Secondary Stressors and Tactile Ambition

I’m con­stantly on the look­out for words and phrases that map well to re­al­ity.

If you study his­tory and if you study lan­guage, even just a lit­tle bit, you wind up re­al­iz­ing that for most of his­tory, there was of­ten a dis­tinct lack of words and phrases cru­cial to un­der­stand re­al­ity.

I’m not just talk­ing about tech­ni­cal terms — ob­vi­ously we didn’t know about “DNA” be­fore its dis­cov­ery and cod­ifi­ca­tion from 1869-1953.

No, it’s easy to un­der­stand how sci­en­tific con­cepts were miss­ing from our vo­cab­u­lary be­fore the rele­vant dis­cov­er­ies. Rather, what I’m on the look­out for are con­cepts that map well to hu­man na­ture and how in­di­vi­d­u­als and groups of peo­ple in­ter­act with each other — things which are real but which lack pre­cise word­ing around them, thus mak­ing them harder to think about and talk about.

The mod­ern us­age of the word pro­pa­ganda dates only to the late-1700s, and only truly hit its mod­ern form of the word in the 1920s. Of course, there’s likely been at least sim­ple pro­pa­ganda since the dawn of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion, but we didn’t have a sim­ple word for it.

Per­haps even more sur­pris­ingly, the word “cre­ativity” — as a uni­ver­sal, non-do­main-spe­cific word — seems to be less than a cou­ple hun­dred years old.

When you start look­ing into the sub­ject, you re­al­ize there’s lots of con­cepts that don’t have good words or phrases to eas­ily mark them and dis­cuss them in con­ver­sa­tion. I’m always on the hunt for them.

Re­cently I came across two you might find valuable.

“Se­condary Stres­sors”: Lately I’ve been read­ing and study­ing the na­ture of ad­dic­tion and treat­ment. Y’know, I’m always study­ing and I’m very in­ter­ested in why peo­ple do cer­tain things con­stantly and near-au­to­mat­i­cally — if we can dial our de­fault be­hav­ior to be­ing healthy and life-af­firm­ing, we live bet­ter lives. Like­wise, I’ve been try­ing to tease apart why cer­tain nega­tive and detri­men­tal sorts of be­hav­iors ei­ther hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally with­out think­ing or seem gen­er­ate a lot of im­pe­tus (in­ci­den­tally, “im­pe­tus” is an­other great word we use a lot in my so­cial cir­cle).

In study­ing ad­dic­tion some — no­tably, in study­ing it in re­gards to things I’m not ad­dicted to at all which are merely cu­ri­ous sources of data for me — I saw a cer­tain theme emerge in books and ar­ti­cles on the topic.

A lot of be­hav­iors or goals wind up be­ing stres­sors — take run­ning, for in­stance. It gen­er­ates, liter­ally, stress on the body. This doesn’t mean it’s “bad stress” or “good stress” — run­ning is sim­ply a stres­sor, in a value-neu­tral sense.

Study­ing the topic some, it seems like a lot of worth­while hu­man en­deav­ors in­volve stres­sors. Cer­tainly, go­ing from un­trained in phys­i­cal fit­ness to train­ing in a do­main in­volves stres­sors. Run­ning a caloric deficit for fat loss, also a stres­sor. Fac­ing failures in the course of do­ing new things in in­vent­ing, en­trepreneur­ship, or skill de­vel­op­ment — stres­sors.

Fine, that’s clear enough.

In read­ing about ad­dic­tion some — and how peo­ple get over it — I came to see a pat­tern where ad­dicts who re­lapse seem to face not just the pri­mary stres­sors of with­drawal effects or hard­ship around be­hav­ior change, but they also seem to gen­er­ate sec­ondary stres­sors in their own mind.

Say you’re quit­ting al­co­hol and fac­ing some chem­i­cal and psy­cholog­i­cal with­drawal. Those are stres­sors.

Ad­dicts who re­lapse and fail to quit seem to also gen­er­ate ad­di­tional dis­tress for them­selves in how they think about the topic. Their thoughts seem to go to places like, “Can I re­ally do this for­ever? What about next time I go to a party? Are my friends not go­ing to want to hang out with me any more? I’ve failed when I’ve tried to quit in the past, what if I fail again? That’d feel so ter­rible, I don’t want to fail, and...”

Chem­i­cal with­drawal is re­ally a thing; if you’ve been us­ing chem­i­cally-ad­dic­tive sub­stances that you now feel are hurt­ing you, you’ll likely face chem­i­cal with­drawal when you quit, and it’ll be un­pleas­ant.

But when you start lay­er­ing on sec­ondary stres­sors in your own mind, things get much, much harder.

