Why We Need to Inject Stress and Chaos into Our Lives
You’re Not a Machine. You’re a Part of Nature. Machines Hate Stress. But Nature Loves It.
If there’s one word to describe living in the 21st century it would be “comfortable.”
It’s easier to survive today than at any other time in history. We no longer need to go out and hunt for food, or protect our tribe from the elements and wild animals. Grocery stores deliver, if you’re cold you turn up the heat, and the only wild animals you see are on NatGeo.
We don’t even have to go through the awkward process of going out and meeting people anymore, we can just swipe right.
Recently, society has done a good job of selling us on comfort, stability, predictability and stress-free living as the way of the modern man.
Planned cities, planned parenthood, planned careers.
Don’t like something? Avoid it. Can’t avoid it? Take Prozac.
We remove as much stress and chaos as we can from life.
We’re creating the perfect world, on paper.
However, there’s one glaring problem that we’re forgetting…
Human beings evolved as part of the natural world -> Unlike man-made machines which weaken from stress and variability -> Human beings and ALL parts of the natural world developed and thrive on stress and chaos.
The natural world, in all facets, from the tiniest bacterial cell all the way up to life as a whole, developed by letting random, chaotic stressors occur and reacting to them in a way that promoted growth and expansion.
Unlike a man-made system such as an engine that reacts to random stressors by weakening with material fatigue. A natural system actually adapts to the stress and comes back stronger than before.
Natural systems work on a mechanism called hormesis. When stress is applied they get stronger to prepare for future unknown stressors. If no stress is applied they get weaker.
All natural systems in the universe work this way (including you).
A perfect example of a natural system is your bicep muscle. You lift a heavy weight and it puts a stress on your bicep. After a period of recovery, the bicep muscle comes back stronger allowing you to lift a heavier weight.
It also works in reverse. If you remove the stressor (the weight), the bicep doesn’t get to be stressed and it gets weaker and smaller.
Have you ever broken a bone and had to wear a cast? What happened to the muscle during those 4-6 weeks when it wasn’t allowed to be exposed to any stress?
This photo shows how much your leg muscles atrophy with just 1 month of being protected from stress. Is this the society we’re trying to create?
How Does the Natural World Use Stress to Benefit?
Hormesis works because of the layering of systems present in the natural universe.
The natural universe is multi-layered. Each layer is a system and is interdependent with the layers above and below it.
When you lift a weight, you get stronger because the stress you applied to your muscle works to clean up and remove the weaker cellular components one level down.
Stress spurs growth/strengthening on one level because stress works to kill and eliminate the weakest members of the level below.
This mechanism is present on all layers of nature.
Think about natural selection in evolution.
Natural selection is simply the process of strengthening overall life by eliminating weaker species with random stressors and letting stronger species grow and thrive. It also works on a lower level by killing the weaker members of a species so the stronger members survive making that species more resistant to stress.
At each layer life functions by this principle. It takes random errors and stressors, reacts to them by overcompensating (i.e. killing off weaker members one layer down) and gets stronger overall at that layer because one layer down the weaker units get replaced.
Now I’m not saying that I want to have another ice age or plague anytime soon. But we need to understand that this is how nature works. Being part of nature, you and I work in the exact same way.
Society Treats People Like Man-Made Machines, Not the Natural-Organic Systems They Are
You are not an electric motor. Different rules apply to people.
Machines are harmed from stress (material fatigue). People are harmed from the absence of stress (hormesis).
Machines age from use (wear and tear). People age from disuse (use it or lose it).
Machines need predictable inputs. People fall asleep if things are too predictable.
Although we are making more and more complicated machines these days, there are vast differences between complicated man-made machines (an engine) and natural-organic systems (you).
In his 2012, best-selling book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb compares man-made systems to organic systems using the following table.
Although it occasionally feels good to sit on the couch and eat cookies. When we seek comfort, predictability, and stress-free living we work against our own nature.
