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5 Principles for More Excellence With Less Angst

As an executive coach, I saw a troubling trend among my clients even before Covid-19: Many were exhausted and on a path to burnout, if they weren’t already there.

The chief physician of a large healthcare system came to me because he wanted to “feel more stable and have more control over how he spent his time and energy.” Even though his obsession with work and his digital devices was draining him, he told me he couldn’t go more than a few hours without opening his email.

An entrepreneur who had just secured funding for her next venture was surprised to find that, after a day or two of excitement and joy over her success, she felt empty. She was concerned that “if this accomplishment isn’t enough to provide some lasting fulfillment, I don’t know what will be.”

Clients constantly talked about how much they wanted to turn it all off—the breaking news and busyness and email and social media notifications. They didn’t want to be thinking constantly about what was next. Yet when they did turn it all off, they felt unsettled and restless, fluctuating between aimlessness and angst.

They weren’t alone. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were reporting higher rates of clinical anxiety and depression than ever before, with estimates showing more than one in five people suffering at any given time. Addictions to harmful substances were also at peak levels, with increasing rates of alcoholism and the opioid epidemic. Loneliness and social isolation were on the rise, as were exhaustion and fatigue. Needless to say, the death, distress and dislocation of the past two years have only served to exacerbate these trends.

One benefit of living through a pandemic is that more people are beginning to reflect on the lives they want to lead on the other side. It would be unfortunate to miss out on this chance to reset, to redefine success and how we pursue it.

We’d all benefit from finding what I call groundedness: the internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being and fulfillment can emerge. Being grounded doesn’t mean saying goodbye to passion, striving and ambition. It means leaving behind your frantic, omnipresent anxiety and finding a way to express your authentic self in the here and now.

In developing these ideas, I’ve drawn from research in psychology, neuroscience and sociology; age-old religious teachings and wisdom traditions; and what I’ve learned over the years about real-world effectiveness. I’ve distilled this work into five principles that, to my mind, serve as a road map to a different—and better—post-pandemic way of life.

1. Accept where you are.

You can’t work on something in a meaningful way if you refuse to accept where you are. Not where you want to be, not where you think you should be, not where others think you should be—but where you are, even if it’s not a good place. This kind of radical openness is the bedrock of “acceptance and commitment” therapy, an approach to mental health and well-being developed over the last four decades by Steven Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada.

“If you cannot open up to discomfort without suppression,” Prof. Hayes says, “it becomes impossible to face difficult problems in a healthy way.” I’ve learned this firsthand in my own experience of anxiety and depression. Only once I stop resisting unwelcome thoughts and feelings can I take productive actions to overcome them.

It’s a proven technique. According to a 2020 meta-analysis of over 130 studies published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, this therapeutic combination of acceptance and commitment is the best approach for dealing with a range of problems, from clinical depression and anxiety to chronic pain, substance abuse and burnout.

The basic concept is hardly new. For millennia, Eastern wisdom traditions have taught practitioners to be wary of the “second arrow.” The first arrow is an event or circumstance that you cannot control; the second arrow is your refusal to accept that event or circumstance and see it clearly for what it is. These traditions teach that the second arrow, the one we fire at ourselves, almost always hurts worse than the first.

When I catch myself firing second arrows and resisting reality, I repeat the mantra: This is what is happening right now, I’m doing the best I can. It helps me to stay grounded amid challenges. It also helps to remember that you don’t need to feel good to get going; you need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good.

2. Focus on the present.

Our society celebrates efficiency and optimization, so it is only natural that we’d want to optimize ourselves. But our brains aren’t computers.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when we are multitasking, our brains either constantly switch between tasks or divide and conquer, allotting only a portion of our cognitive capacity to a specific task. According to David Meyer, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, even brief mental blocks created by task switching can take up as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. Meanwhile, perhaps the foremost precondition for “flow,” that highly desired state of total absorption in what you are doing, is complete presence in the moment.

It also improves our happiness. A 2008 study by researchers at Harvard found that when people are fully present for the activity they are doing, they are much happier than when they are thinking about something else. It should come as no surprise that such presence is the basis for enlightenment and joy across spiritual and philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, Islam and many forms of Judaism and Christianity.

Today we’re more distracted than ever before. We may think that if we’re not online 24/7 we’ll miss out on something and fall behind. But it’s likely that the opposite is true. If we’re online 24/7, we’ll miss out on everything. The best way to work on presence is to schedule—and jealously protect—blocks of time for deep-focus work, play and connection.

3. Be patient with yourself.

To make a meaningful difference in whatever work you do, you must persist long enough to break through inevitable plateaus. Not seeing visible progress doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t having an effect. We love to tell stories about massive efforts and overnight breakthroughs, but they rarely exist.

