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Why Most People Work Themselves to Death
What are we all running from?
Last weekend was my last Jiu-Jitsu competition of 2022.
Given that competing in, training, and teaching Jiu-Jitsu is my job (not to mention a great portion of my identity), the last competition of the year is kind of a big deal. The last competition of the year is simultaneously very relieving and also very anxiety-inducing.
At some point, I’ll send you guys a long, sappy post where I reflect on everything I’ve been through this year (it’s been a busy year), but that’s not what this article is about.
This article is about how right now is my least favorite time of year. Right now is that weird little 2-3 week period at the end of the year where there are no more short-term goals and my routine is constantly disrupted by the holidays (which I’ve already admitted to not exactly “loving”).
Right now is the time when I’m supposed to relax a bit, and I’m absolutely terrible at relaxing.
Welcome to the spiritual pandemic that most people call “hustle culture”.
Many people have work-ethic-based identities.
Hard work changed my life.
I learned the value of hard work from a relatively young age. When I was just 12, I noticed that the harder I worked at wrestling, the better my results were on the mat. This made me addicted to working hard in every aspect of my life, from sports to writing to dating to improving my mental health.
I thought if I worked harder at everything, I’d be happier and better at, well, everything.
By my default way of thinking, this thought process seemed to be true.
The thing is, hard work works when it comes to making you better at the stuff you do, but hard work is not everything when it comes to living a good life.
I can hear the audible moans from the people I looked up to in childhood who instilled this “never stop” mindset in me.
Hard work can make you more successful, but the truth is that hard work alone cannot make you happy. Hard work cannot bring you peace when you’re ridden with anxiety. Hard work cannot make your lost lover love you again and it can’t bring back the people who you’ve alienated in the name of your goals.
Hard work is important, hard work alone leads to an incomplete life.
So why does American culture specifically insist on people creating identities based on their ability to get stuff done?
Maybe I’m just a tired hippy.
I read a lot of Eastern-influenced philosophy and spiritual books/blogs.
In my hyper-competitive world where I’m constantly battling with my own ego, I ironically find a great deal of peace and truth in this world where the ego is seen as something that’s illusory.
What I find when I read the sort of stuff I do is incredibly contradictory to what I read in popular culture.
Popular self-help advice tells you to practice “self-love”, build “self-esteem”, and that if you’re struggling, it’s best to focus on your “self”.
However, many people on the opposite side of this will tell you that “the self is an illusion”.
And the thing is, anatomically, the self is an illusion. Even if you become the best neuroscientist in the world, you would never be able to identify exactly where in your body or brain your “self” is. This is because the self does not exist in reality.
It’s not like the hippocampus or the brain stem or the amygdala. It’s not “real”.
You do not have a self, you are a self.
However, many people still operate from the mindset that they have a self and that they need to make themself the best self possible. This often leads to the destruction of health and happiness.
Think about it like muscles:
What do Arnold Schwarzenegger and I have in common?
We both have muscles.
You might need a microscope to see mine next to ole’ Arnie’s, but I, like Arnold, have muscles. I, like Arnold, train my muscles and try to optimize them in the gym.
This is pretty normal. We all have muscles. We are not mussels—mussels live in the sea—we have muscles.
The problem is, most people view their “selves” the same way that we view muscles in this hypothetical situation above. People are really out here trying to be something that they only possess.
Let’s dive deeper.
You cannot get a “bigger self”, because THE SELF DOESN’T FUCKIN’ EXIST.
The ego is never satisfied.
The ego isn’t real, and it knows it. This is why it constantly seeks to be validated.
This thought process drives much of Western culture. People behave in ways to make their “selves” look better. They get fancy cars. They get nice shirts. They work out until they look like Gods (but even looking immortal isn’t enough for the fragile ego). They start businesses and write books and do all sorts of things to satisfy their ego.
I know because I do (or have done) all these things.
At the end of the day, what drives much of human action, especially here in the West, is the idea that some amount of successful action will satiate the ego.
When you win the IBJJF Worlds, you’ll be happy (I learned the hard way that ain’t true).
When you get a prettier girlfriend/boyfriend, you’ll be happy (also ain’t true).
When you get abs/chocolate cake/more success, then you’ll have everything you want.
It’s all bullshit.
No matter what you do, no amount of action will ever give you lasting peace.
Sure, you’ll get temporary peace from doing all these things (think about how full and satisfied you feel after a great meal), but lasting internal peace does not come from external action, no matter how great the action is.
Most people fail to realize the incompleteness of their world as a condition of having a world, and that is why most people suck at taking a break from griding away their goals.
That is why most people spend their whole lives on the never-ending hamster wheel of work, hustle, and competition.
Here’s who you get off that wheel, in just 235 words:
It can all stop now:
Take a moment and imagine your biggest goals and your wildest dreams.
Now, imagine that you’ve achieved all of them.
Pat yourself on the back, congratulate yourself, buy yourself something nice, and hell if you want to, take a victory lap.
Okay, you all good?
Nice. Good work. Congratulations.
What’s next? You reached the pinnacle of your life’s focus, and what’s better than the pinnacle of everything you’ve ever wanted?
“Nothing!” you might say. You might even double down on that statement.
“Give it time,” is what I’d say.
Eventually, ambition makes slaves of us all.
The only solution to escaping the neverending hamster wheel of desire is to remove desire from your life. The only way to have true spiritual enlightenment is to have no desires—nothing but full and complete presence in the “now”—or whatever.
Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly realistic for all of us, but I don’t think it’s really necessary either.
Instead of trying to obsessively remove desire from your life, just try and limit it. Instead of having no desires, try to have fewer desires.
Stop obsessing over being the best in everything you do, all the time. Start sacrificing things that you want so that you can be less miserable.
Stop feeding the ego in your brain that only exists because you are feeding it.
That’s how you achieve better quality goals and live a better quality life.
Like I said in the introduction of this article, I suck at relaxation.
If you wanted to read about spirituality from the Dalai Lama’s apprentice, you have come to the wrong place.
I’m a lot of things, but spiritually enlightened probably isn’t one of them. I’m just trying to question the status quo of the constant hustle that our society orders on us on a daily basis.
I’m so bad at taking breaks.
After a few days of eating everything in sight and sleeping in (I noticed this on my 3-day vacation in England), I begin to miss the comfort of my routine and the drive that helps me get out of bed each morning. I miss my goals because my goals give me purpose.
But the Western existential problem is not a lack of purpose. The Western existential problem is that we have too much purpose. We have so much purpose, meaning, and opportunity to live incredible lives that we are blinded to it. We are cynical.
The more options on the menu you have, the less likely you are to be able to pick what to eat.
As you chase your goals, it’s inevitable that you will set more along the way. You will become addicted to your ambition—the feeling of chasing something. We’re just like dogs chasing our own existential tails.
I bet most of us don’t know what’d we’d do if we caught them.
You suck at relaxing because you have too many goals. You want too many things.
You want the world, but you want nothing in specific really.
Drop this mindset and you can relax better, achieve more, and best of all, be happier and more fulfilled as you strive.
To me, that’s what the early stages of peace ought to look like.
Been on the road so this is article the only thing I’ve written this week. Premium article coming tomorrow morning though with my thoughts on GrappleFest, upgrade your subscription below to get it!
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