Running Towards Humps

Much of human behavior essentially amounts to comfort seeking. When we're hot, we seek air conditioning. When we're hungry, we eat without delay. When we want something, we buy it, even if we don't really have the money.

A few years ago, when I fortuitously stumbled onto William Irvine's brilliant book on Stoicism, I started embracing various types of "voluntary discomfort" as part of my halting efforts both to learn about Stoic philosophy and to try to learn how to appreciate life a little bit more. And as a quick reminder: Stoics don't "do" voluntary discomfort because they get off on suffering, that's just a snarky and condescending misreading of the practice. Rather, they do it to appreciate the comforts they already have, and to avoid taking them for granted.

At this point I'd also read Julien Smith's short and intriguing book The Flinch, which talked about how our "flinch" reaction often covertly produces avoidance behaviors that divert us from valuable life experiences. This book taught me to invert the flinch reaction and seek out experiences I'd normally flinch from. Finally, it was around this time that I'd begun exploring compound weightlifting in an effort to combat aging and get back some of my lost athletic footspeed and endurance.

Now, I'm awfully slow--window-lickingly slow--at learning things, but I'm finding surprising synergies, big ones, across almost all "domains of discomfort" in my life. Let me describe three examples:

1) Cold Showers
A crucial metaphor from The Flinch is the cold shower. And holy cow, the idea of taking a cold shower is something I definitely flinch from. It seems like such an incredibly awful experience that some days (uh, like today, the very day I'm working on a first draft of this post) I simply can't do it. I turn the water to a nice hot temperature and I wait like a wuss for the water to warm up.

But on the days I can do it, the actual experience of a cold shower isn't really all that bad.

Hahaha ...hahahahahaha... yes it IS that bad! That first shock of the cold water is hellish. I hate it.

Except... three minutes into that shower, the water oddly doesn't feel cold any more. More importantly, I always feel great after a cold shower. I feel refreshed, calm, replenished. Moreover, there's compelling evidence of both positive physiological and psychological effects of cold showers. For example, after difficult athletic training sessions, cold showers help your body recover. I've also found I get cognitive benefits from cold showers too: I feel sharper, mentally fresher afterwards.

The point here is that you've just got to get over the hump. And in the case of a cold shower, that hump is just three minutes long. That's it. And all these benefits are yours, in return for a minor exercise of voluntary discomfort and discipline.

2) Deadlifts
There's a lot to talk about in the domain of compound lifting, and most of this domain is still outside of my circle of competence. But I can speak to my experiences learning to do deadlifts, and one thing I can say confidently is that my road--the road between nervously picking up a deadlift bar with exactly zero pounds on it, and now doing a somewhat respectable 3x10 reps at one and a half times my body weight--was paved with humps. Lots of them.

In contrast to nautilus-type machines that work one or two muscles at a time under more limited conditions, compound lifting trains your entire body: your muscles, bones and connective tissue are all forced to work in concert. And this includes lots of minor muscles overlooked in most standard workout routines.

So, as I worked toward making my body deadlift-compliant, I tweaked parts of it I didn't even know about, and pulled muscles in places I didn't know I had muscles. In my first few months of deadlifting, I experienced intercostal muscle pulls throughout my rib cage. I experienced strains in all kinds of random places in my abs and upper hips (the so-called "abdominal cuff" area is fertile soil for injuries for beginning deadlifters since most people are shockingly fragile there). I tweaked my elbows, wrists, collarbone, even my fingers.

It was kind of like a cold shower... except that it took me about a year to come out the other side. But once I got over the hump, I had a more robust and far less fragile body.

In how many other domains do we see a "hump" of discomfort between us and serious insights and opportunity? And where else do we lose out on longer-term gains because we flinch from (or fear) the upfront discomfort?

3) Learning to Cook
With my typical slowness, I've come to discover that cooking is yet another discipline of voluntary discomfort, with enormous benefits once you get over "humps" of various types.

The discomfort here is a bit more metaphorical, of course. In the very short run, learning to cook is way more of a pain in the ass than grabbing takeout or going out to dinner. So the voluntary discomfort at first involves deferring an easier solution in order to develop some basic cooking and shopping skills.

And then there are the dinners and recipes you screw up as you learn. You'll make mistakes, and ruin a few meals. More humps and discomfort, in other words. It's a necessary part of the road towards competence, and later, skill.

There are many more layers to the metaphor: you'll have to learn how to keep a stocked pantry, how to shop efficiently, how to avoid rookie errors like buying out of season fruits and veggies, and so on. These are all examples of humps to be overcome, but on the other side of those humps are enormous benefits.

I'd speculate that when it comes to cooking humps, most readers here at CK have long ago gotten over them, to the point where we can whip up several days' worth of laughably cheap food in less time than it takes to drive to the takeout place. Some humps used to be big, but as they recede into the rear-view mirror of life, it gets deceivingly easy to forget about all the work that went into getting over them. Don't forget to give yourself credit for this!

Once again, though, this is still more proof of the enormous value of what's on the other side of those humps. Which is why I'm trying to look at the various humps and sources of discomfort in my life in a different way. I am trying to think about what's on the other side of them--usually really good stuff--and I'm trying to train myself to run towards them rather than flinch from them.

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