Pay Attention to Tension

We can't live in tension forever, but we don't know how to get out of it.

I sat in a meeting recently.

In it, one of the people presenting tried to explain why they didn’t accomplish two specific goals. The reason, they explained, was that Goal A and Goal B are inherently in tension. This is totally understandable. It was clear that they could not accomplish Goal A and Goal B at the time.

What they could not explain, however, is why they didn’t accomplish either Goal at all! This has bothered me in the days since that meeting. But I think I’ve figured it out.


When things are in tension, we tend to subconsciously place ourselves in the middle of the tension.

How often have you heard, thought, or said something like “I’m being pulled every which way!” I do all the time. When there are two options in tension, we almost subconsciously take one of two approaches:


Option one tends to be the standard.

When we are in the middle of felt tension, we try to push through, to conquer the tension. To cut the Gordian knot and break through.

But the reality is that two options, goals, choices, etc. in tension are usually definitionally in tension with each other. That is, they can not be anything other than in opposition to one another.

The safe job requires not taking the cool startup position.

When we try to resist and break through the tension, we fail to truly choose either option or meet either goal.


The second option is what happens when we recognize that we can’t conquer the tension and just give up.

After all, the opposites in tension can’t pull us apart if we just let go. But where does that leave us? Standing there. Emptyhanded. With nothing to show for the tension we were under in the first place.

There is the fight response of resisting tension and the flight response to releasing tension. But neither of them get us anywhere.

So where does that leave us?

The third way

Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519.

He and his men had spent a few years in Cuba, becoming wealthy and powerful.

But now they were in a foreign land, away from the creature comforts of their homes.

They were in tension. Between conquest and comfort. Results and retreat.

So Cortés set his boats alight.

When there were two choices in tension with one another, he aggressively chose one and followed it through. His men now had no choice to return to their comfortable homes in Cuba. They were stuck in Mexico with him, and the only option was to conquer.

Burn the boats.

We progress through lives in high relative comfort.

There are some “manosphere” types that even complain that today’s humans are soft and weak, and that it’s bad we’re so comfortable.

I disagree.

It is good that we live in more comfort than previous generations. It is good that we live longer, healthier, happier lives. But there are a few negative externalities. One of them is that we’ve forgotten how to handle tension in most areas of our lives.

Most areas, but not all.

Marriage is burning the boats to all other potential partners. Homeownership is burning the boats to all other housing options and places to live. Having a child is burning the boats to a much less complicated life.

These are all areas where the expectation is commitment. And these are all areas of the human experience that generate outsize meaning & happiness.

I do not think this is a coincidence.

So burn the boats. Make the decision. Don’t waffle. Choose and follow through.

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