January 30, 2019
I recently found the following tweet about heroic consistency.
Don’t aim for consistently heroic efforts. Aim for being heroic at consistency.
Heroic efforts = take a huge toll emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Not a sustainable thing to strive for.
Consistency = compounds over time. Good enough over and over again makes you great.
- Brad Stulberg
It’s short (it’s a tweet after all) but I found myself nodding along vigorously while reading it. More than that, I’ve spent hours thinking about it since. To start the month, I set goals for myself and Brad seemed to have a solution for how I might achieve that - not by binging but by showing up.
The quote was also reminiscent of Barbara Oakley’s suggestions in her course Learning How To Learn (which is fantastic by the way). When it comes to learning, Oakley argues you are better off spending a single hour every day than trying to cram 8 hours into a single day.
In demonstrating the point, there’s an image of two brick walls. On the right is a jumble of brick and mortar. The wall has collapsed into a pile - the result of trying to build it all at once without allowing each layer to solidify. On the left is a beautiful wall, neatly organized, sturdy and strong.
This is all to say I was primed to believe Brad. I’d drank the kool-aid. Yet, over the past few weeks, I’ve struggled to do some of the things I’d set out to do this month. Writing here is just one example.
My issue with the heroic consistency approach is the inclusion of heroism. The implication of the tweet is that by emphasizing consistency we can realize the benefits of compounding efforts. I whole-heartedly agree with that.
My qualm is that we’re still striving to be heroes.
As Brad notes, heroic efforts “take a huge toll emotionally, physically, and cognitively. Not a sustainable thing to strive for.”
That may be true for heroic efforts, but I have found it’s also true for heroic consistency because the emotional, physical, and cognitive toll comes from trying to be a hero.
In Buddhism, the Middle Way was the first teaching Buddha delivered after his awakening and can refer to the path between eternalism and annihilation. Abstracting away the specifics, the Middle Way is about avoiding extremes - in life or in a specific practice.
As Tamara Levitt said in her meditation by the same name,
Effort is part of the practice, but if we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect, we create stressful situations and won’t show up. The middle way is a balance.
My desire to live up to the standard Brad articulated meant I was burdening myself (unnecessarily). The results were disappointing. Instead of showing up - I disappeared.
If the Middle Way is my goal, I needed a strategy for achieving it.
Wu Wei is what Benjamin Hoff describes as “Taoism-in-action” in The Tao of Pooh and translates literally to “without doing, causing, or making”.
To illustrate the practice, Hoff cites Chuang-Tse’s writing.
At the Gorge of Lu, the great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet, its spray visible for miles. In the churning waters below, no living creature can be seen.
One day, K’ung Fu-tse was standing at a distance from the pool’s edge, when he saw an old man being tossed about in the turbulent water. He called to his disciples, and together they ran to rescue the victim. By the time they reached the water, the old man had climbed out onto the bank and was walking along, singing to himself.
K’ung Fu-tse hurried up to him. “You would have to be a ghost to survive that,” he said, “but you seem to be a man, instead. What secret power do you have?”
“Nothing special,” the old man replied. “I began to learn while very young, and grew up practicing it. Now I am certain of success. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power. That’s all.”
Unlike the old man in Chuang-Tse’s tale, I would have perished at the Gorge of Lu. In my pursuit of heroic consistency, I would have been unable to not try to affect my outcome - assuring my failure in a struggle against a force far greater than myself.
Tao does not do, but nothing is not done.
- Benjamin Hoff
Wu-Wei (Taoism-in-action) is not about doing nothing. It’s not about complacency and sitting still. It’s about letting the outcomes happen.
This was the strategy I needed. It encourages the consistency advocated by Brad, but without the heroism. It threads the needle between extremes. It is my Middle Way.
At this very moment in time, I am content to recognize that there is a much larger universe than myself. A consequence is that I cannot actually effect change on the scale of the universe.
While that’s where I am today, I admit that ego is a powerful force and can often distract and confuse me.
All of this is to say, today I remember these lessons. Tomorrow, I may forget or regress. When I do, I will be glad to have this as a reference to return to.
Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!