How Much Stress Do You Need for Success?

A lot of anxiety in life is both unwanted and involuntary.

Often when I have an early morning flight, I can’t sleep deeply. The worry about sleeping through my alarm clock has me waking up involuntarily, every hour or so. Even when I should have enough sleep to feel rested, I wake up groggy.

I try to tell myself that the alarm clock will go off, I’ve never slept through it before, so get some high-quality sleep now before you can’t on a big flight. But somehow that line of reasoning rarely changes anything.

Anxiety doesn’t even have to be about a specific problem. I sometimes worry about being wrong in my writing. Advocating something which I later discover is wrong, or actually harmful. Perhaps even being called out by a higher source of expertise for charlatanism because I could have known better had I only done my research correctly.

I can tell myself that what matters isn’t being perfect about picking the right ideas to believe in, but being willing to change them in the face of new evidence. I can also persuade myself having higher sources of expertise disagree with you, or even being wrong about some things are unavoidable, and what matters is doing one’s best.

Sometimes recognizing an emotion’s irrationality isn’t enough to eliminate it. That’s an obvious reality, and if you suffer from unwanted anxiety in your life, there are probably some good methods to handle that.

However, despite the prevalence of involuntary anxiety, I think there’s also a great deal of voluntary stress we inflict upon ourselves. Anxiety that comes, not because we can’t help feeling worried, but because we believe we should feel stress.

When Should You Be Stressed?

An example for you might be school. You get stressed around exam time because you feel the pressure to pass your exams, but worry you might not be able to. This may arise automatically from the environment.

But then that feeling gets compounded because it also includes a belief that says, “I should be stressed prior to my exams. People who don’t feel stress during exams, get lazy, don’t study, fail, drop out of school, can’t find work and end up living on the streets, etc.”

Well maybe it doesn’t go that far. But there may be this implicit assumption that “not feeling stressed” = “undesirable life outcomes you want to avoid”. Therefore it’s not merely that you get stressed prior to your exams, but that any attempt to alleviate that anxiety would also be a bad idea because it would lead to these undesirable life outcomes.

I think it’s that additional belief, which states that the feeling of anxiety and stress is necessary or good which makes a lot of anxiety more intractable. After all, there are probably a lot of ways you can deal with mild involuntary anxiety, provided you don’t also believe that alleviating that pain is something unwise. Even if you do feel serious, uncontrollable anxiety, knowing it isn’t vital to your success as an individual may give you the power to seek out treatment.

Given this, how much anxiety and stress do you actually need?

Anxiety and the Tao

This has been a question on my mind a lot lately. I’ve started watching some of Alan Watts television series on Buddhism and Taoism. I’ve also rekindled my previous interest in those eastern philosophies, which I had read years ago but drifted away from in my recent fixation on a more scientific view of the world.

While I’m still a complete novice in these subjects, there seems to me to be a lot of good ideas related to this very question I’ve posed. Namely, that Buddhism suggests that much of our suffering in life is due to this kind of voluntary anxiety. Taoism, similarly, argues that there is a natural way of things and we should follow along this, rather than try to actively resist it.

Rereading a lot of this writing has made me reflect on this kind of voluntary anxiety and suggest that perhaps most, if not all of it, is unnecessary to live a successful life. I haven’t fully convinced myself of this conclusion yet, but I’d like to share it tentatively with you, if only to spark a discussion which can improve my thinking about it.

Is Stress Useful at All?

The strongest argument I can think of, for the beneficial nature of stress, is that we evolved it for a reason. If negative emotions had no practical significance, they would never have been designed under selection pressure in the first place.

This argument is one I think weights heavily against any idea that some subset of our natural functioning range of emotions and beliefs is either entirely escapable or harmful. Either the experience is an unavoidable side-effect of our proper functioning (say, cognitive biases), or the experience is helpful in some subsets of experience, so eliminating it would be maladaptive (say, negative emotional states).

