in: Advice, Character

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Finding an Existential Second Wind

Wing attached to the top of the ship.

On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked ‘enough,’ so we desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. —William James, “The Energies of Men”

If you’ve ever prepared for a running race, you know how in training you reached a certain pace that seemed like your absolute limit; it seemed impossible to go any faster. And yet, on race day, you did go faster. Even though you thought you were pushing your hardest during your workouts, this was an illusion.

We often think we slow down and stop during athletic training because we run out of physiological energy — that it is the strength of our muscles or the oxygen in our blood that caps our maximum expenditure. Yet research finds that when individuals feel they’ve reached their physical limits, they actually have the capacity to go on for much longer. It isn’t your body that shuts things down, it’s your mind.

The brain exercises a miserly control over the body’s life-sustaining resources; it monitors the environment within and without, and when it feels there’s a risk of your getting too fatigued and run-down, it puts the brakes on your efforts, throwing the switch far from the actual point at which you would become dangerously exhausted.

When something compels you beyond this premature barrier — such as the animating pressures of competition — the parsimonious brain relents, and opens up another store of energy. You experience the proverbial “second wind.”

The phenomenon of the second wind manifests itself not only in regards to physical work, but intellectual, moral, spiritual, emotional . . . and even existential efforts as well.

There are times in life when setbacks pile up. Hopes are dashed. Uncertainty intensifies. Just when you were getting used to one twist of fate, another arrives. You feel overwhelmed and worn out. You feel like you cannot find your footing. That you cannot go on. You’re not necessarily clinically depressed, nor suicidal, but you’re down in the dumps; you’ve lost your mojo; life feels empty and burdensome and you simply want to lie in bed, throw the covers over your head, and give up. You’ve hit an existential wall.

Just as when running a long distance, even though you feel you’ve reached your limits, you still have ample reserves of energy stashed away. But how can you access these stores and catch the current of a second wind?

7 Stimulants to the Second Wind

as a rule men habitually use only a small part of the power which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions

The famous philosopher and psychologist William James was very interested in the phenomenon of the second wind. In “The Energies of Men,” a speech he gave in 1906, he observed that while “It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon” by drilling down deeper, “Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface.”

James’ focus in his speech was on how people can access their full, highest potential and operate more frequently at their “most useful pitch of energy.” Yet the same ideas he puts forth can also help people simply continue on at their ordinary pitch once they feel they’ve reached the limit of their endurance.

The reason people aren’t able to consistently tap into their second wind, James surmised, is that their lives typically don’t contain the kind of prods needed to do so:

Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.

If the problem in accessing our second wind is insufficient incitements, the answer, James argues, is to make greater use of “stimuli for unlocking what would otherwise be unused reservoirs of individual power.”

An example of this kind of energy-releasing agent is the competitive atmosphere of a race. And there are many others which can be used to overcome fatigue, whether of the physical, mental, or existential variety. James sorts “the different ways in which an [individual’s] energy reserves may be appealed to and set loose” into various categories, which include the following:


There are two types of excitement.

The first is experienced in real time: some threat or danger or emergency arises that sets off your fight-or-flight response; adrenaline and alertness surge and you’re galvanized into action. This type of excitement is very effective for catching a physical second wind; no matter how tired you are, if someone jumps out of the bushes at you, you’ll suddenly find yourself with energy and strength to spare. But its durability is too fleeting to move the needle on existential fatigue; even if some catalyst calls upon all your faculties, once the risk has passed, you’ll fall back into the doldrums.

The other type of excitement is more enduring. It’s connected not to extraordinary events themselves, but to the anticipation of them. Life only feels worth living when there are things, big or small, on the horizon to look forward to: a trip, a dinner date, the attainment of a goal. Longing, expectation — the sense of life’s possibilities in their most rose-tinged and idealistic glow — can in fact be even more animating than the actual experience turns out to be.

Anticipatory excitement of course extinguishes itself once the imagined becomes the real. But we can continually put new goals and events on the calendar, and look forward to the next possibility and the next.


Existential exhaustion sets in when life seems to lose its meaning, and the solution to this is to find greater purpose. But while we often think this purpose needs to be something grand and overarching, it can actually be telescoped down to something small and specific: get this project done; mark off these to-dos; take a step with that goal.

