I started middle distance running in my late 20s. An activity that, by and large, had never really appealed before. A history of living close to hills and far from gyms had meant that fate was never really on my side. Plus I had another odd but not entirely uncommon inhibitor: when I run I itch like a manic. We’re not talking about a regular itch here; one that goes away when scratched. But an all encompassing, pounding assault on the senses. One that could easily result in me digging my nails into my skin until I drew blood and simply having to stop dead in my tracks. That kind of itch.
For the record, this reaction isn’t due to sweat or a cheap fabric softener, and only occurs after a period of inactivity. But it is a common yet rarely discussed condition that exists in many a tortured soul. Why does it happen? Well, for absolutely anyone that takes part in strenuous exercise after time away; the body will need to make a few immediate adjustments. Principally, the capillaries will need to rapidly expand to allow for greater blood flow. This is normal. However, for the aforementioned tortured amongst us; this signal gets pretty janky and our brain interprets it as an itch and histamines are released into the body on mass. It’s pretty brutal. Like all your allergies came at once. Everywhere.
The good news is that it gets better the more frequently you run and eventually goes away entirely as you get fitter. But until then, running will remain quite a torturous experience. For a long time this was enough to put me off entirely. But an increase in my waistline and a decrease in available team sports (where the itching had never been a problem), encouraged me to will myself through the pain. Eventually I got…kinda good. I’d never run 5 kilometres in one go ever in my life at age 29, but inside of a year I was running 4 of them every week, eventually I got to the point where I could run them in 20 minutes flat and 10 kilometres in under 45 minutes.
I don’t actually believe the reason I was able to pull this off was down to any sense of natural determination or genetic advantage. The times themselves were never that big of goal for me. There was one singular thing that pushed me, and that was the fear of knowing that if I stopped running for any period of time; my capillaries were going to kick my ass, and I would be on a shortcut to itch valley. It kept me at a high level, it forced me to run on days when I didn’t want to. Just a week off would be back to square one. As restricting as this sometimes felt, I had to concede it brought out the best in me by quite accidental design.
Around the time that I came to the realisation that my fear of the itch was actually helping me become a better runner, I discovered the Japanese videogame Dark Souls. I was sort of at that stage in my life where I felt it would be a good time to bow out from being a gamer. I was, by this time, in my early 30s and had a decent enough career that I was keen to make progress in. I also had side hustles I wanted to develop, a house deposit to save for and a wedding to plan. Adulting, whether I liked it or not, had become me. And that was fine. I’d had a good run. So I’d let my online gaming subscriptions expire, moved the PS4 and Xbox out of the living room and taken the clan tags off of my Call of Duty profile. I was out. Maybe I’d get a Wii for dinner parties, but that would be that.
Dark Souls it would seem, would have something else to say on the matter. Something that I was soon able to realise captured the same relentless desire to excel that I’d found in running, but by a much more deliberate design. One that I found all the more powerful. One that would prove all the more transferable to my other life objectives.
To briefly explain the concept behind the Dark Souls games to the uninitiated: You are not given instructions on how to play said game, you are not helped by the game to play said game, it does not have an easy mode. If you die, every enemy you previously killed will be there to kill you once again sometimes stronger than before, and all of your progress and experience will be lost. And you will die, a lot. You will lose your progress and experience a lot. It is, just as that summary would suggest, a very very difficult videogame. But here is the most important thing, the thing that adds a broader meaning to such a sadistic experience: it’s fair. There are a very specific set of rules, a cadence to the field of play that the game will never switch up on you. The goal posts will never be moved and rules will not be bent or broken.
The game is not putting you through the experience because it wants you to fail, quite the contrary in fact. It is putting you through this experience to prepare you for the challenges ahead. It does not want you to be unprepared. It demands nothing less than your absolute mastery, and as a result whether or not you plan it that way; you will excel and become masterful. It’s inevitable. Think of the training montage in a Rocky movie. Ra’s al Ghul helping Bruce Wayne become Batman or the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei. The game is turning you into a superhero.
This concept utterly fascinated me. The attention to detail, the discipline, the high competency threshold became all consuming. As I mentioned, I’ve never necessarily been a particularly determined person — not naturally. But what I have come to realise is that by creating an environment that only rewards mastery, I have a tendency to accept the fact that I sort of have to become a master…otherwise I’m just wasting my time. When I would spend hours upon hours on Dark Souls I came to feel as though there was a transferable skillset that I could apply to other aspects of life in general.
