There are few life lessons worth making a bumper sticker for. In my opinion, the expression ‘Embrace the suck’ deserves one. Especially in a society obsessed with instant gratification and consumed by digital distractions.
What does embrace the suck mean?
‘Embrace the suck’ is a military expression to stay the course when things seem pointless or get monotonous or unpleasant.
Translation: When life gets sucky as it often does, bear it well. Don’t bolt. Or groan, moan, cringe, or whinge. In Aussie-speak ‘Don’t be a whingy-moany’.
Of course, if it’s good advice for soldiers operating in life-threatening situations, it’s bound to be great advice for the rest of us too.
Embrace the suck isn’t new advice
Let me be clear, Embrace the suck isn’t new advice. It is simply perseverance masquerading in a social-share-friendly form to attract an urban-dictionary-loving audience.
Let’s face it, if it doesn’t sound sexy, it doesn’t have a chance of being heard today.
On a separate note, if you’ve never heard the term before, then congratulations on your good judgment. You've managed to stay above the fray!
Why embrace the suck is climbing the charts now
Like most things, even life lessons wax and wane in popularity over time. Typically, the ‘wokeness’ of the advice tends to be social-environment and culture-driven.
Like ‘N Sync’s (the band) revival act, the value of perseverance seems to be making a strong comeback into self-help literature now.
I believe this is largely driven by one factor - the almost insatiable need for a society that seeks instant gratification and is easily distracted.
Not surprisingly, embrace the suck becomes ever-more-important in a world obsessed with shiny-object-syndrome. Like little kids chasing after shiny toys, it doesn’t take a lot to distract our digital-loving selves into dropping everything to chase after the first ping we hear. Especially, when we set ourselves the expectation to have ‘the time of our lives’ - every moment - in our current pursuits.
Is there light at the end of this tunnel? Or are we stuck with this grim prognosis?
To answer this question, I draw inspiration from a man born in the 19th century, America’s greatest inventor – Thomas Edison.
How Edison embraced the suck
Project Gutenberg’s e-book publication, Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, provides great insight into the mind of a remarkable man. The book describes Edison as a man with ‘unruffled patience’.
One of Edison’s closest associates, Mr. Mallory, describes Edison’s work on a nickel-iron-storage battery idea. Edison had been at work on this idea, day and night, for over five months.
Here’s Mr. Mallory’s recollection of his visit to Edison at the latter’s laboratory:
I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: 'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?' Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won't work.'
If that’s not embracing the suck, then I don’t know what is.
Learn from Edison
I know what you’re thinking. If you pick a profession or a hobby you ‘enjoy’, you may never need to embrace the suck, because every moment is going to be just Oh. So. Fun.
Allow me to burst this bubble!
You’re bound to encounter an element of tedium in everything you do. That’s not a reason to stop doing it. You may not have Edison’s tenacity or obstinance in the face of failure. But try you must.
Because, even the most adventurous sounding occupations have mind-numbing, dreary moments.
Have you ever watched an action movie shoot in real life? I bet you if people were forced to watch the real, unedited process of these movie shoots – YAWN - ‘action films’ as a genre might not exist in Hollywood today.
You don’t have to take it from me. Chris Evans, who plays Captain America, in the eponymous movie says:
With ‘Captain America,’ you might have three lines of dialogue the whole day. And there are just a million angles and a million set-ups, and it’s tedious.
If playing an American superhero can be tedious, then what’s to say of working with spreadsheets or writing project reports?
Better learn how to embrace the suck.
Norm, not the exception
In reality, the common, underpinning thread of any achievement worth touting, is the mundaneness of the steps between conception and completion.
But these mundane steps are rarely publicized. Because face it, ‘Show up, work hard’ makes very bad sales copy.
Marketing brochures for workout routines will show you pictures of 6-pack abs but won’t mention the day-to-day grind and sacrifices needed to get one of those. Because, if they did, the companies will succeed not in selling their product or service but in scaring people away from trying.
Most activities are exciting when you get started on them. But you can be guaranteed, sooner or later, to hit a plateau. From your vantage point there, it typically appears as though you’re staring at an infinite abyss of dull, boring tasks that aren’t sexy or pleasant.
This is the #1 reason for all those unfinished projects surrounding you.
In some cases, it’s all tedium until you get to the fruit of your actions. Quite literally, to enjoy the juiciness of a pineapple you need to cut through the stiff, pointy leaves and prickly outer sides.
In other words, the sucky part is the norm; the fun parts are the exceptions. This is why it’s important to embrace the suck.
Choosing jobs or tasks based on how ‘cool’ they seem is bound to backfire because there is always an invisible level of dreariness underlying the coolness.
This concept is best illustrated in physical sports. No guts, no glory!
Embrace the suck - ultrarunning edition
To explain this concept further, I defer to Adharanand Finn, British author of one of my favorite books on running, ‘The rise of the ultra runners’.
