Western culture makes a fetish of strenuous effort. Put in lots of effort, we are told, and we can reliably expect cracking results. I, like a lot of people, was brought up to believe it. Media reinforce the idea. But it is not true.
Many of us often work extremely hard and get very limited results in return. What we invariably get, however, is fatigue. Over the long term we often get chronic fatigue. We also increase our chances of injury and becoming jaded.
We also boost the chances we crave relief from the pain and strain we have induced. Enthusiastic efforts to improve our health can lead us to look for relief using alcohol or in other counterproductive ways.
I was brought up to be a firm believer in the try hard ethos. Whether it was memorising irregular foreign verbs or running round a playing field until we puked. It was all quite unpleasant, but rest assured the pain would have a pay off.
There is something to be said for seeing where our limits are and experiencing what happens when we reach them. It is instructive, but constantly pushing our gauges into the red is a flawed long-term strategy.
Real achievements typically emerge from steady, sustainable and enjoyable effort. Bodies strengthen, but they take time. Books, academic papers and brick walls take shape, but not thanks to an afternoon of frantic exertion.
Willing ourselves to regularly hit our pain thresholds can induce endorphins that soothe strain and stress. But over the long term this can backfire when we no longer want to endure discomfort simply for a painkilling payoff.
My own experience was that I became tired of the satisfaction and reward of enduring things as an end in itself. Eventually I found what Chinese philosophy calls wu wei, a slippery idea one might say means “never pushing”.
The idea is to never strain oneself. One should look at ways to sail rather than row to a destination. Rather than giving oneself a pat on the back for labouring, one should focus on technique, reducing effort and enhancing enjoyment.
It is an approach that can be well embodied in some tai chi classes. If you feel any pain or strain you are told to stop moving quite so much. The lesson for an inveterate try-harder is stop trying so hard, progress will come anyway.
I did no more than the tai chi basics, but “never pushing” works with anything. I swam this way for three years. I was never injured, tired or stressed and was able to enjoy every minute. I emerged far stronger and with technique improved.
The ultra low intensity meant there was no pain or discomfort during or after. This meant there was not the slightest temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or anything else. Swimming itself became a longed-for stress relief.
Making never pushing and enjoyment the key parameters of success make activities themselves the rewarding relaxation it should be. Well-being not effort is the most reliable basis for progress. ■