Gladwell + Holiday x slack: Learning the art of exhaustion

Alberto Salazar, image courtesy of the New Yorker

Alberto Salazar, image courtesy of the New Yorker.

Complete exhaustion. A phrase that has you panting from whatever memory it conjures up by the time it lurches off your parched tongue. The word exhaustion itself wreaks of desperation. Of loss of control over the ability to exert oneself with grace and balance. It’s a connotation so engraved in our collective psyche that only Malcolm Gladwell would argue precisely the opposite—which he did in a recent New Yorker article he dared to subtitle The Art of Exhaustion. Gladwell wrote from the standpoint of Olympic long distance running titan Alberto Salazar—and with the 14 day Olympic marathon of watching superhuman feats from an easy chair now comfortably well behind us, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on this art of exhaustion in our own less physically rigorous lives.

My own moment of full exertion calls to mind an image of myself in a corporate apartment in Shanghai, tapping away on my keyboard several feet away from one of my project teammates. We were two months into a technology commercialization project during Baylor’s i5 international consulting program—and we were trying to piece together a go-to-market strategy for a medical device based on knowledge from a very limited set of problem and market interviews—either conducted in English across continents at strange hours, or on this mysterious current continent in an equally mysterious language. After our Chinese client refused to introduce a bunch of young Americans to their medical care contacts, we were forced to find our own. With only a few weeks to pull a vision together, this wayfinding included convincing literally anyone who knew what a medical device was to talk to us. Luckily, we had a major breakthrough when we landed an interview with one of the top neonatal surgeons in the world at UCSD. We spent several hours talking to him, then extrapolated his insights to understand why a company with a nearly identical product to ours was failing to successfully penetrate the market—a global sales team we estimated had 30-50 reps had produced 50 sales in the 5 years since launch. Our client, a bio-medical engineering research team, had developed several compelling technology components—but we soon realized using them to attack the same global market would be a big mistake. Instead, we found that these components were most conducive to meeting the use-cases found in developing nations—especially BRIC countries and other RDE’s. We were in the process of developing a business case and set of recommendations for shifting the focus from the planned copycat global strategy, to one with more appeal for emerging countries. It had been an uphill battle the whole way—but my financial specialist’s current mental breakdown was by far the biggest challenge to handle as project lead.

This moment of complete exhaustion I speak of, was the precise moment the pro-forma financial model I had just coached this teammate through had unraveled for the fourth time. I was dedicated to helping him find his sanity again by completing the work, but each time I helped him create the base case and sent him off to tweak it, he came back again pulling his hair out about how to make it work. With hours left to go, I sat several feet away from him, wondering whether my decision to mentor instead of seek help for him had not only been a mistake for his health, but for our whole team’s ability to deliver the results we promised our client—and for our wildcatting professor’s ability to claim our project as the kind of success that would keep his ambitious MBA consulting program alive for another year. If we didn’t have a financial model, we didn’t have anything more than a bunch of fuzzy qualitative insights. And, a bunch of fuzzy qualitative insights doesn’t convince a team of veteran biomedical engineers to radically shift the product strategy of their key technology initiative. I too was on the verge of a mental breakdown.

While you might argue that it was time to take a step back and de-emphasize the results, I decided it was time to dig-in, root out all disillusionment about what we were trying to prove, and find the vitality to press on. So, we took a reality inducing break around 3 in the morning—travelling the moody elevator up to the 34th story of our high-rise, identifying the first open window, and crawling onto the sill to dangle our feet off the ledge high above the still bustling city. Several minutes of reflection among the rush of being moments away from actual death, 7541 miles from home was enough to jolt us back to reality. Our minds found the strength to devour every inch of slack, and the clarity to press on toward the clear light at the end of the tunnel we now had back in full view. We stepped down, we pressed on, and we delivered the exact financial snapshot needed to validate the strategy.