Machines don’t need stress and variability. But life does. If we disobey this fact we essentially kill ourselves with comfort.
In today’s society, we’re becoming physically weaker by working indoors at desks all day and watching TV all night on our comfortable couches. We’re becoming emotional weaker with things like political correctness, safe zones on college campuses, overprotective societies and parents that don’t let people screw up and learn for themselves.
When random events happen, we refuse to just go with the flow and make the best of it. We get irritated by the smallest unexpected changes to our plans.
Small screw-ups and stressors cause wear and tear in machines, but they make us better. They don’t just add variety our day to day lives, but strengthen us and prepare us to handle the inevitable tough moments in life (getting fired, ending relationships, loss of a parent, our own death etc.). If prepared, these things still hurt, but we handle them.
Without stressors, we just get weaker and weaker until even a moderate, normal, everyday stressor (like an offensive comment) freaks us out and “triggers us”.
Successful People Know that Stress and Chaos are Good for Us. It’s Not a Secret to Them.
Quotes from present day titans:
Tim Ferriss – Entrepreneur, Investor, Best-Selling Author, TV Host.
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger – Actor, Businessman, Politician, Former Bodybuilder.
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Best-Selling Author, Financial Options Trader, Risk Management Advisor.
“Don’t talk about modern “progress” in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness.”
Amelia Boone – Spartan Race/World’s Toughest Mudder world champion, Attorney, Bad Ass.
“I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.”
Quotes from some of history´s greatest minds:
Friedrich Nietzsche – (1844-1900) Influential German philosopher and cultural critic.
Michel de Montaigne – (1533-1592) One of the most influential philosophers of the French Renaissance.
“There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.”
Seneca the Younger – Stoic philosopher, Advisor to the Roman Emperor, One of the richest men in Rome circa 50 A.D.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”
Our Own Personal Experience Tells Us That Stress and Chaos are Good for Us
I’ve talked about the theory of natural systems, and given examples of how successful people throughout history have understood and applied it.
But that doesn’t really matter. It’s just talk.
What matters is personal experience. What you feel and what you’ve experienced in your life.
Ask yourself the following:
- What have been the best times of my life? When have I felt the most alive? Was there some level of uncertainty, chance or danger?
- When have I felt the most satisfied in my work? Was I executing step-by-step some pre-defined plan? Or was it after I accomplished some physically or mentally tough challenge I wasn’t sure that I could?
- Do I feel most alive when I’m sitting at home watching TV? Or after I’ve just gone out and gotten a little uncomfortable? (playing sports, asking someone out on a date, trying a new hobby, etc.)
My personal experience:
- The best vacation of my life didn’t happen at some 5-star resort. It happened on a 2-week scooter trip across Vietnam in 2012. We planned the trip in 45 minutes and got on a plane. We had no google maps, spoke no Vietnamese, and had no idea what we were doing. My friend had never even ridden a scooter before. We rode northeast and figured things out on the fly. The best day of that trip was the day my friend got 7 flat tires and his muffler fell off.
- The most satisfying work experience I had in 4 years working on oil platforms came in Brunei in 2011. Everything went wrong on the job. We were supposed to be done and gone by sundown. But because of the screw-ups we had to stay the night out there and keep working. There were no accommodations. We took turns sleeping on the graded steal to work through the night. Then a tropical storm hit and we worked through the rain. We finally completed the operation the next day in the afternoon. I remember being so damn satisfied on that boat ride back to shore, just smiling, and smoking a cigarette with my crew. (and I’m not a smoker).
- Uncomfortable hobbies have changed my life. Weightlifting, dancing, martial arts… I like getting the harsh reality check that you suck at something, feeling the discomfort, and doing it anyway. Then over time seeing how quickly that discomfort propels you to improve.
What Type of Stress and Chaos Do We Need?
We were designed to live in hunter gatherer societies where stress and chaos happened fast, but infrequently. Like when an animal attacked or it was time to chase down and kill dinner.
