view of the world was really the way to go. Then I remembered the obvious: every natural system uses strain to evolve! We humans have accustomed ourselves to believing that strain is a bad thing, so we choose to fight it, to struggle against it. But nature doesn’t struggle: it embraces strain: blow on a fire to put it out, and it will grow; develop an antibiotic to kill a bacteria, and the bacteria will evolve to become immune; water changes form, evaporating instead of fighting the sun, adapting to new terrain and accepting new obstacles as they come.

-All this talk of strain may sound masochistic, but it’s not meant that way. As far I am concerned, strain basically just means “really, really hard work; persevering through adversity; rising to overcome challenges.” Strain is not the only path to meaning; it’s just the one that’s most denied in our modern “cheap thrills” culture. Other things such as love, leisure, and beauty can produce meaning, as well, but remember: love requires strain to maintain and grow; leisure requires strain to earn and appreciate; and beauty requires strain to achieve. My experience is that a lot of happiness can be harvested in the “valleys” if we relieve strain of its perceived “badness” and allow ourselves to reframe it as a gift.

-There’s nothing wrong with hard work, unless the worker never pauses to reflect on why she’s doing what she’s doing. In Japan, apparently so many people die from excessively hard work that they made a word for it: Karōshi. I would guess that death by overwork is more likely for someone who hates his work (afraid of boss, mismatch between skills/interests and the type of work, poor working conditions, purpose that she doesn’t believe in) than for someone who loves his work. When you love your work, you want to live to fight another day. I love my work, and although I consistently overwork (a valiant effort to make the most of my body before it gets old!), my commitments to reflection–aikido, writing, reading, and exercise–keep me sane and smiley.


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