The law of reversed effort.
In our efforts to reach for our dreams, are we just inventing buggy standards of failure for ourselves?
You know when you learn a word for the first time, and then suddenly you hear it everywhere? If we’re being proper, this is called the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon. My most recent example is “The law of reversed effort”. I first encountered it a few weeks ago and now I’m seeing echoed everywhere, significantly by writers I admire.
Apparently it was coined by everyone’s favourite counter-culture philosopher: Alan Watts. As I understand it, the idea goes that the more we reach for something, the harder we try and push, the more we reinforce the ways we are deficient in that thing. So if we dig deep and do hard work to become happy, are we in fact just giving ourselves a stern lesson in the many ways we aren't happy?
I consider personal development a core value, so this revelation was a trip. In striving for excellence was I actually making myself miserable? But also I try my best to pick apart sage life advice from the internet bullshit. In the morass of grey areas called life, could I tease out any experiences to support this hypothesis?
A hairy business
As a side effect of my awkward youth, at some point I became obsessed with my hair. Lets just say that I know my way around a box of hair dye and that maybe once a hair straightener was my go to desert island emergency item. So those days I futzed my way to a good hair day by obsessing till everything was on point, how did that work out for me? Did I roll with a supreme confidence that I was the hot shit and have the best time ever?
If only. In reality I would spend the rest of the time worrying about all the ways my perfect hair could get messed up. Maybe even worse still, when someone did compliment me on my hair (and deliver some of the attention I clearly craved) it didn’t really count for much — I mean I spent so long on it anything less than great would be damning (FYI boys, there are some really good lessons here on feminine beauty).
I noticed, ironically, the times I ran out the house and forgot to even check the mirror were the ones I felt best about my hair. It’s not so much I thought my hair looked great, but rather it was the complete absence of hair from my thoughts. Wonderfully this also made the attention I received feel warmer, because I could trust it was being paid to me, the person, and not my hair.
I spent a very long time resisting this information. Dimly lit at the back of my mind, I knew acknowledging this truth would invalidate something I’d clung to for a very long time. Abandoning the belief I’d somehow be insufficient if I wasn’t compensating with my hair was terrifying. If I got it wrong I would be insufficient. Also, I’d have to admit how long I’d laboured under the weight of this false belief, so letting go was painful.
I clung to the edge for several months but eventually, resolved with the knowledge hair grows back, I shaved it all off. A bit dramatic perhaps, but I needed to prove to myself I was a somebody without my hair. Not surprisingly, the way people interacted with me didn’t change (sadly, I’m not sure the same liberty would be given to a girl/woman/whatever-not-boy you are). I was Peter before, and I was Peter after, albeit spending a lot less effort on my hair.
Happily ever after?
Taking hair this seriously may be silly or seem incredibly self-obsessed, but substitute in any of the big things in life, say happiness, love or fame and fortune; and I’m not sure the story would read differently. Also if it was this difficult for me to let go of something as frivolous as hair, is it any wonder that changing our values around the really big life meaning stuff is so painful?
A disclaimer I never hear is that letting go does leave one vulnerable. When I shaved my hair, more than one person told me they didn’t like it. If I hadn’t been sure in my motives, say because I was outsourcing my values and doing something a person on the Internet thought was good idea, such a criticism might have landed as proof of all my irrational fears. Even though I would’ve still been wrong, I may have been traumatised into a lifelong hair obsession to avoid experiencing that hurt ever again.
But this is a curious trick about the law of reversed effort, when I was actually ready it wasn’t hard, it was the easiest thing in the world. Like the smoker who suddenly finds that cigarettes no longer mean the same thing to them and they quit cold turkey for the rest of their lives. Values had changed, but how do we accelerate this process? When I figure that out I’ll call you from my billion dollar empire.
In the mean time, when I think about my creative work I see the same shapes and forms at the back of my head. I know in all my hard work to become successful I’ve bred the belief that I’m not successful. I know at some point I’m going to have to re-frame a value and let go of something, and that even though I won’t reach the goal I was aiming for, ironically, I’ll prefer the destination. Now just to figure out where I can buy some hair clippers up to the task…
Cadence is a video game in development and the inspiration for this series. To see how this turns out, delivered to your inbox every Tuesday, then hit follow next to Creative Suck below. Or don’t, this is probably easier if no one’s watching.