We all have crutches in our lives – some that are obvious and some that are not so obvious. Using a crutch appropriately will help you cruise or climb, not crash.
As a toddler, you instinctively held onto objects while learning to get up and trying to walk. Many decades later you may require similar support to be as physically independent as possible. In all stages of our lives, we use many forms of support to help us repair, recover, thrive and grow. How can we think about crutches in a systematic manner so that they work for and not against us?
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Defining with the Fractured Leg
The Benefits of Crutches
The Problem with Crutches
1234Use or Lose
1234Hiding Current Problems
1234Unseen Future Problems
1234Support vs Dependence
1234Hiding Behind Google Translate
1234The Unholy Trinity
1234Understanding the Animal
12345678Form & Structure
12345678Protection vs Growth
12345678Using the Crutch Appropriately
12345678Duration – Short vs Long-Term
12345678Continuous (Science) Education
12345678Fake it until you make it
12345678Safety vs Motivation
12345678Machine vs Human
12345678The Technology Within
Open Book Exams
Sleeping Pills and Anti-Depressants
Mock Meats meet Meat Minimizers
Defining with the Fractured Leg [top]
When you fracture your leg – (at least) 2 things follow. One: you have a plaster cast to immobilize the fractured bone and relevant joints – this is what I call a protective crutch. Two: you also have the typical crutch that you use with your arm to replace the structural support that you would have got from that leg had it not broken – you can now move around independently. Both of these give us a good working definition:
a crutch is a tool for protection or growth that is typically used for a relatively short duration
The Benefits of Crutches [top]
In addition to the protection from avoiding injury or loss, we use crutches for growth and enhancing performance. Study buddies, gym trainers, private tutors, coffee, meditation candles – these are all examples of crutches we use to enhance our performance. The many benefits of crutches are the reason we seek them out and I won’t dwell on that side of the equation today.
The Problem with Crutches [top]
We start to use a crutch because of some perceived or anticipated benefit. Any crutch has numerous dimensions. When we do not appreciate the crutch fully, its direct and indirect implications over different time horizons, we unwittingly carry the risk of some negative outcomes. The crutch is almost always a double-edged sword.
My motivation to write about crutches today arises from the downside risk potential of crutches at a practical level.
Use or Lose [top]
Most systems are subject to the phenomenon “use it or lose it”. We see it at all levels of zoom through society for which there are innumerable examples.
At an individual level – the plaster cast for the broken leg is a protective crutch that creates a leg with significant muscle atrophy and loss of strength from not being used.
At a family level – the larger and more unjustified a child’s pocket allowance, the greater is the chance that they will lose the ability to value the importance of hard work.
At a national level – the more generous a healthcare system, the more likely it is that citizens will do less to take care of their own health through prevention-focused lifestyles. This hurts those individuals eventually and when they lose the entire healthcare system loses too.
Drug Tolerance [top]
For many crutches, especially around substances that we ingest, the dose we require for the same effect rises over time. This phenomenon that can be more generally called “drug tolerance” exists in most natural systems. A common example is pharmaceutical aids that are taken for more than a few days. For example, drugs for lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure or insulin resistance invariably require higher and higher doses. That problem on its own would be fine (you just increase the dose) but these drugs also have many harmful side effects which also increase even as the efficiency of the drug decreases. To top it all, they never attack the root cause of the problem – poor lifestyle!
Hiding Current Problems [top]
When we use a crutch because we don’t want to do the right thing because we think it is difficult, we end up exacerbating the problem. Females diagnosed with PCOS using oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) because they don’t want to fix their bad skin with lifestyle are a typical and common example of sweeping things under the carpet. The OCP is the crutch – it would have been fine for a short while but it’s so much easier to pop a pill for many years starting in your teens than to eat sensibly and move enough. All the underlying root causes of the problem in such a female worsen with time and are unobserved because their symptoms (facial hair, weight gain, bad skin) are kept suppressed with pharmaceutical aids.
Unseen Future Problems [top]
Many things we use innocently become crutches in the future and create problems in the even more distant future. Sometimes their long-term impact is not visible to us. One simple example is caffeine. A superb psychoactive substance, we can take it to enhance performance today. However, with any tool, misuse has its consequences. If your consumption of coffee is a ‘need’, then to the extent that caffeine disrupts sleep, incorrect timing and excessive consumption on a continuous basis will increase the probability of cognitive decline (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) in the long run. It is nuanced because epidemiological studies also point towards coffee consumption being good for liver health and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. I even wrote about how Coffee May Keep Cancer at Bay. As, always, the details of how, when, and how much you use the crutch will matter.