Rele­vant scene from liter­a­ture


Then is dooms­day near: but your news is not true. Let me ques­tion more in par­tic­u­lar: what have you, my good friends, de­served at the hands of for­tune, that she sends you to prison hither?


Pri­son, my lord!


Den­mark’s a prison.


Then is the world one.


A goodly one; in which there are many con­fines, wards and dun­geons, Den­mark be­ing one o’ the worst.


We think not so, my lord.


Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is noth­ing ei­ther good or bad, but think­ing makes it so: to me it is a prison.”

There was, of course, the va­ri­ety of un­pleas­ant things in Den­mark to Prince Ham­let (stres­sors). But he makes them worse in his own mind (sec­ondary stres­sors). Shake­speare seemed to un­der­stand the con­cept of sec­ondary stres­sors — but he didn’t have a spe­cific word for it.

Im­pli­ca­tion: Life has stres­sors. Cer­tain goals re­quire them. Ideally you no­tice when you’re gen­er­at­ing ad­di­tional dis­tress in your own mind (sec­ondary stres­sors). Ideally you stop do­ing that. This prob­a­bly takes a lot of prac­tice and rep­e­ti­tion to get right.

“Tac­tile Am­bi­tion”: A shorter en­try; an­other con­cept I’m think­ing about lately.

We’ve got a sin­gle word “am­bi­tion” that’s quite a use­ful word. We all know roughly what it means.

But it oc­curs to me that there’s a dis­tinc­tion be­tween ab­stract am­bi­tion — want­ing to do, have, or be spe­cific things in the world in a broad sense — and tac­tile am­bi­tion, where you want very spe­cific things very much.

Con­sider some­one who “wants to change the world” — this is of­ten the ab­stract sort of am­bi­tion.

Now con­sider a teenager who re­ally wants to make some pocket money, so they ag­gres­sively look to ar­bi­trage buy­ing stuff at lo­cal auc­tions that are un­der­priced and putting it on Ebay. Every day they scout around for stuff to buy and sell, and try to dress up all their sales list­ings to sound great and sell well. The teenager in this case re­ally wants to make some cash from those sales.

This is tac­tile am­bi­tion.

Ab­stract am­bi­tion is fine — it’s prob­a­bly a pre­cur­sor to a lot of worth­while things — but you can see how hav­ing a tac­tile am­bi­tion re­sults in very differ­ent ac­tions than ab­stract am­bi­tion. If some­one in­ter­ested in poli­tics goes out to or­ga­nize get-out-the-vote events and re­ally hungers greatly for the next phonecall, the next door to knock on, the next com­mit­ment made from a voter to go out and vote for their can­di­date — this is a very differ­ent, very di­rect, very tac­tile am­bi­tion as com­pared to an ab­stract am­bi­tion to “make a differ­ence” or some such.

This strikes me as true across very many do­mains — an ab­stract am­bi­tion to be fit com­pared to a tac­tile am­bi­tion to break one’s most re­cent per­sonal record in the gym, an ab­stract am­bi­tion to be wealthy com­pared to some­thing like Mr. Money Mus­tache’s tac­tile am­bi­tion to eat well at the low­est pos­si­ble cost for food; an ab­stract am­bi­tion to build a great com­pany com­pared a tac­tile am­bi­tion to close sales; an ab­stract am­bi­tion to be a writer as com­pared to a tac­tile am­bi­tion to pour words onto the page each morn­ing.

Im­pli­ca­tion: I think ab­stract am­bi­tion has its place in the world — in its best var­i­ant, it prob­a­bly primes you to think and search for op­por­tu­ni­ties and bet­ter ways of do­ing things. But at its worst, it winds up be­ing use­less fan­ta­siz­ing. Build­ing a gen­uine hunger and yearn­ing to­wards tac­tile am­bi­tions that cor­re­spond with any given larger ab­stract am­bi­tion seems worth­while.

To re­cap,

Per­son­ally, I find it very valuable to search out good words and phrases that map to re­al­ity where the con­cep­tual map was hazy be­fore. I reckon sec­ondary stres­sors and tac­tile am­bi­tion are both valuable con­cepts.

Se­condary Stres­sors: Re­spond­ing to po­ten­tial pri­mary stres­sors in an un­helpful way men­tally that leads to un­nec­es­sary sec­ondary stress. Ver­dict: Stop do­ing that.

Tac­tile Am­bi­tion: Be­ing am­bi­tious and hun­ger­ing for the com­ple­tion of very spe­cific ac­tions and goals in the ser­vice of larger or more ab­stract am­bi­tions. Ver­dict: Care­fully cho­sen, more of that would be good.