In Defense of Performance: A Manifesto

Top

When we started writing about performance nearly a decade ago, there was much to be said and done. We built on primary research from across domains. We drew from giants in the field such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“flow”), Anders Ericsson (“deliberate practice”), and Jim Loehr (applying an athletic mindset to the workplace). We also looked to philosophy, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, and many other areas of inquiry that had traditionally been siloed. 

Since then, we’ve continued to explore topics related to getting the best out of yourself on the things you care about most. Our goal has been to write the truth—which means being rigorous, evidence-based, and nuanced—and to do so in an accessible way. None of that has changed. What has changed is the environment in which we are currently writing.

When our work began, the broad application of “performance” was somewhat novel. While the idea of stress + rest = growth is literally as old as time, we provided language and tools for it, and that was a new phenomenon. We called it “the growth equation,” which later became the name for this blog and our entire enterprise. People started to take rest seriously and consider the importance of routine, ritual, community, and purpose. We wrote countless articles for countless publications. It was a fun and exciting time.

Yet as the idea of performance penetrated the general lexicon, it got flattened and appropriated for all kinds of nonsense—stuff that couldn’t be further from actual performance. As it so often does, a much needed correction transformed into a pendulum that swung too far. 

Let us be clear: we are not two old guys longing for the old days or complaining about competition. For starters, neither of us are even forty! We do everything we can to find and elevate new voices who are doing good work in our genre. These people are out there. We wish there were more of them. We are also not here only to grumble. We’ll come to solutions in a moment.

But first, we want to shine light on the problem: the countless bros and influencers who saw an opportunity to exploit increasing interest in performance. While we were realizing our initial treatment of the topic was, if anything, too narrow—hence our more recent books on groundedness, resilience, and rugged flexibility—a tidal wave of people on the internet began reducing performance to monetizable click bait and fuel for marketing.

Enter: the optimization gurus; the diet gurus; the supplement gurus; the turning rest and recovery into a trackable job—which, by the way, is quite exhausting—gurus; the posting pictures of their six-packs gurus; the cold plunge gurus; the posting pictures of their six packs from their cold-plunges gurus; and on, and on, and on.

Essentially, people got very good at marketing the work without any deep knowledge, expertise, or skin in the game on the actual work. This led to the proliferation of social media mavens who are essentially human versions of the earliest chat-GPTs: they take solid work and plagiarize it, with no knowledge of what any of it means or the importance of context. 

Two unfortunate things happen as a result:

  1. The average person who is looking to improve in whatever it is they do gets caught up in this stuff, hopping from trend to trend and fad and fad without making any meaningful progress.
  2. People hear the word “performance” and cringe because it is now associated with all the kabuki above.

It is important to note that we are not faulting you if you’ve fallen for this trend. It’s human nature; we are all susceptible. Complex-sounding, neatly packaged, and easy solutions to our problems seduce our prehistoric (and quite powerful) lizard brains.

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus wrote of searching for the fountain of youth, the eternal wellspring of health. Over two thousand years later, in the 1500s, legend has it that Ponce de Leon—just picture this guy as your modern day longevity influencer—searched for it in Florida. Today, the fountain of youth resides in a wearable fitness tracker, an intermittent fasting routine, or a selfie from an $8000 bath tub full of freezing cold water.

It’s only natural to  want an edge. No one wants to miss out on finding “the” secret. Yet almost all quests for the magic elixir have been rebuffed for over 2,500 years. Maybe it’s time we start doing what actually works.

The basics aren’t sexy. They don’t sell. They aren’t a quick fix. They are simple to understand but difficult to practice consistently. It’s why so many people buy supplements to improve their strength, but so few squat two times a week for months, if not years, on end. It’s why so many people skim twitter threads and serially subscribe to short-form newsletters but don’t read anything over 300 words, let alone actual books.

At this point, we are often met with some version of okay, if this is so simple, then why read your newsletter or books, why even read this post? It’s a valid question. Our answer is because simple does not mean easy, and getting—let alone staying—on the path to more sustainable health, well-being, and performance requires loads of motivation, reinforcement, and, at times, hand-holding.

We are not trying to create something bright and shiny to sell you. We are trying to help you understand what it means to perform at your best – to get the best out of yourself on the things that matters to you most – in day to day life. What follows is a list of core principles, along with specific and evidence-based habits for your body and mind:

Principles

Consistency over Intensity: Anyone can crush themselves a few times a year and post it to social media. But the road to meaningful progress is paved with small steps that are aligned with your values. When taken regularly over time, these small steps compound for big gains.

