“Cowardice… is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend functioning of the imagination.”
“That vice has often proved an emancipator of the mind, is one of the most humiliating, but, at the same time, one of the most unquestionable facts in history.”
“Yipee ki-yay, motherf***er.”
-Detective Lieutenant John McClane
There came a time in my life when I decided to dedicate myself to being as honest as possible.
I’d noticed that relationships seemed to flourish when nourished by transparency, and that it felt good to practice a kind of crisp integrity between thought and speech. So I made deep honesty a personal commitment. And almost as soon as I did, a very strange habit emerged.
This habit was going silent, over email or text, with specific people for months at a time. Eventually I would reach back out and apologize, but would then almost inevitably do the same thing all over again. This seemed odd to me. It seemed particularly odd that it emerged as a habit directly after committing to deep honesty.
But on reflection, it made a lot of sense.
In almost all of these scenarios, I had some difficult communication to make—usually some sort of rejection. (“No I do not want to get coffee this week.”) If some level of gentle dishonesty is permitted, then providing the soft cushion of a white-lie excuse for rejecting someone is incredibly easy. “Sorry, am super busy this week”; “You seem really awesome, but I don’t have space in my client roster right now.”
But if you commit to communicating with total honesty, the possibilities you’re left with don’t seem particularly great. What are you supposed to say—“Sorry, I would rather read a book on Wednesday evening than spend time with you”? Tact is an important value—it’s an expression of care—and it’s not self-evident that total transparency outranks it.
So as long as we deal with human beings, we find ourselves in this situation: tact is important, but taken to an extreme is lying, and committing to honesty alongside tact doesn’t actually solve the problem, because tact plus honesty can just equal disappearing.
A third ingredient beyond honesty and tact is necessary. Or, maybe more accurately: honesty is not simply “not lying.” In fact, the root of the thing we call “honesty” has very little to do directly with not lying. It has much more to do with ultra-marathons, vikings, and Bruce Willis.
A fighter wins by attacking and defending successfully.
Attacking is accomplished by extending yourself, and defending by keeping your body compact.
In very concrete terms: you punch by moving your hand away from your face, but you protect against a punch by holding your hand at your face. And so every martial artist faces this problem: You must attack well and defend well, and the conditions of attack and defense are mutually exclusive. This problem will never be defeated. A novice sparring for the first time and a professional fighter face it just as intensely. On a certain level the thing that separates an expert from an amateur—in fighting, or any other domain—is simply the amount they have dialogued with that domain’s impossible problems.
The dialogue looks something like this:
1. You face an impossible problem;
2. You are forced to find a workable solution to that problem in action;
3. The problem retorts by showing your solution’s incompleteness;
4. You answer that retort.
And this process goes on, forever. Concretely—in the early stages of boxing—this looks like:
Every time you throw a jab you get punched in the face.
(Because as soon as your hand leaves your chin it’s no longer protecting you.)
So you learn to raise your lead shoulder when throwing a jab, so that your chin on that side is still protected when your hand extends.
Awesome. Now you’re safe. So you throw a jab, knowing that your whole chin is fully protected.
You are now hit with a counterpunch directly in the spleen, because jabbing has raised your elbow and basically your entire abdomen is now exposed.
And so on.
All skill development is a kind of dialogic process like this one, resulting in ever-greater refinement of understanding, driven by the relentless permanence of at least one problem at the skill’s core.
This means that every expert—from Mike Tyson to Jacqueline DuPre—is a kind of philosopher. They have dialogued with the essence of their domain for long enough to understand it deeply, and the depth of that understanding is proven through their unparalleled performance.
In summary: skill is philosophical in nature, so mastery consists of domain-specific philosophical nuance developed through dialogue with the essence of a craft.
Or, maybe that’s an incredibly unhelpful way to approach life.
Maybe all that’s needed to win fights is to train harder than everyone else, and all that’s needed to win ultra-marathons is to never stop no matter how much it hurts.
Perhaps all that’s needed to create a happy marriage is to love and cherish your spouse relentlessly, and all that’s needed to succeed in business is to talk to enough people and get rejected enough times. David Goggins broke the world record for most pullups done in 24 hours, and his entire strategy consisted of “do things I don’t want to do.”
This “Just Do It” model of reality might be true. It might even be truer than the whole philosophical model mapped out above.
Because if you approach a discipline as a fundamentally philosophical experience—one where success results from developing understanding, refinement, optimization, subtlety, and skillful nuance—you will almost necessarily neglect a fundamental aspect of the human soul.
Namely: its strength.
Strength of soul is the thing responsible for courage, endurance, relentlessness, and grit. It is the ability to choose what is better over what is easier. And, unfortunately for the more cognitively inclined humans, it is not an analytical matter.
The main opponent—as well as the primary complement—of soul-strength is craft.
Craft is the aspect of the soul connected with analysis, technique, philosophy and system-refinement.
It is also connected to short-cuts and avoidance, and is naturally associated with both laziness and cowardice.
If you were to split these two elements (soul-strength and craft) apart and represent each as a human being, they would look something like this:
One is strong, diligent, courageous, common-sensical, honest;
The other is intelligent, thoughtfully nuanced, prudent, tactful, and gracious.
