Dirk Knemeyer

Virtues of friction

Originally posted on the Facio blog

I’ve never liked friction. “Never liked”, in this case, has meant “avoid at all costs and become agitated if subjected to”. This has been a boon to me in creative endeavours, as my unwillingness to tolerate things that are broken is near-total and results in rigour and standards that accelerate creative goodness. However I’ve increasingly observed the positive practical impacts that friction provides in many areas of our lives and find myself, in certain ways, seeking out friction where once I would have avoided it.

One example of good friction is when working through challenges with other people. The healthiest outcome is almost universally achieved when all participants come in with a thick skin, intending to do the most collective good, and encouraging critical feedback from all. On the surface, this is the most friction-filled and potentially combustible way of dealing. But that is because of our personal weaknesses and character flaws. Healthy conflict is perhaps the most valuable tool we have in our interpersonal toolbox. It enables issues to be surfaced, framed and addressed. The classic passive-aggressive fear and avoidance of direct conflict might minimize short-term friction but it will reliably lead to long-term dysfunction and misalignment. Of course, to make an atmosphere of healthy conflict productive, more aggressive or self-centered people who are motivated by ego, control or other selfish motives can poison the “healthy” right out of this dynamic. Based on the relative emotional immaturity of most people today, healthy conflict is thus a very difficult thing. But it is one of the real shining examples of where friction in the immediate leads to greater strength for a longer time. It is an excellent thing.

Another example is physical friction. I’ve never enjoyed physically exerting myself, and from a young age learned ways to avoid doing so. For example, as a little boy, I realized how facile my feet were. Rather than bend over to pick little things up, I picked them up with my feet. Forgetting how silly I certainly looked, and that it probably took me longer than just bending over, I was side-stepping an organic opportunity to physically exercise my body. Sure, we don’t bend over a lot, so each time was just a little thing. But it is indicative of a general approach to the world that I’ve employed, really through all of my life. Even when I was an excellent high school athlete, I avoided weight lifting and anything that would provide resistance and friction – or take extra effort.

As I’ve aged, I’m feeling the consequences of this. Whereas when I was young I was very strong and capable – thanks largely to the combination of my age and boundless energy, now nearing my 40′s I’m feeling real degradation in my muscles, especially my arms and legs. Over my 39′ish years I’ve passed up certainly thousands, even tens of thousands of opportunity for resistance and friction that would have made me stronger. Now, I’m left wanting to get started at a moment when it is harder, and relative to each act will have less impact than it once would have. Lesson learned. I wonder if it would have even been possible for me to learn earlier, without experiencing it?

The friction in our lives often seems annoying, and in many cases completely unnecessary. We go out of our way to avoid it, simply by side-stepping conflict, or picking things up with our toes, or otherwise seeking out the path of least resistance. This is an unsurprising human trait, and one that even seems logical at first. But what we really need to do is make sure our lives are full of the appropriate amount of resistance, in the right ways. As initially counter-intuitive as it might seem, it is actually the path for us to be our best selves and contribute in the most healthy and productive ways to the groups, communities and organizations we choose.

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