“It was the wont of the immortal gods sometimes to grant prosperity and long impunity to men whose crimes they were minded to punish in order that a complete reverse of fortune might make them suffer more bitterly.” – Julius Caesar
Trying too hard to get what you want in life—like love, respect, and happiness—often has the opposite effect: you end up lonely, dejected, and miserable. I have realised that the universe has a way of doing things in reverse. For the simple reason, that reverse works.
Navy SEAL training has a bit called “drown-proofing” where they bind your hands behind your back, tie your feet together, and dump you into a 9-foot-deep pool. Your job is to survive for five minutes. Like most of the SEAL training, the vast majority of candidates who attempt drown-proofing fail. Upon being tossed into the water, many panic and scream to be lifted out. Some struggle until they slip underwater where they proceed to lose consciousness and have to be fished out and resuscitated. Over the years, a number of trainees have even died during the exercise.
But some people make it. And they do so because they understand two counterintuitive lessons. The first lesson of drown-proofing is paradoxical: the more you struggle to keep your head above water, the more likely you are to sink.
With your arms and legs tied, it’s impossible to maintain yourself at the surface for a full five minutes. Even worse, your limited attempts to keep your body afloat will only cause you to sink faster. The trick to drown-proofing is to actually let yourself sink to the bottom of the pool. From there, you lightly push yourself off the pool floor and let your momentum carry you back to the surface. Once there, you can grab a quick breath of air and start the whole process over again.
Strangely, surviving drown-proofing requires no superhuman strength or endurance. It doesn’t even require that you know how to swim. On the contrary, it requires the ability to not swim. Instead of resisting the physics that would normally kill you, you must surrender to them and use them to save your own life.
The second lesson of drown-proofing is a bit more obvious, but also paradoxical: the more you panic, the more oxygen you will burn and the more likely you are to fall unconscious and drown. In a sick and twisted way, the exercise turns your survival instinct against you: the more intense your desire to breathe, the less you will be able to breathe. The more intense your will to live, the greater the chance you will die.
More than a test of physical will, drown-proofing is a test of each candidate’s emotional self-control in situations of extreme danger. Can they control their own impulses? Are they able to relax in the face of potential death? Can they willingly risk their lives in the service of some higher value or goal?
These skills are far more important than any candidate’s ability to swim. They’re more important than his resilience, his physical toughness, or his ambition. More important than how smart he is, what school he went to, or how damn good he looks in a crisp Italian suit.
This skill—the ability to let go of control when one wants it most—is one of the most important skills anyone can develop. And not just for SEAL training. For life. Most people assume the relationship between effort and reward is one-to-one. We 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. Or yelling your point twice as loud will make you twice as right.
The assumption here is that most of life exists on a linear curve, that there’s a one-to-one ratio between effort and reward with everything. But allow me to inform you—as someone who just tried drinking twice the normal amount of Red Bull so he could finish writing this post—this is almost never true. Most of the world does not exist on a linear curve. Linear relationships only exist for mindless, rote, repetitive tasks—driving a car, filling out reams of paperwork, cleaning the bathroom, etc. In all of these cases, doing something for two hours will double the output of doing it for one hour. But that’s simply because they require no thought or ingenuity.
Most activities in life do not operate along the linear effort/reward curve because most activities in life are not basic nor mindless. Most activities are complex, mentally and/or emotionally taxing, and require adaptation. Therefore, most activities produce a diminishing returns curve… Diminishing returns means that the more you experience something, the less rewarding it becomes.
The concept of diminishing returns applies to most experiences that are complex and novel, and even many of the mundane ones. The number of showers you take in a day, the number of chicken wings you inhale during happy hour, the number of trips home to visit your mother in a year—these are all experiences that start out highly valuable at first but then diminish in value the more frequently you do them.
Friendships operate on a diminishing returns curve. Having one friend is crucial. Having two is clearly better than one. But having 10 instead of 9 changes little in your life. And having 21 instead of 20 just makes remembering people’s names that much more difficult aye. Sex has diminishing returns, as does eating, sleeping, drinking alcohol, working out at the gym, reading books, consuming caffeine, scheduling business meetings, studying for an exam, staying up late to play video games—the examples are endless. All these give back less the more you do them, the more you try, or the more you have. All operate on a diminishing returns curve.
But there’s another curve, one that you’ve probably never seen or heard of before—and that’s largely because I make a lot of this up, just kidding. That’s the inverted curve. The inverted curve is what I call the “Twilight Zone” curve, where effort and reward have a negative correlation. That is, the more effort you put into doing something, the more you will fail to do it. Drown-proofing exists on an inverted curve. The more effort you put into rising to the surface, the more likely you will be to fail at it. Similarly, the more you want to breathe, the more likely you are to choke on chlorinated water.
Very few things in life function on an inverted curve. But the few things that do are extremely important. In fact, I will argue that the most important experiences and goals in life all exist on an inverted curve. Effort and reward have a linear relationship when the action is mindless and simple. Effort and reward have a diminishing return relationship when the action is complex and multivariate.
But when the action becomes purely psychological—an experience that exists solely within our own consciousness—the relationship between effort and reward becomes inverted.
Pursuing happiness takes you further away from it. Attempts at greater emotional control only remove us from it. The desire for greater freedom is often what causes us to feel trapped. The need to be loved and accepted prevents us from loving and accepting ourselves.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, “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”.
The most fundamental components of our psychology are paradoxical (i have overused this word today, sorry). This is because when we consciously try to create a state of mind, the desire for that state of mind creates a different and often opposite state of mind from the one we’re trying to create. “The Backwards Law” in Chapter 1 of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck says: desiring a positive experience is itself a negative experience; accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.
So the goal is to take your mind—a wonderful thing that has spent its life learning to chase various creatures—and teach it to stop chasing its own tail. To stop chasing meaning and freedom and happiness because those only serve to move it further away from itself. To teach it to achieve what it desires by giving up what it desires. And show it how the only way to reach the surface is to let itself sink.
And how do we do this? By letting go, giving up, and surrendering. Not out of weakness. But out of respect that the world is beyond our grasp. By recognising that we are fragile and limited and but temporary specks in the infinite reaches of time. You do it by relinquishing control, not because you feel powerless, but because you are powerful. Because you decide to let go of things that are beyond your control. You decide to accept that sometimes, people won’t like you, that often you will fail, that usually you have no clue what you’re doing.
You lean into the fear and uncertainty, and just when you think you’re going to drown, just as you reach the bottom, it will launch you back to your salvation. These are the lessons I have learned in the past few days. You cannot fix everything, the more you try to fix the more you mess up. Ask the barber who tries to straighten your lineup…
As always, hope you and yours are safe. This week do something you wouldn’t normally do, relax and let life happen to you. Hit us up in the comments and email and tell us how that is going.