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Since the publication of my book The Practice of Groundedness—which in many ways is a coda to what I’ve been writing about here for the past five years—I’ve spoken with all kinds of people, from elite athletes to creatives to traditional workplace professionals, on what it means to practice groundedness. What follows are 16 common lessons that have come out of our conversations. Taken together, these lessons provide a recipe for attaining more inner strength and stability in a frantic and frenetic world. And as we come to the end of 2021, these lessons could help you in the new year and beyond.
Addiction to achievement is real
In professional life, as in sport, it’s important to create boundaries so you can rest and recover from hard efforts. It’s easy to tell yourself that your work helps or inspires others, so therefore it’s OK to go all in, all the time. Eventually, this mindset ends in burnout.
Wherever you are, the goalpost is always 10 yards down the field
If you believe that, If I just do this or just accomplish that, then I’ll arrive, you are in for trouble. There is no arriving. The human brain didn’t evolve to embrace this concept. Researchers call this the arrival fallacy: we think that some external goal will fulfill us, but it’s this very thinking that gets in the way of our fulfillment. Instead, focus on enjoying the process and being where you are.
Define your own success
Everyone wants to be successful, but few people take the time and energy to define the success they want. As a result, they spend most—if not all—of their lives chasing the image of success superimposed on them by society. Define your core values, or the attributes you care most about, and then craft a life around them. That is success.
Mood follows action
You can’t control your thoughts or feelings, but you can control your actions. Here is a brief summary of what clinical psychologists call behavioral activation: you don’t need to feel good to get going; you need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good.
Know the difference between rote productivity and productive activity
The former results in doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff, like chasing acute results and striving to tick off things from a to-do list. The latter requires deep concentration, care, and pacing. Productive activity may lack the constant dopamine hits of small accomplishments, but it delivers long-term satisfaction.
Don’t mistake excitement for ease
Excitement feels a lot more like anxiety than it does true happiness or fulfillment. Ease is a calmer and more restful feeling; it’s like a place where you’d want to stay. Some excitement is great. Too much is not. Don’t be an excitement junkie.
Making things happen works—until it gets in your way
At a certain point on nearly all big projects, you’ve got to have the confidence and faith to step back and let things unfold on their own. This is the wild paradox of peak performance: letting go and releasing from trying so hard is usually what helps you bust barriers.
Accept where you are to get where you want to go
Acceptance is not passive resignation; it’s 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. It’s only when you start where you are that you can get where you want to go.
Marry self-discipline with self-compassion
If you are a hard-charging, Type A “pusher,” that’s great! But you’d better work on being kind to yourself, too. It’s hard to be a human. It’s hard to care deeply. You’ve got to learn to love yourself and create space for your pain and loss and defeats. Otherwise, pushing hard won’t be very sustainable, let alone enjoyable.
Don’t forget to experience joy
This sounds self-evident, but it’s not. The risk of being laser focused on progress and growth is that you get so caught up in where you’re going, you forget to relish moments along the way. As the author Robert Pirsig wrote, “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”
Stop short by one rep, one meeting, one hour, and so on
Stopping short allows you to pick up where you left off. This kind of restraint and patience is the key to moving faster in the long term. Why? Because consistency compounds. Small steps taken regularly lead to big gains.
Learn to differentiate between habits and practice
Habits are things you do without thinking. A practice means approaching an endeavor deliberately, with care, and with the intention to continually grow. Both can be great. But they are unique, and the latter tends to go deeper and provide more fulfillment.
Simple does not mean easy, but it usually means effective
All kinds of so-called performance findings these days come dressed up in fancy words and algorithms and endless complexity. But in most disciplines, if you want to make consistent progress and stay grounded, it’s the simple stuff that works.
What feels good in the short run can contradict what’s good in the long run
Examples include consuming junk food versus nourishing food, consuming junk content versus nourishing content, posting online versus cultivating real community. Pause and think about this more often.
Be patient to get there faster
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 what you’re doing isn’t having an effect. You can’t crack a stone on the 30th pound without first pounding it 29 times.
Presence is the key to happiness
But being present isn’t just about your brain. It is also about your surroundings. If you want to be more present, you need to intentionally design your life in ways that facilitate it. There is a reason monks live in monasteries. The more crap you can cut from your life, the more present you can be for the good stuff.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul and Peak Performance and cofounder of The Growth Equation.