Consider a 2018 study published in the journal Nature. Researchers found that while most people have a “hot streak” in their career, “a specific period during which an individual’s performance is substantially better than their typical performance,” the timing is unpredictable. “The hot streak emerges randomly within an individual’s sequence of works, is temporally localized, and is not associated with any detectable change in productivity,” the authors write.

And what do almost all hot streaks have in common? They rest on a foundation of prior work, during which observable improvement was much less substantial.

There’s a risk, of course, in doing the same thing you’ve always done even though you don’t see clear evidence of progress. But there’s an equal risk in stopping or revamping your approach prematurely. Humans suffer from what behavioral scientists call the “commission bias,” that is, the tendency to err on the side of action over inaction. If we don’t see results, we get impatient and feel a strong urge to do something—anything—to expedite our progress. For many, this takes the form of “Instagram-worthy” efforts, which may feel good for a day or two but often lead, eventually, to injury, illness or burnout.

Big gains are usually the result of consistent small steps over time. This requires patience and benefits from what I call a “process mind-set.” First, set a goal. Next, figure out the discrete steps toward the goal that are within your control. Then, mostly forget about the goal and focus on executing those steps.

Judge yourself based on your level of presence and the effort you are exerting in the moment. If you catch yourself obsessing about the goal, use that as a cue to ask yourself what you could be doing right now to help you achieve it. Sometimes the answer may be nothing at all—resting—and that is OK too.

4. Embrace your vulnerability.

In his 1959 book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” the sociologist Erving Goffman distinguished between what he called “front-stage” and “backstage” selves. Our front-stage selves are the ones we bring to social situations or when we’re trying to delude ourselves. Our backstage selves represent who we are when we stop acting, when we don’t consider how we’ll be perceived by others.

Our front-stage selves and backstage selves aren’t binary. Most human behavior lies on a spectrum between the two. But when someone spends too much time playing their front-stage self, particularly when there is a wide gap between their front-stage and backstage selves, distress usually follows, because they feel the deception.

Recognizing and accepting our vulnerability is a crucial part of traditions like Buddhism, Taoism and Stoicism. What they share is an emphasis on honestly exploring inner experience: opening yourself to the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly of life. These traditions teach that facing your vulnerabilities helps you to more fully know and trust yourself, and to forge intimate and nourishing bonds with others.

Recent research supports this view. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Mannheim in Germany found that although people may feel weak when they demonstrate vulnerability, such behavior tends to make others perceive them as strong, grounded and trustworthy. “Out of fear, many individuals decide against vulnerability,” the researchers write. “But our findings suggest that given the positive consequences of showing vulnerability for relationship quality, health or job performance, it might, indeed, be beneficial to try to overcome one’s fears and to choose to see the beauty in the mess of vulnerable situations.”

Practicing vulnerability starts with asking yourself what you actually feel in a given situation and then letting others know about it, or at least something close to it. Everyone has fragilities and flaws, and we can build strength and self-confidence by sharing them.

5. Find (or Build) deep community.

The incessant drive to be productive may help us to get ahead in the short run, but it is detrimental to our social, spiritual and psychological well-being in the long run. It crowds out time and energy that we could devote to forging closer bonds to family and friends and to experiences and traditions that give us a deeper sense of belonging. As the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm put it in “Escape From Freedom,” his influential 1941 book, “To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.”

A large body of research conducted by the late University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo shows that loneliness is associated with anxiety, depression, burnout and feelings of being unmoored. As Cacioppo emphasized, our species evolved in close-knit groups, and finding a place in a deep community is one of our abiding needs.

None of this is news to our great religious traditions. As St. Augustine remarked in a famous 4th-century sermon, “In this world, two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized, and we must not undervalue them.” They are “nature’s gifts.” In one ancient Buddhist text, the Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, approaches and asks, “Venerable sir, this is half of the spiritual life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” The Buddha replies enthusiastically but sternly: “Not so, Ananda! Not so! This—good friendship, good companionship, and good comradeship—is the entire spiritual life.”

On our deathbeds we are likely to dwell not on that big promotion, glittering award or other outward achievement but on the bonds we forged with other people along the way. Deep community provides us with spaces where we can support each other through ups and downs. It’s where we find the relationships that keep us grounded.

These principles have always been the foundation of a good life, but in the rush and anxiety of modern work, we’ve lost sight of them. The disruption of the pandemic has given us an opportunity to reconsider—and to start again.

(This excerpt from The Practice of Groundedness was first published in The Wall Street Journal here. Art by James Gulliver Hancock.)

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