But such a line of argument only suggests that a certain experience might be beneficial, in part. I don’t think it reasonably follows that the proportions in your life are necessarily correct. After all, we may recognize that anger or disgust have important functions (in preventing being taken advantage of, or engaging in activities that may make us sick), but that you can also feel these emotions too much, or in places where they aren’t useful.

Similarly, I think a lot of stress and anxiety in modern life isn’t strictly necessary. For one, we rarely face the life-or-death consequences that require an immediate fight-or-flight response. Second, because we can intelligently design systems to render stress unnecessary.

When is Stress Useful?

My sense is that stress is useful to prompt a specific action, to a specific threat, or to promote alertness during a brief period of danger. That’s it. Any stress which doesn’t facilitate these purposes is wasted and therefore any beliefs that stress is necessary must be limited to these contexts.

So take your final exam situation I mentioned previously. Here the stress can serve two purposes. First, it can prompt you to take action against a specific threat. In this case, the answer is obvious—studying—to prevent doing poorly on your exams. Once you feel this stress, momentarily, you should take action to create a specific studying plan and implement it. Stress beyond that point is wasted since you cannot do better than that.

Second, it can keep you alert in during a period of danger. But this function isn’t relevant for exams because they are known in advance. They won’t come jumping out of the bushes to maul you to death. So being in a constant state of alertness is wasteful. Indeed, it’s probably actively harmful since chronic stress worsens learning and memory.

Or consider my personal examples of stress. Worrying about my alarm clock is wasted effort. I’ve already taken action by setting my alarm and there is no continued environment of unforeseen danger. Worrying about being wrong is also wasted effort. Once I’ve taken what actions are within my power to prevent being willfully ignorant, there’s nothing more I can do. Having any continued stress won’t reduce even a tiny bit the chances of being wrong.

So this idea—that fear, stress or anxiety should create a specific prompt to action, or promote alertness in a period of danger—means that most stress isn’t helpful. You need just enough to encourage the necessary action and no more. Since periods of persistent danger are much rarer today than in our ancestral environment, persistent stress is most likely a harmful overreaction. Like an allergy reacting aggressively to a harmless substance, you may feel persistent stress to a situation where dangers are actually minimal.

I might even go further and say that, provided you have the decisiveness to take action immediately upon perceiving a problem, virtually any stress is unnecessary. This is one reason I advocate for productivity systems that allow you to capture and process tasks, so even if you can’t deal with something immediately, you can feel confident that it will be dealt with later. Systems like these can take the place of stress.

How Does This Belief Help?

Given that, in the specific cases, stress is usually unhelpful beyond some minimal threshold to take specific actions to specific threats, then it certainly reasons that being stressed as a person is generally unhelpful to being successful in life.

This then corresponds to a more generalized belief that many people hold. Namely, if they didn’t feel stress and anxiety, they’d end up being one of those foolish, incautious people for whom entirely avoidable misery befalls.

Instead, you could replace that belief with a different one. Namely, it’s possible to be successful as an individual with almost no stress. All that’s necessary is simply to take the correct action to the specific threats, and avoid putting yourself in genuinely dangerous situations for long periods of time.

This isn’t idle theorizing, I believe there’s good evidence that this is in fact the case for many successful people. Cal did great work in these two books, explaining the mysterious combination of extremely high achievement and low stress in students. I’ve personally known examples of low-stress, high-achievement individuals. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but the existence of low-stress, high-achievement people does put water on the theory that high stress is a prerequisite to accomplishment.

Now obviously having this belief isn’t enough. Anxieties in life can come involuntarily, and recognizing their irrationality may not be enough. But even mitigating the toxic belief structures that many of us hold which posits that frequent, persistent anxiety is useful, is an important first step.

What are your thoughts? This is an idea I’ve only recently been exploring, so I’m curious to see whether it lines up with your experience. Bonus points for anyone with good references to research that supports or contradicts my hypothesis!


How I’m Continuing to Learn (and Hopefully Master) Chinese

I spend a lot of time writing about learning in intense bursts. Part of that is for efficiency’s sake—doing a short project forces me to think hard about how to learn more efficiently. Part of that is that a short project is more interesting to write about.