Another example of this phenomenon is a non-tangible crutch: self-labelling. We are quick to comfort ourselves with limiting labels like “I am the kind that hates the gym – I prefer outdoor activities”. The truth is that often we don’t do that outdoor physical work we claimed we preferred. Guess who suffers in the long run from that self-image because of that wiring being done within the brain over time? Throw such a crutch away!
Support vs Dependence [top]
When you use something as a crutch for support for a short period but then become dependent on it for an indefinitely long period, you have experienced a downside of the crutch. If you skip workouts because your personal trainer isn’t available – that is support turned into dependence. Your trainer was hired to take you up the learning curve safely – that’s great! The dependence that crept in has become a problem. Similarly, if you cannot sleep without a pill that support turned into dependence. If you think you cannot enjoy a party without hiding behind the lies of alcohol, that is dependence, a synonym in this case for addiction.
Never mind when your country’s government celebrates its Independence Day – it is better that you, the citizen, stay focused on being independent of harmful things. Don’t depend on your government – often they are part of the nexus that keeps you dependent.
Hiding Behind Google Translate [top]
The world is made up of 3 kinds of people when it comes to language learning. First, there are those who are not interested in learning another language because they think they don’t need it. The second kind, my favourite kind, uses Google Translate as yet another tool to help them in their language learning journeys. Finally, there are those who will loudly claim the existence of Google Translate as a reason to not learn another language but will not actually use Google Translate when abroad because they expect the locals serving tourists to make the effort to speak English.
It’s fine if you don’t want to do something, just don’t claim that the existence of a crutch is why you don’t want to do it. Don’t hide behind Google Translate or any other crutch – use it!
The Unholy Trinity [top]
Most of what I have just discussed regarding the problem with crutches arises from the Unholy Trinity. Simply being aware of this provides a good clue for formulating a plan of action for each crutch.
Conquering Crutches [top]
If you are not conscious of the numerous crutches in your life, it will be good to start now. Often, they are excellent supporting structures and tools and so it will be good for you to be aware of their value. To the extent that a crutch is limiting your life, it is critical to bring it to the fore of your mind to deal with it. You can think of this as being ‘step zero’ and should be a process that is always on but running on low power.
Understanding the Animal [top]
Directing thought towards analyzing the many nuances of any crutch will give you a more thorough understanding of what it can do for you, both good and bad. This is a critical stage because knowing the animal you are dealing with will allow you to harness and use it appropriately. Did you know Why I Prefer No Helmet?
Form & Structure [top]
Sometimes your crutch is easily visible and tangible e.g., a handrail for climbing a steep staircase. At other times it is invisible e.g., your religious faith.
Sometimes it is a single object, simple or linear e.g., an escalator instead of stairs. At other times it may be a complex maze e.g., your alumni network.
Protection vs Growth [top]
When we evoked our definition above we saw the 2 types of crutches when you break a leg – for protection and for growth. This categorization is an important one to make. During the treatment period, you have been able to get around using the healthy leg along with the crutch that replaced the structural support not provided by the plastered leg. At the end of the treatment period, you have a bone that has healed safely.
The muscles immobilized are weak from lack of use. With the plaster removed, in time, with use, the weakened leg will hopefully get back to normal function. That’s a story that ends well.
Here’s another example that almost never ends the same way and is overlooked by millions.
When you wear sunglasses, you protect your visual system from harmful UV light. On the other hand, when you wear reading glasses for presbyopia when you enter your 40s it is because your eye muscles have weakened with age. Now you have a crutch for reading – a tool for benefitting from whatever it is you are trying to read.
When you support weakened muscles in their job, you get the job done at that moment, but over time the muscles will continue to weaken because of that support. In the case of presbyopia that weakening will happen until you are in your 60s. In order to delay dependence, simply trying a little harder every day without glasses – dedicated deliberate practice, can help you go about life for longer without the need for glasses. Both the eye muscles and the neural circuitry will adapt positively to the focused training. [Technique, Form, Progression]
The case of myopia so typical with urban children is even stronger – instead of resorting to a crutch, get to the root of the problem and tweak their lifestyle. There is something seriously wrong with a society that accepts that most schoolchildren need spectacles.
Action Plan [top]
Needless to say, you need to formulate some action plan, even if it is just a rough plan. As with all good plans, focus more on the action and processes you will follow rather than the eventual outcome (which you already know you want). Having a timeline associated with your plan will make it more effective. At times it will be good to force action soon, at other times it might be better to be slow and gentle when closing the Implementation Gap.
Using the Crutch Appropriately [top]
Your alumni network or even the tier-1 college’s name on your CV might be the crutch that gets you a job interview. Realize that the function of that crutch ends there. After that it is your ability to deliver that will get you the job and its rewards.