If we caught something we ate a big meal, if not we went hungry.
And after a successful hunt or escape from attack we had long periods of time to chill out and dance by the fire. Life was made of random, intense stimuli plus hanging out. Dangerous, but never boring.
As such, humans are typically well adapted to short term acute stressors followed by several hours or days of recovery.
Compare this to today’s society. We live in comfort and our only “stressors” are just a predictable supply of constant annoyances.
- A nagging boss
- Taxes to pay
- Emails to answer
- A cell phone that doesn’t shut up
- An unlimited supply of manufactured foods with high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.
These inventions of civilization are not the kind of “stressors” we’re adapted to thrive on.
Modern society screws up the natural balance we crave of intense stress plus chilling out. Which creates modern diseases like diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression and a stiff lower back.
So not all stressors are created equal and I don’t recommend responding to more emails per day as a means of injecting stress and chaos into your life.
It’s not possible for us to go back to living as hunter-gatherers in the wilderness. There are 7 billion people on the planet now. So, even if we wanted to it would be impossible.
Rather, I believe we can have the best of both worlds.
We can enjoy some advantages of modern life (free access to information, products/services, communication) and at the same time realize that to live well and to thrive in today’s world we have to inject our own chaos and stressors into our lives….
How Much Stress and Chaos Do We Need to Inject into Our Lives?
Obviously if we live 24 hours per day in stress and chaos we won’t get very far. We need stress but we also need time to chill out and let our bodies and minds recover and grow.
A great analogy for injecting stressors into your life is to think about how vaccinations work.
When we take vaccinations, we are taking a small dose of the virus to let our immune system create the proper defenses and strengthen against it.
If we took too little it wouldn’t help us. If we took too much it would kill us.
This curve shows the relationship between the dose of a stressor (in this case a virus) and the response in the system (you). We need to take enough to get the desired effect but not too much to harm us.
This curve is very important as it can be used to explain almost all stressors and responses in natural systems (you and me).
It can be used to explain the effects of exercising at the gym, emotionally uncomfortable conversations, certain types of food consumption, intense focused work sessions.
It shows the importance of stress dosage and how one thing (i.e. exercising in the gym) can be good or bad for you depending on how much you do.
Stress, like almost anything in life, can be good or bad for you. It depends on the dose.
The magic of living a stressful life is in discovering the right dosage and recovery periods for you.
Usually, the best way to figure out the right stress dosage for you is by listening to your instincts. Listen to your body, listen to your emotions. You’re the product of 2 billion years of evolution of life on this planet. You’re really smart.
In the nutrition coaching business, the technique is called conscious eating. People lose weight without any calorie counting or special restrictions. They simply eat slowly, pay close attention to the signals their bodies give them, and stop eating when they almost feel full. Thousands of people have lost a ton of weight with this method which relies 100% on their own natural instincts. So, have trust.
It can be difficult. We’ve been conditioned by society to avoid discomfort under the false assumption that stress and chaos are bad for us.
But now that we know stressors and chaos are necessary for life.
We need to lean into them, rather than run away.
And that’s really the best word for it, “lean in”.
Listen to your gut instincts and use trial and error.
You wouldn’t expect a novice weightlifter to pick up 300 kg over his head, likewise if you’re terrified of public speaking I wouldn’t expect you to start by giving a discourse to 800 people.
Play around and have fun with it.
If you feel a little anxious, a little nervous, a little bit of pain or discomfort before or during a practice you are probably doing something right.
If you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack before, or need to be hospitalized for a week after you probably went too far.
Everyone has their own starting points and finds their own balance.
Use trial and error, lean into discomfort and pay attention to your body.
There are many practices you can do or even create yourself.
To give you some examples, I’ll highlight some of the practices I’ve used that add a bit of stress and chaos to my life.
