#50: It is possible to be a gentle super-achiever
Despite what American culture says
Hello, beautiful people 🦋
I feel lethargic today. My attention also feels diffuse and I’m having a hard time concentrating. I suspect it’s the usual end of week fatigue so I’m not worried about it, but I will keep monitoring myself. In the meantime, after I finish writing this post, I’m going to switch my attention to some household chores and then unwind with a Harry Potter film. 🧙♂️
Okay, onwards to the post.
In a post I wrote earlier this week, I dispelled some myths about working hard.
One of the myths about working hard is that gentle, relaxed people can’t be super achievers. We seem to have convinced ourselves that working hard is synonymous with being frantic, anxious, and stressed.
Here’s the passage, again, from the book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...and it’s all small stuff by the late psychologist Richard Carlson:
One of the major reasons so many of us remain hurried, frightened, and competitive, and continue to live life as if it were one giant emergency, is our fear that if we were to be come more peaceful and loving, we would suddenly stop achieving our goals. We would become lazy and apathetic.
You can put this fear to rest by realizing that the opposite is actually true. Fearful, frantic thinking takes an enormous amount of energy and drains the creativity and motivation from our lives. When you are fearful or frantic, you literally immobilize yourself from your greatest potential, not to mention enjoyment. Any success that you do have is despite your fear, not because of it.
I have had the good fortune to surround myself with some very relaxed, peaceful, and loving people. Some of these people are best-selling authors, loving parents, counselors, computer experts, and chief executive officers. All of them are fulfilled in what they do and are very proficient at their given skills.
This limiting mindset is a remnant from America’s Protestant work ethic (thanks, Dan, for pointing this out) and the Industrial Revolution.
Two decades later, in 2022, we are still dealing with the consequences, but we no longer have to say “yes” to the mindset that is - quite literally - destroying our wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Here’s a fascinating statistic from this Nautilus article titled We’re Killing Ourselves with Work:
In a 2019 Pew Research report, Americans ranked “having a job or career they enjoy” as more essential to a fulfilling life than marriage, children, or a committed relationship of any kind.1 Another Pew report found that American teens ranked “having a job or career they enjoy” as even more important to them than “helping others who are in need.
And here’s another one:
Americans put in more hours and take fewer days off than people in comparably large and rich countries, but only around half of us find our job satisfying, and just 20 percent find it engaging. For most of us, mistaking the desk for an altar leads not to self-actualization but to burnout and ennui.
It’s not surprising that so many people are anxious, frantic, and depressed.
In December 2021, The New York Times surveyed 1,320 mental health professionals to ask them how their patients were coping as pandemic restrictions eased. The New York Times writes:
While there were moments of optimism about telemedicine and reduced stigma around therapy, the responses painted a mostly grim picture of a growing crisis, which several therapists described as a “second pandemic” of mental health problems
There is so much grief and loss,” said Anne Compagna-Doll, a clinical psychologist in Burbank, Calif. “One of my clients, who is usually patient, is experiencing road rage. Another client, who is a mom of two teens, is fearful and doesn’t want them to leave the house. My highly work-motivated client is considering leaving her career. There is an overwhelming sense of malaise and fatigue.
What should we do?
We need to unlearn the beliefs and values that have driven us into this mental health crisis. We need to question the work we do and honestly assess if the tasks that we are working on are meaningful or if it’s busy work that makes us productive but not fulfilled - no different from any assembly line worker.
We need to learn to say no to meetings and yes to asynchronous chats because zoom video meetings are extremely taxing on our brains.
This is your brain on Zoom:
We also need to adopt a bottom-up vs. a top-down mindset. Rob Hardy, a successful online writer and marketer, describes bottom-up vs. top-down as loosening up our need for control and looking inwards for answers.
In his post Bottom-up Business, he describes the bottom-up vs. top down mindset as such:
But for the past year, I’ve been trying something different. I’ve stopped looking for answers in the outside world, and started searching within myself. I’ve let go of the need for certainty, and just started exploring and experimenting. As I surrender my need for control, and just show up in the world from a place of curiosity and play, my business and life keep getting better. It’s uncanny. That, my friends, is the top-down vs. bottom-up paradox.
Top-down is about attempting to exercise control over outcomes in a complex system. It's about having a clear, rigid definition of what success looks like, planning extensively to get it, then executing on said plan, with the expectation that if you work hard enough and stick to the plan, you will eventually get where you want to go.
Bottom-up is about setting off in a meaningful direction, but letting go of the need to know and control the exact steps ahead. It's about following your intuition and curiosity, and being experimental, iterative, and open to serendipity. It’s about taking lots of small, low-stakes steps, then letting results, learnings, and new possibilities emerge from your many interactions with the world.
A bottom-up mindset fits in nicely with how Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator and a Silicon Valley icon, describes the shape of real work. Once you start doing real work, you’re not going to be working 12 hour days. If you do, the quality of your work will tremendously suffer.
Anyone who has done creative work knows that you can’t just work heads down non-stop all day. Well, maybe you can for a couple of days, or maybe even a few weeks, but eventually your mind and body give out, and you’re on your way to the hell of burn out.
We need to unlearn these destructive habits.
You may be surprised by the writing schedule of the legendary science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin.
I love how she writes that after 8pm she tends to feel very stupid. That made me laugh. And it’s so true!
The only time that you should work a full day and then work after 8pm is if you are cramming for an exam (although not recommended, of course) or saving the world from a nuclear attack. For anything else, take a break; spend time with your friends and family; watch a movie; play a board game.
Your mind and body will thank you.
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. Feel free to hit the like button or drop a comment.
As always, be well and take care.
Thank you for this, great stuff and congrats to 50 stacks!