When things feel like a drag (and what to do)

“You’re lucky it didn’t start on fire,” the mechanic said with real concern, showing me the blackened brake pads – brand new the day before, now burned to a crisp.

I left Minneapolis on a Friday to visit my nephew and sister in Fargo. The four-hour drive turned into an eight-hour ordeal as my car, a maroon GMC Jimmy, more truck than SUV, struggled to accelerate on the interstate. Even as the car shook, my right foot pushing hard on the gas pedal to keep up with interstate traffic, I tried to convince myself that nothing was wrong. Somewhere between rural Minnesota towns, I snapped out of denial and exited the highway to find a mechanic.

To make a long ordeal short: the brakes were stuck. To be specific: I had driven over a hundred miles with faulty brakes fighting against the power of the truck. The mechanic replaced the rear brakes and rotors, the second set in two days, along with the original calipers, the real cause of the problem. That’s way more than I ever wanted to know about brakes.

But with the Jimmy now unencumbered, it seemed to fly down the interstate. That’s when it hit me how hard this beast of a car had fought against drag of the brakes.

That’s the problem with resistance.

We don’t notice it until it’s not there. Well, we notice it and we ignore it. We push against it. And we negotiate against ourselves, even when we know better.

That level of friction leaves us operating at a deficit a lot of the time. We are, however, used to to functioning this way. And sometimes it works. We still influence and drive outcomes, even garner a few wins.

But holy crap it’s hard, like trying to drive down the interstate with the freaking brakes on hard.

It’s not zero momentum.

It’s less than zero.

Isn’t that strange?

We operate at less than zero often, fighting against all that heat and friction. We reject real leverage, relying instead on our own noisy thoughts and tired habits. It’s not long long before we’re side-tracked by unwinnable, and frankly, fake problems, like who’s accountable or other people’s behaviors. More importantly, we ignore the clear, obvious signs pointing to the drag: sluggish results, stalled projects, confused people, prickly relationships, ambiguous roles, boredom.

It might be funny, if it weren’t so… normal. Still, it’s awfully hard to accelerate for very long this way. Not impossible, but exhausting.

But what if we could start from zero resistance?

Would that require some effort? Um… no.

It would, however, require focus and humility. Correction: humiliation. Because first you have to admit to a small town mechanic and assorted family members and untold readers that you drove over a hundred miles down I-94 with the brakes almost on fire.

What. The. Hell.

But no, it doesn’t take any effort to be at zero. You could do it by the time you’re finished reading this. I am not kidding. But I am also not saying it’s easy.

That’s the point – and the rub. We seem to be hard-wired to amplify the drag, wearing all the hard work and challenges like a badge of honor. We even invent problems.

So it’s a paradox: it’s effortless, but not easy to get to zero.

On that note, I finally know why a conversation with Private First Class Jacobs has replayed in my mind for years. The two of us were assigned to overnight staff duty during a major field exercise at Fort Hood. The rest of the battalion was in the field, yet our job that night was to sit in the warm and dry battalion headquarters, literally waiting for nothing to happen. So it made sense that we would pass the time talking about nothing while PFC Jacobs swept the floor. He was easy company.  Still, it was a strange exercise in patience. And I made no effort to hide my irritation.

PFC Jacobs kept pushing the broom around the floor, tossed me a grin and said, “Ma’am, they can work me long, but they can’t work me hard.”

I looked at him, then the floor, then back at him. And I realized he’d been sweeping the same six feet for a long while, vaguely pushing a small pile of dirt in circles.

His honesty and brazenness confused me.

Wasn’t hard the ideal?

Now it’s easy to dismiss PFC Jacobs as lazy. And he was a bit famous in the battalion for that kind of laziness. But none of us ever dreamed it was intentional. He meant to be this way.

An economist might praise this laziness as efficient. From PFC Jacob’s point of view he could waste precious energy cleaning HQ in the middle of the night of a very long week. Or he could chat with the LT while pretending to sweep the floor.

I couldn’t fault his logic. And truthfully, I kind of admired his confidence.

At barely twenty, only slightly younger than I was, he had peculiar sense of himself. He didn’t get worked up about nonsense. Another sleepless night pulling staff duty during a week-long training exercise? No big deal.

Of course most of us are more ambitious than PFC Jacobs, but he was only twenty. Nevertheless, why has this conversation stuck with me for years?

Because a certain amount of calculated laziness solves the problem of drag.

You will fight me on this. More precisely, you’ll fight against yourself.

But for just a moment, think of the energy and emotion we expend battling things that stall even normal speeds, never mind real momentum. We’ve somehow learned to accept that functioning at a deficit is OK, failing to see it’s also an option to let go of our baggage and look past the minutiae compounding the drag.

These are the things that cleverly work against us and tempt us to fall apart… at work.

But to what end?

The reality is we will always have to deal with some nonsense and friction at work. It is, after all, still work and work’s a mess. The question is how much energy we expend and, more importantly, how worked up we get. So yeah, we can borrow from PFC Jacob’s latent ambition and unlikely wisdom.

That’s because the first goal here isn’t accelerating. It’s freeing the brakes.

carolyn solares
I help people remove drag – yes, at work.
(My brother calls me a workshrink.)

Work with me at murphymerton.
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