Or, you might describe them equally accurately like this:
One is foolish, simplistic, angry, energy-wasting, dogmatic, and tactless;
The other is lazy, cowardly, deceitful, two-faced, manipulative and weak.
And the very tricky question is:
Which would you rather be?
The English language carries beautiful expressions of both these elements of the human soul. It’s made primarily of a combination of short, rough Germanic words and almost algorithmically constructed, multisyllabic Latinate ones.
A: “Questionable with a view to the contemporarily prevalent paradigms of morality”
We can all feel the difference between these terms, and between the different people who would be more likely to use each.
And, at the same time—there is no English writer who could simply choose between the two main flavors of the language, any more than a spouse could choose to be married to only one of their partner’s parentally inherited personalities. Jane Austen can’t avoid using Germanic terms any more than Hemingway can avoid Latinate ones.
Nor would either of them want to, because they’re both world-class artists. It’s not hard to see the value and aesthetic need for each flavor. Of course every verbal artist leans in a particular direction—as does each of their characters—but it would be both inadvisable as well as impossible to use only one purely.
It is similarly impossible for any athlete to choose between soul-strength and craft. The world recognizes some fighters, like George St-Pierre, primarily for their tactical prowess and technical mastery, but you would be insane to claim that GSP lacked strength of soul.
To strip things down: you need grit to train tactics, and tactics are the only possible thing grit can flow through.
And, if we want to take things way way back, there is Odysseus and there is Achilles.
The two epics of Homer center around two extremely different heroes.
The Iliad focuses on the brutally honest Achilles, the greatest and most spirited warrior among the Achaeans. The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns”—the wiliest tactician on either side of the war.
Achilles wins some serious glory through his martial valor, but also dies young. And the most famous account of his death is Paris killing him with an arrow.
In other words—the softest, most cowardly character in Homer kills him with that era’s most cowardly weapon. Somehow cowardice defeats the greatest warrior of all time.
Odysseus, by contrast, not only survives the Trojan war, but almost single-handedly wins it.
...but Odysseus also takes longer to return home than anyone else when the war is done. Somehow his voyage is doomed by the same twists and turns his mind is blessed with.
And though Odysseus is a good friend of Achilles’, Achilles reproaches him in a very specific way early on in the Iliad. After Odysseus gives a speech trying to persuade the dishonored and sulking Achilles to rejoin the fighting, Achilles says he “hates the man who says one thing and thinks another.” Though a deep connection runs between the two archetypes, so does a great enmity, apparently centered—from the perspective of Strength—around the deceitful aspect of tact or Craft.
(We don’t quite know what Craft’s critique of Strength would be, because Craft tactfully keeps it quiet.)
The relationship between these two heroes is a relationship alive in each of us. Our spirited side—the side that holds the no-BS wisdom of “just-do-it”-ness—is a kind of permanent frenemy of our tactical, analytical, and philosophic side.
And, as each of Homer’s epics shows, each side runs the risk of a specific type of tragedy. Odysseus’ voyage home is delayed by ten years, and Achilles dies young and allows countless compatriots to die, including his best friend and lover Patroclus. Most of us don’t risk tragedies quite this intense. But every day that we practice craftless courage or cowardly craft we risk subtler and very real versions of them. Putting our nose to the grindstone without ever examining what we’re really doing ensures a massive waste of life. Getting lost in rabbit holes of performance optimization research and productivity hacks guarantees that we are not out there actually doing things.
Perhaps we could avoid these microtragedies if we could somehow unify strength of soul with craft in daily life. But to truly unify them would mean dissolving the tension between them, and it’s not at all clear that such a thing is any more possible—or desirable—than dissolving the aphrodisian tension between two people in love.
From the philosophical perspective, we could say that one of the permanent problems of life is the tension between courage and intellection, or soul-strength and craft, and that to master life means to dialogue with that problem at a greater and greater depth, allowing the dialogue to progressively refine our understanding of the subtle interplay between their mutual exclusivity and mutual necessity.
Or, maybe more honestly, we should say that doing hard things is more important than thinking, and that it’s also fine to think, so long as you’re not doing it to justify lazy and avoidant behavior.
I definitely have a preference for the former stance, which means that the latter is my most important medicine. As a more innately Odyssean soul I will always need Achillean friends to keep me in check, and disciplined habits to keep me grounded in reality.
And, I will always suspect that those friends are making things a little harder than they have to be, and that my structured routines can be optimized just a bit more to suit the needs of each day.
On a more zoomed out scale, the world today is blazing with technological innovation—the ambitious and troubled child of craft—and so humanity as a whole runs the same risk as Odysseus, of losing our way home.
A collective return to a simpler way is likely neither possible nor desirable, any more than eradicating all Latinate words from our vocabulary would be. But the medicine of simplicity and strength is still clearly needed—just as an avoidant texter needs to practice gracefully rejecting people rather than disappearing, and a habitual overthinker needs to befriend disciplined martial artists.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a shoutout to the extraordinarily Achillean Michael Holt, the friend who taught me that when you extend a jab you will immediately get counterpunched in the face; and to Jason Appel, the friend who spent a full day with me hashing out this essay’s theme the way that only a true Odyssean could.