William James on the Psychology of the Second Wind and What Enables Us to Transcend Our Limits
“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake… We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
By Maria Popova
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in contemplating what it really means to be awake, adding: “Only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.” Those rare individuals are the ones who lift themselves out of ordinary life’s mediocrity and, through the sheer force of their creative and intellectual wakefulness, rise to the level of the extraordinary. They are the people we come to celebrate as luminaries, those whose ideas endure for centuries. But what is this mysterious force that jolts a human being into such wakeful aliveness from which greatness blossoms?
That’s what legendary philosopher and founding father of modern psychology William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) addressed half a century after Thoreau’s famous words, in a superb speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University in December of 1906. It was published in the January 1907 issue of the journal Philosophical Review under the title “The Energies of Men” and was eventually included in the out-of-print 1967 compendium The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (public library), which remains the finest record of James’s mind to date.
James begins with the curious psychological phenomenon of the “second wind,” familiar to everyone from athletes to artists to entrepreneurs — a perplexity that had captivated his imagination for years:
Everyone knows what it is to start a piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale… And everybody knows what it is to “warm up” to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.” On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked “enough,” so we desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed… In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.
James reflects on his longtime quest to find a psychological theory of the second wind and examines what carries us over this initial plateau of fatigue, toward ever-greater heights of productivity and excellence:
It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface.
Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.
One reason we don’t push ourselves past those self-imposed limits, James argues, is that we fear the exertion might exhaust us beyond repair — we fear, in other words, burnout. (This phrase as a term for psychoemotional fatigue from sustained effort wouldn’t come into popular use until 1975, many decades after James so elegantly encapsulated it.) And yet such fears, he assures us, are ungrounded, for we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures:
The organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair.
I say the rate and not the time of repair. The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler… Anyone may be in vital equilibrium at very different rates of energizing [but] a man who energizes below his normal maximum fails by just so much to profit by his chance at life.
The question then becomes how to train people — individuals, communities, nations — “up to their most useful pitch of energy,” which James notes is “the general problem of education, formulated in slightly different terms.” Although this energy is a quantitative measure, he considers its crucial qualitative aspect:
In measuring the human energies of which I speak, qualities as well as quantities have to be taken into account. Everyone feels that his total power rises when he passes to a higher qualitative level of life.
Illustrating this with a qualitative hierarchy — at some of which Thoreau may have scoffed — James writes:
Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding “no” higher than deciding “yes”—at least the man who passes from one of these activities to another will usually say that each later one involves a greater element of inner work than the earlier ones, even though the total heat given out or the foot-pounds expended by the organism, may be less… We need a particular spur or effort to start us upon inner work; it tires us to sustain it; and when long sustained, we know how easily we lapse.
A century before our increasingly urgent quest for stillness, James cautions that this inner work requires not the “maximum of locomotion” propelling our cult of outer productivity, our habitual “hurrying and jumping about in incoordinated ways,” but the very opposite:
Inner work, though it so often reinforces outer work, quite as often means its arrest. To relax, to say to ourselves … “Peace! be still!” is sometimes a great achievement of inner work.
He considers the osmosis of inner and outer work in the grand metabolic machinery energizing the human spirit:
When I speak of human energizing in general, the reader must therefore understand that sum-total of activities, some outer and some inner, some muscular, some emotional, some moral, some spiritual, of whose waxing and waning in himself he is at all times so well aware. How to keep it at an appreciable maximum? How not to let the level lapse? That is the great problem.
To account for the wide variability in our walks of life, James divides this problem into two sub-problems:
- What are the limits of human faculty in various directions?
- By what diversity of means, in the differing types of human beings, may the faculties be stimulated to their best results?
He articulates beautifully the all too relatable daily ebb-and-flow of our psychic and physical energy:
Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.
In a necessary caveat, James offers an early and incredibly succinct diagnostic definition of depression half a century before the first edition of the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible — was published:
In some persons this sense of being cut off from their rightful resources is extreme, and we then get the formidable neurasthenic and psychasthenic conditions with life grown into one tissue of impossibilities, that so many medical books describe.
Returning to the question of our untapped potential and underused energies, he points to habit as the mechanism by which we lull ourselves into the mindless trance of the daily grind — something doubly poignant today, amid a culture that frames life as a series of tasks to be accomplished, urging us to show up for these tasks with compulsive productivity while being absent from our own lives and passive in the real act of living. Two millennia after Seneca’s memorable admonition against this habitual trance, James writes:
As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions.
The human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in co-ordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject — but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit — the habit of inferiority to our full self — that is bad.
We are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit-neurosis. We have to admit the wider potential range and the habitually narrow actual use. We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.
James, of course, was well aware that habit — like any technology of thought — is a coin with two sides, one mindless and one mindful: Half a decade earlier he had penned his timeless treatise on harnessing the positive power of habit.
Indeed, he argues that cultivating fruitful habits of mind is what separates those who attain their highest possible selves from those who live their lives short of their full potential. Habit, James argues, is how we transmute difficulty into opportunity for growth — it is the key to our resilience and adaptability, the very mechanism of how we stretch ourselves.