Practices to Add Stress and Chaos to Your Life
Resistance Strength Training
Strength training is incredible for many reasons. It improves muscle strength, nervous system function, bone density, posture, and delays many effects of aging. Two of my favorite programs are linked here.
Strength training with weights -> High Performance Handbook
Strength training using your bodyweight -> Gymnastic Bodies Program
Fasting cleans up the garbage in your body and has been linked to preventing cancer and diabetes as well as general life extension. It’s physically and psychologically tough and therefore amazing. I now do a minimum 72 hours fast once per month, and fast intermittently every day for 16-18 hours. But I started much slower. Start by skipping breakfast and lunch one day and see how it feels.
More information on fasting -> PN Experiments with Intermittent Fasting
From cold showers to ice immersion to walking around without a jacket. Cold therapy has many long-term health benefits. Just from my personal experience, a cold shower in the morning wakes you the hell up and acts as a good daily reminder to get uncomfortable.
The Ice Man gives us a lot more info on cold therapy here -> Ice Man Wim Hof
Roman Stoics believed that spending 3-4 days every couple of months experiencing a hardship that you worry about is an important practice for toughening the mind. It not only prepares you in case your fear actually comes true in the future, but more importantly relieves you of the stress of worrying about it. After you experience that which you fear most and you realize it wasn’t that bad.
An example would be a wealthy man eating only rice and beans, living in the street, wearing the most basic clothes, etc. to prove to himself that he could handle it if he lost all of his wealth.
More info on stoic philosophy and practices -> Daily Stoic
Deep Focused Work Sessions
In our constantly distracted world doing deep, concentrated 4 to 5-hour work sessions without internet, email, or cell phone can be a more difficult task than it seems. Set a timer and work as concentrated as possible. Pee and water breaks are allowed, but no checking your phone.
More info on deep work -> Cal Newport: Deep Work
Read Books/Articles You Know You’ll Disagree With
And try to learn something. For example: Are you a meat eater? Try reading a book on the benefits of veganism.
Have Discussions with People Who Have a Complete opposite Opinion to You
And try to understand their point of view. I prefer one on one conversations here but discussion groups might have some value as well.
Do a Social Activity That Makes You Uncomfortable
I like dancing and martial arts, personally. However, public speaking, stand-up comedy, an improv class or anything else could work… Pick your poison…
Feel Like a Beginner at Something. Learn a New Sport, Skill, or Hobby
Try to learn anything you suck at…
Let Chance Decide Parts of Your Life
In an attempt to let fate interfere more in my life I recently invented a game called “Sabado de Sorte” or “Lucky Saturdays” in English. The premise of the game is this. You pick 5 possible places to go, and/or 5 possible things to do next Saturday. They can be normal everyday places/things or totally crazy. And you let chance decide what will happen.
I use a random number generator and apply probabilities based on how crazy the option is. For example, last weekend I made one option fly to Rio de Janeiro and I gave it a 2% chance of happening. Another option was to go to the beach and do AcroYoga (25%).
The idea could be applied in many ways. Roll a dye on what/where to eat for dinner. Walk out your front door and flip a coin to decide whether you walk left or right. Basically, just have fun and add some chance to your life.
Some of these practices are meant to be done occasionally, others every day or every week.
My best advice is to just pick ONE practice and try it out today. Don’t try to implement them all at once.
Over time you can add more, or come up with your own.
Most of all just have fun and enjoy the benefits of adding stress to your life.
How to Ride the Wave of Stress and Chaos for Even More Benefits (for Nerds Only)
This section is technical. If you´re not interested in nerdy skill development stuff just skip it and go take a cold shower instead.
This section is my attempt to apply known training/skill development principles to how we add stress and chaos to our lives. Turning practices into focused training. And promoting even greater benefits.
