“Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”
Training is based on a brilliant, simple, and intuitive understanding: facing resistance forces the body to adapt and become more effective at overcoming that resistance. Exposure to challenge makes us stronger. Practice makes perfect-ish.
The obvious question then is: when immersed in an environment that pulls us towards facing less resistance than ever before, might we be allowing ourselves to be less capable than ever before?
Absent of resistance we remain a lesser model—not fully activated. Thus, intentionally facing adversity is deeply essential to human development. Instincts pull us towards chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, but those drives developed as useful modifiers to our natural, primal setting where constant exposure to resistances was inherent to reality.
An instinct to avoid extreme pain spurred humans to get their butts up and going to collect firewood, to hunt, and to collect nuts for roasting over the fire. Faced with the pain of starvation and the prospect of another bone-chilling evening, they chose to get to work.
Photography by J Perez of Oahu, Hawaii
In today’s world, physical work is not spurred by instincts to avoid pain. Rather the work, itself, would be the most painful physical experience most humans face. Even on the coldest night, the pleasure of warmth, comfort, and an abundance of delicious food are virtually guaranteed without any physical struggle.
We can, then, wake the next morning and hit a button, remotely starting our car so it is warm by the time we get in. Disconnected from reality, we are allowed to endlessly avoid even the most minor discomforts, but, paradoxically, when pleasure and avoidance of pain are allowed to dominate our lives, we suffer immensely.
Unchecked instincts to chase pleasure and, most of all, avoid discomfort prove extremely self-destructive in our modern convenience, comfort, and entertainment-saturated environment. Today obesity, mental disorder, suicide, and drug overdoses reach record highs.
We’ve sanitized the environment of all discomfort and risk only to leave ourselves as the primary threat to our own survival. Amid such an environment, the primary task of human fulfillment becomes creating an understanding of when to override instincts and then disciplining oneself to habitually do so at these times. We must consistently override the pain-pleasure drives and expose ourselves to the resistances once inherent to reality.
This is especially hard to do in the modern world. The only factor that consistently rivals the influence of pain for behavior modification is social pressure, which, also, does us no favors. Immersed in brilliantly addictive technology, insulated from reality, and indoctrinated habits that pull us miles from our nature, the normal path creates impulsive, brittle humans, hardly a shell of their inspired, capable potential.
We Must Sharpen Our Instruments
The goal of raising children is to help them transcend these most primal drives in order to choose actions that make them more capable and serve a higher purpose than pleasure and pain.
Early on, we do this for them. We force them to eat vegetables and deny them excessive dessert. We get them back on the bike when they fall and back in the pool when they get water up their nose.
We even take them to get shots, where a needle is stabbed into their body transmitting a weakened or dead form of a deadly disease. They scream, become crabby, and run a fever for the rest of the day, but we know this is a necessary part of their body growing resistance to diseases that could, otherwise, kill them.
It is always a balance. Too much resistance would be an issue. We don’t immunize with full-strength ass-kicker smallpox. Yet in the modern world, too much resistance is rarely the issue.
After the germ theory of disease became common wisdom, society began going to great lengths to destroy all bacteria and pathogens from the areas we touched. The Hygiene Hypothesis contended that sterilized environments would contribute most to our overall health.
From there we were consumed by a world of anti-bacterial soap, 409, bleach, and a constantly sanitized environment. Likewise, mass media alerted us about playground accidents, bullies, child predators, and rain prompting many parents to adopt policies whereby their children were kept insulated from life and washed in self-esteem each day.
Now, many look at the Hygiene Hypothesis and note the evidence that it has led to an explosion of auto-immune disorders. Similarly, there is evidence demonstrating less immunity in people who frequently use antibiotics.
Today’s issues stem from sanitizing every inch of the environment, insulating ourselves from every pain, numbing any uncomfortable feedback, and allowing ourselves to become a less capable, less resilient, less activated form of a human.
Divorced from real consequences, there is no positive adaptation. We need bumps, bruises, scars, calluses, and exposure to the resistances once inherent to reality. These are the battles our bodies, minds, and subconscious processes are purposed for. In their absence, we lose vital capabilities and manufacture battles against ourselves.
