In our cultural lexicon, the myriad uses for the word ‘energy’ reflect the intangible quality of the concept itself. We talk about people having ‘good energy’ or ‘bad energy’. We declare that we don’t like the energy of a room, or even of an inanimate object. Draining people are known as ‘energy vampires’, and preserving one’s personal energy has become sanctified in the form of self-care. If a ‘vibe’ - that other nebulous buzzword of our social media era - can be defined as “a moment of audiovisual eloquence…a concise assemblage of image, sound, and movement” then ‘energy’ might be its extrasensory equivalent.
Of course, energy does have a very literal definition: “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.” It’s this meaning that was the subject of a recent (and fascinating) article in The New Yorker that explores our contemporary obsession with energy and - crucially - why some people seem to have so much more of it than others:
All of us, except for the superheroes and the ultra-sloths, know people who have more energy than we do, and plenty who have less. We may admire or envy or even pity the tireless project jugglers, the ravenous multidisciplinarians, the serial circulators of rooms, the conference hoppers, the calendar maximizers, the predawn cross-trainers and kickboxers. How does she do it? On the flip side, there are the oversleepers, the homebodies, the spurners of invitations and opportunities, the dispensers of excuses. Come on, man! It’s hard to measure success, if you want to avoid making it about money or power or credentials, but, as one stumbles through the landscape of careers and outputs and reputations, one sees, again and again, that the standouts tend to be the people who possess seemingly boundless reserves of mental and physical fuel. Entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, politicians: it can seem that energy, more than talent or luck, results in extraordinary outcomes. Why do some people have it and others not? What does one have to do to get more?
These are questions I’ve often sought answers to myself. Perhaps that’s because I’ve interviewed (and known) many people who have achieved ‘extraordinary outcomes’ in their lives. In doing so, I’ve observed that many, if not all, shared two distinct traits:
They were ‘above average’ (based purely on my own non-scientfic assessment) decision-makers.
They had ‘above average’ physical and mental energy levels.
As the author of The New Yorker article observes, energy is enigmatic not least because it is so subjective. At certain points in my life, I’ve had people seem mystified by my zeal (social, professional, physical). Equally, I know people whose own energetic capacity makes me feel like a comatose sloth. Energy is physiological, for sure - anyway who has been completely incapacitated by a hangover can attest to that - but it’s definitely also psychological: Think how quickly you can zing into action when an exciting opportunity or stimulating interaction crops up–no matter how drained you might’ve been feeling mere moments beforehand.
Having an abundance of energy feels great, there’s no doubt about that. But why do we find it so hard to accept that the type of energy that enables you to tick every last thing off your to-do list is not the kind that most of us can sustain all the time? In the same way that contentment can bring a lasting sense of peace while happiness arrives only in fleeting moments, the rare and hyper-specific physical and mental conditions - amazing sleep, perfect nutrition, minimal stress - that enable us to operate at ‘peak’ energy are rarely available on a daily basis. Rather than fighting this universal truth, perhaps we could all save a lot of energy (the irony) by just accepting it as part of the human experience.
This resistance to ceding to the limits of our own energetic reserves is perhaps best understood through our misuse of the word itself. To quote Richard Maurer, a metabolic recovery doctor interviewed in The New Yorker:
“ ‘Energy’ is a useless term. It is not the perception of stimulation. It is just the capacity to generate work.”
The capacity to generate work. Are we perilously low in energy… or are we just butting against the increasingly unrealistic demands of life in a late-capitalist society? One that leaves us feeling like it’s a personal failing (or biological dysfunction) when we can’t summons the energy to work harder, longer, faster, stronger? Is it possible that if you feel tired after getting up early, exercising, commuting, working for multiple hours, cooking and caring for yourself and your partner or family, then cleaning the kitchen before collapsing into bed, that you do not have ‘an energy disorder’ but are in fact…just a human being? Something to think about.
One more note on the high-energy, ‘extraordinary outcomes’ crew aforementioned: While it is true that these people were/are united by an exceptional sense of drive and momentum, they were also exceptionally effective at focusing that energy on their goal of choice. Few, if any, of them were striving for (nor achieving) equilibrium across the board: These are people who were likely forgoing home-cooked meals/committed personal relationships/consistent exercise regimes/rich social lives/clean houses/caring for their own children (delete as applicable). It wasn’t that they didn’t value these things, but rather that they shared an understanding that no human can do it all, all the time – not even the energetic superheroes among us.