When I run, I’ve always had this habit of breaking down whatever distance I set out to accomplish in increasingly diminutive yet illogical units to keep my mind busy. 4 miles becomes just 2 miles when it’s halfway done and 2 miles is easy because you’re hardly even warmed up at .5 which is already halfway to the halfway point of the first leg. And of course the 4th mile has the end in sight so it goes by the quickest. Or when I’m swimming, I change strokes for a pocket in the middle before changing back, so there is a rising up, a hoop to jump through, and a winding down.

This works, I think, because it keeps you immediately and constantly focused on a single point directly in front of you, and when that point is passed, another presents itself and is passed in turn at just the right interval between manageable and significant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Darwin spent something like eight years studying barnacles. Or Stuart Kauffman spending a decade on the mutations of fruit flies. And how we pass along little tidbits like this without any empathy for what they must have meant. These weren’t foundational education periods at the beginning of their careers, they were detours and tangents—years of learning to clear up a few details. We lose the humanity behind that decision, what it must have been like for them in this phase: waiting it out, putting in the hours. We look at it with the hindsight of knowing that it ended, thinking that they probably broke it up like we could—a few years to get familiar, a few for theorizing, and of course the last year flew by because it was finally over. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Try to think of the humility and of the patience. Wading into a pool you have no idea if you’ll ever get out of. Going back and forth until you’d done what you’d needed. No clue yet that it will tie their theories together. To bear this with grace and commitment and a quiet sense of self-control. To accept that no one will ever know what it all felt like.

For me, this year was about wanting less. Being okay with less. Learning how to tolerate dissonance and cultivate indifference. At 23, I’m thinking this is the skill everybody assumed was obsolete.

All the talk about real estate, working at a startup or internships—so much of it is about convincing yourself that you’re “investing” when its really just a way to give yourself what you want now and pretend the payoff is somehow deferred into the future. What part is delayed? What have you gone without? How have you learned to deal with uncertainty? Or the growing bewilderment of the people around you? The truth is that we make these decisions precisely because they’re thought to be “sure things.” But that is not strategy, it’s not even real.

To be able to handle even a fraction of the tension of one of these multi-year draw-down periods. To do the time on the treadmill and then a little more and then get off to do the next thing (and not take the baggage with you). To steadily increase the amount of time that we can stand without getting anxious or restless. And in this process of teaching yourself to do it, to complain as little as possible.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.