My head hurt. I was ready to give up. Seven years ago my wife and I quit our jobs to travel the world. Six years ago I started a business instead of opting back into the corporate workforce, aka “the grind.” It was all great at first. I did what I loved, made a real difference in people’s lives and operated, more or less, on my terms. The problem was, I was going crazy.
Running a client-service business has unique challenges. There are all kinds of nasty words for it. Hunting. Farming. Networking. Sales. I’d have peaks where too much work was coming my way and long valleys where I feared I’d never earn another dollar. These were not the actual problems. The problem was I was trying too hard.
As a coach and a life-long student of psychology and personal development I knew every method to trick myself into hustling to achieve more. The problem with knowledge is it can backfire, and I had swallowed more knowledge than a hungry teenager at thanksgiving dinner. Instead of acid-reflux I was hit with bouts of confusion, mental tension and stress so palpable, I literally went to the hospital thinking I was having a heart attack (it wasn’t, the doc said I was just really exhausted and needed some rest).
The real problem was that in striving, I forgot about something vitally important. It had everything to do with an intangible and overlooked quality, that is the hallmark of optimal performance in every field.
Forget what you know
Conventional wisdom is wrong. It says things like:
“Work hard to get ahead!”
“You get out what you put in!”
“No pain, no gain!“
To say this wisdom is wrong means that it isn’t wisdom at all. It’s a misunderstanding that modernity is fixated on. Why is this the case? Turns out that sometimes hard work does get you ahead in life. Doing something is often better than doing nothing. However, relying on your effort to progress in life is a tenuous game.
If you buy into conventional wisdom a few things happen. First, you become a pro at mustering effort. Then you acclimate to the effort, through adaptation, which frees up even more energy to be reapplied. It’s a vicious cycle. While adaptation is terrific for improving one’s physical body, it wreaks havoc on your psychological health.
You miss opportunities for leveraged results. A leveraged result occurs when you discover a more efficient and effective way of doing something. Worst of all, you get injured! I’ve efforted my way to numerous physical injuries through overuse. The same can happen to our psyche. Then, there is the hard reality that lots of people put in the effort and don’t get far. Blood, sweat and tears are no guarantee of great results.
Gain real leverage
A lever is a strategically placed tool used to achieve the desired result with minimal wasted effort. If you need to uproot a treasure chest buried underground, you have a few options. You can furiously kick the dirt. It might work. It will also break your foot in the process. Another option is to strategically use a shovel and crowbar. Efficiently remove the soil, carefully place the crowbar next to the treasure chest, and lean on it. Viola, the treasure emerges as if by magic! ????
Where do we gain leverage in creating great stuff in life?
If the source of leverage is hard work, any sane person would find ways to deploy more effort, no matter how hard it was to do so. However, if the leverage point is in a different place, the methods used will be different.
An example of leverage in action, compared to brute force effort, is in the contrast of Aikido with boxing. Aikido, translated as “the way of harmonious spirit” is a martial art whose premise is to defend yourself from an attacker and prevent injury to the attacker in the process. The redirection of the attacker’s energy is paramount. Watching Aikido, one might confuse it with a dance where obligatory “twirls” are supplemented with the occasional somersault. Minimal effort is expended for maximum result and limited collateral damage.
Find your inner leverage point
Every spiritual and cultural tradition over 1000 years old has pointed devotees to look within for what they seek. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Buddha cut to the chase and simply said, “Look within.” What does this mean?
In one respect, when you look within you notice your mind. The mind has an infinite number of states or ways of describing its nature. Right now, how would you describe your state of mind? You might be calm, relaxed, harried, confused, engaged, loving, curious or some combination therein. An odd situation arises when you begin to bear witness to your state of mind. It’s as if a sentry keeping silent watch over the neural networks of the mind becomes known.
This sentry, Consciousness, has a distinct quality to it. What quality? Notice it for yourself. Stop reading for the next 60 seconds and bring your conscious awareness to your breath moving in and out. What did that feel like?
This quiet “space within” is the point of leverage from which you can engage in the world with an effortless quality. When resting more deeply in conscious awareness, the experience of struggle and effort begins to transform. This isn’t new-age hogwash. It’s been known for millennia. When self-consciousness gives way to Consciousness, the emotional turmoil and limitations of the self-focused ego melt away.
Enter the Zone
I used to be an ultra-endurance athlete, having completed many long-distance triathlons and ultramarathon running events. During competition and training, I would often head out the door with a smile on my face, even when I went for a 30-50 mile trail run across mountainous terrain. The smile wasn’t bravado, I was a slow runner. It was from knowing that my perceived stress and struggle during these events would be limited to the first and last miles of the event. The long stretch in between would be a flow-like state of being present with other competitors traversing what was often beautiful terrain. My job was to be conscious and present. As long as I did that, there would be no struggle.
The same is true in work and every other domain of life for many people. Flow states of mind, are when you enter a psychological state marked by high engagement and performance levels while experiencing peace and joy. They have been researched and discussed at length in many academic papers and self-help books. While the specific mechanisms by which flow operates are not fully understood, what is clear is that the states of mind that we typically associate with being in the zone – peace and joy – exemplify a tremendous inner leverage point from which to operate from.
Try easy – no, really!
You might be wondering what happened after I went to the hospital with what I feared was a heart attack (it wasn’t)? Here’s what happened right away:
I listened to my intuition and stopped efforting to succeed. I canceled my goals. I started to pay more attention to my state of mind. Just by noticing my state of mind, it naturally started to settle into a “zone-like” state without effort. I become far more present and conscious in my life. I blocked more free time on my calendar. I operated more out of being of service to my clients and less out of needing to attain my ego-driven aspirations. I started creating more content (on the blog and podcast). Miraculously, my business started to thrive again. Clients experienced even more outstanding results. Best of all, I was healthy and falling back in love with my work and life.
If you are like me, you see the limitations of efforting yourself to succeed in your work and life. Perhaps, like me, you are also craving another way to find success. You also are probably unsure about what to do next. It’s simple. I invite you to take this article to heart. Explore and find your inner leverage point. Experience what it is like to operate at a high level with less effort and none of the stress. Notice what it’s like to be in the zone. It’s all about paying attention to your state of mind and working with it instead of against it.
Call to action
The next time you find yourself striving and struggling your way through a task, relax a wee bit. Be present. Pay attention to your state of mind, and commit to “trying easy” instead of trying hard. If you are grinding it out, take a break. If you are striving to complete a project, breathe a little and let the tension melt away. It sounds simple but it’s nothing short of miraculous.
You don’t need to run an ultramarathon to enter the zone. The zone is within you, right beneath the surface, at all times. It’s a joyful and peaceful experience wherein your full capacities as a human will be more easily accessible. What’s needed is allowing this state of mind to surface. It will. Ease off the pressure a little bit. Like a beach ball held underwater against its will, it wants to surface. Its nature is to rise from the depths. Let go of the need to effort your way to success and watch your performance – and joy – soar.
p.s. The header image to this article is from a recent hike near Winter Park, Colorado – USA.