Means Never Feeling Tired
fatigue is an early-warning system: something is
wrong. It can be cured -- but not by
By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
Failure is probably the most fatiguing
experience a person ever has. There is nothing more
enervating than not succeeding -- being blocked,
not moving ahead. It is a vicious circle. Failure
breeds fatigue, and the fatigue makes it harder to
get to work, which, compounds the failure.
We experience this tiredness in two main ways:
as start-up fatigue and performance fatigue. In the
former case, we keep putting off a task that we are
under some compulsion to discharge, either because
it is too tedious or too difficult, we shirk it.
And the longer we postpone it, the more tired we
Such start-up fatigue is very real, even if not
actually physical, not something in our muscles and
bones. The remedy is obvious, though perhaps not
easy to apply: an exertion of willpower. The moment
I find myself turning away from a job, or putting
it under a pile of other things I have to do, I
clear my desk of everything else and attack the
objectionable item first. To prevent start-up
fatigue, always tackle the most difficult job
Years ago, when editing Great Books of the
Western World, I undertook to write 102 essays
[The Syntopicon], one on each of the
great ideas discussed by the authors of those
books. The writing took me two years, working at it
-- among my other tasks -- seven days a week. I
would never have finished if I had allowed myself
to write first about the ideas I found easiest to
expound. Applying my own rule, I determined to
write the essays in strict alphabetical order, from
ANGEL, to WORLD, never letting myself skip a tough
idea. And I always started the day's work with the
difficult task of essay-writing. Experience proved
once again, that the rule works.
Performance fatigue is more difficult to handle.
Here we are not reluctant to get started, but we
cannot seem to do the job right. Its difficulties
appear insurmountable and, however hard we work, we
fail again and again. That mounting experience of
failure carries with it an ever-increasing burden
of mental fatigue. In such a situation, I work as
hard as I can -- then let the unconscious take
When I was planning the 15th edition of
Encyclopaedia Britannica, I had to create a
topical table of contents for its alphabetically
arranged articles. Nothing like this had ever been
done before, and day after day I kept coming up
with solutions that fell short. My fatigue became
One day, mentally exhausted, I put down on paper
all the reasons why this problem could not
be solved. I tried to convince myself that what
appeared insoluble really was insoluble,
that the trouble was with the problem, not me.
Having gained some relief, I sat back in an easy
chair and went to sleep.
An hour or so later, I woke up suddenly with the
solution clearly in mind. In the weeks that
followed, the correctness of the solution summoned
up by my unconscious mind was confirmed at every
step. Though I worked every bit as hard, if not
harder, than before, my work was not attended by
any weariness or fatigue. Success was now as
exhilarating as failure had been depressing. I was
experiencing the joy of what psychologists
today call "flow." Life offers few pleasures more
invigorating than the successful exercise of our
faculties. It unleashes energies for additional
Sometimes the snare is not in the problem
itself, but in the social situation -- or so it
appears. Other people somehow seem to prevent us
from succeeding. But, as Shakespeare wrote, "The
fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in
ourselves." Why blame other people and shrug off
our own responsibility for misunderstandings? Doing
a job successfully means doing whatever is
necessary&emdash;and that includes winning
the cooperation of others.
More often, the snare that blocks us is purely
personal. Subject to human distractions, we let
personal problems weigh on us, producing a
fatigue-failure that blocks our productivity in
A friend of mine went into a decline over a
family problem that she had let slide. Her daughter
had secretly married a man she thought her father
would disapprove of. The daughter told her mother
but made her promise to keep silent. Worrying about
the problem, and carrying a burden of guilt over
the secrecy exhausted the other. Her fatigue
spilled over into her job and turned her usual
successes there into failures. She was saved from
serious depression only when other people
intervened and told the father -- who didn't
display any of the anticipated negative reaction.
It seems incredible that a person can allow his or
her life to get snarled up in this fashion, but
that is how problems can fester if they aren't
solved as they come along.
So, our first step should be to use inexplicable
fatigue that has no physical base as a radar -- an
early-warning system -- and trace the fatigue to
its source; to find the defeat we are papering over
and not admitting. Then we must diagnose the cause
of this failure. In rare cases, it may be that the
task really is too difficult for us, that we are in
over our head. If so, we can acknowledge the fact
and bow out. Or the block may simply be in refusing
to confront the problem. In most cases, it can be
solved by patient attention to the task at hand --
with all the skill and resolution we can muster.
That, plus the inspired help of the
I have already given an example of one way of
achieving a breakthrough. First, put down all the
reasons why the problem is insoluble. Try to box
yourself in, like Houdini, so no escape appears
possible. Only then, like Houdini, can you break
out. Having tied yourself up in knots, stop
thinking consciously about the problem for a while.
Let your unconscious work on untying the knots.
Nine times out of ten, it will come up with a
The worst mistake we can make is to regard
mental fatigue as if it were physical fatigue. We
can recuperate from the latter by giving our bodies
a chance to rest. But mental fatigue that results
from failure cannot be removed by giving in to it
and taking a rest. That just makes matters worse.
Whatever the specific stumbling, block is, it must
be cleared up, and fast, before the fatigue of
failure swamps us.
Human beings, I believe, must try to succeed.
This necessity is built into our biological
background. Without trying to define success, it's
enough to say that it is related to continuous peak
performance, to doing tasks and solving problems as
they come along. It is experiencing the exuberance,
the joy, the "flow" that goes with the unimpeded
exercise of ones human capabilities.
Success, then, means never feeling
Originally published in
Reader's Digest, March 1979.
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