Many years ago, I discovered Professor William James’ wonderful little book On Vital Reserves. In it, he says that everyone knows what it is to start a piece of work, either intellectual or physical, feeling stale. And everyone knows what it is to warm up to his work. The process of warming up is particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.”
Now, usually, most people stop working at the first sign of fatigue. They say, “Boy, I’m bushed,” and that’s it for the day. As Dr. James put it, “We have then walked, played or worked enough, so therefore we desist.” We simply quit. This sort of fatigue forms a kind of wall inside of which, as a rule, we work and live our lives.
But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, then gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy that had, until then, been masked by the “fatigue barrier” we usually obey. In fact, we may have discovered that we have third and fourth winds.
This phenomenon occurs in mental activity as well as physical, and in some cases we may find, beyond the fatigue point, stores of energy that we never dreamed we possessed. Evidently, we stockpile reserves of energy we don’t ordinarily use. And these reserves will go to work only when we demand enough of ourselves.
Only a few exceptional persons make any serious demands of themselves.
The great majority of us miss the far greater accomplishments of which we are capable—and the greater joy in living this would bring to us—because we quit and sit down, gasping at the first sign of fatigue.
I remember one Sunday when I knew I had to write 10 radio shows, all in one day. I got started at 9 o’clock in the morning, and by 5 o’clock that afternoon, I was so bushed, I could hardly think. But I still had 5 shows to write, so I kept at it.
All of a sudden, I felt better and had more energy than I had previously. And by 1:30 the next morning, when I finally finished, I felt great.
After l6 1⁄2 hours of steady mental work, I was as fresh as a daisy! But I had felt like quitting after only 7 or 8 hours.
The next time you get tired, and you’re doing something important, stay with it and see what happens. Each of us has a tremendous second wind, mental and physical. Passing through the fatigue barrier to draw upon our idle reserves can make the difference between existing and really living.
Emerson said, “Vigor is contagious; and whatever makes us either think or feel strongly adds to our power and enlarges our field of action.”