But allow me to inform you—as someone who just tried drinking twice the normal amount of Red Bull so he could finish editing this damn thing—this is almost never true. Most of the world does not exist on a linear curve. Linear relationships only exist for mindless, rote, repetitive tasks—driving a car, filling out reams of paperwork, cleaning the bathroom, etc. In all of these cases, doing something for two hours will double the output of doing it for one hour. But that’s simply because they require no thought or ingenuity.
Most activities in life do not operate along the linear effort/reward curve because most activities in life are not basic nor mindless. Most activities are complex, mentally and/or emotionally taxing, and require adaptation.
Therefore, most activities produce a diminishing returns curve:3
The inverted curve is the bizarro “Twilight Zone” curve, where effort and reward have a negative correlation—that is, the more effort you put into doing something, the more you will fail to do it.
Drown-proofing exists on an inverted curve. The more effort you put into rising to the surface, the more likely you will be to fail at it. Similarly, the more you want to breathe, the more likely you are to choke on a bunch of chlorinated piss water.
But I know you’re thinking, “So what, Mark? I’ve usually had too many piña coladas to even find the deep end of the pool, much less bind my arms and legs and try to survive in it. Who gives a shit about inverted curves?”
It’s true, few things in life function on an inverted curve. But the few things that do are extremely important. In fact, I will argue that the most important experiences and goals in life all exist on an inverted curve.
Effort and reward have a linear relationship when the action is mindless and simple. Effort and reward have a diminishing returns relationship when the action is complex and multivariate.
Pursuing happiness takes you further away from it. Attempts at greater emotional control only remove us from it. The desire for greater freedom is often what causes us to feel trapped. The need to be loved and accepted prevents us from loving and accepting ourselves.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity.”8
The most fundamental components of our psychology are paradoxical. This is because when we consciously try to create a state of mind, the desire for that state of mind creates a different and often opposite state of mind from the one we’re trying to create.
This is “The Backwards Law” I explain in Chapter 1 of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: desiring a positive experience is itself a negative experience; accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.
But this extends to most–if not all–aspects of our mental health and relationships:
Control – The more we strive to control our own feelings and impulses, the more powerless we will feel. Our emotional life is unruly and often uncontrollable, and it’s the desire to control it that makes it worse. Conversely, the more we accept our feelings and impulses, the more we’re able to direct and process them.
Freedom – The constant desire for more freedom ironically limits us in a number of ways. Similarly, it’s only by limiting ourselves–by choosing and committing to certain things in life–that we truly exercise our freedom.
Happiness – Trying to be happy makes us less happy. Accepting unhappiness makes us happy.
Security – Trying to make ourselves feel as secure as possible generates more insecurity. Being comfortable with uncertainty is what allows us to feel secure.
Love – The more we try to make others love and accept us, the less they will, and more importantly, the less we will love and accept ourselves.
Respect – The more we demand respect from others, the less they will respect us. The more we ourselves respect others, the more they will come to respect us.
Trust – The more we try to make people trust us, the less inclined they will be to do so. The more we trust others, the more they will trust us in return.
Confidence – The more we try to feel confident, the more insecurity and anxiety we will create. The more we accept our faults, the more comfortable we will feel in our own skin.
Change – The more we desperately want to change ourselves, the more we will always feel as though we are not enough. Whereas, the more we accept ourselves, the more we will grow and evolve because we’ll be too busy actually doing cool shit to notice.
Meaning – The more we pursue a deeper meaning or purpose to our lives, the more self-obsessed and shallow we will become. The more we try to add meaning to others’ lives, the more profound impact we will feel.
These internal, psychological experiences exist on an inverted curve because they are both the cause and the effect of the same thing: our minds. When you desire happiness, your mind is simultaneously the thing that is desiring and the target of its own desires.9
When it comes to these lofty, abstract, existential goals, our minds are like a dog who, after a lifetime of successfully chasing and catching various small creatures, has turned and decided to exact that same strategy on its own tail. To the dog, this seems logical. After all, chasing has led her to catch everything else in her doggy life. Why not her tail, too?
But a dog can never catch her own tail. The more she chases, the more her tail seems to run away. That’s because the dog lacks the perspective to realize that she and the tail are the exact same thing.
The goal is to take your mind—a wonderful thing that has spent its life learning to chase various creatures—and teach it to stop chasing its own tail. To stop chasing meaning and freedom and happiness because those only serve to move it further away from itself. To teach it to achieve what it desires by giving up what it desires. To show it how the only way to reach the surface is to let itself sink.
And how do we do this? By letting go. By giving up. By surrendering. Not out of weakness. But out of a respect that the world is beyond our grasp. By recognizing that we are fragile and limited and but temporary specks in the infinite reaches of time. You do it by relinquishing control, not because you feel powerless, but because you are powerful. Because you decide to let go of things that are beyond your control. You decide to accept that sometimes, people won’t like you, that often you will fail, that usually you have no fucking clue what you’re doing.
You lean into the fear and uncertainty, and just when you think you’re going to drown, just as you reach the bottom, it will launch you back to your salvation.