The Case for Friction

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When it comes to physical fitness, we readily accept that being uncomfortable is what makes us grow. (Hence why it’s called resistance training.) A hard workout is full of friction. It burns. It’s uncomfortable. It’s also where we learn who we are and the limits of our abilities. It’s how we get stronger. But when it comes to creating an identity or developing personal taste, we can be underestimate the importance of friction, particularly when the conveniences of modern life make it easier than ever to engineer resistance out of our lives.

In a productive four-year stretch from 1990 to 1994, the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge completed the first-ever unsupported walks to the North and South Poles, and summited Mount Everest. (This is known as the “Three Poles Challenge” and Kagge was the first person to do it on foot.) He wrote about his experience in his 2018 book Walking: One Step at a Time, a slim but mighty celebration of the art of walking and what it stood for: moving slowly and thoughtfully in an age or convenience, speed, and efficiency. I interviewed him around that time, while I was working at GQ, and asked what he saw as the negative consequences of rushing.

“I am 56 years old, and when you start to go to 60th, 70th, 80th birthdays, people talk about life being too short,” he said, over a coffee. “That’s their favorite subject. When you’re walking, the slowness somehow expands time. Speed collapses time. So if you walk towards a mountain, you can see it getting closer. You can smell the smells. You hear things and see how everything is changing.”

“Take New York, for instance,” he continued. “People always believe they save time by taking a taxi. Let’s say you take a taxi and it takes 10 minutes when walking would take 20. Mathematically, you save 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes in a taxi, you didn’t experience anything. If you walk in New York, nothing great is going to happen, necessarily, but something is going to happen. That makes those 20 minutes so much more rich than the 10 minutes in the taxi. So I’m not walking because I think it’s better than driving. I’m walking because life is getting a little bit richer than if you drive.”

I’ve been thinking of this because of another, more recent conversation: the one I had with Kyle Chayka, who is today’s guest on the Growth Equation’s podcast ​FAREWELL​.

On the surface, Chayka and Kagge don’t have much in common. Chayka is a writer whose latest book, Filterworld: How Alrgorithms Flattened Culture, is an examination of how algorithmic recommendations have homogenized taste and identity. You don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out what you like—you can just passively consume whatever the algorithm determines to be most personally stimulating and engaging to you. Towards the end of his book, Chayka sums up one of the trade-offs of living in Filterworld: “What we gain in acceleration—ever more content, ever faster—we lose in individuality and texture.”

When I read this, I realized the striking parallel between Chayka and Kagge. (What is 20 minutes of New York City walking if not texture?) Ultimately, they’re both coming at the same idea from different angles: the importance of building friction into our lives.

“Throughout the day, you have to choose between the easiest option and more difficult options,” Kagge said, at another point in our conversation. “I look at my own life and the happiest I’ve been is when I have chose the most difficult options. That’s kind of the meaning of life: to feel your own potential. To do that, you have to get out of your comfort zone.”

As Chayka points out in today’s conversation, the entire ethos of the Filterworld is to keep us in our comfort zone, to make us so comfortable—so stimulated, so engaged—that we never get off of the Internet. That type of algorithmic engineering often keeps us from engaging with art, opinions, or culture that makes us uncomfortable and challenges us—or going down rabbit holes of things we do like.

Chayka says it makes us “less interested in exploring the weirdness of our own taste.” If we don’t do the hard work of figuring out our own taste, we can’t really know what we like or don’t like, or who we even are. We can lack an identity, or not know our core values—both of which the Internet will gladly provide for us, coaxing us into liking or believing something that may or may not even align with who we really are.

My conversation with Kyle made me think that we need to start thinking about building our identity in the same way we think about building our physical fitness. It requires doing the hard work of running into resistance. If I’ve learned anything over the first ​41 episodes of FAREWELL​, it’s that some of the most elite athletes in the world achieve success not just because of their physical abilities, but because they combine that fitness with knowing who they are.

It’s what allows ultrarunner ​Courtney Dauwalter​ to go into her “filing cabinet” of problem-solving tools when she finds herself in a pain cave during a 100-mile race. She knows who she is and what she can do. It’s what allows Olympic gold medalist and decathlete ​Damian Warner​ to take long, healthy recoveries after his competition without fear of losing his competitive edge. He knows who he is and is securely attached to his abilities. It’s what gave triathlete ​Chelsea Sodaro ​the confidence to become Ironman World Champion just fives years after trying the sport for the first time.

There’s a reason that “know thyself” is one of the fundamental tenets of so many philosophies. It’s central to everything we do, whether we want to walk to both poles or simply avoid being sucked into watching an algorithmic-recommended YouTube clip. And yet, it’s easier than ever to avoid the hard work of doing it.

​Clay

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