Category Archives: Stress

Excellence: The Razor’s Edge

Balancing Excellence with Burn-Out is hard

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the type of reading I do, but I’ve noticed the internet is currently flooded with articles about how to achieve excellence: in sports, at productivity, design, even relaxation. Rebel Power Yoga, anyone? (Really) Everyone is all about improvement, and at the top of the heap is where everyone wants to be. That’s where you gain money, recognition, friends, all of those things our culture teaches us to want. Nirvana’s on the peak. Climb up and discover your validation for the hours, the very-life, you traded for it. On one level, I have no problem with this. I’m kind of a perfectionist. It takes real, conscious effort for me to turn away from striving to be excellent, but I do. Why? because I’ve found that turning away, at least on occasion, is healthy.

Excellence is a classic example of “the razor’s edge.” It’s a precarious walk, and while it’s good to excel at what you do, and to be rewarded is fulfilling on many levels, monetarily, emotionally, and even spiritually, there is a darker side to it.

The Dangers of Excellence

There’s an enormous time and energy commitment to excellence.  Superior performance doesn’t just happen; being the best takes crushing effort and sacrifice. I remember striving to maintain a 4.0 GPA and preserve my scholarship in college. My wife and I were newly married, and over the years of my undergraduate teaching program, we had two children. Most of the time, all she saw of me for two semesters a year was the top of my head as it hovered over textbooks and in front of our computer screen. I absorbed tons of information and, besides Pedagogy and Lit Analysis, I learned that if you burn the midnight oil consistently–you end up in the dark.

I charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

My ultimate dark was the metaphorical one of clinical depression, and it stayed with me for years afterward, and even now, it haunts my mind like some kind of backstage ghost. Long days of little sleep, no play, and pressure to perform killed every happiness in my life like a matador slays a bull. I had kept my head down and charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

A Pearl of Great Price

While striving for excellence doesn’t always end  with having to take a happy pill for the rest of your life, there are always costs. In the Christian Bible there’s a parable about a merchant who finds a “pearl of great price” and sells all he owns in order to buy it. If you fail to maintain a broader perspective in your pursuits, excellence will demand you trade everything else in life to achieve it. Is that what you want and do you know what you’re really striving for?

You do need to examine and discern the reality of what you’re pursuing. When you’re standing at that pinnacle, what will be the scene  and will you be happy there? For example, as a personal trainer, I know how to ensure someone can attain the fashionable physical peak–washboard abs. But when someone says they want them, I make a point to ensure they are aware of the work and the payoff, and each person’s genetic and lifestyle differences are going to make the level of effort unique to them.

Excellence can be a Pearl of Great Price

The Hyped Possibility

Part of the current misunderstanding about excellence arises from famous entrepreneurs who have turned to writing about their success, and they have all kinds of prescriptions for success: lists, morning routines, meditations. And these impresarios will tell you, “I’ve interviewed dozens of billionaires, and they all have this one secret in common!” Or “Do this morning routine for twenty minutes in the morning and your life will change.” Uh…huh.

All of them will tell you there’s time, but there really may not be as much as they claim. Often writers say, “Well, if you take eight hours away for sleeping and eight hours away for work, that still leaves you eight hours.” However, once you calculate in necessities of living like, commute time, shopping time, cooking time, religious/spiritual obligations, time to be fully present with your spouse or other committed relationship, school meetings and sporting events, etc, all “extra” time evaporates.

What’s an Achiever to Do?

The call to action? Be excellent at fewer pursuits. Don’t try to be mother of the year and champion chief-executive at the same time. That’s a recipe for years of therapy. Another step to take? Tune into what you want for yourself more and tune out all the “should chatter” from T.V. , magazines, blogs, and news feeds. Those voices do not know you or your unique situation. And sometimes, there’s a level of natural ability involved that is either there or not. Sorry, but it’s true; we’re all different and that sometimes means people are just better at something than we are.