Using a calculator during practice when the final exam does not permit the use of one is an inappropriate use of a crutch. Although that electronic machine can do calculations for the rest of your life – exam prep is not the time to be engaging it.
Duration – Short vs Long-Term [top]
As long as you are comfortable with doing mental arithmetic when needed, it won’t hurt your overall development to use a calculator when you feel like it, especially when you need an accurate answer and mental arithmetic is not the sensible thing to attempt.
In general, crutches that provide you protection from harm can be used for your entire life e.g., gloves when at the gym or gloves when working with an oven. Some types of protective crutches (e.g. blood-pressure medication to prevent a stroke) may not be solely benign. Being aware of their side effects or inability to provide a permanent solution or cure should alert you to the fact that they should be used only in the short term for protection until you work on the cure.
Continuous (Science) Education [top]
Whatever be the crutch, there’s likely to be a body of knowledge out there that you can tap into to understand the mechanisms and functioning of that crutch. Being armed with (scientific) knowledge is always a good thing to make it easier to customize a crutch to your own needs and experience.
Fake it until you make it [top]
We are not perfect at the start and we’re not perfect at the end either. However, having an attitude of fake it until you make it will remind you to be consistent until you reach a level that you’re happy with. Using a crutch during this phase is perfect. Whether your crutch is a nicotine patch to quit smoking, decaffeinated coffee to reduce your caffeine dependence, or a gym buddy who gets you into the habit of showing up at the gym – use it with the aim of no longer needing it soon.
Extreme Performance [top]
The blueprint for natural growth and higher performance is a concave-up curve described as “hormetic stress followed by rest”. Using this consistently for generating extreme performance gets a turbo boost if you use crutches appropriately – whether for the hormetic stress or the rest or for both. If you get stuck in a rut you call boredom, it can be worthwhile using a crutch to get out of a plateau. This might take the form of a change in workout regime for some novelty, or a change in material for your language learning. There’s always a path to take you to higher and higher levels if you want.
Safety vs Motivation [top]
When you use a trainer at the gym to teach you how to exercise safely and effectively that is good. To also have a motivational crutch to push that little bit harder is good. However, when the trainer exists just for you to show up (otherwise you won’t) then that’s not a good relationship to have with your crutch. The absence of that crutch implies your absence from the gym. You should be able to show up to workouts even if, like me, you too are not a fitness freak.
Tip: If your trainer is also your spotter for heavy lifts, you can always request someone else to spot for you on that day or simply use lighter loads during that specific strength training session.
Performance Attribution [top]
When assessing your performance, it will be good to have an idea of the extent to which your performance was better because of the supportive crutch. We see this with team events for the home team for whom the probability of winning is higher when they have a cheering crowd.
When you run a race with a faster friend pacing you, be honest with yourself about your performance in the absence of a pacer. Similarly, when hiring 2 graduates with similar-looking CVs, you could automatically prefer the less privileged young adult who wasn’t spoon-fed and had more obstacles to deal with in life and fewer supportive resources.
Machine vs Human [top]
For some crutches, rather than relying on another human being, technology-based crutches might be better. Try a fitness band instead of a human being to motivate you to walk. Both with and without machines, you can be creative and gamify most pursuits on-the-fly for smarter effort and, thus, better outcomes.
The Technology Within [top]
The best technology you own is your body, of which your brain is the most sophisticated and powerful for ensuring a happy life. Create crutches within you to always have them available on demand. Whether with the focus of your eyes, the power of your breath, your posture, reminders from your religious faith, or your mottos – become a master of yourself!
Weaning Off [top]
There are some crutches that you may feel are good to keep for life e.g., blind faith in your religion. For those that you want to wean yourself off, the best approach would be to do it slower than you think you can. That reduces 2 risks: [a] the risk of failure in weaning off that specific crutch and [b] the risk of creating a behavioural pattern of failure to achieve self-set targets.
There may be some crutches that you have to get off in one shot by design (e.g., a protective cast is taken off your fractured leg) and others by requirement (e.g., if your addiction is strong and its impact on you is at a life-threatening level). [The Courage-Strength-Fear-Weakness Axis]
A free and powerful tool to help with weaning you off the crutch is journaling. Don’t underestimate the power of your small data.
Whether addiction to permitted substances like caffeine and sugar or to Group-1 carcinogens like nicotine and alcohol, addiction is a terrible thing. Similarly, addiction to modern phenomena like social media or streaming news, anything that has control over your time and your thoughts, they take you away from what matters most to you in the longer run. It is difficult but not impossible to get rid of these crutches. You need to close the Implementation Gap and have a goal to Conquer Consistency.
If you are a substance abuser, you will know how increasingly expensive your addiction has become. And that is only the direct purchase cost. Add to that the cost to your health in terms of the pain of negative symptoms. Then add the financial cost of treating any ill-health that results.
