The Alchemy of Anger

The word “ire” originated almost a thousand years ago emerging in the 11th century from Latin’s ira meaning anger, rage, passion. In the 1300s “ire” developed in the French language where it similarly meant anger, wrath, or violence. Today ire is considered as a synonym for anger. It reflects a hostile energy, a bubbling brood. Ire is often seen in a negative light as something to avoid openly expressing.

However, ire is also part of words like desire and inspire. Desire and inspire are both seen as mostly positive. We desire to be inspired. We want to be infected with an energy that fuels great efforts towards a meaningful outcome. Energy inspires effort. Wherever that energy arises from whether from a well of fury or one of focus, energy drives us to do.

So, too, is ire a part of fire. In an article for The Free Press, Olivia Reingold introduces us to a niche activity in the Jewish community that a growing number of youth are drawn to. A form of Torah Trivia is offered as an intense competition for Jewish teens. Teens study traditional texts and religious work extensively with hopes of being able to accurately answer arcane questions. Winners of regional events win accolades as well as opportunity to compete at higher, national events. Winners from individual countries compete in the Superbowl of this sport hosted in Israel each year. This year’s US winner, a High School Sophomore, Crystal Ritch, tells Reingold: “Every day since the finals, I’m studying like I’m fire.” To which, Reingold questions Ritch asking if Ritch meant that she’s studying like she’s “on fire?” Ritch’s response, “No, like I’m fire, you know like when you’re doing something, and you start to get really good at it? And then you feel like, ‘whoa,’ like I feel I could rise to the top, almost like with adrenaline and the will in your heart? Like, I’m going to do this. I’m going to push for hours. I’m going to do it every single break.” Now, that’s a feeling we’d like to bottle and distribute. That sounds like an enviable source of energy.

A 2015 article from Salon quotes a psychologist, Ellen Winner, defining what Winner calls the rage to master. Winner observes, “I hear it from parents all the time; they say there’s nothing that can keep their kids from what they want to be good at.” The rage to master is seen as a single-minded, intense focus, almost an obsessiveness that drives a ruthless insistence on persistence. It’s a hallmark of high performers. The rage to master showcases itself as tenacity and breeds resilience. Problems are simply obstacles to overcome. Struggles things to surmount. Progress is inevitable with continued fierce pursuit. This internal drive for mastery seems to be fed by both considerable curiosity and a desire to discover. Motivation and direction aren’t elements that those with a rage to master need. Motivation isn’t necessary as motivation is an external force. As Grover notes in Winning, “Motivation is for those who haven’t decided whether to commit to their goals, or how much time, effort, and life they’re willing to invest to achieve them.” Motivation helps spur along those that aren’t fully invested or committed. Those infected with ire are infused with internal initiative. They are auto-didacts driving their own quest for improvement. Our high school sophomore and elite athletes share this rage to master.

Tim Grover has worked with NBA legends like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. In his book, Relentless, Grover defines relentless as “craving the end result so intensely that the work becomes irrelevant.” Elite performers aren’t passively waiting direction, they’re leading their development. They are pushing others to push them harder. As Shane Parrish observed, “The very best don’t have to turn it on. It’s always on. They have to turn it off.” Their intensity isn’t easy to be around. Grover notes, “Truly relentless people…are predators, with dark sides that refuse to be taught to be good.” Grover goes on writing, “Relentless is about never being satisfied, always driving to be the best, and then getting even better.” Grover notes that “controlled anger is a deadly weapon, in the right hands.” The drive of the dedicated isn’t warm and fuzzy. It isn’t necessarily fun to be around. There’s a deep, dark, almost intimidating intensity to it. It’s coming from an internal well that seems capable of providing a bottomless reserve of energy. Grover believes, “The dark side is your fuel, your energy. It excites you, keeps you on the edge, recharges you, fills your tank.” Working with and watching world class performers like Jordan and Bryant, Grover sees of people like them that, “Deep inside you, there’s an undeniable force driving your actions, the part of you that refuses to be ordinary, the piece that stays raw and untamed. Not just instinct, but killer instinct.”

