Invest in the Struggle
“Invest in the struggle" is something often heard by my clients during training sessions at EP.
I am normally prompted to say this is response to a complaint or comment about how hard the training is, or how unkind the exercise selection is.
The reason I say this is simple. Struggle precedes progress. Instead of trying to find the easy way out, the path of least resistance or inventing elaborate ways of getting away from the difficult stuff, I believe you should instead invest in the struggle, because it breeds improvement.
Seeking an easy life is fools gold. There is no value in a life without problems, there is no richness in a complete absence of discomfort. The most worthwhile, rewarding and satisfying things in life often come from struggle and solving problems. A degree isn’t handed out, it is studied for over year. A gold medal isn’t handed out, it is competed for over years. A happy marriage isn’t bestowed upon us as some sort of birthright. It is earned through risking rejection in the early stages of dating, investing time, energy and vulnerability in a long term relationship and maintained by further investment of emotion, time, energy and mutual sacrifice over years.
Without struggle there’s no growth. Pursuing a life without problems and struggle is, in my opinion, a mislead life. I think instead we should invest in the struggles and problems we face in order to solve them, moving on to more complex, better problems and struggles in the future. In Josh Waitzkin’s book “the art of learning”, he speaks about investing in loss, which is essentially the same thing. Josh speaks about how during his martial arts training, there was one guy at the club who nobody wanted to fight, he was skilled, big, strong and a dirty fighter. Everyone avoided sparring with this guy, except Josh. Josh invested in struggling against a larger, stronger, dirtier opponent. After losing and getting beaten hundreds of time during training Josh started to win and the big guy began avoiding him. Josh grew because of his investment in struggle and eventually won the world championship in his discipline. None of his fellow students, who avoided that struggle, managed to reach that level of competition.
The same is true in all disciplines. Especially fitness and performance. The athlete that shy’s away from the hard training is inevitably going to be less prepared than the athlete that invests in it. The PT client that shy’s away from the basic disciplines of food prep and good sleep will inevitably make less progress that the guy who invests in the struggle of finding recipes he can adapt to his particular diet, identifying the causes of his bad sleep and trying every strategy to fix it until he cracks the code. The Coach who can't seem to work out why his client isn’t making progress, but reads everything asks everyone and continues to try until he gets it right will learn far more than the one who gives up or avoids the issue.
The examples could, of course, continue forever. The point is that we should see the struggle involved in the progression towards our goals as not only requisite, but engaging, fun, essential opportunities to learn, improve and experience as fully as possible.
Think about a time in your life you felt really happy, satisfied, proud, rewarded. The chances are you felt that way because you earned it. If you’ve ever been rewarded for something routine, been praised for something that came easily or been credited for someone else’s efforts, I’m willing to bet it felt empty, meaningless and even patronising. Overcoming struggle is rewarding because of the struggle, not in spite of it.
I am not saying that all struggle is good struggle. We have to choose our battles and be discerning over what we choose invest our energy, attention and time in struggling against. But we should also not avoid struggle completely. The balance of avoiding unnecessary and unproductive struggle in order to invest in worthy and beneficial struggle can be a fine art sometimes.
A quick word on suffering. Suffering and struggle art not the same thing. Often, the only thing that makes our struggles seem like suffering is our perception. Fortunately, if you happen to be an educated westerner living in the UK or US above the poverty line (as I’m sure most people reading this are) genuine suffering is relatively rare in our lives. (I am not saying it doesn’t exist, but with even a little perspective it is genuinely rare for most people). As such the only thing that makes most of your daily struggles seem like suffering is the desire for a life without struggle. You want the weight loss to be easy, you want the training for that triathlon to be a breeze, you want the promotion to be handed to you without the extra effort and pain it may take to earn it. Your only true problem is that you want no problems.
If people were to embrace the problems they have and set about enjoying the process of learning and solving those problems, not to achieve an easy ride, but to move on to the next set of problems, the suffering would likely disappear.
I hope I’m not coming across like a guru here. I try very hard to live by these principles and fail repeatedly, time and again to apply them. But If I ever find myself complaining about an issue in my life the chances are I’ve not seem the opportunity to grow, i am avoided tackling the issue because it’s uncomfortable or am trying to solve the wrong problem. (Usually because the real issue is harder face). Michael Jordan famously once said that he succeeded because he failed over and over again. Numerous other quotes to the same effect are out there to be borrowed at this time.
Over time, the things we struggle with become easy and the struggle fades. At this point the same stimulus ceases to provide us with opportunity to grow. We need struggle. We should invest in it.