Is inducing a near death experience a questionable way to solve the problem of slack—the gap between possibility and achievement? Absolutely. But, was it an effective way to remind us of the training we’d been through, what we were capable of, and what we were going to achieve despite all odds and obstacles? You better believe it. After reading Gladwell—who actually ended up stopping short and arguing less for bringing art to exhaustion than he did making the choice to endure it—I realized that however it scored on the effectiveness meter, the only art involved could only be appreciated by those who view art in the most brutal American way. I realized Salazar and I had both succeeded more in the manner of an atomic bomb than the ideal Olympic runner. The bomb was an achievement of science and power and a massive failure of sustainability and replicability. In contrast, great distance runners, as Gladwell describes, “are graceful: they float, landing lightly on their toes and snapping their calves back so that their heels almost touch the tops of their hamstrings.”

According to Gladwell, Salazar and I are practically the same brute. He says, “Salazar shuffled like an old man. Salazar’s greatness lay in his desire,” and goes on to describe the 1978 Falmouth Road Race in which Salazar almost died from his effort to win, and the four years of spectacular athletic achievement that followed. Then, in 1994—after an absence of almost a decade—Salazar returned to competitive running, to compete in the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa. Not only had he had never run an ultramarathon, he trained in the cool of Portland, not the swelter of southern Africa. Salazar decided that he wanted to average a six-minute-and-fifteen-second mile. And he did. Gladwell recalls, “Salazar could have had a longer career if he pushed himself less. But what kind of career would it have been…it was the miracle at Falmouth that allowed Salazar to run with such abandon.”

In many ways, gumption and brute force are socially ingrained method for dealing with the problem of slack. Probably because they are quite effective. During an age of increasingly less demanding physical requirements, some—like media strategist and Robert Green disciple Ryan Holiday—are even arguing that we need a return to and increase in this type of savage exhaustion. An excerpt from Holiday’s blog reads,

“I think savagery is underrated. We talk so much about personal development and refinement that what gets lost is that other part of ourselves, the darker, animalistic part. ‘Inspiration’ is so much cleaner and less objectionable that it’s all we want to focus on. I’ve never been one for convention, so I’ll say what needs to be said here. Being savage is a good thing…There is savagery in juijitsu, which I do 4-5 days a week when I’m not traveling. There’s something savage about getting destroyed round after round and the fact that I keep coming back for more. I suppose I could get better faster by reading and studying but I think it’s better to do it this way. I go to get my ass kicked for a reason, and it doesn’t bother me that I do. I relish it a little bit. And mostly I learn from it…In 19th century dog fighting, bull dogs weren’t the strongest or most aggressive dogs, but the fat and extra skin around their neck made it harder for other dogs to tear their throat out. Dogs could clamp down on it, but they couldn’t kill. That’s fucking savage. There’s a lesson there…You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be harder to destroy. You have to be relentless. Indefatigable. Sometimes, to get in the right position, you have to be able to absorb a lot of blows. You’ve got to know you’re taking hits for a reason, and have the tolerance and endurance to bear it. If you can actually enjoy and seek out that process? Well, then you’re a fucking savage. And you’re going to be very successful.”

While I understand Holiday’s sentiment, I think he is wrong. We wouldn’t need to have to have bouts of pure savagery just to soothe our emasculation if we integrated the more satisfying aspect of it more skillfully into our daily lives and long-term thinking. For most, I suppose it is difficult enough just to make the painful choices. Gladwell himself admits he doesn’t have a Holiday-esque desire for savagery in him. While a talented runner as a youth, he never ran the same again after his own moment of complete exhaustion, during a teenage cross-country race. Gladwell recalls:

“I had done what everyone always says you are supposed to do as a human being. I had given it my all. And I realized that what everyone says you should always do was so painful that I never wanted to do it again.”