My first real-life Dark Souls challenge was in managing my finances for a house purchase and wedding. I started to think of my monthly salary in the same way I would the precious “souls” currency within the game required to level up. To waste my money on something frivolous felt akin to wandering off the map badly prepared and putting myself at risk of being killed in-game by an overpowered enemy. This would result in losing the required “souls” I’d worked so hard to preserve, the souls that would be so critical to leveling up and meeting my objective. I became protective of my spending; conservative when necessary, but acknowledging when I had to speculate to accumulate - just like my playstyle on the game. Saving money felt like in game “grinding.” It was tough, sometimes tedious if looked at in isolation, but I never lost sight of the objective. My new home and wedding costs were the boss battle waiting for me at the end of the level. I completed on my house purchase pretty much exactly a year to the day I first started playing. I got married four months later.
I’d also been promoted at work around this time and with it came a much greater level of responsibility that was new to me. I struggled quite a bit in those early weeks and months, I’ll be the first to admit that. But subconsciously or not, I knew the same blueprint applied. I was only going to get better at what I was doing if I committed to absolute mastery. I knew I wasn’t blessed with the natural inclination to eat, sleep and breath determination. I’ve always thought of myself as “smart enough,” for most things I set out to achieve. But I can be a procrastinator. I can get easily distracted by bright shiny things. But I made it a commitment to force an environment on myself where success could be achieved by absolute mastery — determined or not.
I was playing a lot of Bloodborne around this time, which was a different game, but still the brainchild of Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki and worked on very much the same principles. It was a faster paced playstyle and very much about risk and reward. If you took a hit; you could gain some of your character’s health back by landing a successful counter-attack. This concept worked well for me in my professional mindset. I took my knocks on the chin and figured it was better to fail quickly, rather than waiting for the most opportune moment to strike that may never come. I brainstormed more, came up with 10 ideas a day (of which 9 would be awful), and just kept taking that chance in the hope I’d get some of my professional health bar back. All the while putting in the same level of preparation that meant I was leveling up my knowledge base. A big meeting became a boss battle (quite literally at times) and I refused to go into it under levelled.
I definitely got better at my job. I’d just mentally needed to put myself in that pressure cooker; even if the expectation wasn’t necessarily always as life or death as I made it out to be. For me, every setback needed to feel like it wasn’t part of some cruel exercise, but a necessary part of design, and like in Dark Souls as long as I’d unlocked a shortcut, the path back would not be as arduous as it seemed.
Of course unlike the quite meticulously designed Hidetaka Miyazaki games, life is not always a balanced blend of tough but fair. Many times it is quite simply cruel by design, and no amount of levelling up, grinding, or mastery will matter in those circumstances. I’ve come to accept that some of life’s boss battles will forever have the upper hand. But what I have been able to do is better distinguish between the impossible ones and the others that just require a different approach, or are just supposed to kill me a lot until I get better.
The truth is, I’m not even that good at Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro or any of the other sub genre of games that work on these principles. There are players that post videos online of 30 minute speed runs, no death challenges, or completion attempts at the base level. I will never be one of these players. But I always finish the games. In my own time. And by the end of it, just like my middle distance runs; fear of losing an edge and having to start a torturous process from scratch keeps me in the game. It gets me to a higher level than my natural tendencies would have otherwise. Carefully curated, albeit artificial, determination on tap.
I can’t say for sure if Hidetaka Miyazaki intended such comparisons when conceiving of his formula. I think at the core he wanted to make a challenging video game that rewarded players for as he puts it “overcoming tremendous odds.” He did not set out to make a hard video game, the reality is you just aren’t going to get that rush if the challenge isn’t there. Conveniently a lot of life’s pursuits work the same way. Life achievements aren’t necessarily hard by anyone’s deliberate design, it’s just that all of the good things tend to need to be for them to hold any stock and social currency. There is nothing wrong with everybody getting a trophy and not every situation requires knife-edge precision. We should all take a moment to play life on easy mode where we can. But when required, for me personally I operate better knowing I’ve taken the time to level up, just in case.