But most learning doesn’t take place over an intense burst, rather through modest, sustained effort over time.

One year ago, I finished the year without English. Throughout the project I started learning four languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean. After the project finished, I was interested in maintaining all of the languages, using the method I described here.

Chinese was a language I was particularly interested in not only maintaining, but improving to a higher level. Both because of intrinsic interest and usefulness. My blog has a large number of Chinese readers, my book has been published in China and I live in Vancouver which has a large number of native Mandarin speakers.

My goal has been to take my intermediate level to an advanced level, albeit at a much slower pace than during my stay in China.

The Long Slog of Intermediacy

Going from zero to an intermediate level in a language is perfect for blogging. For one, it requires a lot less time than going from intermediate to advanced, so if you have the correct method it can make your progress seem almost unbelievable to people who are used to learning slowly in school.

Second, most people can’t judge your linguistic ability anyways. Non-native speakers are often impressed by the most rudimentary displays of the language. I’ve gotten stares of astonishment by saying something as simple as “Hello, where are you from?” in Chinese or Korean, even though that could be learned in just a few minutes of practice. Native speakers also similarly misjudge fluency if they don’t have an extended interaction with you. I’ve found native speakers tend to conflate decent pronunciation with fluency, especially if talking for short periods of time.

In reality, however, advanced levels of a language are important if you want to do more than travel.

Since I already have an audience in China, I’d love to be able to give presentations in Chinese on the subjects I write about, or even maintain a Chinese Weibo account (the Chinese version of Twitter). However, both of those things are still much above my level, even though I can have everyday conversations without too much difficulty now.

Once you learn the basics in a language, however, now you enter the domain of low-frequency words and expressions. Every new linguistic fact you learn has only a small amount of usefulness. While it may take a few thousand words and expressions to have basic conversations, it may take tens or hundreds of thousands to have the functional equivalence of a native speaker.

I talked about this fact with Olle Linge, of Hacking Chinese. I said that I had now entered the phase of my Chinese where I just had to keep adding more and more words to get better. He joked that this phase never ends. Indeed, intermediate and advanced levels of language learning are a long slog of asymptotically approaching complete knowledge.

How to Sustain a Background Habit of Improvement

These two constraints: that I’m no longer learning Chinese full-time and that I’m now in the phase of learning which has logarithmic gains, make for quite a different challenge than when I was in China. Instead of struggling with the intensity of learning a million new things at once, I’m faced with the challenge of not getting stuck at the same level.

The best method I’ve found for facing down these late-level learning challenges is to tackle smaller projects. If you define the project the right way, you should be able to see noticeable changes in your level of ability along some dimension. Then you just keep repeating until your overall ability rises up.

I’ve worked through several Chinese-related projects since I came back. None of them were very intense, usually requiring only couple hours per week. I did most of them sequentially, although because of review time, they overlap in the post-growth phase.

Here’s a short list of some mini-projects I worked on:

  1. Finishing Anki’s Mastering Chinese Characters. This series had flashcards for 2500 Chinese characters, including audio and full sentence examples. I prefer rich flashcard sets to more minimal varieties since seeing a character used in multiple contexts is better for learning than simply memorizing a shallow translation. When I left China I had finished six of the ten decks, so I spent another several months doing the remaining four. In total this is about 12,000 flashcards.
  2. Mandarin Companion Series Graded Readers. My time in China was heavily focused on speaking. Now that I’ve come back, and speaking opportunities are less frequent, I wanted to focus more on reading. I’m a big fan of extensive (as opposed to intensive) practice with a language, including reading, so this series was perfect since it was quite easy.
  3. Other Graded Readers. After I finished the beginner books, I moved onto this series of graded readers. This series is harder, and it presents short stories written by modern Chinese authors, offering a more interesting cultural and literary perspective while still being easier than native-level books.
  4. Chinese Meetup Group. Around once per week I go to a Vancouver-based Chinese meet-up group. The regulars to the group often have a Cantonese speaking background, so even when their Mandarin is weaker, their command of vocabulary is often much better than mine because of the shared Sinitic vocabulary. This has been good for extensive conversation practice, although I’ve maintained my speaking abilities less than improved them because I’m no longer in an immersive environment.
  5. Skritter handwriting review. I had started the very basics of learning to handwrite characters while in China, since it was necessary to pass the HSK 4. However, I didn’t maintain it and my handwriting ability went from minimal to non-existant a few months after China. I’ve restarted my Skritter reviews to catch up to my old position.
  6. Online Skype Sessions. I spend an hour per week on Skype with my Chinese tutor to continue improving, as with my other languages, to maintain my speaking ability. This has been a good complement to the Chinese meetup group.