So, the question remains. Is there a way to solve the problem of slack gracefully, time after time, such that the capability of full exertion can be preserved? While Gladwell’s conclusions never touched on going from A-bomb effectiveness to distance-running elegance, other than concluding: “Grace is the luxury of talent” and “Some people can stay close only by making painful choices”—I think his ‘art of exhaustion’ moniker has more implication to it than simply framing the issue more elegantly than ‘getting to the finish line the Fat Man and Little Boy way.’ In many ways, simply finding the will to exert and endure the pain is difficult enough, but I believe we can discover a less animalistic, more artful method to overcoming slack. Here’s what I’ve arrived at so far:

  1. Measure it. Understand your starting point. Common wisdom says to accentuate your strengths, but those seeking to learn the art of exhaustion might do better to identify several dimensions of greatest slack and make an order of magnitude improvement in these areas. This idea that the first half of improvement is easier than the last inch is reaffirmed by both LA Times columnist Joel Stein and measurement expert Douglas Hubbard. Stein recently published Man Made, an experimental journey toward masculinity he embarked on to try to become a manly example for his son—doing everything from camping with boy scouts to fighting Randy Couture. In every quest, Stein realized he was much more capable than he imagined when dreaming up the experiments from the comfort of his couch. Hubbard, on the other hand, focuses mainly on the uncertainty that you can reduce just by taking a guerilla measurement of the upper and lower bounds of an unknown quantity. If slack is the unknown quantity, thinking of it as Stein was on his couch is daunting. But, pulling the gap down to size by making current knowns explicit and working from those reference points allows you to tackle the problem with more confidence. In Stein’s case, he was afraid of camping outdoors. This was mainly because he had an unrealistic vision of the best and worst things that could happen to him while camping. As soon as he actually took on the challenge, he was able to mentally re-size the situation—and found that it was much less difficult and a lot more fun than he imagined. Did he become an eagle scout in one night? Not at all—but he realized he was able to complete a task with ease he previously expected to be painful. Conquering the last inch is the hard part. So, first try to put boundaries around your expectations about the challenge, and then take an order of magnitude step that gets you about halfway.
  2. Hunt for the extremes. As Stein’s example alluded to, once you set mental boundaries, the next task is to get out there and hunt for experience. Ultimately, the only way to learn is to seek out a way to let exhaustion kick you in the teeth. As Hunter S. Thompson quipped, “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over (see below for Johnny Depp narrating the longer quote).”
    Many people innately oppose risk because they worry about the edge, but Thompson argues that the true edge is actually quite further than you think. In other words, your odds of finding it during a boy scout camping trip are around nil. As Thompson said, “Buy the ticket. Take the ride.” It is the only way to modify that mental model you set up on the couch. And, you’ll find that you become more capable of navigating this new territory as you hunt longer.
  3. Stay upright (and understand situations when function has the advantage over form). During Salazar’s South African ultramarathon, he found himself swaying wildly near the end of the race. There were several times near the point of exhaustion where he envisioned himself just running off the road. But he knew that a fall at that point would be unrecoverable—he had to focus on staying upright. And this is the point where it’s ok to be ugly. Ok to be graceless. During those moments, it didn’t matter whether he had perfect form—only whether he had the mental fortitude to focus on one thing and keep moving. From the outside, staying upright is perhaps the grittiest of all tasks. It doesn’t conjure the same air of romanticism as Thompson hugging the hairpin turns, but it is equally important to learning the art of exhaustion. If there is one place to give up on gracefulness willingly, this is it.
  4. Lie to yourself. Recent research shows that lying to yourself can effectively enhance performance. I can’t recall the source, but a study was done with two sets of golfers. The first set was told they were using a putter formerly used by Ben Hogan. The second set was told nothing remarkable about the club. The average stroke count from the green was less on average for people using ‘Hogan’s’ putter. Applied in other situations, the power of a lie could be an effective way to boost results without expending additional effort. This could be achieved perhaps just by framing the challenge for yourself in a way that is overly idealistic. For example, I might experience less pain of exhaustion during my current efforts in Nairobi as the result of framing the challenge such that I am helping save people from sickness or death. While that might actually be the ultimate goal, in another sense it is quite irrelevant to the actual business task at hand. Furthermore, I will not literally see that result, and users might not even attribute their purchases to this outcome, because it was prevented. But, thinking of the challenge in this extreme manner will help the extra effort seem more valuable and could be a useful catalyst when it comes down to crunch time.