Real Toughness over Fake Toughness:  Out with the machismo acts of strength and power; in with knowing how to make the right decision in the moment when under distress. This is what real toughness is all about.

Rugged Flexibility over Rigidity: Rigidity works well for short periods of time but ultimately leads to anxiety and burnout. Staying on the path of performance requires the ability to adapt and holding onto multiple ideas at the same time: grit and quit, self-discipline and self-compassion, tragedy and optimism, solitude and community, ruggedness and flexibility.

Confidence over Arrogance: Confidence is based on evidence. Arrogance is based on insecurity. Confidence is quiet. Arrogance is loud.

Depth over Shallowness: Depth means dedication and joy in truly coming to know something. Shallow means optimizing for quantity, growth, and checking things off a list for the sake of checking things off a list. 

Practices: Body

Move Your Body Often, Sometimes Hard, Every Bit Counts.

If exercise could be bottled up and sold as a drug, it would be a billion-dollar blockbuster. Decades of studies show that just 30 minutes of moderate to intense daily physical activity lowers your risk for physiological diseases, like heart disease and cancer, as well as psychological ones, like depression and anxiety

The problem is we overcomplicate exercise to death: we shift from zone-two to HIIT to whatever other buzzword bingo for exercise is going on.

If you are training to make the Olympic trials or to maximize your performance in a specific sport, you will need to play with the details, but when it comes to general health and performance, it’s quite simple: do consistent work, mostly easy, occasionally hard, and vary it up. Here are some details:

  • “Consistency is king”: Stacking weeks and months of training is what leads to gains, not heroic workouts. Find something enjoyable and do it for a long period of time.
  • “Mostly easy”: For the majority of your exercise, you should be able to have a full conversation but where someone would know your exercising. For some this is a walk, for others a run. Be in this zone 4-5x per week, building up to  40+ minutes per effort.
  • “Occasionally hard”: 1-2x per week do something that is moderately hard: think about a 7 or 8 out of 10.
  • “Vary it up”: Longer and moderate, short and intense, up a hill, part of a circuit, lifting heavy things. Cycle through different emphasis, and try not to leave anything completely behind.

Be Wary of Diets. Focus on Quality. 

Let’s be honest, most diets are made to help someone else get rich. We often talk about big agriculture or big sugar, but big diet is the same. The global market for weight loss and diet products is nearly $300 billion.

All diets work…and don’t. Similar to the exercise wars, the best diet is a sustainable one that focuses on quality nutrient dense food in which your energy needs are met but not exceeded.

Always be wary of more extreme diets, such as intermittent fasting—they can be slippery slopes to eating disorders, which are lethal. If you are going to go on a more extreme diet it ought to be done under medical supervision with a board certified obesity physician. And, for those interested in longevity who are searching for a single diet or supplement, two interesting facts:

  1. Studies of centenarians (people who live over 100) show they have diverse diets with really only one thing in common: they hardly eat any processed foods and they move their bodies often. But none of these centenarians are tracking their ketones or blood sugar. 
  2. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed data from hundreds of clinical trials involving nearly a million people and found that 16 of the most popular supplements and eight of the most popular diets have virtually no benefit—and some even cause harm.

A simple rule of thumb is to minimize ultra-processed foods.

Foods that undergo heavy processing lose much of their nutritional value. The result is not-so-great energy combined with lots of calories and a lack of satiation. Over time, this is a recipe for ill health. But what about all the diets, you may be wondering? Research shows that whatever “diet” you choose, the only real indicator as to whether or not you’ll lose weight is if you stick to it. That’s right. The so-called success of a diet has less to do with fat, carbs, or ketones than it does with one’s adherence, which basically disproves all the magic and single-nutrient theories that are the stuff of mega best selling diet books. Carbs are not bad. Fats are not bad. Proteins are not bad. They are all just nutrients. 

Sleep Seven to Nine Hours.

It’s only after you’ve been sleeping for at least an hour that natural anabolic chemicals like testosterone and human growth hormone—both of which are critical to health and physical function—are released. What’s more, a study published in the journal Sleep shows that with each additional 90-minute cycle of deep sleep, you receive even more of these hormones. In other words, there are increasing marginal benefits to sleep, and hours seven through nine—the hours most people don’t get—may actually be the most powerful. Deep sleep is also beneficial to mental health. It’s only during deep sleep when your brain combs through, consolidates, and stores all the information you came across during the day. 

