Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl recounts the story of one of his patients who was asked to be in a play for his junior high school class. This patient, a stutterer, was given the perfect role: a character who stuttered. However, they soon realized there was a problem. When the student went on stage to practice his lines, he found himself completely unable to stutter! He had to be replaced by another student.
In daily life, the student was self-conscious about his speech impediment, trying his best not to stutter. This had the opposite effect and only worsened his stutter. But when he actually tried to stutter — when he reversed his intention — he just couldn’t do it. As a result, he’d indirectly found a cure for his stuttering.
The paradox of intention = reaching our goals by giving up the attempt to reach them. This theme pops up in our lives all the time. When we over-think, grasp, cling, over-analyze, crave, control, fear, and worry, we rarely achieve our goals. But when we give up our attempt to reach our goals, however small or large, the pieces often fall into place.
A classic example. You’re trying hard to remember a name. You start going through the letters of the alphabet to see if this jogs your memory. To no avail. Hours later on a run to the grocery store, the name pops into your head. Forget about the goal and it’s yours.
Or when you’re driving and hit a patch of ice. The worst thing to do is slam on the brakes and steer in the opposite direction. The best approach is to lightly apply the brakes and ‘turn into the slide.’ Release of effort, not more control, is the solution.
In my own life, the business I started last year was moving at a snail’s pace. I was trying hard, but with few results. After getting burnt out and taking a break for 6 weeks, I realized the answer had been hiding in plain sight. We pivoted and revenue has been growing steadily. I had to step back, not push forward.
This paradox is all around us, from our relationships to our work, and has been called by different names: Salvation by relaxation, the backwards law, inversion of intention, the law of the reversal of effort, dereflection, acceptance, obliquity, and letting go. A few instances that come to mind:
In Life: The Stoics believed that attempts at achieving happiness through wealth and security were futile. A reversal of fear comes through accepting the worst case, not fighting against it. To overcome embarrassment, wear a silly hat for a week; to overcome financial insecurity, eat frugally and sleep on the floor. You’ll realize the worst case ain’t so bad. “We must abstain from the will to get, and not attempt any of those things which are not in our power.” — Epictetus
In Psychology: If ‘hyper reflection’ is the problem, ‘dereflection’ is the solution. A patient with OCD obsessively checked her door 20 times a day to see if it was open. She was invited to wish for her feared compulsion — to imagine that the door was open. ‘Screw it, let the thieves steal all my stuff!’ When fear was willed, the obsession disappeared.
In Your Relationship. The more you try to be liked, the harder it becomes. Fitting the imagine of a ‘likeable person’ creates a barrier to authentic connection. Roger Dawson, author of Secrets of Power Negotiation, talks about embracing “Walk-Away Power.” You can apply this to relationships — platonic, romantic, familial, and professional. The more you need a relationship at all costs, the more likely you are to overextend and become inauthentic and clingy. The foundation of an authentic relationship is, paradoxically, being willing to walk away.
At Work: When Netflix announced their unlimited vacation policy, many feared that employees would abuse the system and take half the year off to sip piña coladas in the Cayman Islands. The opposite happened. Employees acted like responsible adults, took a reasonable amount of time off, and productivity increased. Now lots of companies are following their lead. Reducing the effort of micromanaging vacation time and loosening control of a process brought good results.
On Your Deathbed: Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross observes that dying patients who ‘struggle and fight to the end’ may seem strong-willed, but make it hard to reach a place of peace and dignity. Inadvertently, their resistance makes them harder to treat. Patients who accept their reality can then turn their energy to helping physicians fight to keep them alive. Paradoxically, accepting your death may increase your chance of survival.
A lot of things in life undoubtedly take a great deal of effort. You can’t just forget about em’ and wait for the stars to align. But the common theme here is not being constantly stressed about the outcome — which is when we usually overexert ourselves. A Japanese motorcycle assembly manual puts it this way: “Before assembling the motorcycle, obtain peace of mind.” Now replace ‘motorcycle’ with business, relationship, or anything else that requires effort.
Next time you’re grappling with a problem at work or in personal life, ask yourself whether trying harder is really the solution. What if you let go and took a step back for a while? What if what’s ‘right’ for us is what comes naturally to us, not what takes a great deal of effort? And lastly, what if you did what you had to do, but stopped caring about the outcome?