Functional Depletion and the Pitfalls of Stress Transcendence
Last weekend I took time off from writing to run a race. This week as I limped around reflecting on the training that lead up to the marathon I wondered if we are wrong about stress.
Naturally, we believe stress is our enemy. So we avoid it.
Stress transcendence ambition started in school. Homework sucked and we dreamed of graduating so we could put all the stressful classwork behind us. We entered the job market where we optimize our days for maximum pay and minimum stress. We aspire to corner offices, executive retreats, meetings on golf courses, and golden parachutes. Retirement is the ultimate goal, an excuse to stop working entirely and live out our remaining years stress-free.
When our current jobs get too stressful we update our resumes and look for employment at better companies offering more “culture” and funner projects. We avoid confrontation, reduce risk, and eliminate stress because we think that is how to get ahead. But many of us find ourselves at a plateau, our output falls short of our expectations, and our careers get stalled in mediocrity.
The math that got us here isn’t hard. Too much stress causes meltdown. Too little stress and our muscles atrophy. We end up in stasis because we are never challenged enough to grow and we are never unfit enough to require additional training. Our routine involves just enough stress to maintain our current positions but never enough to advance to another level. And yet most of us feel a nagging desire to do the impossible, to be a part of something that changes the world. How do we get there from here?
When you start training for a marathon you’re incapable of running 26 miles. Your body literally can’t do it. This isn’t a question of talent, nobody is born with the ability to run huge distances. It isn’t a question of willpower, desire alone won’t get you to the finish line. A marathon requires you to become something else. The stress of training is what makes this transformation possible. So you start running and mile by mile you change. Through repeated cycles of stress and recovery you improve. Stress is the only mechanism that can transform you from a person who can’t do something into someone who can.
Whether you are training for a race or trying to learn any new skill, you must foster a healthy familiarity with stress if you want to get better. You are seeking a routine that lets you function despite the pressure. Push too hard and you will burn out. Relax too much and any gains will be imperceptible.
The ideal state is comfortably uncomfortable, the threshold where discomfort is still painless. Get comfortable with a cycle where you deplete your reserves as soon as you are recharged. I propose that this state, functional depletion, is the key to break free of stasis. Find it and you will always be pushing your limits, never complacent, regularly failing but constantly on the verge of breakthrough. That is how stress transforms us into better versions of ourselves.
Thanks for reading. I write stories like this for you every Saturday because the stress of a weekly deadline prevents me from getting too comfortable with my ideas. Follow me and observe how my thinking improves with each new essay. Stay creative.