Bend or Break: The Efficiency of a River

(Tsunan, Japan | Leo Rivas-Micoud)

(Tsunan, Japan | Leo Rivas-Micoud)

The river runs to meet the sea; it can move around obstacles if that is the most efficient path, but when it's focused, nothing can stand in its way.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In martial arts, all of your instincts are wrong. Martial techniques rely on the natural reactions of the opponent. You drop your hands to windmill punch; we jab. When getting up after a knockdown, you naturally place both hands on the ground as you've always done when standing up. With no hands to protect yourself, we'll kick your face. All your moves are wrong and in this real life chess, I can take all your turns. Skill can quickly dismantle intuition. The inherent challenges of modern life can counter instincts.

Fighting is not natural. It's a skill that is nurtured, taught, and practiced. The fight, however, is merely figurative. The potential is in one's ability to be creative, resilient, and adaptive under chaos.

Instinct is like raw energy, but it needs control (and years of training) to become useful. However, no one can give you the will to accomplish what you know is within your capabilities — no one can give you the will to fight — it's your choice to make.

Intuition Turns to Leadership

We don't earn instincts and gut feelings. Avoid pride; nature gives us these gifts freely. It's only a starting point; we're meant to build from there.

Humans came to rule the planet, not because we had the most brute strength but because we are the most efficient — the most adaptive. Efficiency matters when time is limited. Time is our most precious resource, and efficiency is our most valuable ally.

We are all aware of time, which is why, rather than efficiency, we are seduced by its rival: convenience. Convenience does not prize effectiveness; it prizes comfort above all else. Efficiency is about changing to make improvements; convenience removes the ability to change.

Convenience circles the perimeter of bare minimum. Only doing what is easy. If productivity is the volume of work, efficiency is the quality of work. Produce a lot, do a lot, and do it well. None of this is convenient, which will eliminate many, only leaving the most adaptive — the fittest.

Learning to Respond

Growth and development — cultivate, refine, and make better — these are leadership qualities. Followers talk about intuitions and gut feelings. Leaders talk about actions and outcome. Followers set goals to accomplish tasks; leaders cultivate and sharpen the qualities needed to make accomplishments a natural byproduct. Followers trust their feelings; leaders trust what they've learned.

In times of chaos and misfortune, all we can turn to are our cool heads. Great fighters don't trust their athleticism, they believe in their knowledge, because, as they age and lose their ability, they'll soon find out if they ever learned how to fight. Setting a goal to win is not enough, that's not a strategy, that is square one.

Soldiers out in the field don't have time to rely on anything else other than their training. It's all in the preparation, and the preparation is the make or break of any situation. Take what you've already learned, then learn more. Learn on your own; learn from those with experience.

Lean on natural teachers, those who can guide you on the right path. In personal matters, we're always biased; we don't have enough foresight to know what to prepare for — for this and many other reasons, every student needs a teacher.

If you only stick to your intuitions, then what need is there for information? What need is there for experience? You come ready supplied with a magic 8-ball for answers. Try your instinct, then learn from what happens — trial and error — grow from there. If your instinct proves true, you're onto something. However, if you are wrong, do not insist that you are right; this robs you of valuable education.

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
— Aldous Huxley

A river is humble; it bends under pressure. A wooden board remains staunch; it breaks under pressure. Bend or break, this is your fork in the road.

Like a River

We do all this to achieve goals, however, are our goals the end all be all? What is a goal? Goals are the expressions of purpose. Goals are specific, whereas a purpose is a guiding principle. Perhaps my goal is to lose weight, but the purpose of my goal is to attain happiness. My motive, then, is not the goal of weight loss, it's happiness. We so fixate on goals; we can forget about the purpose that drove us to create these pinpoints in the first place. In fact, our goals can get in the way of our real purpose.

In thinking of preparation, a goal may set you up for one scenario, which leads you to failure once the scenario changes. Life is uncertain and messy, preparation means preparing for everything. A general preparedness.

I can ruin happiness with my fixation on my weight, even though my weight is something I am using to attain happiness. This is the riddle we often find ourselves in — confusing the tree for the forest.

Working Between the Cracks

Goals can change, be flexible, have different deadlines, but are always second to purpose. Much like a river, it can bend, fork, maneuver, and change, but the river exists solely to meet the ocean.

The river flows to the lowest of places, where men dare not go. Yet, from these lowliest of places, it supports all life. It can be softer than silk, yet cut through a mountain. It can shape a stone and knock down a mighty oak. Sudden and powerful, patient and yielding.

The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Be like the river. Be purpose driven. The river runs to meet the sea; it can move around obstacles if that is the most efficient path, but when it's focused, nothing can stand in its way. It will demolish everything in its path and only get stronger as it nears the sea.

What happens when we focus on too many goals — have too many distractions — when we lack a purpose? Rivers can be pulled away into streams, lakes, and estuaries — moving further away from the ocean. We become aimless, with pointless goals that serve nothing else, other than to say we have them. Rather than getting stronger, we get weaker as we go along. "I had so much motivation at the beginning," we'll say.