Activity takes the mind off the spider web of ruminations that stretch back to the past and extend forward to the future and focuses it down a single avenue in the present. In the midst of effort, you exist only in the here and now.

Taking action, any action, regenerates “the sense of vitality,” James says, “making the [individual] feel alive again.” Any sense of progress, of effectively impacting the environment, of moving things from open to closed, from A to B, from chaotic to organized, from undone to finished — anything which reminds you that you are an efficacious being — can help you catch an existential second wind. Hence the strangely cathartic boost that comes from simply decluttering one’s house.

The sense of being after something is the thing. When you exercise, for example, your body and mind viscerally feel as though you’re chasing down an antelope, and even though you end the workout without any quarry to show for it, everything suddenly seems right in the world.


Ideally, most of life is driven by genuine motivation, real feeling, intrinsic desire. But when feelings fail, it can be our sense of duty that keeps us steadfast. When we cannot will something for ourselves, we often can for those who count on us. We can feel more compelled to avoid the shame of breaking a promise, than to garner the reward of fulfilling it. 

James notes that the second wind which arises out of duty is particularly durable when it accompanies one’s moving into a “new position of responsibility,” as “The duties of new offices of trust are constantly producing this [energizing] effect on the human beings appointed to them.” That is, it’s hard to stay in a passive, existential funk when you’ve got a job to do.

The Example of Others

How buoying it is to see the ways other people are managing to survive, thrive, and stay afloat under the same difficulties in which you’re sinking. In every crisis, there are those who keep their head, who maintain undaunted determination and good cheer; whatever is possible for one human being, is also possible for another.

A second existential wind can be gotten not only from examining the fortifying models around you, but also by reading biographies of folks who have faced similar hardships and come out the other side.


Among the emotions which impart a second wind, James lists love, anger, and despair.

Love is a heady experience that creates a motivating force which not only drives you to towards the object of your affection, but energizes your ability to tackle pretty much everything else in life too. Love not only opens the heart, but the throttle of all your capacities.

Anger is perhaps the most obvious of the energizing emotions. Steps that you feel too tired or too fearful to undertake in an ordinary, neutral mood, become hard not to undertake amidst the stimulating, courage-rousing froth of rage. “Indignation-crises,” as James calls them, galvanize efforts that don’t feel at all effortful.

Despair may not seem like a motivating force, and James observes that it indeed “lames most people.” But he notes that it also “wakes others fully up.” When you’re up against a wall, you often suddenly find the will to go on; in fact, having something to push back against can crystallize a sense of purpose. Rather than floating in a completely unstructured state, paralyzed by an array of seemingly inexhaustible options, having a limited set of resources actually releases creativity. There comes a special satisfaction in improvising, in making do, in making the best of.


James says that ideas can be potent vehicles through which “bound energies are let loose,” as Ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills.”

This is especially true when they catalyze a true conversion. For James, these conversions — whether “political, scientific, philosophic, or religious” — represent a transformation in which a person who was formerly divided in some area, becomes unified and integrated. Previous doubts or reservations about an idea, a commitment, a way, are overcome, and it is assented to with one’s whole soul.

James observes that the seeds of a conversion may lie dormant within someone for years before a certain set of circumstances or arguments or events coalesce, sparking their germination. As he wrote in a letter to a reverend: “I am quite willing to believe that a new truth may be supernaturally revealed to a subject when he really asks. But I am sure that in many cases of conversion it is less a new truth than a new power gained over life by a truth always known.” Sometimes the impetus for a conversion at a particular time and place is obvious; sometimes it is mysterious. “Whatever it is,” James writes, “it may be a highwater mark of energy, in which ‘noes,’ once impossible, are easy, and in which a new range of ‘yeses’ gains the right of way.”

The brain weighs when to throttle our energies based on how taxing an effort feels. This is a subjective judgment which fluctuates according to how motivated we feel at a certain time, and how rewarding we perceive a certain pursuit to be. When we hit an existential wall, the enticements of going on living do not feel commensurate with the work required to continue. When this condition arises, we need to tip the motivational scale by seeking more of the energy-releasing agents above. Not all can be consistently controlled, but all can be sought after, or reflected upon, to a greater extent.

What seems like a wall, what seems like the very limits of our will, is really a doorway into another layer of energy. The second wind is always blowing; we just need to tack our sails to catch it.

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