Pursuing excellence is good. But examine closely what you want for yourself. Seek out your deepest reasons for wanting to reach beyond good enough. Remember those who are close and intimate to you. They will be on for the ride. Make sure they want to go. Lastly, and most important–love the process of your pursuit as much as the end product. That way, even the daily work will be something that will make you happy.

Keeping Your Natural Rhythm

I am newborn and slip into the scenery and the silence

Entering the Rhythm

Everyone has a natural rhythm. In my seasonal cycle, mountains rise in me like rivers rise in the spring. When the snow melts off the streets and the trees open their first buds, dreams of walking  through deep valleys and struggling up steep, mountainous slopes flood my sleep, washing away the winter’s months of stillness.  It’s difficult waiting for early summer. I squirm like a kid waiting for Christmas. I make lists of maps and look for places to walk away from empty talk, garish skylines of aluminum, and streets lined with black staves of wire instead of trees.

But, no matter how anxious I am to dive into the first national park I see, when I do go, there’s always a waiting period before I can settle into the trail’s rhythm.  On those initial miles, I feel out of sync with nature, and it’s not until I’m two or three days deep into a long-awaited hike that my body will break through the surface tension holding me captive. My muscles and nerves relax and suddenly, I’m no longer drowning in questions or choices that don’t really belong to me.  From that point, I am newborn and can rise into the scenery and the silence, while the sun’s warmth on my skin laps away the last vestiges of civilization.

Technology and Syncopation

As I slip into every day’s simple cycle, I am reminded of how in the past, for tens of millennia, when the sun went down—the world fell into a darkness we could not see into. What was out there, silent, watching, hungry, was a mystery that no one dared delve into. The night was for taking shelter and sleeping until the sun returned and lit our way again.

We have undone this rhythm with lights on everything. Don’t get me wrong or label me a Luddite; I enjoy having lights to read by, music to listen to, and television to watch, but the fact remains that we have thrown off our natural rhythm, and that exacts a price.

For mostly economic reasons, we have imposed our will on nature’s rhythm, the beat of which has formed us since the beginning of time. This technological syncopation has entered our minds and seriously thrown us off. As an Air Force member, I worked shift work for nearly twenty years, and I remember reading research from the late Seventies that showed the ill effects working night and day had on physical and mental health. Today’s research continues to reinforce those earlier studies.

Paying Modernity’s Price

In 2016, Medical News Today, an international publication for health news, published the results of a meta-analysis that showed shift work posed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a second study indicated that shift work impaired brain functions like: memory, cognitive speed, and overall brain power. Apparently, we cannot throw off the rhythms that have formed us without threatening our health.

Depression is higher among shift workers

 

Carla V. Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, said that ” television, computers and longer hours of social activity also contribute to what is referred to as “social jet lag,” as well as many new diseases and disorders that are more prominent in Western societies.” Depression is higher among shift workers. Plus, many of these disorders occur in those who work longer hours than usual. Even too much overtime throws one’s system into a tailspin.

Natural Healing

And what can set our mental health back on an even flight path? The outdoors. Being surrounded by nature has been shown again and again to reduce people’s stress, increase their cognitive ability and creativity, and strengthen their ability to focus their attention. Putting aside time to be outside in a pleasant environment shifts our attention away from ourselves and away from negative emotions. Even something as simple as a walk in your local park has been shown to increase your attention, calm stress, and lower your blood pressure.

Remember when I said it took two or three days for me to slip into the rhythm of the trail? Meet David Strayer. He is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, and he talks about something he calls the “three-day effect.” Strayer demonstrated  it with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect,” Strayer says, “is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”

So there’s scientific proof for what the early environmentalist, John Muir intuited. He said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ” But however beneficial to my health, I will always venture into the wild not because science says I should, but rather how it makes me feel connected to something larger and so very alive.  Entering the rhythm of the natural world resonates within us as humans. Nature restores our spirits, heals our bodies, and soothes  our weary souls.