Parenting is one of those amazing projects where your investment tracks closely with the outcomes. Unless you are a highly disturbed individual, what your child needs is your time, not your money, so give them more of the former instead of using it elsewhere to provide the latter. Use crutches to become a better real investor in your child’s future rather than as a way to outsource your responsibilities.
Your child learns how to use crutches constructively by observing how you use them yourself.
If you outsource large amounts of extra help a child needs with their school work to a private tutor, the child learns that they don’t need to value the education provided in the classroom and that our laziness can be compensated for with things that money can buy. You will observe in this phenomenon a great loss of time, money, and opportunities for you and your child to develop an incredible Internal Culture.
Did you know that trainer wheels on their bicycle actually prevent a child’s brain from learning how to balance on 2 wheels correctly? Get fitter yourself by teaching them without trainer wheels. Tip: one way is to keep the seat low enough so that their feet touch the ground and they can push off and move without the need to pedal. They will learn to balance quickly and could be riding within 2 short sessions separated by deep sleep.
We all depend on others for creating, doing, and achieving. Make an effort to understand the extent to which you are an emotional crutch for another person whose growth is being held back because they are holding on to you stubbornly.
If you have never thought about the topic of learning how to learn, today is a good day to start because lifelong learning is one of the best true wealth-gathering habits to nurture. Don’t use “reading a lot” as a crutch to convince yourself that you are learning. Speeding up learning by understanding the neural mechanisms by which we learn and then creating the mindset, environment, and a set of processes will ensure your portfolio of crutches are high ROTI aids for learning.
Open Book Exams [top]
If you have ever taken an open book exam, you will know that it does not obviate the need for you to have internalized the tree of knowledge for that subject. Don’t misunderstand the function of the crutch that the course teacher is permitting you to use. [Tackling Teachability]
Sleeping Pills and Anti-Depressants [top]
If you rely on sleeping pills on a regular basis you should also understand that they don’t really give you the state of sleep that nature requires you to have in order to repair and recover for growth and mental health. Similarly, most anti-depressants are blunt and inaccurate weapons, perhaps, at best, preventing only acute states of heightened danger.
Beyond a short-duration emergency, it is better that you learn to use lifestyle to transform your life without relying on pharmaceutical crutches that perform a terrible service overall. Be joyful. Sleep well.
Running Shoes [top]
We wear shoes to protect our feet from cuts, blisters, and poop. Using this protective crutch invariably makes 99% of recreational runners (and, Olympic marathoners too) have a suboptimal running form (heel striking the ground). The crutch invariably leads to subpar running and increases the risk of injuries which are then attributed to running as opposed to running incorrectly. You need not run, but if you are going to do it, better do it correctly from head to toe.
Comfort Food [top]
We often seek out comfort food as a crutch to hold us up emotionally. Be wise and attach yourself to comfort foods that are inherently healthy. I’d pick something with starch (I love congee! I love khichadi) and avoid animal products, refined flour, and sugar.
Mock Meats meet Meat Minimizers [top]
If you are struggling to give up animal products when you know intellectually that you should, it is often a sensible strategy to transition to mock meats to please your brain. However, use that crutch only temporarily until you realize you don’t need animal products to be happy (leave aside the harm they create). After that, look to enjoy other plant dishes and don’t get attached to meat alternatives. Remember, eventually, you are not looking for an alternative to meat – you are looking to reach your genetic potential with healthy whole-food plant-based nutrition. Life can be Good with French Fries.
Hair dye and make-up are on the surface, to provide emotional crutches. It feels easier to do magic with them instead of eating right, moving often, and getting appropriate sleep to look vibrant and biologically younger than your chronological age. Be aware of the damage you are doing to your body, especially your brain when you use these products. Better to focus on an Internal Culture of Healthy Narcissim.
Not-fun Fact: Did you know that millions of sharks have been killed so far for the squalene used by the cosmetics industry that you support with your dollars?
The Planet [top]
Every action of ours has an impact on the planet. To what extent is the cost to the planet of any specific crutch more than the benefit to you? This is, of course, based on the utility (negative or positive) you attach to the cost to the planet and the benefit to you. Is your attachment to a glass of milk worth the harm to cows and the rest of the planet? [The Paneer Ki Sabzi Oxymoron]
Take the stairs and leave the elevator for that person just back from the hospital with a fractured leg who is actually using a crutch.
Parting Message [top]
Being proactive and creative with crutches is superb for long-term and continuous personal growth.
If everything you do is consistent with your core beliefs and desires, then a long and healthy life of joy is pretty much guaranteed to be yours. If you want to be guided in detail, you know how to reach me, and if you found this useful, please do share it with others.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.