You may be thinking these are all great reasons to track your sleep, but proceed with caution. A new phenomenon that has coincided with the boom of sleep trackers and other wearables is people developing anxiety about their sleep duration and sleep quality, which, paradoxically, makes it harder for them to get sleep! The two most general rules of sleep: try hard to get sleep, and don’t freak out too much if you can’t.

The evidence-based counsel on sleep, in a nutshell, is as follows:

  • Morning: Go outside or open the blinds. Natural light triggers a cascade of hormones that help to maintain a balanced circadian rhythm, the body’s natural clock.
  • Afternoon: If you need it, enjoy your last coffee of the day. The effects of caffeine can last up to eight hours.
  • Evening: Eat dinner. While the timing here is very individual, a hyperactive digestive system can get in the way of falling asleep, so aim for at least two hours between your last meal and bedtime. Small snacks are okay. If you’re going to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink, as alcohol can interfere with deep sleep.
  • Dusk: Turn off screens. Research shows that staring at blue light before bed makes it harder to fall asleep. Put work and the news away, as it can cause stress and set your mind racing.
  • Nighttime: Before hitting the sack, use curtains or blinds to make your bedroom as dark as possible, and lower the thermostat so your room is a little cooler than the rest of the house. Decreased body temperature is associated with deeper sleep.

Don’t Smoke, And Seek Help Quitting If You Do.

Smoking is associated with dozens of types of cancer, as well as heart disease, dementia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the American Cancer Association, smoking causes one out of every five deaths in the United States, killing more people than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your body starts repairing the damage caused by smoking within days of stopping.

Don’t Drink (At Least Not Too Much).

Like smoking, excessive alcohol use is associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as liver cirrhosis, throat cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Drinking too much also impairs sleep and daily function. If you enjoy alcohol, drinking reasonably—less than three drinks per week—seems to carry minimal risk when it comes to health. But for peak performance and acute readiness, when it comes to drinking, less is more. This doesn’t mean a single drink of bourbon with your friends will ruin your week (unless you are in recovery), so don’t obsess. But as a general rule, it’s good to err on the side of minimalism. For instance, Steve rarely drinks and Brad maybe has four to five drinks per month, always in social settings.

Build Community. Surround Yourself Wisely.

The people with whom you surround yourself shape you. Yet here is the modern-day trap: our incessant drive to be productive, efficient, and optimizing always may help us to get ahead in the short run, but is detrimental to our 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 his influential 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, “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. 

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 in which we can support each other through ups and downs. It’s where we find the relationships and ties that keep us grounded.

Practices: Mind

Don’t Expect Things to Feel Good all the Time.

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation leads to action: The better you feel and the more energized you are, the more likely you are to take your desired step. Though this can certainly be true, what about when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? In those instances, the best thing you can do to change your mental state is to change your physical state. Oftentimes, you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good.

It’s not always easy, so sometimes you’ve got to force yourself to take action. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals through a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, places an immense focus on the “behavior” part of the equation. That’s because it’s hard, if not impossible, to control your thoughts and the subsequent feelings they generate.

What you can control, however, is your behavior—that is, your actions.

Consider, for example, a period during which you find yourself in a rut. Your thoughts and feelings are pummeling you with some flavor of “you suck, you’re going to fail, it’s cold outside, stay in bed.” It’s really hard to think your way out of that jam. But if you accept your thoughts and feelings and simply take action anyways, then you give yourself the best chance of changing your thoughts and feelings! This is one reason exercise has been proven so effective at diminishing or even reversing mild depression.

Seek Professional Help if You Need It.

Self-help has its limits. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, or if you are thinking of harming yourself or someone else, get professional help. Finding help doesn’t mean you are weak—it means you’re strong. If you feel like you need help right now, you can call the national suicide-prevention lifeline 24/7 by dialing 988. When you’re in the thick of it, mental illness seems everlasting and impossible to overcome, but it can, and often does, get better. Professional help—therapy, medication, or some combination of the two—goes a long way.

Do Real Things in The Real World.

Doing something that is hard and real—for example, weightlifting, running, gardening, sculpting, woodworking—humbles you. You have to earn the successes. And when you experience failures, you can’t just talk them away. When the barbell drops, it drops. When you want to run under three hours for the marathon but go 3:04, the result is right in your face. It is hard to get out of touch with the world—or to become full of yourself—when you are working hard on something that is concrete, and when your successes are earned and your failures cannot be rationalized by corporate mumbo jumbo or social media hot takes. Doing real things in the world provides gravity, both literally and figuratively.

