A gem cannot be polished without friction

I’ve recently just started working in my dream career. It’s been a lot of new faces, names, and protocols but it’s been an amazing experience so far. However, the thought of failure has started rearing its ugly head again. What if I can’t get up-to-speed quick enough? Will I be a burden to the team? What happens if I make a mistake? As usual, I turned to Stoic philosophy for some guidance on my situation. Fortunately, I came across this quote by Seneca, “A gem cannot be polished without friction”. When you analyse this quote from a literal angle it makes sense. After all, diamonds are nothing but polished and compressed carbon. However, I’m sure that’s not what Seneca meant, and I decide to apply this to other areas of life. It got me thinking. So, we’re going to dissect this quote today looking at: 

  1.  Who are some important historical figures who faced ‘friction’ in their lives? 
  2. What actionable steps can we take from these people to better our lives?

Let’s discuss.

A gem cannot be polished without friction

Thomas Edison 

I’m sure you’ve heard of this person we’re about to talk about. He is the reason why I’m able to write this blog post in my room during the night. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, faced so many trials during his early life:

  • His teachers said ‘He was too stupid to learn anything’.
  • He was fired from his first two jobs for being non-productive. 

Most people know that he got his first break by inventing the lightbulb. However, it’s not commonly known that it took him about 1000 unsuccessful attempts to get it right. When asked about it he said, ‘I didn’t fail 1000 times. The lightbulb is an invention with 1000 steps’. 

It’s safe to say that with each friction/failure/trial or whatever you want to call it, Thomas Edison kept on polishing his inventing process until he was able to get it right. 

A gem cannot be polished without friction

Bethany Hamilton 

Now, let’s move on to an inspiring story about a young woman who overcame all odds within the sports industry. Bethany Hamilton, the surfing prodigy.

At age 13 went surfing with her friends whilst on holiday in Hawaii.  After a short while, she was attacked by a tiger shark eventually losing her arm in the process. She was rushed to the hospital where she lost over 60% of blood and was in hypovolemic shock. 

I don’t know a lot about surfing but I can imagine that losing an arm must be devastating and career-ending. However, Bethany had a different reaction to failure. In fact, she was determined to return to the water as soon as possible. 

Despite this incredibly difficult trial, she learnt to surf with one arm, and 26 days after the attack, she was back in the water. Across her career, Bethany has gone on to win numerous surfing competing displaying the true strength of her character. 

A gem cannot be polished without friction

Stephen King

Finally, let’s look at a well-respected author with a tough start to his career. That’s right, we’re talking about the Stephen King. The man whose books have sold over 350 million copies worldwide, many of which have been adapted into films, mini-series, and comic books. 

When people think about Stephen King’s break-out novel, they tend to talk about “Carrie”. It’s a story about a teenage outcast, and the revenge she takes on her classmates. However, in 1973, when he finished the manuscript for this novel, it was constantly rejected by publishers. 

In fact, Stephen king talks about pinning his rejection slips on a nail in his room until there wasn’t space to add any more.  When Carrie was finally published, it sold over a million copies in its first year which catapulted Stephen King into a full-time writing career. 

A gem cannot be polished without friction

Now, when I think of “a gem that cannot be polished without friction”, I think about people like Thomas Edison, Bethany Hamilton, and Stephen King. They faced many difficult trials during their early lives, yet they were able to accomplish so much. If you’re interested in some other examples, check out this article to read about the stories of other historical figures such as Galileo and the Wright brothers.

How do we apply this? 

So, it’s fine and all to see people who have faced adversity, but what key lessons can we take and apply into our own lives?

I believe the first and most important part is to embrace the notion that life will sometimes get difficult. There is a wonderful quote which goes like this:

‘The phrase that I use the most to myself in my head is one word: accept’. 

Naval Ravikant

So many of us build unrealistic expectations in our head about how life is ‘supposed’ to go. We believe that if we haven’t accomplished all of our goals by a certain time, then it’s all over for us. But that’s not how life works.

There will be ups and downs. Successes and failures. It’s what makes the process so interesting. Once you accept this to be the reality of life, then you will:

  • Set yourself free to make mistakes easing self-imposed anxiety.
  • Give yourself room to learn from these mistakes.
  • Allow for long-term sustainable progress in your life.


Here are my concluding thoughts on Seneca’s quote, ‘A gem cannot be polished without friction’. Whenever we feel like the world has turned its back on us, it’s important to know that we’re not alone. People like Bethany Hamilton, Thomas Edison and Stephen King show us that early failure is never the end of an amazing story. However, we have to keep trying. It would have been easy for Bethany Hamilton to give up after being attacked by that shark or for Thomas Edison to quit after the 999th attempt but they kept going nonetheless. They accepted the difficulties of their situation and pushed forward. A feat to be admired by all.

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