Motivation is a fan, and fans need something to support. Without a great cause, it will cease to exist. Sure, it will meander for a while, and then eventually it'll do what it's supposed to do — dry out.

There is no multi-tasking, there is only task switching. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and sometimes it's how we believe things ought to be. Then, when things get difficult, we move onto something else, something easier.

Threshold to Overcome

What's your "give up" point? Giving up can become a habit, and when practiced enough, even the slightest obstacle can have us giving up.

If you only function under perfect scenarios, in an imperfect world, when will you function? A river does not wait for perfection, a river does not fixate, a river is responsive. Complex and persevering, the river eventually gets where it needs to go. Always.

A river has no bullseye; it only cares about getting to the other side of its boundaries. A goal is merely one course, among many courses, to surpass your current stratosphere. But any direction is correct. You cannot go wrong. It does not matter where the river meets the ocean, as long it does.

If what I want is happiness, my weight is like a single droplet of water; my happiness is the rain. In searching for the perfect droplet, with my head to the ground, I'll die of thirst in the rain.

Our purpose is never far, always out on the periphery, with unending inlets. It's when we believe there is only one way in, that we are limited. Believing there is only one right way is not a fact, it is a self-limiting belief. The ocean is not a set point; it is a threshold to cross.

You Are What You Practice

Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. If we practice giving up, giving up can become a lifelong habit. If we routinely do things carelessly, we become perfect at sloppy execution. Thousands of hours of practice can make one an expert, but if that time is spent procrastinating, we become expert procrastinators.

During school, if sacrificing sleep to study was your norm, you should not be surprised to find yourself with sleeping problems even when school is over. Not sleeping has become your habit.

Fruitful Victory

From the helpful to the toxic, anything can become a habit if that is what we practice. How much will we sacrifice to produce? Work over sleep, ambition over health, wealth over compassion, achievement over family, and productivity over efficiency: these can all become habits.

As we develop, we learn and add. When we master, we subtract. The master takes what he has learned, then hones it down, removing all weaknesses and needless motion. Strength is not about becoming stronger; strength is about minimizing gaps.

"Effort" is a balanced combination of productivity and efficiency. In the instance of the fight, this is winning while sustaining the least damage.

Accomplishments may feel like victory, but victory is a fruitful endeavor. If we lose more than we have gained — burning your house to chase away a thief — this is not a victory. If you work, work, work, and say with pride that you'll sleep when you're dead, would your accomplishments be worth your life? In truth, this attitude will ensure a quicker demise — a demise haunted by regret.

Work and sleep — create a system that can sustain itself indefinitely. High-quality work requires experience. Produce a great deal. If you only work, you will never live long enough to get good at what you do. Quality takes time. You need to plan ahead for the long haul — or don't plan and be mediocre in the short-run.

Putting It Together

The combination of low productivity and low efficiency is not difficult, it's quite common, in fact. What is rare is movement with precision and power. You are never on level ground; to move in your surroundings like a river takes creativity, concentration, and responsiveness under pressure.

Everything you have, even what leads you to distraction, is unfiltered energy. It takes time and experience to focus hard materials into something pliable. Build up your knowledge then highlight the essential; hem the rest. Balance the process; prepare for an indeterminable journey. Don't be rigid, or you will break often. Do not lose sight of why you started, or you'll get lost, thirsting for the ocean, drying out in the sun.

Purpose: The Final Piece

The one remaining piece: your purpose. That's something I cannot answer; that's something only you can know. If there is nothing that drives you, perhaps you have already reached the ocean and your days are full of contentment. If this is not the case, begin with some introspection. Why do you care about the things you care about? Is there a pattern to your goals — in your interests? Our purpose is never specific; it is a general underlying truth. If your purpose is to help others, it doesn't so much matter if you're a school teacher or a famous doctor. What will matter to you is the sense that you are of help. In looking for the explicit, you may think there is nothing out there. However, if you focus on the implicit, your general purpose, nearly anything will do. Then all you have left is to do that thing to the best of your abilities.

Life is already hard, don't make it harder than it is by binding yourself to anchors: of how things ought to be, what you think you're supposed to do. These are mental constructs, not material objects.

Rumi writes:

I should be suspicious of what I want.

What you think you want may not actually make you happy.

Free yourself. Yield and flow, and see where the current takes you when your mind is open to all the possibilities. True fulfillment may exist in ways that may surprise you. People who love their life often say, "I never thought I'd be doing this." There is a chance that your best-laid plan may be the worst way to get you where you need to go. Rather than constantly knocking your head against a rock, go another way, the path of least resistance.

A river doesn't care about the way, as long as way leads to Way. That's what matters.

It's not about how you will get there, but what is your ocean? That's what matters.

Once you've discovered that, all that is left is for you to begin.

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