The amount of projects here makes it look like I’m spending a lot more time on Chinese than I am in reality. In practice, my Chinese investment each week would be only several hours. More importantly, most of the time I am doing Chinese it is on things like Anki reviews or reading at a level below intensity, so I never have to push myself to study.

The nice thing about reaching an intermediate point in the language is that there are hopefully at least some resources that you can use which are not too difficult but also not too boring, and therefore you can practice the language like you practice your native language—without thinking about it being practice.

My Short-Term Plans

Short-term, meaning the next six to twelve months, I’d like to finish another half-dozen graded readers at an upper intermediate level. I’ve really appreciated the extensive reading approach, and the native material I do have access to is often readable, but only with heavy referencing in a dictionary which makes for an unpleasureable reading experience.

I’d also like to switch from reviewing to learning new handwriting. I want to be comfortable handwriting the 1000 most frequent characters, and I’d like to be able to write attractively without having the proportions and spacing look like my characters are written by a five year-old.

I also combined my programming and Chinese knowledge to build some new Anki decks that resemble the MCC decks I liked so much using ChinesePod’s extensive library automatically. I probably won’t use all of the ones I generated with this process (using the format I made, there would be over 30,000 cards generated!), but it’s still nice to have as a complement to extensive reading in order to systematically study words I don’t know.

My Long-Term Plans

I have a few long-term Chinese goals which reflect the end uses I’d like to get out of Chinese. Some of these are quite ambitious, so it will likely take at least ten years to reach them at my current pace, if I reach them at all.

First is being able to comfortably give presentations, write short articles and handle business in China. This requires not only a much more precise and expanded vocabulary than I currently possess, but also the ability to have native-level comprehension abilities. I did a book signing in China where I gave a presentation in Chinese, which went okay, but then question-and-answer came up and I was totally baffled—both in understanding the questions and in forming precise responses in Chinese.

Second is being able to read literature. I would love to be able to read classic literature as well, but I feel that being able to read Confucius or Laozi translated into modern Chinese will still be an important achievement. I believe Eastern culture and philosophy is an important perspective and while it is certainly possible to read those translations into English, some of the poetry of words is inevitably lost when you switch between languages. Since a lot of Eastern philosophy in religions like Zen or Taoism is more poetic than analytic, I have a desire to read it in a form closer to the original.

Finally I’d like to make the things I currently can do in Chinese to some extent—having conversations, writing and replying to emails in Chinese, dealing with the minutia of travel—a lot easier and smoother. Even if improving doesn’t grant me new abilities, but just makes existing ones more fluid, I’d like to continue the investment.

The Decision for Mastery

Obviously this post is about Chinese, and specifically my Chinese, but I believe these principles apply to anyone who wants to master anything. Set aside small projects. Use extensive practice as a background habit. Pick achievable short-term goals, but keep in mind big, long-term goals that remind you of what you’re putting in the effort for.

Learning something for the first time is mostly about overcoming frustration and obstacles to momentum. As a result, I like intensive, bold projects since they allow you to apply focus and willpower to defeat these temporary barriers.

Mastery, in contrast, is quite the opposite. It’s mostly about patience and steadily increasing challenges to avoid plateaus. It’s about being able to keep up the same pace for years, not just a few weeks. I’ve only just started down the second path, so it will be interesting to see what lies in the years ahead.