There are many examples where people funnel bitterness into getting better. Having a chip on one’s shoulder spurs effort. Almost 60 years ago, Warren Buffett was in the early stages of his business career. He was a shareholder in a company that was struggling. It operated in an industry that was falling out of favor and the CEO saw Buffett’s investment as a threat. As a result, the CEO offered to buy Buffett’s shares. Buffett wasn’t enthused about the prospects of the organization or the CEO and accepted the offer. As the paperwork for the deal was drafted and provided to Buffett, he saw that the terms had changed from the original conversation. The price for Buffett’s shares was put in paper at slightly lower, an eighth of a dollar, than agreed. Alice Schroeder, Buffett’s biographer, observed that this disconnect deeply irritated Buffett. Buffett’s response was to buy up more stock instead of formalizing the sale of his shares. Schroeder offered that Buffett’s bitterness about being shortchanged twelve and a half cents a share was the driver behind is decision to accumulate more. Buffett ended up becoming the principal shareholder of this business which was, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett’s beginning of what would become one of the most impressive investment vehicles in history began from bitterness.

In a separate example, journalist Bari Weiss was interviewing US State representative, Will Hurd, who was running in the US Republican primary seeking to become a presidential candidate about how he got started in politics. Before politics, Hurd was in the US military. Hurd’s answer in Bari Weiss’s podcast, Honestly, “I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was the head of the undercover operations at our station in Kabul, Afghanistan. And at 3 a.m. that morning, a bomb went off in front of our embassy, killed some of our local guards, took out a section of our protective wall, and my unit was responsible for trying to figure out what happened. And we conducted a couple dozen operations in a very short period of time. That night, we had a “HPSCI CODEL”—the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Congressional Delegation. These are the people that oversee our intelligence services. I go into this briefing and I overhear one of these members of Congress say, “Is the CIA going to cut this briefing short so we can get to the bazaar to buy rugs?” I’m annoyed, but we get in the briefing and the senior-most person in this group, who had been on the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence for over six years, asks a question: “Why was Iran not supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan the way Iran was supporting other groups in Iraq?” Now, your sophisticated audience and listeners know that’s a pretty crummy question, but I start explaining the Sunni–Shia divide. And then he raises his hand and he says, “Will, what’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” And I’m thinking, this guy’s getting ready to make a really inappropriate joke, and who am I to deny him this opportunity? And I said, “I don’t know, Congressman, what’s the difference?” And I’m getting ready to go, “bah dum dum dum.” His face goes bright red. Didn’t know that difference in Islam. You know, it’s okay for my big brother to not know that difference because he sells cable in our hometown of San Antonio. But for an individual who is making decisions on sending our brothers and sisters and spouses to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—unacceptable. And I literally, at that moment, right then and there, I decided to move back to my hometown and run for Congress. So that’s how I got involved in politics. It started with me getting pissed off.

Consider seeing Ire as an acronym representing an Inner Resolve for Excellence. It’s the heart of being self-driven. Ire is how we can convert desire into drive. It’s the fuel that funnels the grind. Ire inspires, incites, and incents. Maybe rage isn’t something we need to hide behind in a cage? Perhaps, instead of trying to tamp down and tame our tantrums we consider inflaming them? Hurt helps. Pain prods. UFC President, Dana White, has been known to say, “go ahead, bet against me.” Criticism can be converted into a chip on the shoulder.

Adam Grant echoes White’s sentiment writings in Hidden Potential, “The desire to prove others wrong can light a spark of motivation.” That’s right, the doubters and the haters can provide a spark that makes you want to become great. This can be quite powerful and provide strength to face and overcome fears to acting as well. We care more about putting those that criticized us in their place than we worry about the size of the challenge.

Maybe there’s a reason the word fuel starts with the letters, f and u? Sure, the phrase don’t get bitter, get better is constructive. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the power that getting bitter has in making us better. As the acclaimed biographer Walter Issacson has written in his biography of Elon Musk, “People who are driven by demons get shit done.” Sometimes, bitter is just the pill to fire up your will. Perhaps what we’re talking about can be viewed as The Alchemy of Anger? It is taking something that seems toxic, harmful, or useless and converting it into something of extreme value. It’s seeing pain as purposeful or as a propellant. Consider that HURT can Help Unleash Relentless Tenacity.