Next—in the face of an uncomfortable challenge—we must do as Holiday suggests, and actually learn from this pain in a positive way. Let’s look at some things to think about long-term, over a series of exhausting challenges, that might help us create a longer trajectory and devour slack artfully over the course of an entire career.

  1. Understand the system, and always start with a fresh ego. According to Gladwell, the strategy of painful perseverance works for people at the bottom, because people at the top grow complacent. Reputation breeds slack. Sustaining greatness requires starting fresh every day, hungry for more experience. Hungry to learn something new. While top chef Ferran Adrià could hardly be described as humble, he has managed to find a way to keep his restaurant El Bulli fresh year after year. Perhaps this is because El Bulli is only open for 6 months out of the year. The other 6 months are spent foraging for new techniques—new ways to extract, enhance, and apply flavor. As such, the restaurant is not defined or confined by its former greatness. Sure, it has a reputation that will keep people coming back—the restaurant reportedly received upward of 1,000,000 reservation requests each year, and fills only 8,000 of them. But, they are not coming back for what they had before, they are coming back because they want to see what the team has managed to create. Rather than trying to save what made El Bulli great last year, Ferran destroys it. He obliterates everything (except for what was learned) intentionally with full confidence that his team will create an equally great experience the next season. Interestingly, with all this creation and destruction, the film about the restaurant, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, does not document Adrià as an exhausted, haggard old chef. This is because he has mastered his own system of slack by raising up a stable of hungry, capable young chefs that want to make the restaurant better than it was with the last batch of up and comers.
  2. Pick your fight strategy: exit versus voice. To win the exhaustion war, we must choose to engage in the right battles. In the face of challenge or conflict, we are wired to take one of two responses—fight or flight. Or as Gladwell describes it, exit or voice. You can stand up or you can remove yourself from the conflict. Exhaustion is in many ways a zero sum game. Never lose sight of the reality that you have a limited number of races in you, and pick the ones you really want to win. Also bear in mind that quitting anytime before the point of exhaustion is simply practice. Practice is about building capability without destroying endurance. It’s not always wrong to quit—just be aware of where in the exhaustion battle you stand, and whether to re-evaluate what you stand to gain by pressing forward.
  3. Seeking experience versus seeking knowledge. Be aware of the knowledge and experience tradeoffs you are making. If you’ve already mastered the ability to make painful choices, maybe it’s time to slow down a bit and hone your craft with the type of learning that doesn’t come from experience. Maybe it’s time to revisit some areas where you can make an order of magnitude improvement that can create a synergistic effect on your overall capability. Just don’t let the respite breed laziness, as Colin Wilson describes of T.E Lawrence in The Outsider. Lawrence, who built a career irreverently pushing his way into further involvement with the Arab Revolt of 1916, later gave up on adventure and retired to a country life until his death. There is nothing wrong with rest for the weary, but be aware that respite also brings challenges of its own.

When was the last time you were truly exhausted by a challenge? How painful was it? Have you since found the strength to do it again? How ugly and savage was it? Have you since invented ways to overcome slack more artfully? Do you believe it is possible to become more artful at exhaustion at all? Even if it is possible, is it valuable? How calibrated is your sense of slack? Have you imagined the upper and lower bounds, and then tested them away from the ideology of the couch? Have you hunted for the edge, and found that risk is an illusion because of the capability you build along such a hunt? Have you built the fortitude to focus on staying upright in the final measures? Have you framed your story in a way that is important to you? In a way that makes the effort seem easier? Do you understand how the system of slack works—that the underdog can be successful through painful choices, because those at the top tend to stop making them? If you’re at the top, have you designed a system like Adrià’s that will keep you there? If you’re not, what virtuous cycles and proving grounds created by others at the top are you seeking out to participate in? In the heat of a challenge, do you tend to take an exit, or dig in? Have you developed a sense for when exit might be the wiser choice? How often do you re-evaluate your capabilities? How often do you slow down to assess and learn away from the fray? Have you now learned anything about the art of exhaustion? Will you use this knowledge devour slack and run your life’s race with endurance and greatness?

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