The Fear of Going Soft

One of my biggest fears about being a full-time writer is that I’ll become disconnected from the things I write about.

When I was in university, writing about learning and productivity was grounded in context. Being a full-time advice-giver is scary because you no longer have the day-to-day experience of the things you write about. This is a pretty common anxiety I’ve seen in my writer friends.

Evolutionary pressure is a powerful motivator. Ostriches still have feathers, but they’re fluffy and ineffectual for flight. Domesticated animals tend to be less intelligent than their wild counterparts. When you no longer need to survive on your wits, you no longer have them.

Success is great, but it can also breed a kind of weakness. Removed from struggle, uncertainty, fear and constraints, your beliefs and behaviors can become fluffy and ineffectual too.

I’ve seen many writers whose work I greatly admired when they started. It was clear, pragmatic and obviously relevant to the people who needed to hear it. Then they became successful, went full-time and now spout mostly half-baked nonsense. This isn’t something I’ve just witnessed once or twice, but a trend. Enough of a trend that I’m afraid of it myself.

Staying Tough

Going soft is, to a certain extent, impossible to avoid. As you earn more success, you want to enjoy the comfort those successes bring. I’ll probably never get back to the same mental state as when I was washing my laundry in a bathtub to save money, writing 10,000 words a week to scrape by on freelance income.

However, even if you can’t have the immunity of someone constantly exposed to the outside world, you can vaccinate yourself against the worst types of softness. Pursuing greater challenges keeps you focused. Temporarily revisiting earlier struggles reminds you of what you’re capable of.

The Stoic philosophers suggested that one should spend some time living in poverty, so as to not be afraid of losing wealth. The Stoics were aristocratic elites. They understood the danger of going soft from living too comfortably.

Immunization and Shedding

A small dose of a pathogen can be the cure. A small exposure to your fears can give you courage. If you worry about money—take a sabbatical to live in another country on just a few dollars a day. If you worry about loneliness—spend a month living alone in nature. If you worry about embarrassment—do improv and deliberately fail.

The other alternative is to push higher. Always have a bigger challenge on your plate than the last one. Shed your ambitions as you outgrow them and form larger ones.

The advantage of immunization is that it counteracts the hedonic treadmill. Reminding you of the difficulties below allows you to appreciate what you already have. Shedding old ambitions helps you reach higher heights, but it speeds up the treadmill, causing you to disregard past achievements in pursuit of bigger ones.

Why Try to Stay Tough?

Trying to stay tough is a problem of success. Ironically, even writing about this may mean I’m no longer as relevant as I once was. Most people are longing for the soft life, not worrying about what it might mean for them if they reach it.

If softness is unavoidable, why fight it? Why not just domesticate yourself and accept slower wits as the price for not having to live outdoors anymore?

Part of the fear is that going soft will undermine the success that created it. Human beings no longer have to put in strenuous labor for calories, so we get fat. We then go to gyms and spinning classes to recreate a bit of the toughness our ancestors faced, trying to stay healthy.

The other part of the fear is that we want to live at our sharpest and strongest, not the weakest our environment will allow. Even if getting used to modern luxuries isn’t unhealthy, it may leave us feeling we’re living below our potential.

  • KW Stout

    This is a great topic that I think many established bloggers don’t want to address. (Because they know they are guilty)

    I’ve experienced that feeling of letting off the gas and coasting when you finally reach a milestone. It feels nice at first, then it becomes a terrible feeling. The only way to keep myself hungry is to find new challenges that scare me, just as you mentioned.

    There is no fulfillment without struggle.

  • RT

    Great post Scott. As you get older you do find that you start to have the means to make life more comfortable, but then come the concerns you have put across so eloquently. Is this the price of success? I love it that you have also alluded to the Stoic response to such a concern.

  • Craige

    Deep and thought provoking. I admire your depth of analysis

  • Kelly

    I feel like you have more you want to say about this.

  • Kelly W

    Hello Scott,

    Good post. A couple of thoughts on things that jumped out at me.

    If wild animals are more intelligent than domesticated, then why aren’t humans as dumb as stumps? We haven’t had to truly work hard for our survival for quite some time. I realize that evolution doesn’t usually work this fast but there is some evidence that we are actually getting more intelligent from generation to generation (see James Flynn’s TED talk). At least something to ponder.

    The comment about “Human beings no longer have to put in strenuous labor for calories, so we get fat.” seems bang on to me (at least in many of today’s cultures), I am just not sure if the same logic extends to intelligence.

    I found this article interesting because it rings a certain cord with me…I have worked very hard in the past to achieve certain goals and now that I can relax more, I can feel this ‘softness’ you speak of 🙂

    P.S. It’s possible that our intelligence may seem to be increasing at a rapid rate, but it may also just be a by-product of Daniel Willinghams theory that “we learn things based on the context of what we already know” (cited from your previous article)…maybe this is cumulative for humans (to a certain degree) across generations, since one generation is teaching the next, we gain from their improved ability to effectively put things into context for us? Just a thought.

    P.P.S. ‘Softness’ may be indicated by the fact that you haven’t replied to any of your last few blog posts, or did I miss some replies? Cheap way to get you to reply to this one … feel free to shoot me down 😉

  • Terry

    Fortunately for you Scott, you seem to have sufficiently covered all the topics a student would want answers for. I personally believed that you had intentionally changed your target audience from students to motivated 22-35 year olds, since travel and language learning lays more in the interests of this age range than it does in the student age range. Travel takes sufficient financing and language acquisition takes immense time and motivation, two things that students often lack.

    Perhaps you have grown soft towards students as that phase of your life and career is over. Now is time to move on? I still love the blog.

  • mike

    Are you going out of business.

  • Drew

    I really enjoyed reading. Maybe the best thing is to have a mix of both. Constantly striving higher and taking yourself outside your reality once in awhile and making yourself uncomfortable to keep grounded.

  • Ilham

    @Kelly W.

    You seem convinced that humans live in a controlled environment (domesticated). Yet by all indications we are not even a Class 1 civilization. Such a civilization would truly be domesticated in the sense that its home planet would/could be influenced by the sentient race living on it.

    In others words, we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the earth’s movements, we also can’t capture renewable sources of energy efficiently. So to say that humans have become soft/domesticated is a huge understatement.

    True, some humans have, I’d even guess that a large majority who live in a developed society. But at the same time, a large portion of that society also is aware of all our troubles and thus is constantly forcing itself to think up larger and more effective means of sustaining this planet. So perhaps our bodies have gotten soft but not the brains of thinkers.

    Also you have to remember, evolutionarily speaking, the thing that sets us apart from other living things on Earth is our brain/mind. As a species we have developed technology which itself is subject to exponential forces. We develop new technologies to bring back planetary homeostasis or at least societal. Larger earthquakes? No problem, in time we’ll develop stronger material to build structures with. Too much data to crunch, we’ll develop better algorithms and computational structures to deal with it.

  • David D

    Nice post. Perhaps you need to get on with your next challenge to stay battle ready.

    As one whom is headed into academia, many tenured professors fall into the “soft” category. I hope to avoid this trap. But, as you and others have said, some softness is okay.

    Like you, I tend to take on long term challenges. One completed there is a down time where I recoup, catch up with all the little things I put off during this time period, and start to dream of the next challenge. These cycles seem natural to me.

  • Sometimes newbies make better teachers than experts. Great advice for anyone who’s afraid they lack the experience to teach others. Great article Scott. Thanks

  • Lennon Richardson

    Sometimes newbies make better teachers than experts. Great advice for anyone who’s afraid they lack the experience to teach others. Great article Scott. Thanks