Creating Productive Tension for Success

Operating at your peak and operating at your worst are more similar than you might imagine.

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Sometimes, we feel like we’re in a flow state — work comes almost without thinking, and we operate like a well-oiled machine. Yet other times, we feel like a stalled car, as if we could and should achieve more, but something is blocking us.

So what’s holding us back?

The answer is simple: Blocks are because of unproductive tension, and flow is because of productive tension. You’ll notice that we need tension.

Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors

African proverb

It might seem counter-intuitive, to think that tension creates flow. However, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing, so we need forces to counter-act each other. Let’s take some examples. You probably think that organization and freedom are both good things.

On one extreme end, Tokyo is highly organized: The trains come at the right times, always. Stores open and close on the strike of the hour. People take the exact same routes to work. People wake up at the exact same times every day. People do the same tasks every day. You can see how quickly this goes downhill. Too much organization has created mass depression and anxiety in Tokyo, as people lack any sort of feelings of freedom.

Although Tokyo is politically democratic, it is culturally totalitarian. Why? An excess of organization. Because of the million and one regulations, businesses are also extremely difficult to start in Japan, making it the least entrepreneurial country in the developed world.

Now, let’s look at a polar opposite: Delhi. Utter chaos is the norm, at least from the perspective of an outsider. Everything is delayed, always, and no day is the same. However, there’s a distinct lack of organization, so you lose out on efficiency, trust, and control in the city.

Delhi and Tokyo are opposites, but both are examples of unproductive tension

Productive tension is when you can bring together seemingly polar, opposing views, and hold them at the same time. For example, startups can be organized but chaotic at the same time. Chaotic, spontaneous ideation and execution is guided by organized experimentation and analysis.

A great life means extreme expansion and growth, balanced by periods of deep contemplation and quiet.

If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression, it may just mean too much of a good thing. If everyone around you is feeling negatively, which may be the case if you’re living in a city like Tokyo or Delhi, then you know it’s not you – you know that you’re living in an unproductive environment.

You can mediate and counter-act such feelings by deploying the opposite of their cause. If you’re feeling stressed from too much work, engage in play. If you’re feeling bored from a lack of work, start a serious project.

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