The Comfort Crisis

My favorite podcast at the moment is Glorious Professionals, from the leaders of GORUCK.  They interview people with a service focus – often current or former members of the military, but also service-based leaders that are trying to make a difference like Kelly Starrett (The Supple Leopard himself!), Ryan Manion from the Travis Manion Foundation, and Melissa Urban, founder of Whole30.
One of their latest interviews was with Michael Easter, journalist and author of the new book, The Comfort Crisis.  After the podcast which covers main points of the book, I was hooked and had to get it.  I’ve spent the past week or so poring over this very exciting and thought-provoking work of non-fiction (you don’t hear that too often!), and wanted to share some highlights in case it seems up your alley – which I think it will.  SPOILER ALERT – the chapter named “11 hours, 6 minutes” is all about how much time we spend daily using digital media.  It will want to make you throw your phone into your TV in a double-murder style protest against their theft of most of our waking hours.

If I had to summarize The Comfort Crisis, middle-school-book-report-style, I would say it’s about the fact that as early humans we evolved to seek comfort whenever we could, because most of life was not very comfortable.  From having to search and hunt for food to feed our families, to dealing with weather and predators hunting for us, whenever we could eat our fill we did – and we usually ate more than we needed to make sure we could live another week.  If we were near a warm fire we stayed there until we HAD TO move.
Fast forward to present day, in a first-world society like ours, and our brains still crave that comfort and will reinforce us staying comfortable by releasing dopamine when we overeat.  Our comfortable couches and over-stimulating phones keep us sedentary.  And doing physically hard things has become the exception, garnering huge praise and bewilderment from modern society, rather than being the norm that it used to be.

The book is separated into big sections with titles that read as challenges to the comfortable status quo.
The first, “Rule 1: Make it really hard. Rule 2: Don’t die,” centers around Easter’s research into people that do take on ridiculous challenges, and why they do it.  The Japanese concept of misogi, a word that doesn’t have an English counterpart but could be defined as “doing hard things for the sake of growth,” is deeply explored, and we learn the drawback of not challenging ourselves with crazy adventures once in a while – we’ll never really know our true potential.  A guideline for a misogi challenge is that there should be a 50/50 chance that you’ll fail.  But guess what?  You’ll learn.

The throughline of the book also begins here, as Easter begins a 33-day elk hunt in backcountry Alaska with a stoic guide who spends much of each year hunting and surviving off the land.  In each section of the book, Easter returns to this hunt and the tremendous lessons he learns about the values of being uncomfortable, hungry, carrying heavy shit, and of being outside.

The second section titled “Rediscover boredom, ideally outside, for minutes, hours, days,” is really just that – the author imploring us, using research and his own experiences, to put down the phone and get outside.  Being disconnected from the modern world and being in nature can have profound effects on our mental health, to the point where if you spend 3 straight days in nature you have achieved the same baseline brain function as an experienced meditator.

In the third section called “Feel hunger,” Easter explains that most of us have never really felt hunger, and actually the impetus to do all the hard things – like long-range hunting – was hunger!  Now, most of us in the modern world don’t experience the “lean times” that create seasonal weight loss and make gorging on food when we can the right thing to do.  A discussion about restricting foods and fad diets contrasted against understanding the basics of food science and also WHY we eat was very insightful for me.

Easter wraps up the book discussing our human physical evolution, and what we are designed to do.  In “Carry the load,” he meets with anthropologists and Special Forces soldiers like the aforementioned Jason McCarthy to discuss rucking as the closest that we have come in modern day to zeroing in on what our bodies naturally do very well:  move at relatively slow speeds, carrying stuff.  Compared to other mammals, we’re horribly slow runners, hitting a top speed of 23 miles per hour at the Olympic level, for about 10 seconds.  A poodle can do 30 mph, for minutes at a time.  But while we can’t go fast, we can go far, and especially in hot weather where our bodies do very well cooling us down.  On long-range hunts, our ancestors would basically follow their prey until the animal collapsed from exhaustion, and then we’d finish the job.  Then we’d have to ruck that meat out of there!  Humans are also great at carrying heavy loads – even compared to our close relatives the apes, that are much less efficient at walking upright and tend to regularly move on all fours, eliminating their hands as carrying tools.
Shameless plug here for our Kent Island Ruckers group that meets Sunday mornings to get out on the trails (and sometimes forge our own trails!)  It’s easier on the joints than running, and you’re getting some strength work in too by loading up your ruck as much as you’d like.  Come check it out sometime!

I’ll finish with a quote from Jason that wraps this whole topic up for me, and motivates me to keep getting out there and challenging myself in different ways.  I hope you all go get this book and pass it on to a friend when you’re done.  We need to set the example and turn our society away from staying comfortable and soft, and back outside doing hard things!

“Doing physically hard things is an enormous life hack.  Do hard things and the rest of life gets easier and you appreciate it all the more.  Not doing physically hard things gets us all out of whack.  The data is overwhelming in terms of our need to sweat, to be outside, to be part of a community.”
 — Jason McCarthy, US Army Special Forces, Founder of GORUCK

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