Even before the pandemic, people were feeling that their work was unsustainable. Many were on the edge of burnout, overwhelmed by the unrelenting frantic and frenetic energy of today’s world. It is helpful to have language for what this is, how it works, and what you can do about it. That’s what I’ll cover below.
The Problem: Heroic Individualism
Heroic individualism is an ongoing game of oneupmanship against both self and others, where measurable achievement is the main arbiter of success and self-worth, and where productivity often gets prioritized over people. Regardless of how far you make it, with heroic individualism the goalpost is always 10 yards down the field. You never quite arrive.
Heroic Individualism says that you will never have enough, be enough, or do enough. It is an endless gauntlet of more. While it may lead to decent short-term performance, long-term, it is a recipe for disaster. This is because long-term fulfillment depends upon things that are inherently inefficient and unproductive, at least on acute timescales.
I’ve spent the last few years researching and reporting on heroic individualism. Here are some common signs you may be suffering from it:
- Low-level anxiety and a sensation of always being rushed or in a hurry—if not physically than mentally.
- A sense that your life is swirling frenetic energy, as if you’re being pushed and pulled from one thing to the next.
- A recurring intuition that something isn’t quite right, but unsure what it is, let alone what to do about it.
- Not always wanting to be on, but struggling to turn it off and not feeling good when you do.
- Feeling too busy, but also restless when you have open time and space.
- Easily distractible and unable to focus; struggling to sit in silence without reaching for your phone.
- Lonely or empty inside.
- Struggling to be content.
- Successful by conventional standards, yet feeling like you’re never enough.
- Wanting to find some inner calm and peace
Nonetheless, heroic individualism is the default mindset in our current optimization-obsessed ethos. It leaves many people restless, anxious, and unfulfilled, all the while wondering why.
In ancient eastern psychology there is a concept known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost has an endless stomach. He keeps on eating, stuffing himself sick, but he never feels full. It’s a severe disorder.
The modern world that so many of us inhabit depends on the creation of hungry ghosts. But you, me—all of us—can choose to opt out of this game. We don’t have to become hungry ghosts. We simply need to step back and reflect upon what it is that we actually want. Simple, sure. But not necessarily easy.
The Solution: Groundedness
Groundedness is a firm and unwavering foundation, a resolute sense of self from which deep and enduring, not shallow and superficial, success can be found. It doesn’t eliminate striving but channels it in more meaningful and wholesome ways. It is less frantic and lends itself to more focus and fulfillment.
If heroic individualism makes you feel completely fragile, out of control, and unmoored, then groundedness does the opposite. It firmly situates you and helps you define what actually matters so that you can focus there.
Groundedness is drawn from the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, as well as age-old teachings from Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism. In researching and reporting for my book The Practice of Groundedness, I’ve consistently identified five principles that serve as a roadmap to a different and more fulfilling kind of success, one that is far superior to heroic individualism.
1) Accept where you are to get where you want to go
Seeing clearly, accepting, and starting 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. You can’t work on something in a meaningful way if you refuse to accept that the thing is happening to begin with. You don’t have to like what is happening, but you have to accept it.
2) Be present to own your energy and attention
Being present, both physically and mentally, for what is in front of you. Spending more time fully in this life, not in thoughts about the past or future. Distraction is tempting—perhaps for some, even addicting—but the research is clear: happiness, well-being, and genuine excellence emerge from full engagement in what you are doing.
3) Be patient to get there faster
Giving things time and space to unfold. Not trying to escape life by moving at warp speed. Not expecting instant results and then quitting when they don’t occur. Realizing that we often do things quickly—not better, but quickly—to gain time. But what is the point if in the time we gain we just do more things quickly? I have yet to meet someone who wants their headstone to read “he rushed.”
4) Embrace vulnerability to build genuine strength and confidence
Showing up authentically. Being real with yourself and with others, at work and in life. Eliminating cognitive dissonance, the inner turmoil and distress that arises when too much of your outward life is performative, when there is too wide a gap between what the sociologist Erving Goffman called your “front stage” and “back stage” selves.
5) Build deep community
Nurturing genuine connection and belonging. Building supportive spaces in which individuals can hold each other through ups and downs. Prioritizing not just productivity, but people too. Remembering that on our deathbed we are less likely to harp on the gold-medal, promotion to regional vice president, best-seller, or any other outward achievement, and more likely to savor the bonds and relationships we forged along the way.
When you are grounded there is no need to look up or down. You are where you are. You know what’s important and worth your time and energy. This doesn’t mean you won’t have highs and lows, perhaps sometimes barely holding staying above water. But it does mean that you’ll have the skills to navigate them.
The world is always changing. Some things will get better and others will get worse. But heroic individualism probably isn’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon. Hopefully this piece gave you language for what you—and perhaps your colleagues, friends, and family too—may be feeling, and also some ideas as to you can do about it.
(For more on the topic, check out The Practice of Groundedness, from which the piece is adapted.)