Emotional Inertia: The Secret to Unlocking Potential
The natural human reaction to discomfort is avoidance–if I don’t feel like doing something, I just won’t; if I hate being rejected, I’ll just stop meeting new people; or if I’m afraid of getting hurt, I’ll just play everything safe. Left alone, our instinct is to pursue what’s easy and what’s comfortable, often trading long-term growth and fulfillment for short-term safety and gratification. Over time, this tendency creates a psychological momentum that keeps us rooted where and who we are–a concept I call emotional inertia.
Emotional inertia is responsible for most of the behaviors we consider stereotypically average: the people who say they’re going to do something–start a business, write a book–and then never do; the people who choose the stability of a 9-5 desk job over the chance to discover and pursue their passions; the people who give up at the first sign of struggle rather than persevere. There’s nothing objectively wrong with being average, or comfortable, or safe, but I will argue that it is less satisfying; if you’ve ever wondered if there’s supposed to be more to life, odds are you’ve succumbed to emotional inertia, and that’s OK–most of us do at one point or another, and every extraordinary individual was average in some way before becoming exceptional.
The truth is being average is a choice and it’s one that we often subconsciously make each and every day. It’s the habit of reacting through our lives rather than proacting. It’s the mode of conceding control to our emotions–our fears, our doubts, our insecurities–instead of taking control with our minds. It’s the practice of waiting for things to happen to us instead of acting to make them happen. When we exist this way, life lives us, not the other way around.
The development of emotional inertia is subtle, but its effects are pervasive. Each time we make a promise to ourselves and break it, emotional inertia grows. Each time we betray the calling of our souls for what is safe and comfortable, emotional inertia swells. Each time we give up without giving it all we’ve got, emotional inertia expands. Eventually we convince ourselves of the highest forgery: that we were never capable in the first place, so we were right not to try.
Emotional inertia leads us to choose comfort over courage; to choose what is fun, fast, or easy over what is right; and to choose to simply profess our values rather than practice them. We combat it by putting virtue into practice. In the immortal words of Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Each time we take action in defiance of sloth, we develop discipline. Each time we press forward despite our fear, we cultivate courage. Each time we endure even though we’ve taken a beating, we promote perseverance. Though some people have an affinity for one or more of these qualities, none are innate. Like muscles, each must be individually strengthened and maintained. The choice to do so is always ours.
The beautiful irony of emotional inertia, however, is that it works both ways: it creates an ennui that prevents us from starting, but also fuels an internal resolve that keeps us from quitting. Like a boulder rolling down a hill, we gain momentum as we go and it gets easier, and easier to persist. Still, the struggle is constant and perfection is forever elusive. Yet the promise of pushing that potential to its peak is staggering: mastery over our internal worlds, power to control our perceptions rather than let them control us, courage to dream, discipline to execute, and perseverance to rise again boldly when we fall.
This vision of mastery is what I strive for every day. It’s what inspired me to train for and complete an Ironman triathlon, it’s what motivated me to start pushing myself past my fears, and it’s ultimately what impelled me to take responsibility for my own future by quitting my job. None of these things has been easy. There have been times when I couldn’t get myself excited to do what I needed to do; there have been times when I turned around and went home instead of facing a fear I set out to break; and there have been times when I have wondered if it would be better to just give up, to quiet my inner voice, and go with the flow. But I haven’t. And I won’t. Because ultimately I choose to see what I’m capable of, not in terms of wealth or fame, but in terms of inner strength and character.
While I won’t begrudge those who prefer safety and comfort, I do believe you deserve to become all that you can be. So what’s holding you back? What are you avoiding? What fears do you let control you? Will you rise again? And which destiny will you choose?
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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is one of my favorite books, and likely the book that has most strongly influenced my personal philosophy. The first habit, “Be Proactive” is a major theme in this post. The other six habits were, in my opinion, equally profound. Nothing in this book is non-obvious, but putting principle into practice is one of the hardest things we can do as human beings. This book is one of my guides for doing so.
The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday is an entire book written about the philosophy behind Marcus Aurelius’ immortal quote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This is book about grit, about courage, and about perseverance as understood through Stoic philosophy and the expressed in the lives of many of history’s greatest figures like Demosthenes Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs.
Rising Strong by Brené Brown, a renowned vulnerability researcher now of Ted Talk fame, is an inspiring book about resilience. This book is the source of a quote I’m often fond of paraphrasing: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” Like this quote, the rest of the book is written beautifully, and contains extensive grounded theory research on the process of being brave, falling, and getting back up. This is actually Brené Brown’s third book, and her other two The Gifts of Imperfection, about vulnerability and shame, and Daring Greatly, about courage, are both also well worth a read.