Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to defeat mediocrity: making stress work for you

Imagine any form of strenuous physical exercise. Lifting the heaviest weight you can, running your fastest possible 5k, sparring against the toughest fighter in the gym. You are trying to get through the last rep, the last hundred meters, the last 30 seconds of the last round. You are a full 10-out-of-10 on the effort scale.

Drenched in sweat, you hit the showers. You've earned yourself a nice cool shower and you start to feel better immediately. Now, depending on how well you manage your lifestyle, one of the following two scenarios result:

Scenario 1: Your lunch hour is almost over, and you've got a huge meeting with the boss. Or your wife is landing at the airport in ...oh shit, eight minutes! Time to cut the water, towel off, and still sweating, you throw on your clothes. You grab your gym bag (oops, forgot your water bottle), sprint to the car, and start speeding out of the parking lot. Two hours later, you're exhausted, but there's still lots of work to do, so you reach for another coffee or energy drink to get back to baseline.

Scenario 2: You take a long, cool shower for ten minutes. You towel off and have a smoothie at the juice bar. You take a 15-minute walk home, grab a quick power nap, then move on with the rest of your day.

Obviously, I think most people would prefer to be in Scenario 2.

Since our body always wants to be at a state of equilibrium, I've tended to look at health and wellness through this lens of equilibrium. One of the most important interplays in our body is that of the one between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the "fight-or-flight mechanism" that engages the body for action. The PNS is the "rest and relax" part of your nervous system. The two systems ebb and flow like yin-and-yang. Neither is ever completely inactive, but throughout the course of the day, the two work together to keep the body in equilibrium.

Activities and experiences can either be sympathetic-dominant or parasympathetic-dominant as well. For example, contrast any of the following:

  • intense hill sprints / a slow nature hike
  • waking up in the morning / falling asleep at night
  • an ice-cold shower / a warm bath
  • daydreaming and fantasizing / executing and building
  • rigourous studying / escapist pleasure reading
  • deep tissue massage / gentle foam rolling
  • intense intellectual thought / quiet meditation
  • hunting for food / eating and digesting it

These pairs are not "opposites", and neither is one in the pair "better" than another; I simply wanted to show the types of activities that are SNS or PNS dominant. The only thing that is actually bad is too much of one and not enough of the other. Also, I didn't just list physical activities; in fact, for most people who aren't serious athletes, mental stressors (and factors such as diet and sleep) probably have the greatest nervous system impact.

Typically, you want to ramp stress up, and then ramp it back down into recovery. That's why people do warmups before the tough workout. It's also why I take a short walk outside in the morning before I do any heavy mental lifting, as well. When I'm done with the stressful task and it's time to put the weights (or the laptop) down, I wind down, grab a drink, and do something relaxing.

Imagine that we had a way to determine, in real time, what a person's stress level was at any given moment. This guy is competing for a gold medal at the Olympics, he's at 10. This guy is delivering a career-defining presentation, he's at a 10. This guy is doing his usual morning workout, he's at a 7. This guy is getting a Swedish massage on the beach, he's at a 2.

What's useful is, of course, not the average or the sum of a person's stress level, but rather its distribution. Probably, most people in first-world countries are at a normal distribution:

(I should note that stress should not really be linearly evaluated in such a way, but I am treating it as linear to make a point here.)

Most people spend almost all their time in the middle. Their lives are fine. They get some exercise, but probably not enough. They get some sleep, but probably not enough. They are fairly good employees at work, but not superstars. They don't have financial troubles, but nor do they have great wealth. They watch a lot of TV and spend a lot of time on Facebook. They can also probably tell you a lot about the personal lives of their favourite celebrities and athletes. 

When they try things, they set low expectations. They half-ass a lot of different things, and are rarely too engaged in what they are doing. 

There's nothing wrong with these people, really. Society needs them, and luckily they are an abundant resource. They're just simply not serious achievers.

I don't want to be one of these people, either. You probably know some of these people. One could be your boss, your personal trainer, your teammate, your colleague. They might make a lot of money (or go broke gambling it all). Two hours after they leave the gym, they are reaching for another can of Monster or Red Bull just to get back to baseline. They are writing e-mails at 11:30pm and checking for responses at 5am. They certainly don't bother with meditation, or gentle stretching. Ain't got no time for that!

If they are professionals, they are running from one high-stress decision to another. If they are athletes, they are training multiple times a day to exhaustion (and never take days off). Sure, they might end up billionaire CEOs, Olympic gold medalists, or revolutionaries. Or they may drop dead of a heart attack. It's a coin flip.

Note that in spite of the fact that the huge majority of their lives are spent in the 7+ range, there is a big spike at the 1. That's because their lifestyles are so high-stress that they frequently get sick or injured, or get burned out, have nervous breakdowns, and so forth. At some point, their bodies have enough and shut them down. If you spend all of your life at the redline, don't be surprised when the engine blows up. 

Most of us don't know too many of these people. We probably don't know too many zen monks living in isolation on top of mountains. While these people might seem enlightened and happy, the vast majority of them probably aren't getting much done either.

In his fantastic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that this approach is possibly even responsible for some of India's troubles:
"...the Indian fascination with advanced techniques for self-control, at the expense of learning to cope with the material challenges of the physical environment, has conspired to let impotence and apathy spread over a great proportion of the population, defeated by scarcity of resources and by overcrowding." 

This is what I'm looking for. As an athlete, I am trying to train hard, at high intensity, to improve in my sport. As a businessman, I am trying to work hard and think of creative solutions. As a student, I try to study with intent. As someone currently writing a blog post, I am trying to put aside distractions and focus on my words. But I also make sure to balance this with down time. I do some post-workout static stretching and quiet meditation. I eat well. I take naps, lots of them. I take caffeine in the morning, and magnesium at night.

You'll often hear people say (with pride), things like "I work hard and I play hard". This is great. But to this, we must add, "I rest hard". You might also hear someone (probably a millenial) describe him or herself as "pretty chill and laid-back". This person needs to add, "but I get shit done when I need to."

I am not putting myself out there to be better than anyone else. I often fail both at being too intense and being too lazy. I still spend more time at the 5s and 6s -- that wishy-washy level where you're not really doing anything useful, but not actually focused on recovering -- than I would like. But I put this out there as an ideal to strive for, not a goal to be reached.

Stress is not good, stress is not bad. Stress just is. It is a part of life and one that should be embraced as well as respected. One should not go through life trying to avoid stress, but rather actively managing it, and making it work for you.

If you want to be an achiever, then achieve. Work hard. Focus. Go all-in. But then, rest, recover, then do it again.


  1. "Most of us don't know too many of these people. We probably don't know too many zen monks living in isolation on top of mountains."

    I am married to one of these people. Thank you for this blog post because I like visuals, and I think it's given me some food for thought on how differently Gavin and I approach life.

    1. Probably why in his 30s and as a parent of two, he thinks he can still win an ironman poker tournament. :)