Be Strong

The Value of Strength

It is important to being stronger than necessary, because we need that extra strength to bear the inconveniences of life. This applies in many domains when unexpected things occur, but particularly in dealing with other people.

Having extra strength can give that cushion to ignore the small sleights the world throws at us: a car cuts you off in traffic, a person makes a comment that could be taken the wrong way, dealing with an unforeseen expense, and so on.

Strength allows us to continue on, because not reacting is usually the best course of action. We have much to lose when we act on the wrong things. It is wasted energy and it can create deeper problems. Knowing when not to act, and having the necessary strength to manage our emotions in these situations is critical. It is like having the privilege to not react when someone calls us out on our privilege.

Having strength gives you choices, because you have the strength to bear the situation long enough to choose your course of action. Like many great people have said, we cannot always control the situation, but we can control how we respond to it.

Or if you prefer simplicity: choose your battles.

How to Get Stronger

To get stronger, we must do things that have some kind of resistance. Physically, this is well defined and researched: lift heavy things that are at a significant percentage of your maximum. But let's not spend too much time with the details as we are just borrowing the concept and applying the key principles to other things. For example, whenever you feel like you're procrastinating on something, doing the thing anyway will build strength. It is common for us to be reactive to situations, but even to pause a moment to decide the best course of action takes strength, much like isometric exercises (where there is no visible muscle contraction i.e. movement) can develop strength. Once you are in decision making mode, choose the option that is harder, so long that it doesn't risk injuring you to the point of no return. Going "all in" on a risky business venture that could lose money for you and your family is probably something to avoid. But going "all in" on a business that might financially hurt but not wipe you out, may be a worthwhile pursuit.

Doing things that scare you build resilience. Despite your fears, you choose to do it anyway. That's courage, isn't it? Again, don't take unnecessary risks that you can't recover from, like stepping into a gunfight without a gun. Part of strength comes from the idea of grinding (or "suffering") but then recovering to a higher set point. This is pretty much strength from a biological standpoint and the concept of antifragility. Once you get stronger, the idea is that things far below your strength level can be handled, or at least resisted for the moment. They will still have an impact, but it will be far more manageable. It is important to understand that strength allows for a choice to be made. It is very different to choose not to respond, than to not being able to respond.

However, it is important to understand that small things, consistently over time, can wear you down if you cannot recover sufficiently. This is unlikely to happen in daily life from random events or people, but if you are in an environment that continues to add loads that cannot be managed with your current strength level, then it will eventually wear you down. This point is to emphasize that rest and recovery is necessary when handling tough things, but too much rest and recovery will also decrease strength. There is a fine balance and YMMV (your mileage may vary).

It is also worth noting the difference between physical and psychological strength. Ideally, developing both will maximize benefits, as sometimes when one isn't working well, you can use the other side for additional support. Physical strength generally follows logic and reason, where being in good shape and physically strong is generally worth the time training to develop or maintain that physical strength. Once again, the idea is to do hard things, but not max out as it greatly affects recovery time. The concept is analogous to Dan John's "Easy Strength" program, which happens to be my favourite program for maintaining physical strength. In addition to being a great strength coach, he is also a great writer and thinker and I have enjoyed his content very much.

Psychological strength can be a bit tricky, and part of it is how we perceive harm. One might argue that "microaggressions" can wear people down, no matter how strong they are, but I disagree because to infer harm from someone else when they never intended harm is a poor strategy. It's like going to work out when you are sleep deprived due to poor choices. Much like poisoning yourself, it's essentially self-sabotage. In this case, you don't have a strength problem, you have a perspective problem. Find a personalized way of overcoming these obstacles first. With many different forms of philosophy, psychology, or religion, you can find something that fits you, or even take the best parts from things you like and create your own method. I like the bluntness and brevity of Stoic philosophy, but I will also include techniques from CBT, REBT, and ACT as needed. Perhaps the first step in acquiring strength is to accept personal responsibility: take the accountability that you can choose how you respond to everything life throws at you.

Final Words

It is important to be strong, then you can be strong for others. However, you must be strong for yourself first. You cannot help others if you yourself are not strong enough. This isn't like credit where you can pay it back later; you cannot "fake it until you make it" when you're going all out. Again, the main idea is that having a higher threshold of strength than what you typically need allows you to continue to do hard things everyday.

Much like strength training, we don't have to push ourselves to absolute maximums daily because that isn't sustainable. However, we can regularly do hard things to increase our resilience over time. It is about knowing our relative limits and our absolute limits. That way we can have a better gauge on what we can and can't do. We get a better gauge of what we can try and shouldn't try.

This requires lifelong practice. We may even peak at some point, and any additional gains in strength are not worth the additional effort. In those cases, we would settle for a maintenance strategy to stay at that level for as long as possible. Our physical strength will also decline over time, which is normal for everyone. The goal is the same: get to the point where additional gains are no longer worth the additional effort or risk, then find ways to maintain so we can slow the decline in strength.

As for psychological strength, I'm uncertain how it changes over time. I would like to think we get stronger at certain things, but we should not confuse stubbornness with strength. Sometimes, it would be more apt to consider it an exploration or exploitation problem. We spend so much of our time filtering and knowing what we really like, so it is common for us to stick to things that have given us a good return in the past. Exploration happens when we are younger and don't have the necessary experience, which is why it is important to do different things so we can find our preferences. Do you see the dilemma: by adapting, are we doing hard things, or are we just making things harder than they need to be? This will largely be influenced by individual differences as we have different strengths. Let's use food preference as an example.

If you have no favourite cuisine, then it doesn't really matter what restaurant you eat at. However, let's say you love Japanese food. Exploitation means you find a great Japanese restaurant and eat the same thing that you enjoyed previously. Of course, the first time would require exploration, but we can now explore in different directions: you can try different types of Japanese food, or you can try a different cuisine. Once you establish a preference, you can then try different things to see if there is a better way of doing something. However, a baseline is needed and the deeper that baseline is, the better you can filter out new things to try. Remember, our baselines are different, so we must make do with what we have.

That's why it becomes difficult to predict how psychological strength changes over time. We have different baselines so it is important not to compare your own progress with other people. And just because we may not be as strong as we used to be, it doesn't mean that we are weak. Doing hard things is relative to our own abilities. As such, I would like to say that we do get psychologically stronger over time because we know what the grind feels like. It's not supposed to get easier; we just choose to do the hard things because we can.

Note to Self

Do the hard things, because life is an uphill climb. We are like a ball and it takes effort to roll up the hill. Even staying in the same place takes effort and failure to act will lead to an eventual decline. The ball wants to roll down the hill, and if you let it go long enough, it picks up momentum and continues to snowball down. That's why hitting rock bottom may be easier than you expect because of the accumulated acceleration down the hill. Our lives have different slopes of steepness, and they can change at different points in time, but continuously trekking up the hill keeps us building momentum. There is less friction if we are already moving, but if we keep stopping, it becomes harder to start again.

But much like we've spoken about, there are periods of rest needed to recover. Take too long and you will lose what you've accumulated. Worst case, you will start rolling downhill. So take steps today to continue climbing tomorrow. Once you're on track, find people you can assist to get back on their path. Use your strength to pull others, and don't let other people push you down. Inspire others to climb and encourage them along, even if they are climbing faster than you. Because we are all on our own mountain in life. It is not a competition, but if we can look out for each other, we will all get to where we want to go faster.

Or maybe there is no final destination, but rather a test of how far we can go. That's fine if there is no summit. The view from higher up is always better than the one from the bottom.

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