Learning to Love What You Hate
I could be wrong but I think that the key to human success is the ability to make ourselves do things we essentially do not want to do. It is almost like the law of gravity: things fall to the ground unless there is some energy that picks them up or prevents them from falling further. A successful economy is basically a system in which as many people as possible are motivated to work as hard and smart as they can, ideally in concert. A successful relationship is one where people invest in the long term and resist short-term impulses to blame the other, pursue narrowly defined self-interest, or betray their partner’s trust. Successfully climbing the ladders of education and career advancement ideally involves resistance to procrastination. All these shortcomings are completely human and yet, human flourishing is in one way or another always defined by their overcoming. Hedonism, alas, is not the answer.
This observation is far from profound. The internet is littered with self-help manuals for making ourselves do the things we potentially hate doing, as are the bookshelves bearing far too many publications in the “end procrastination now” genre. Often, we are told of ways to tolerate the tasks we have to do but prefer not to. Sometimes the approaches from these books work but my guess is that more often than not, they fail. The problem with these methods for making ourselves do what we dislike is that they often start with a familiar premise: things cannot always be fun but that is reality and we have to learn how to live with it. It is not that I disagree with this basic reality of the human condition. I have discovered however that an even more radical solution works better: make yourself love what you hate.
I think I first discovered the utility of this principle when I started running regularly at the age of twelve or so. I think my initial motivation was to get better at the 1,500-meter run – the main discipline that our high school PE teacher graded. I am not sure if she was joking (I gather she was not because the motto in front of her office was “there is no bad weather for running, just bad clothes.”) but she demanded times below the six-minute mark for an A. For twelve-year-old kids, that was hard. With little prior practice, I started training by running the 1,500-meter run three times a week for several months. Let’s set aside the fact that this was not the most effective way to run a mile, I needed to build capacity with longer runs first. But most importantly, anybody who has tried to max a mile three times a week knows that “hate” is not a far-fetched word for describing how I felt about doing it.
After a few months of this grueling training, I got into a habit of thinking about my runs just before I went to sleep. Soon enough, I realized that although I did not like how running 1,500 meters felt, I liked the feeling of having done it. I liked thinking about how I ran that day and I enjoyed planning a strategy for achieving a better result next time around. Eventually, I kind of started it loving it. But always before and after, never during.
Later on I switched to lifting weights but the experience of learning to love what I once may have disliked endured. As I lifted in the gym, I kept telling myself that the flipside of temporary discomfort are the long-term goals I hoped to achieve. Through this technique, I developed a mental association between the physical challenge of lifting weights and the desired outcome of a stronger body and extra dopamine. Ultimately, what I disliked and enjoyed about being physically active at a relatively intense level became the same thing.
One last eccentric example comprehensible solely to those familiar with lifting iron: before attempting a particularly heavy, difficult weight, I would engage in a ritual during which I approached the weight, looked at it, touched it, noticed any unique scratches and cracks, and sort of tried to befriend it. The goal was to essentially see the challenge that awaited me not as an enemy but as a friend that I wholeheartedly accepted and was ready to take on. Note that this differed markedly from practices of many fellow athletes. A lot of people do the opposite, they try to channel their anger into a physical feat but this never worked for me.
The bottom line is that the best way of overcoming a challenge, at least for me, has been to embrace it rather than to simply tolerate it as an annoying nuisance. I have used this approach when it comes to my academic work and life challenges in general. It works just as well. This is not an argument for finding something horrible to do and then forcing ourselves to like it. What I suggest is that once we choose a goal, for whatever reason, tolerance of adversity may not be enough. Unwavering, steadfast, and impassioned welcome mat may be necessary to face our obstacles. An approach to overcoming adversity that is rooted in negative depictions of our challenges will eventually exhaust us. Explicitly forcing ourselves to embrace a challenge and tell ourselves that we fully accept it and maybe even love it (even if we lie to ourselves at first) turns a problem we are willing to suffer to a problem that no longer exists.