Pursuing mastery, a kind of gradual progress where tangible results can be traced back to oneself, increases self-reliance and self-confidence. Decades of research in a field called self-determination theory demonstrates that mastery is a core input to mental health, overall well-being, and life satisfaction.

Doing real things also affords you the experience of living in a smaller and simpler world, if only for a few hours. Compared to the complex, frantic, frenetic, and interconnected digital environment that occupies so much of our lives these days, a squat workout, mountain-bike ride, or trail run are more concrete. In these pursuits, you are the main factor that determines the outcome, and whatever obstacles you face are directly in front of you. This is a lot closer to how our species evolved. It’s no wonder these sorts of activities, though often objectively harder than sitting at a desk, in many ways feel so much easier.

Read Books.

Deep reading, or full engagement in a book, is an absolute joy. It is good for mind and spirit, and it is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. Increasingly, people struggle to pay attention to just about anything, let alone a book. Yet deep reading confers many benefits above and beyond watching a YouTube video or skimming an article or summary. These benefits include developing a richer understanding of a topic, increasing your ability to pay attention itself, and enhanced creative thinking.

Here are six principles for developing a nonfiction deep reading habit. All are based on the latest research and real-world practice. (Details on each principle are here.)

1) Use a hardcopy book if possible.

2) No digital devices in the room.

3) Read with a pen and a highlighter

4) Keep a notebook nearby to unload distracting thoughts

5) Read for at least 30 minutes per sitting of intentional, deep reading.

6) Think of deep reading as a muscle: you’ve got to train it

Work in Intervals.

Regardless of the task at hand, it seems that highly focused, single-task intervals allow you to exert and sustain the physical, cognitive, and emotional energy required to get the most out of what you’re doing. This intense, deep-focus work ought to be followed by rest. This ebb and flow—time on, time off—runs counter to the most common strategies we adopt to get through the workday: either perpetually working in an “in-between zone” of moderately hard work while constantly flitting back and forth between tasks, emails, and Slacks, or working at the utmost intensity nonstop. Neither of these more traditional approaches is ideal. The former leads to under performance, the latter to burnout. A far better way to get the most out of your time is to take a decades-old lesson from athletics and work in intervals, alternating between blocks of hard, deep-focus work and brief periods of rest.

This finding has been replicated in studies examining employees in a meat-processing plant (on average, 51 minutes on followed by 9 minutes off), agricultural workers (75 minutes on followed by 15 minutes off), and computer programmers (50 minutes on followed by 7 minutes off). Across these studies, researchers agree that the reason such work cycles are effective is the same reason why they work in sports: Intervals stave off both physical and mental fatigue, allowing people to work better for longer over the course of a day. This same strategy of on and off, stress and rest, can be applied over weeks, months, and even years.

Spend Time in Nature.

People report that they feel significantly happier outdoors than they do indoors, yet we spend less than 5 percent of our waking hours in nature. Such were the findings of a recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change. The great irony is that while we’re hardly experiencing nature, we need it more than ever.

Research shows that time spent in nature helps with mood, focus, creativity, fulfillment, perspective, problem-solving, blood-pressure, and sleep. Aim for at least a few minutes every day, knowing that more is better. And when you have more time, perhaps on the weekends, there is nothing like a day hike to regain perspective and reset your mood.

Diversify Your Sources of Meaning.

Going all-in and being single minded looks good on social media. But in the real world, if your sport or job or presence on social media is the be-all-end-all of your life, you are making yourself fragile: because a single failure or poor season breaks you. You are better off if you diversify your sense of self and from where you derive meaning in life. It’s not to say the game, project, or whatever it is in which you are competing isn’t important. It’s just to say it’s not the only thing that is important.

So What? From Principles and Practices to Action:

A coach knows that the player who shows up with newest shoes and an arm sleeve, or the most expensive energy drinks, or a wearable on each wrist, is perhaps not the most likely to put in the actual work. But it’s the monotonous, boring stuff that makes the difference.

The world’s best performers don’t mess with bullshit. We know this because we have the privilege of working with them. What they do is stack good, consistent, and solid work for months and years.

Here at The Growth Equation—in our books, newsletter, and podcast—you’ll never find any of the crap. What you’ll find are resources to help you to stay on the path, to help you to do the simple but not easy stuff over and over and over again, to help you cultivate the motivation, community, and reassurance to keep pounding the stone. To give you language for the stuff you sense and feel but can’t articulate.