For those not familiar with ultrarunning – it’s a foot race, typically a distance of 100 miles (though, technically anything over 30 miles qualifies), usually in incredibly rough terrain.
Like other extreme sports, ultrarunning was typically limited to the more fanatical runners. However, in recent years, the sport has made its way to the mainstream, inspired perhaps by humans not content to be challenged by mere 26.2-mile marathons.
In writing this wonderful book, Finn, an established marathoner himself, decides to embark on his own ultrarunning journey to learn why humans feel the need to constantly test the limits of their endurance.
Since paraphrasing his words won’t do justice, I borrow a few lines from the book. Here, the author describes his emotions and pain on the last leg of a 100 mile ultrarun in the Oman desert.
My light had gone off. Less than twenty paces into the final stage I decided I couldn’t run any more. I was already walking. My energy level was at zero. My legs were shattered, my patched-up groin weeping in pain with each step. And we had 14 miles of soft sand left until the finish.
But finish he did. And went on to run other ultras.
Now, how does one find the mental strength to pick up and continue from a point like this?
No points for guessing - by learning to embrace the suck!
7 lessons on How-to embrace the suck
Surely, most of our challenges with drab tasks are not quite as difficult as running 100 miles in 40 degree Celsius weather, though they may certainly SEEM like it!
So, how on earth do we ‘embrace the suck’?
Here are some tried and tested ways:
1. Show up
- If you have a 200-page report to write, open up the screen and start typing. Something. Anything.
- Lace-up your shoes and just focus on showing up at the track for your speed workout training.
- Stop staring at the messy kitchen. Put on some gloves and pull out your cleaning supplies.
- Pick up the phone to have that unpleasant conversation you’ve been dreading.
Remember, 'Well begun is half-done'? Simply showing up is winning half the battle. Usually, to avoid wasted effort, once you show up, your brain will reward you with more motivation.
So, show up. Already.
2. Drop the resistance
Think of your resistance to the unpleasant task as a 20-lb sack of potatoes on your back. Just set it down. For a moment. Breathe.
Stop debating yourself.
When you hear your inner voice saying ‘If only’, ‘I wish’, ‘I can’t’, ‘I don’t want to’ or any other countless variations of this theme, simply take a deep breath or use some mantra such as ‘Later’. As in, 'I'll talk to you later'.
Make your mantra a short one. Monosyllables do perfectly well. You are not looking to start an argument with yourself, however appealing that may sound.
The practice of Meditation can help you immensely with lowering your resistance.
3. Remember the big picture
It pays to remember the shiny goal that brought you to this task in the first place. The reasons you started to work on the project are still valid reasons to continue to work through the not-so-fun parts.
Picture the finisher medal, or the gleaming house, or the promotion.
4. Make it meaningful
When the going gets tough, it’s easy to keep going if you are engaged in activities that serve a bigger purpose. It is much easier to embrace the suck when your work adds value to others.
Research has shown that your propensity to withstand failure and unpleasantness increases when the stakes are for someone else other than you.
5. Hindsight is 20-20
Yes, sometimes you may be able to avoid having to do boring tasks. If you are a perfect human being, that is. Or an unicorn.
Let me give you an example.
I had just finished cleaning up my house. On my way out, I accidentally knocked over a gallon of milk.
Yes, it was painful. Yes, I stood there for a minute moaning about how unfair life was. The temptation to cry over spilled milk was huge.
The retro reel started playing in my head. I could have been more careful. The milk can should not have been placed there...
But I caught myself soon enough and remembered to let go. Because, what choice did I have other than to embrace the suck?
6. Be kind to yourself
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Cheerfully, if possible.
Self-compassion is way more pleasant than self-flagellation.
Rolling up your sleeves and getting things done in a positive manner tend to be much more agreeable than negative self-talk or muttering and moaning your way out of unpleasant chores.
7. Call in for reinforcements
Most times, for routine stuff, it’s simply an internal clash between what you should do versus what you’d like to do. The above rules are good enough then.
However, if you cannot bear the thought of getting out of bed in the morning, and this lasts for many days, then you need to escalate the issue. Get help. Call in for reinforcements. Depending on the severity, approach family/friends or seek professional advice.
Is quitting an option? Most times it’s not, but in rare cases, you just need to walk away. At least for a while.
In the end
Professor of journalism and famous author, Michael Pollan, has written many deep-dive books, essays and given many lectures on the socio-cultural aspects of food in our society.
I read a magazine interview where Pollan aptly summarizes how to embrace the suck. He said:
To me, onions are the metaphor for kitchen drudgery. Cutting them is hard to do well and they fight you the whole way. But I worked at this for a long time, learned everything I could about onions—why they make us cry, how to prevent it, why they’re such a huge part of cuisine worldwide, and what they contribute to a dish. I finally learned this important spiritual truth, which is bigger than onions: “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” When I finally got into the zen of cutting onions, I passed over to another place.
So, when chopping onions, just chop onions.
When writing the report, just write the dang report.
Don't fight a losing battle. Instead, embrace the suck!