Continual Effort

At the moment I am recovering from an ankle injury from a few weeks back. I was out for a run one morning and was not looking very closely at where I was going, and there was a rock on the sidewalk that I did not see and I sprained my ankle when I stepped on it. This last weekend was the first time I had run in two weeks. I am slowly getting back to 100%, but it has required each day that I do a lot of small things that all build up to improve the physical fitness and strength of my ankle. I would prefer only needing to ice one time and I would love if the one trip to a physical therapist’s office had solved all my problems, but as anyone who has had an injury knows, the body needs time to heal and continual effort, thought, and care are required to make sure injuries recover and the body is as strong as before.


It is a frustrating inconvenience to slowly recover from a physical injury, but we all know it will take time and understand that we won’t be back to full health overnight or with the snap of a finger. But for some reason, this understanding is hard to extend beyond physical recovery from an injury to other areas of our life. Somewhere deep down we recognize that becoming really great at something is going to require a lot of work over a long period of time, but we often don’t have the patience to put forth the effort to truly become a master. We want an instant success, just like I want an instantly healed ankle.


Whether it is getting in shape, becoming a good chess player, becoming a good writer, or excelling in our career, there is only one answer: continual focused effort. Author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book The Ego is the Enemy, “to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.” It is not one shining moment that will bring us success, but rather a thousand small moments of effort and preparation that will bring about our one shining moment. The brilliance and the flash are ultimately less important and less valuable than the work and the habits we build that make the impressive moments possible.


This feels like a real drag and it feels terrible to be working hard at something and then see another person apparently achieve the success we want out of no-where, but if we can control our own ego we can control the way these moments make us feel. In his book, Holiday continues, “While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach-for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.” Winning a body building competition, having an exciting career opportunity, or cultivating a beautiful garden is something that is possible for all of us, but we must recognize it is not something we will achieve in just one day, one week, or even in one year. Through continual effort and focused application of our time and energy we can get to where we want to be, but we must recognize when we are hoping for a brilliant ego-boosting flash, and instead channel our attention back to the effort and habits that will sustain us for success in the long run. Just as I can’t push my ankle to suddenly be healthy (or I’ll fall in disastrous ruin), we can’t push our goals to suddenly be achieved. We must put forward the continual effort to prepare for the moment we seek.


Much of our life, especially if we spend a good amount of time engaging with social media, can feel like a performance of some kind. We have performance evaluations at work, we want to get that photo just right before we post it, and there are mirrors and people everywhere at the gym so it often feels like everyone is watching you for every squat that you do. In addition, we watch movies about great historical figures, read their diaries years after their death, and celebrate those who started small but ended up big. All of this creates a feeling that we are living for others and that they care what we do and what we are up to, so we better put forward something to entertain, impress, and display our complex skills and thoughts to everyone else.


In reality, however, almost no one is really aware of what we are doing from one moment to the next, and almost no one really is interested in what we think about all day long, and no one is going to dig back through our lives to write a book or direct a movie about our us. Spending time in this performance takes a lot of our energy that we could direct toward things that help our community and family members, but instead channels it into vain and self indulging activities to try to impress people we don’t really spend a lot of time with. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy, “There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.”


When we are in performance mode, we can certainly get a lot of work done and certainly do a lot of learning. The difference however, between actively engaging with the world out of curiosity and a desire to have a meaningful life and engaging with the world to boost ones status, is that one approach clouds your judgement with fears and thoughts about other people. It may not be possible to completely ignore what others think, and it may not be healthy to do so, but we should recognize that there are social impulses and drivers of our behavior and place those in the back seat, not the driver’s seat of our life. When we want to impress others, we never truly live and we risk pursuing things that appear to give life meaning rather than the things that we like and are interested in. As a result, we put more effort into the appearance of learning, working hard, and being interesting than we actually put into the things themselves. This leaves us in a place where we feel like a fraud and are fearful that people will find out that we are not who we look like in our performance of life. The advice from Holiday is to put the ego in the back seat (or maybe the trunk or even strapped down in a trailer behind us) and to focus on the things that interest us and are the most valuable to us. From this point we can meaningfully engage with the things we are motivated by and do great work, connect with our loved ones in an honest and open manner, and see the world and people around us in an objective and non threatening way.