That’s our promise to you.

Resources for Your Performance Path

  1. If you haven’t yet, subscribe to our newsletter. It’s the longest-running performance newsletter on the internet, and it’s read by many of the world’s best. Unlike so much of the superficial crap out there, we go deep, and as a result we only do it once a week.
  2. We’ve partnered with Clay Skipper, a former GQ staff writer and a world-class interviewer, to take our podcast to the next level. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts here and on Spotify here.
  3. For the deepest and most comprehensive view on genuine performance, read our books: Master of Change (2023); Do Hard Things (2022); The Practice of Groundedness (2021); Peak Performance (2017).

Related posts

basketball hoop in basketball court

Achieving Greatness Without Falling Apart

Reading Time: 4 min

Caitlin Clark is a star, transforming and elevating the game of women’s basketball in a way that we’ve yet to see. At the heart of her story is the pursuit…

View post

To Perform Under Pressure, Shift Your Perspective

Reading Time: 3 min

Imagine standing in front of thousands of fans, with over a million more watching on TV back home, about to compete for a spot on the United States Olympic team.…

View post

The Value of Holding Yourself Back

Reading Time: 3 min

I was struggling. I was in my competitive running days, in the best shape of my life, knocking out workouts I couldn’t imagine, but races were not going well. I…

View post

12 comments

  • John James

    It’s great to hear someone say the simple things. Train, don’t strain. Sleep like a human, not a robot. Eat things that look like food. Have a life outside of running. You should read a book.

    Great to hear someone say the real things.

  • Thanks! Most of the reading, listening and learning of the last couple of years well put in one newsletter. Great starting point for a lot of people (I’m sharing this), and a good reminder for the rest to keep it simple and keep building one day at the time.

  • Brad. The practice of groundedness has really changed my life (I can’t count how many times I’ve recommended it to others).
    I am working on implementing the principles every day and I am looking forward to Master of change.

    Thank you for posts like this and your Instagram content you give us for free.

    • A
      Brad Stulberg

      Oh wow – thanks so much for the kinds words! I hope you like Master of Change too! In some ways, I think it’s even better than Groundedness. Feel lucky to have you in our corner!

  • Galen Tinder

    There is lots of good, even wise, guidance here. But you have left one thing out — learning how to talk about sensitive areas of your life and practicing how to listen to other people. This seems simple, and many of us will congratulate ourselves on having mastered these two capacities. My research in the field of narrative psychology and autobiographical storytelling suggests that some of us are overly optimistic.

    I have conducted more than 25 structured life reviews lasting eight to twenty sessions of one hour each. I make no diagnoses and give no advice. Its questions only. For many people, talking to a person who listens attentively and ask ask probing questions is life changing, in ways too numerous to enumerate here. But they include the removal of factors that impede the ability of people to maximize their performance on several levels.

    As the two of you know, we do not listen well in our society and it is not getting better. But if there are people who want, and are prepared, to listen, people will appear who want to talk.

    Galen Tinder

    • cumulus84

      Great comment Galen. My workplace has placed this month’s High Quality Organization focus on active listening. A great practice daily, to be sure, but especially so this time of year, which can be stressful for many. Thanks!

    • Excellent point Galen. My workplace has dedicated this month’s High Quality Organization focus to active listening. A good practice everyday, but maybe especially so this time of year, which can be very stressful for many. Great input, thanks!

  • Brad, steve

    Somos gratos pela sinceridade, atitude assim é que faz a diferença

  • Just awesome! I have the Change book. I have my team reading it and trying to apply your principles to help manage front line staff through our world of constant change. Thank you!!

    • A
      Brad Stulberg

      Hi Tricia – thanks so much! So glad you found this post valuable, and the same for Master of Change. Please keep spreading the word! The more of us who speak this language and wrestle with these ideas, the better!

  • Jesse Lee

    Beautiful! Thank you so much. I’m a coach and this is my approach to life, training and learning. It’s nice to be reflected in the community and assured that I’m on the right path. I also live with OCD as Brad has discussed and it feels good to know the reality we all face doesn’t dictate our successes and failures. We have “control” by being process oriented and holding onto tragic optimism!

    • A
      Brad Stulberg

      Thanks, Jesse! Appreciate this kinds words. Keep going! We are grateful to have you in our community.

Leave your comment