He illustrates this with the example of how a simple villager adapts, despite his paralyzing initial shock, to life in the big city — an example far more metaphorical today than James intended a century ago, for we are now all bewildered villagers trying to steady ourselves amid the disorienting and ever-accelerating stimulation of modern life. He writes:
The rapid rate of life, the number of decisions in an hour, the many things to keep account of, in a busy city man’s or woman’s life, seem monstrous to a country brother. He doesn’t see how we live at all. A day in New York or Chicago fills him with terror. The danger and noise make it appear like a permanent earthquake. But settle him there, and in a year or two he will have caught the pulse-beat. He will vibrate to the city’s rhythms; and if he only succeeds in his avocation, whatever that may be, he will find a joy in all the hurry and the tension, he will keep the pace as well as any of us, and get as much out of himself in any week as he ever did in ten weeks in the country.
The stimuli of those who successfully spend and undergo the transformation here, are duty, the example of others, and crowd-pressure and contagion. The transformation, moreover, is a chronic one: the new level of energy becomes permanent. The duties of new offices of trust are constantly producing this effect on the human beings appointed to them.
What a beautiful notion this is, “new offices of trust” — how else do we stretch ourselves beyond what we believed ourselves to be capable of if not by being ordained into such a new office of trust, be it by love or leadership or new parenthood? James adds:
A new position of responsibility will usually show a man to be a far stronger creature than was supposed.
A decade before women won the right to vote and more than half a century before the dawn of modern feminism as we know it, James argues that women are better than men at rising to such “new offices of trust”:
John Stuart Mill somewhere says that women excel men in the power of keeping up sustained moral excitement. Every case of illness nursed by wife or mother is a proof of this; and where can one find greater examples of sustained endurance than in those thousands of poor homes, where the woman successfully holds the family together and keeps it going by taking all the thought and doing all the work — nursing, teaching, cooking, washing, sewing, scrubbing, saving, helping neighbors, “choring” outside — where does the catalogue end?
Like an Oliver Sacks of his day, James illustrates his point with a patient case study:
Jeanne Chaix, eldest of six children; mother insane, father chronically ill. Jeanne, with no money but her wages at a pasteboard-box factory, directs the household, brings up the children, and successfully maintains the family of eight, which thus subsists, morally as well as materially, by the sole force of her valiant will… Human nature, responding to the call of duty, appears nowhere sublimer than in the person of these humble heroines of family life.
A century before Neil Gaiman memorably asserted that good ideas come from desperation and deadlines, James considers what uncorks “human nature’s reserves of power”:
The stimuli that carry us over the usually effective dam are most often the classic emotional ones, love, anger, crowd-contagion or despair. Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart.
A decade later, legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton attested to this notion. And, indeed, James’s most crucial point is that challenges, far from breaking us, reanimate us and push to transcend what we thought our limits were — something that calls to mind Nietzsche’s famous case for why a full life requires embracing rather than avoiding difficulty. But reaping these self-transcendent benefits requires mastering the uncomfortable art of changing our mind, the chronic reluctance to which psychologists have since termed “the backfire effect” — our evolving ideas, James argues, are what stretch us and carry us over our plateaus of personal growth:
Ideas [are] dynamogenic agents, or stimuli for unlocking what would otherwise be unused reservoirs of individual power.
One thing that ideas do is to contradict other ideas and keep us from believing them. An idea that thus negates a first idea may itself in turn be negated by a third idea, and the first idea may thus regain its natural influence over our belief and determine our behavior. Our philosophic and religious development proceeds thus by credulities, negations, and the negating of negations.
But whether for arousing or for stopping belief, ideas may fail to be efficacious, just as a wire, at one time alive with electricity, may at another time be dead. Here our insight into causes fails us, and we can only note results in general terms. In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself… Not every one can use [the same] ideas with the same success.
But despite our wide variability in soil, as it were, there are some conditions that are universally fertile in planting good seeds of character:
As certain objects naturally awaken love, anger, or cupidity, so certain ideas naturally awaken the energies of loyalty, courage, endurance, or devotion. When these ideas are effective in an individual’s life, their effect is often very great indeed. They may transfigure it, unlocking innumerable powers which, but for the idea, would never have come into play. “Fatherland,” “the Flag,” “the Union,” “Holy Church,” “the Monroe Doctrine,” “Truth,” “Science,” “Liberty,” Garibaldi’s phrase, “Rome or Death,” etc., are so many examples of energy-releasing ideas. The social nature of such phrases is an essential factor of their dynamic power. They are forces of detent in situations in which no other force produces equivalent effects, and each is a force of detent only in a specific group of [people].
James speaks to the importance of idea-incubation and makes an implicit case against the epiphany as a sudden and independent event:
A belief that thus settles upon an individual always acts as a challenge to his will. But, for the particular challenge to operate, he must be the right challengee… The idea may be in the mind of the challengee for years before it exerts effects; and why it should do so then is often so far from obvious that the event is taken for a miracle of grace, and not a natural occurrence.
In a sentiment somewhat bittersweet in our age of dwindling appetite for real conversations in which two minds behold one another with thoughtfulness over an ample period of time, James adds:
Conversions, whether they be political, scientific, philosophic, or religious, form another way in which bound energies are let loose. They unify us, and put a stop to ancient mental interferences. The result is freedom, and often a great enlargement of power.
“The Energies of Men” is in the public domain and is available as a free digital text from The Internet Archive. Find more of James’s timeless wisdom in the indispensable The Writings of William James, then revisit his timelessly insightful exploration of the psychology of habit and the elevating story of how he chose the life of purpose over the life of profit.
Published June 15, 2015