The Importance of Embracing Friction
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Today at a Glance
- Ancient culture was marked by an embrace of friction. Modern culture is marked by an avoidance of friction.
- In our obsessive quest to reduce friction, we may be eliminating some of the moments, experiences, and texture that made us uniquely human.
- My Prediction: In a world of steadily decreasing friction, it will be those who are willing to embrace friction that will thrive. To become one, start by finding small ways to choose the hard way even as the easy way stares you in the face.
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Now and then, I find myself completely bewitched by a topic.
It's difficult to predict or anticipate, but when it happens, I feel compelled to give in to the inspiration and immerse myself in it.
Usually this means a lot of reading, thinking, and writing (in that order):
- Reading: Explore and roam freely. Gather ideas and insights.
- Thinking: Analogize. Connect the new ideas to existing ones.
- Writing: Clarify and sharpen my thinking. Share in public for feedback and new perspectives.
I write to you today from this magical bewitched land.
The topic: Friction.
Specifically, the importance of embracing friction, and the dangers of modern society's obsessive quest to remove it from our lives.
Let's dive right in...
The Ancient Struggle
Ancient culture was marked by an embrace of—and respect for—friction.
The writing of the great Stoic philosophers is littered with quotes on the importance of friction, struggle, and adversity:
"Constant misfortune brings this one blessing: to whom it always assails, it eventually fortifies." - Seneca
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." - Marcus Aurelius
"Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won forever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated." - Seneca
We find similar messages across ancient cultures and religions.
Consider this from Siddhartha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism):
"Persevere in thy quest and thou shalt find what thou seekest. Pursue thy aim unswervingly and thou shalt gain victory. Struggle earnestly and thou shalt triumph."
Or this from the Bible:
"If you falter in a time of trouble, how small is your strength!" - Proverbs 24:10
Study history and it quickly becomes clear that the embrace of friction was a core virtue.
Perhaps this is because friction was so unavoidable—the lack of basic technology necessitating an embrace to avoid going completely mad.
Alternatively, perhaps our ancestors had learned an important lesson: That friction creates meaning and substance. That a life devoid of friction is a life unworthy of living.
Many writers and philosophers have commented on the importance of friction, struggle, and adversity in creating "texture" in our lives.
I like this framing a lot.
This texture heightens our awareness of individual moments:
- Smooth moments pass by with ease and are quickly forgotten.
- Textured moments pass slowly, feel long, and are remembered.
The ancient struggle was based on embracing texture—on experiencing friction and growing through it.
But what of our modern struggle?
The Modern Struggle
Modern culture is marked by an obsession with avoiding friction.
Our society has come to view friction as something toxic—in need of complete eradication. We will not rest until this toxic element is completely removed from our lives.
There are countless examples:
- Frictionless Commerce: The removal of all pain from daily commerce. The rise of e-commerce, one-click-checkout, and mobile pay all fall into this bucket.
- Frictionless Communication: The removal of all pain from daily interactions. The rise of dating apps, messaging services, and social networking apps all fall into this bucket.
- Frictionless Work: The removal of all pain from daily work. The rapid acceleration of remote work, the decline of commuting, and the rise of flexible and asynchronous work all fall into this bucket.
These movements gain momentum because humans like them—we like avoiding friction. We like things that make our lives feel easier.
A frictionless life is an "easy" life:
- Frictionless Commerce: We never have to leave our house or interact in order to shop.
- Frictionless Communication: We never have to suffer the awkwardness of cold approaching a potential partner at a bar.
- Frictionless Work: We never have to commute or interact with co-workers in person.
And to be clear, "easy" can be good! The rise of remote and hybrid work, for example, is leveling the opportunity playing field, enabling broader participation in upward economic mobility and allowing more people to feel the fulfillment of productive employment.
But "easy" is a double-edged sword.
When we press the metaphorical "Easy Button" over and over again, something bad slowly starts to happen.
The modern struggle is based on avoiding friction.
But at what cost?
The Cost of a Frictionless Existence
In reducing friction, are we reducing our humanity?
Author Oliver Burkeman addresses this in his book Four Thousand Weeks (which I just started and is fantastic):
"...the inconvenience involved, which might look like brokenness from the outside, in fact embodies something essentially human."
In our journey to optimize for ease with every tiny experience, are we winning the battle, but losing the war?
A recent post from the r/fatFIRE subreddit is a perfect example of the perils of ease optimization.