The Resistances Inherent to Reality
The caged tiger at the zoo is safe and assured of daily feedings, yet she hardly resembles the magnificent, fiery beast nature intended. The cost of assured survival is her soul. As the world’s most adaptable species, humans are more reliant on environmental feedback and resistance to mold them than any other animal.
I fear our environment is deactivating our human nature and pulling us to become a lesser species. While I don’t anticipate an actual devolution, each of us, individually, are now able to remain a coddled, blunt shell—a lesser version—or we can intentionally explore the conditions necessary for human fulfillment and invite the resistance we need.
Wim Hof has dedicated his life to the path of primal reconnection and opened the door to amazing human capabilities. Some of his most impressive feats include climbing to 23,600 feet on Mount Everest in only shorts and shoes, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in only shorts, holding the world record for the fastest barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow, and 16 times breaking the world record for most time spent in direct contact with ice.
We may hear these feats and flippantly dismiss them under the guise that Hof is superhuman, but that belies the grander moral. He is human. He shares our DNA and our capacity for adaptation.
Hof is not an alien species, in fact, he’s taught his breathing methods to millions. At his retreats he’ll routinely take large groups through long, barely-clothed climbs in sub-zero temperatures where they dance and project a startling resiliency to the elements.
In 2013, Hof and 12 people trained in his breathing methods were injected with a dead strain of the e-coli virus that normally induces days of violent sickness. None of them showed any symptoms. They literally changed the way scientists look at immune response.
Hof’s methods aren’t particularly advanced or complicated. In fact, both the response to cold and the breathing techniques are about learning to tap back into autonomic response and becoming practiced at dealing with resistances that were once inherent to human reality.
They are about quieting the mind and going deeper into experience, rather than running away from discomfort. If you are looking for where to start, Hof suggests a daily 3-minute cold shower. As he says, “a cold shower a day keeps the doctor away.”
You Need More Pain
We desperately need pain and practice denying immediate pleasure. Physical pain is an especially powerful force. Most people will not subject themselves to five minutes of intense discomfort, in order to feel great for the rest of the day.
Most won’t subject themselves to regular 30 to 60-minute intervals of intermittent discomfort to live longer and feel great throughout that life. People flurry around searching for purchases, information, and gossip that will make them feel better, but these pleasures are insufficient. They can never measure up to the fulfillment that comes from entering resistance to become a more capable, activated human.
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities… I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.”
Being a wimp virtually ensures mental and physical pains in life. Wimps avoid the physical experiences their bodies need and become self-consumed by any affliction, thus, incapable of showing empathy for their fellow humans.
Toughness is a virtue. Willpower is trainable. This message should not be taken to extremes, but be even warier of the extreme view that humans are fragile and somehow in need of less physical hardship.
We should enjoy the immense luxuries and perks of modern living but must continue to expose ourselves to the broad spectrum of physical challenges necessary for fully activating our bodies and minds.
In the absence of the primal environment, it is up to us to create a routine for incorporating physical hardships into our lives in order to pull us towards a heightened human existence. This starts with consistent exercise, but it doesn’t end there. We should make ourselves adaptable, resilient, and impervious to hardship. We need to seek a broad spectrum of challenges.
In an effort to help train this capacity to enter hardship for a deeper purpose, I’ll be beginning a four-week, six-day per week Anti-Fragile Human Challenge. Each week’s challenges will release on the Friday prior to that week. These will take five minutes or less each day.
For those who train already, you’ll get an extra boost that pulls you outside your typical training patterns. For those wanting to build consistent habits, we’ll grow our willpower through daily effort.
The time required is less than 1/288th of your day, but it will change each day’s trajectory and lead to exponential long-term growth. I encourage you to challenge friends or family to join along. Depending on how we leverage it, social pressure can be a powerful force for good or bad.
We all have five minutes or less. There is no excuse not to be a more activated, inspired human. Life is too short to be normal.