Secondary Stressors and Tactile Ambition

by lionhearted4 min read13th Jul 201816 comments



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.