We feel it everyday but we can never quantify – the amount of energy we have for our mental and physical tasks. About man’s daily energy William James believed, “to have its level raised is the most important thing that can happen to a man.”
I believe our culture feels the same way about the importance of maximizing energy as James. We are always looking for productivity hacks, and ways to do more in 24 hours. There is a reason 90% of the American population consumes caffeine daily. It is a natural impulse of humans, we want to do more and acquire more. This is why so many people suffer from information overload.
Why do so few of us possess unbridled energy that will allow us to achieve our wildest dreams?
James said, “part of our imperfect vitality under which we labor can be explained by scientific psychology… conscience makes cowards of us all… our scientific respectability helps us from exercising the mystical portions of our natures freely.” Social convention and the demands of day-to-day life help to create our limitations. We are all to some degree degree unfree. The monotonous tasks we have to do everyday sap our mental and physical energy, yet the human body becomes more productive as its workload increases.
We often experience this when we have a project with an unrealistic deadline. We have far too much work to do and we know how long it will take to finish it, yet we still manage to finish it. This is known as Parkinson’s’ Law – the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. James illustrates this phenomena with an example,
“Country people and city people, as a class, illustrate this difference. The rapid rate of life, the number of decisions in an hour, the many things to keep account of, in a busy city man’s or woman’s life, seem monstrous to a country brother. He doesn’t see how we live at all. But settle him in town; and in a year or two, if not too old, he will have trained himself to keep the pace as well as any of us, getting more out of himself in any week than he did in ten weeks at home.”
Our environment greatly affects our energy. This is especially true in extraordinary circumstances – such as war or shipwreck. James writes a brief account of Colonel Baird-Smith, who led England’s defense in the six weeks’ siege of Delhi in 1857. Baird-Smith was on the verge of death from disease and injury but drew on extraordinary stores of energy with the aid of brandy and opium.
A New Self-Image
The excitement of the situation led Baird-Smith to “work with a clearer intellect and stronger nerves than ever before in his life.” James believed this case to be humanly typical, “It is notorious that a single successful effort of moral volition, such as saying ‘no’ to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act, will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power.” Many people would say this as developing will power, grit, or momentum towards achieving goals. The reality is that the change is far deeper, and it is a re-conceptualization of the self-image. Something was holding a person back, say a bad habit of smoking cigarette. The person frees themselves from this vice and they realize they can achieve things that they previously believed were within their limits.
They need to formulate a new self-image because they can no longer see themselves as the person with the cigarette addiction. When they are forming this new sense of self they have broken through their biggest limitation so they no longer understand their own limitations.
James’ Yoga Friend
James later describes a friend who is, “an extraordinarily gifted man, both morally and intellectually, but has an unstable nervous system, and for many years has lived in the circular process of alternate lethargy and over-animation: something like three weeks of extreme activity, and then a week of prostration in bed.” His friend only cured these ills with an intensive yoga practice involving months of entire days of practice. James wrote to his friend saying he believed these were his way of “breaking through the barriers which life’s routine had concreted round the deep strata of the will, and gradually bringing its unused energies into action.” His friend replied:,
“You are quite right that the Yoga exercises are nothing else than a methodical way of increasing our will. Because we are unable to will at once the most difficult things, we must imagine steps leading to them. Breathing being the easiest of the bodily activities, it is very natural that it offers a good scope for exercise of will. Then control of though could be gained without breathing-discipline, but it is simply easier to control thought simultaneously with the control of breath. Anyone who can think clearly and persistently of one thing needs not breathing exercises. You are quite right that we are not using all our power and that we often learn we can, only when we must.” We often learn we can, only when we must – this is incredibly true and it explains why some people never achieve greatness until they have hit rock bottom. It is easier to be broken and comeback to achieve something unbelievable, than for someone in a comfortable state to achieve something great.
This affirms William James’s original thesis, “The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possess powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in coordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of a hysteric subject- but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit – the habit of inferiority of our full self – that is bad.”
This habit of inferiority of our full self. That is one of the best conceptualizations of how we usually feel. We can do more but simply need to break out of homeostasis. We know we can achieve more, but need to discover the right way to achieve our full self.
The Energies of Men by William James
Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz (The best book on self-image psychology)