“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity.”– Aldous Huxley
“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the Earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”– Jacques Cousteau
When it comes to our psychology what’s happened is this.
Our hands and arms have been bound together, and we’ve been thrown into the deep end. The more we struggle, the faster we sink. The more we panic, the more oxygen we burn, the quicker we drown.
As it happens, this is something navy SEALs do as part of their bat-shit-crazy survival training. It’s called drown-proofing.
The trick to surviving drown-proofing is to let go. You must surrender in the face of death and allow yourself to sink to the bottom of the pool. From there, you lightly push off the pool floor to rise back to the surface.
Finally, you take a big gulp of air before repeating the whole process over again.
The problem with drown-proofing (the reason so many cadets fail at it) is it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s counter-intuitive for two major reasons.
First, are our deeply ingrained survival instincts screaming at us to do something. (This is what makes drown-proofing such a cruel training exercise: Your survival instincts are pitted against you.)
The second reason is our deeply ingrained belief that we must exert some kind of effort to exact any sort of result.
Diminishing Rates of Return
The logic goes the more I put into something, the more I get out of it.
When it comes to effort versus reward, we assume it’s one-for-one. Twice the effort garners twice the reward. But this is only true for certain menial tasks like washing the dishes or folding the laundry.
The reality is the vast majority of things work on a diminishing rate of return. That means the more you put into or experience something, the less rewarding it becomes over time.
To use work as a classic example.
Many productivity studies show that most people max out at about 4 to 5 productive hours per day. The rest is just fucking around. Usually, to appease some CEO who feels the need to get their money’s worth.
Obviously, 4 hours of work is better than none. 8 hours of work is better than 4, although those extra 4 hours will be less productive.
However, the difference between an 8 and a 12-hour workday is next to nothing. Whereas the difference between a 12-hour and a 16-hour workday is undoubtedly counterproductive. (Factoring sleep deprivation and the probability that the quality of work will have diminished significantly.)
At this point you’ve stalled. You need to let go and return to earth for the night before you make everything worse.
Of course, this is how an aeroplane works.
If I pitch up, I increase the amount of lift my wings generate. But I also increase the amount of drag I encounter. Depending on my performance (and what it is I hope to achieve), there is an optimum lift-to-drag ratio. If I exceed that ratio, I get a diminishing rate of return on my lift.
If I keep pitching up, eventually, I’ll reach a point where the air separates from the top of the wing resulting in a substantial loss of lift. This what’s known as the stall.
Understating where this point is important so I don’t exceed it. Of course, prevention is better than cure. However, understanding what to do once I have stalled is even more critical.
Not just because it constitutes an emergency, but because the way to recover is, you guessed it, counter intuitive.
Increasing Rates of Negative Return
This is the main point I want to make today.
The moment we stall in life, the exact opposite of what we believe is true. Effort no longer corresponds with an increase in reward – even on a diminishing rate of return.
Instead, we enter into an increasing rate of negative return.
That means the more effort we put into something – the more we try to exact a result – the worse everything becomes. The more we pitch up, the deeper the stall becomes.
The only way to recover is to let go.
We must then point our aircraft toward the ground to avoid hitting it. It’s completely counter-intuitive, just like drown-proofing. If you don’t want to drown you must sink to the bottom of the pool.
Here’s the mighty big thing.
When it comes to our psychology – when it’s something that exists purely within our mind – this is always the case. The more we try to control our emotional aeroplane – the more we try to fight the turbulence – the worse the ride becomes.
Happiness is the classic example here.
The more we desire happiness – the more we chase after it – the further the carrot moves. The more we wish we didn’t feel so anxious, or angry, or sad, the more gasoline we add to the fire.
The more we crave love and acceptance from others, the harder we find it to love and accept ourselves. The harder we try to fall asleep, the more we want to pull our hair out.
I could go on. So I will!
There’s one more example I want to bring up. The one I’ve been building to. One of the four forces of life known as meaning – the human equivalent of lift.
The more we crave a meaningful experience – the more we desperately try to find meaning – the more meaningless everything starts to feel. The more we wish our lives or experience didn’t mean something, the more we believe it does.
Meaning, like all of the above, requires a counter-intuitive approach.
The Psychology of Letting Go
As complex as our psychology is the reason for this is surprisingly simple. It’s because our mind is both the cause and the effect of the thing we desire.
We tend to treat our minds like a car we must drive to reach our destination. But the mind doesn’t work like that. This is because the mind is both the destination and the vehicle itself.
When Buddhist monks preach about already being free, this is what they mean. You can’t drive yourself out of the destination your mind is already in. You can’t swim when you’re arms and legs are bound together. Your only option is to let yourself sink.
You must sink into the uncertainty, pain, and fear.
When you learn to do that – as petrifying as it is – you’ll find something remarkable happens. As if by magic you’ll find the clarity and perspective you need. You’ll understand where your fear is genuinely rooted.
You’ll find the bottom of the pool.
From there, you won’t have to think about how you should act; you’ll know. You’ll push off the pool floor and launch yourself to salvation. You’ll realise that the only to fly upward from here is to point the nose down.
God willing, you will avoid the ground in the nick of time.
This is part five of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)
Part 4: The Paradox of Meaning
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://wiseandshinezine.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com