Benefits of adding stress/chaos training to your life:
- Access flow states at work and play
- Learn skills rapidly
- High level of emotional maturity
- A brain that handles heavy/intense workloads
- Physical strength and health
- Overall feeling of calmness and security (because you can handle anything)
- Excitement and thrill of living
- Make mental connections between seemingly unrelated topics
Step by step procedure:
- Choose the specific adaptations you want (physical strength, emotional calmness/ease, intense concentration etc.)
- Choose or create your training methods/practices which develop the adaptations you want (hardship practice, uncomfortable conversations, etc.)
- Set process oriented goals for yourself (I will have an uncomfortable conversation 2x per week, etc.)
- Get started.
- Use both your subjective experience and any objective measures you can to calibrate your stress through trial and error.
- Lean into and ride the discomfort.
- Not enough discomfort – Stop being a wuss
- Right amount of discomfort – Ride the wave
- Too much discomfort – Chill out a bit
- Over time change the dosage variables to try to always stay comfortably uncomfortable. Play with:
- Length of recovery period/stress practice frequency
- Stress practice duration/intensity
- Stress practice type
- Measure your progress by recording your subjective experience, but also by getting feedback from others, and trying to quantitatively measure some type of progress if possible (number of hours doing deep work per week, pounds lifted in the gym, etc.)
- Lean into stress and keep pushing yourself. Any time you feel comfortable you need to change one or more of the dosage variables. Keep doing this time and time again for several years.
- Acquire superhuman abilities like this dude.
The exact methods we’ll use will vary. Everyone is different and will find their own groove in specific practices under specific doses.
I’ve spend a lot of time using this process in skill development, but I’m still very novice applying it to certain types of stress practices so I’m open to any and all opinions on the subject.
In my experience, if you ride the stress wave with regular practice and objective feedback it takes between 6 months to 1 year to make real progress in anything, and between 1 to 3 years to be “good.”
After that, you’ll be in the land of incremental gains and mastery and high levels of skill will come when they come. I really can’t comment because I don’t consider myself to be very highly skilled or a master at anything.
What are my best ideas for training resources?
The resources I linked above are a great place to start.
Look at people who have come before us and already have achieved a high level of success in what we’re trying to do.
For physical training, it’s easy. Thanks to professional sports and the Olympics we have thousands of studies on millions of athletes that gives us a nice head start on where to begin.
Since we don’t have emotional or mental Olympics we need to get a bit more creative.
Stoic philosophy has practices that are considered essential (emotional and mental) toughness training for living in a hectic world. So, I highly recommend going deeper there.
Any practice that has harsh, immediate real-world feedback should be prioritized over others. Performing standup comedy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, etc.
For adding randomness to life. I’m currently pulling all of my practices out of my ass. So, I’m open to any suggestions.
For more resources on training and performance check out the resources section of the site -> https://tylerjwatkins.com/resources/
In closing, ride the stress wave…
Train. Measure. Tinker. Smile. Repeat.
Back when we lived in hunter-gatherer societies we got all the stress and chaos we needed from everyday life. Today, our society spoon feeds us a comfortable, predictable living environment that would be perfect for a steam engine, but forgets the fact that people aren’t machines. Although the intention was good, the result is that we’re not only bored, but subjected to the diseases of modernity like cancer, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
I don’t advocate that we all move out to the woods and return to the hunter gatherer life. With 7 billion people on the planet even if we wanted to it would be impossible. Rather, I believe we can have the best of both worlds.
We can enjoy some advantages of modern life (free access to information, products/services, communication) but at the same time realize that to have a good life and to thrive in today’s world we need to insert our own chaos and stressors into our lives.
We have all of the tools we need to do this. Trust your gut instincts and get uncomfortable.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Those men probably avoided stress and chaos.
What do you think about adding more stress and chaos into our modern world?
Try some of the practices. Let me know what you think, and as always if you have any questions or comments feel free to comment below and send me an email any time to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tyler, good job, certainly some of this missing from my life!
You got the strength training going on!
As always, after reading your articles, it makes me think at a deeper level than I have ever done before. I enjoy your sharing of personal examples.