Yes, you can

Something interesting happened when I first became self-aware that I was a high-achiever. It gave me language to better understand myself. And like any language that expands our understanding, I wore it as an identity.

Years later came the next level of self-awareness – the realization that every label has its downsides. 

I first noticed it when I’d describe myself to others as a high-achiever and then comedically add that I wished I could turn it off and live without the high expectations that come baked into the label of high-achiever.

I made a Faustian bargain. I believed that to be a high-achiever I accepted the need to be ever-driven and push myself for more achievement until I burned out. There was no off button – it was all or nothing. That was just part of the deal. 

And there I was for some time – stuck in a belief of the need for more, always more. 

Then a coach challenged my perspective, allowing me to arrive to a deeper layer of self-awareness. He asked a simple quesiton – “Why not operate under the complete opposite assumption you normally default to?” 

In other words, try being someone else, just for the next two weeks and see what happens.

Anytime I felt the urge to throttle the achievement lever, I paused to understand where the urge was coming from rather than plowing forward like a bulldozer. I’d ask myelf why I felt the need to achieve – was it a desire of my own or one imposed by the external world? Was it aligned to my purpose or was I just doing it to avoid getting clarity around my purpose?

This space was just the thing I needed to break the incessant narrow-focused high-achiever need to get shit done. 

Three interesting things happened when I began to observe and rethink the self-limiting parts of my high-achiever identity. 

First, I realized I spent a lot of time on non-essential activities because I didn’t have a clear purpose. Once I defined my purpose, I refocused on the essential things and got more done while doing less. 

Secondly, I noticed how much fear held me back because of perfectionism and impostor syndrome, both of which are common in high-achievers. With a purpose clearly defined, I still noticed the fear but it no longer held me back. Instead, the fear became an indicator of a growth opportunity. Rather than avoid doing the real work and substituting it with the unimportant, I tackled it head on. 

Most importantly, I found balance. Contrary to what I used to believe, it’s been so much more fulfilling than a life of constantly striving for more. I had gotten used to living life with an eye towards the future, obsessed with figuring out what would come next, that I missed life in the present. 

This is all to say that we have within us the power to reshape our identities. Yes, you can change. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, especially yourself. 

Rest and our responsibility as leaders

This past week I turned 37. 

In preparation for turning another year, I decided to take the whole week of my birthday off and use it to engage in the things I love the most. I wrote, I read, I reflected, I hiked, I spent time with my daughters, wife, and friends. It was intentional, regenerative and peaceful.

It was so powerful that I intend to make it an annual tradition. 

When I shared my plans with friends and co-workers, there were several that commented “how nice it must be to take a full week off,” or “I wish I could take a full week.

I’m sure some of those comments were said in jest, but some felt like conditioned response. And if so, what does that say about our culture? Why is the idea of taking time off to prioritize self-care and recovery considered such an outlandish idea? 

If you are a leader within an organization, this is something we must commit to changing. Our people are our greatest asset and this should be considered an investment in their health and well-being.

Thankfully, I work for a wonderful, empathetic company, Businessolver, that encourages employees to take time off – they even rolled out unlimited PTO earlier this year. 

But, what’s interesting is that even before this occurred, I noticed co-workers rarely used all their allotted PTO for the year. 

This is completely unacceptable. 

As a leader, it’s our responsibility to find out what’s preventing our people from taking time off and help them to make it a reality. That may also include self-reflecting on how you take time off. If you are unable to disconnect for a week’s time, what signal does that send to your team? Are you responding to emails while you are out or are you setting appropriate boundaries?

I know the feeling of thinking YOU are the only one who can do the work so you couldn’t possibly take time off.

But, suppose you were to quit or get hit by a bus, I would bet the work would still get done. You’re important, just not THAT important. 

It may feel like working is the right choice to do in the moment, but what’s the cost of doing so – what are you sacrificing? 

Remember, work is an infinite game – no one wins work, the point is to keep playing as long as possible. 

Sustainability is a balance of hard work and effort followed by periods of rest. 

We need leaders who are willing to push back against hustle culture and set the expectation that rest is not a luxury, it’s a necessity to stay in the game for the long-term.

More Rest, Less Hustle

I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is a mantra I rallied hard around for years. 

I equated working harder with success. Any time I hit a wall, I told myself to push harder.

There are times when we need to dig deep and push through. But too often, I assumed this state needed to be my baseline. 

Sleep often became the thing I sacrificed to keep pushing myself. I took pride in telling others that I only needed 5-6 hours of sleep and woke up at 3:30AM to begin my daily journey of achievement. I’d secretly judge others who said they wish they could be as disciplined but did nothing as lazy or uncommitted. 

For years, I identified this as my superpower. I’d casually drop it into conversation to impress people. My ego LOVED it.

I was arrogant and I was a fool.

I was burning the candle at both ends, not realizing the toll it was taking on my health. I was constantly anxious, overweight and despite my hustling, I’d spin my wheels on projects. 

Studies have shown that people who sleep less than 7 hours a night are more likely so suffer from a wide array of health issues – cardiovascular disease, heart attack, depression, and more likely to be overweight, to name a few.

Sleep has a tremendous amount of health benefits, from aiding in recovery, muscle growth and improving cognitive function. If you’re interested in the science behind it, I highly recommend reading Why We Sleep (it has helped me recognize the massive benefits of sleep and I no longer feel guilty about getting a good night’s rest).

When I started with a fitness/nutrition coach two years ago, he was adamant that I commit to getting 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night. It was the antidote I needed to the hustle mentality. 

I found that sleeping more actually gave me more focus, lowered my anxiety and helped me drop weight. By doing less and investing in my sleep, I was realizing better long-term results for my health – both physical and mental.

I no longer view sleep as optional – it is a responsibility. Hustle culture is nothing but a toxic lie that’s contributing to our societal decline in health.

As a recovering high-achiever, this has been one of the best lessons I’ve learned over the last couple of years – less can be more. By focusing on sleep, I’ve given myself the space to do less, which surprisingly has given me the ability to be more intentional with my time and accomplish more.

If you’re feeling burnt out, don’t underestimate the power of rest. Sleep is an investment in yourself with the highest ROI. 

And if you decide to keep hustling, I won’t judge you for it – I definitely empathize with you. But, I won’t lose any sleep over it – at least not anymore.

Take a pause

Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful and accessible. 

I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic to completely interrupt our way of life to make me realize this.

But at the end of the day, life is what you make it. 

There’s always been and there will always be shit – injustice, corruption, inequality, death, etc. And we must’nt minimize our responsibility to push back against the shit that life slings and demand better. 

But life has to be more than our hardest challenges. Focusing only on difficulty leads us to believe that that is all that exists. It depletes us of our energy. 

I’m not sure what the next year will bring, let alone the next month. There is no doubt about challenges ahead – the ones we have to face together as a community, as a country, and as humans.

But for the moment, take a pause. I promise it’ll all still be there when you return. 

Find beauty in the simple things. 

Play. Take a walk. Reach out to loved ones. Listen to music. Get outdoors and connect with nature. Exercise. Get some sleep. Watch the sunrise or sunset. Volunteer. Perform a random act of kindness. Take time to tell someone how much you appreciate them.

These are the things that make life beautiful and worth living, worth fighting for. 

Beauty energizes and sustains us to face the challenges ahead with our best-self. 

Make time for this practice, even if it feels selfish. If airline safety instructions have taught us anything, you have to take care of yourself before helping others. 

So, please take care of yourself. 

Even God rested on the seventh day.