For the uninitiated, "fatFIRE" is an offshoot of the well-known "Financial Independence, Retire Early" (FIRE) movement—the "fat" addition means executing FIRE in a lavish, high net worth manner (rather than through penny pinching and reduced spending).
The original poster is asking about how others in the group have used money to "optimize" their lives. In other words, how have they used money to remove friction (with the assumption that less friction equates to higher well-being).
The commenter replies with the following (bolded sections from me for added emphasis):
I'm a therapist and my patients are mainly "fatfire" people. Them being patients, I obviously have the ultimate selection bias. Yet: What I find is that those who lean too much into this logic of optimization are the ones that suffer from a (literal) maddening degree of alienation.
It's an easy trap to fall into as it is so very sensible: Why would you spend six hours cleaning (doing a chore you hate and doing it badly) if you could just work an additional hour and outsource that? So you hire a cleaner. And a cook, a personal shopper, an interior designer and a nanny. But if you don't watch out, all your little self worth eggs, so to speak, are kept in the same work basket - and, step by step, you start to live the life of a stranger. You eat the food of someone else, wear the clothes of not-you, in an apartment that might as well be a hotel room, with kids that are more attached to their nanny than to you. Your vacations are glamorous, but there's little connection to anyone or anything in them. At this point you might start to feel a little unease. You might start to wonder why you're unfulfilled and try to treat yourself better - so you double down. You get a PA because dealing with a schedule is annoying, you get a personal trainer because mens sana in corpore sano and while you're at it, you also start therapy, where you learn techniques that help somewhat and where you analyze childhood events. But what somehow is kept at bay, in a fish-not-having-a-word-for-water-way, is that you identify with your job of optimizing processes to maximum efficiency to a degree that you treat yourself like any work project. What I am getting at here is: Watch out. It may be easier and more worth it to develop an interest in cooking or join a sports club or a gym that you like. But also: Screw cleaning.
Our steady, monotonous friction avoidance is reducing texture in our lives, causing it to pass by quickly and without purpose or meaning.
What's more, our "friction muscle" is atrophying in this frictionless world.
We rarely face the struggles that created friction in our lives, so we're losing our ability to endure and outlast them.
When we do inevitably encounter them, we simply break. The smallest inconveniences seem to annoy us to all hell.
Think about the last time you had an experience that was supposed to be frictionless but ended up anything but:
- Maybe the two-day Amazon Prime delivery failed to show up on time. THE HORROR!
- Maybe the store's Apple Pay was broken and you had to take out your wallet. UGH!
- Maybe your boss actually asked you to come into the office. GASP!
Apologies for the sarcasm, but trust me when I say I'm right there with you.
How did you feel? Be honest.
I'll go first: I felt annoyed. Probably cursed under my breath at my misfortune or the ineptitude of the technology I was dealing with. It probably impacted my mood and day.
Step back and think about how absurd this really is...
Are we losing our ability to deal with any level of friction in our lives?
More importantly, are our children going to be even worse off than we are, having grown up in a completely friction-free world?
Embracing a New Modern Struggle
My Prediction: In a world of steadily decreasing friction, it will be those who are willing to embrace friction that will thrive.
How do we start?
By overriding our friction avoidance mechanisms. By not pressing the "Easy Button" even when it's sitting right in front of us.
It's not about making our lives unnecessarily hard.
It's about pushing back against "easy" in a few deliberate ways, every single day. It's about getting in that ice bath even though you know it's going to suck, striking up a conversation with that attractive stranger even though you know it could be awkward, walking to the store even though it's more convenient to get it delivered.
It's about reclaiming our ability to choose the hard way, even with the easy way right in front of us.
It's about finding our connection to the ancient struggle.
It's about building and embracing a new modern struggle.
Conclusion (& Challenge)
Friction is an essential fabric of life. It's time we reclaim its esteemed position in our lives.
Remember, there are two paths to walk through life:
- Easy now—hard later.
- Hard now—easy later.
The choice is with all of us, each and every day.
My challenge to all of you:
Embrace the new modern struggle for the next week. Make one hard choice in the face of an easier alternative every single day.
I'd love to hear from you:
- What small ways are you finding to push back against the frictionless world and do things the hard way?
- How do you plan to raise children who embrace friction in a frictionless world?
- What other reactions did you have to the piece? I'd love your feedback!
Reply to this email or tweet at me @SahilBloom and I'll do my best to get back to all of you.