Success that Doesn’t Crush Your Soul | Brunswick
Brunswick Review The Leadership Issue

Success that Doesn’t Crush Your Soul

“If you want to go to the edge, particularly for a long time, you better be kind to yourself,” says best-selling author and performance coach Brad Stulberg.

In his early 20s Brad Stulberg was a rising star at one of the world’s elite consultancies, part of a team that was modelling the effects of US healthcare reform and a few reporting lines away from the President.

He was also burned out. His doctors said—by phone, because he was too busy for in-person visits—that stress was likely responsible for his hands and feet feeling cold, and why he couldn’t sleep at night. His friends offered a less-official diagnosis, calling him “anti-fun.”

His experience, while extreme, isn’t entirely foreign. Burnout is so prevalent it’s often referred to as an epidemic—one which has measurably worsened since we’ve started working from home. Many who aren’t burned out don’t exactly feel energized or fulfilled. The New York Timesmost-read article in 2021—the year of the US Capitol being stormed, COVID variants emerging, and COP26—was titled: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.”

Stulberg left his job and returned to graduate school to study public health, which sharpened his focus—and later, sparked his writing—on well-being. He also served as a performance coach for physicians at Kaiser Permanente, the large US health care provider and hospital network.

Stulberg recently published The Practice of Groundedness, his third book on human flourishing and performance. His latest work focuses on both what’s broken with our approach to success today and how we might reimagine it.

The main culprit of our collective anxiety and stress, according to Stulberg, is “heroic individualism.” It’s a way of living that is “an ongoing game of one-upsmanship, against both yourself and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success.”

Groundedness, to oversimplify Stulberg’s argument, is the antidote. It’s an approach built upon six principles that range from accepting where we are today to building a close community (Stulberg’s summary of the six principles is below).

There’s a gentleness to Stulberg’s argument that feels particularly welcome. He interrogates the impossible standards we often set and equates relentless optimization with feeding a ghost with a bottomless stomach. He invites us to be kinder to ourselves and more forgiving of our shortcomings.

Yet soft as that all might sound, The Practice of Groundedness is, at its core, a book about better performance. Each chapter is sprinkled with scientific research and concrete practices. “You don’t become what you think,” Stulberg writes. “You become what you do.” In a recent interview with Brunswick, he shared how we might shift both our mindset and our practices to become more grounded.

You started noticing the symptoms of what you call “heroic individualism” among many of your coaching clients. Given how common that syndrome seems to be among elite athletes, executives, and entrepreneurs, what would you say to those who argue that it’s simply the price of high performance?

Being a truly high performer in today's world comes with very real costs, both internal and external. But that doesn't mean people should just give up on a more fulfilling and nourishing path to success. What I see first-hand in my coaching practice is that as individuals cultivate groundedness, they shed a whole lot of their stress, anxiety, restlessness, and never-enough craving and desire.

It's not just me. The research on this is astoundingly clear: people perform at their best when they are fully in the moment and taking discerning actions from a place of genuine strength and confidence, not insecure arrogance. By practicing groundedness, you shift the focus from external measures of success to internal values, and as a result you perform better (because you are more focused and less obsessive) and of course you feel better too.

Another way to think about it is this: for high-performers, wherever you are, the goalpost is always 10 yards down the field. If you develop a mindset of “if I just do this or just achieve that, THEN I'll arrive,” you are in for a rude awakening. The human brain did not evolve for arriving. Groundedness is about learning to enjoy and find fulfillment in the process.

  • Low-level anxiety and a sensation of always being rushed or in a hurry—if not physically, then mentally 
  • A sense that your life is swirling with frenetic energy, as if you’re being pushed and pulled from one thing to the next
  • A recurring intuition that something isn’t quite right, but you’re unsure what that something is, let alone what to do about it 
  • Not always wanting to be on, but struggling to turn off and not feeling good when you do 
  • Feeling way too busy, but also restless when you have open time and space 
  • Being easily distractible and unable to focus, struggling to sit in silence without reaching for your phone 
  • Wanting to do better, be better, and feel better, but having no idea where to start
  • Becoming utterly overwhelmed by the information, products, and competing claims on what leads to well-being, self-improvement, and performance 
  • Feeling lonely or empty inside 
  • Struggling to be content 
  • Being successful by conventional standards, yet feeling like you’re never enough 

--

Excerpted from The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.

Few of us are likely to include being “grounded” in our goals for this year. Why is that a worthy target?

Groundedness is the internal strength and fortitude to sustain you through ups and downs. Particularly in today's world, where there is so much frantic and frenetic energy pushing and pulling us from one thing to the next, a sense of groundedness, and the stability it brings, is a superpower. It leads not only to feeling better but also to doing better. Groundedness offers you more focus and discernment, the ability to respond to whatever life throws at you instead of merely reacting.

If you picture a massive oak tree in a storm, its overstory will be swaying back and forth. But its trunk will remain firm, and that's because it is held to the ground by solid roots. We are the same. Groundedness is about nourishing our own deep roots, the qualities that ensure we, too, can stand strong amidst all kinds of weather. 

The way you describe some of groundedness’s hallmarks—responding, rather than reacting; more focus and discernment—every CEO, every athlete, would say “sign me up for that.” And these are smart, driven people.  So why do you think, when they want to be more focused and resilient, they often employ strategies and approaches that take them in the opposite direction? 

Because it's the water we swim in! Groundedness requires a bit of going against the grain. And because of that, it is not easy. Also, I think many of the types you mention tend to be perfectionists. So perhaps they try to go from distracted to completely focused all at once, obviously fail (because who wouldn't?) and then give up. So, incremental progress is the name of the game here. Small steps taken regularly lead to big gains.

1. Accept Where You Are to Get You Where You Want to Go.

Seeing clearly, accepting, and starting where you are. Not where you want to be. Not where you think you should be. Not where other people think you should be. But where you are.

2. Be Present So You Can Own Your Attention and Energy.

Being present, both physically and mentally, for what is in front of you. Spending more time fully in this life, not in thoughts about the past or future.

3. Be Patient and You’ll Get There Faster.

Giving things time and space to unfold. Not trying to escape life by moving at warp speed. Not expecting instant results and then quitting when they don’t occur. Shifting from being a seeker to a practitioner. Playing the long game. Staying on the path instead of constantly veering off.

4. Embrace Vulnerability to Develop Genuine Strength and Confidence.

Showing up authentically. Being real with yourself and with others. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance between your workplace self, your online self, and your actual self so that you can know and trust your true self, and in turn gain the freedom and confidence to devote your energy to what matters most.

5. Build Deep Community.

Nurturing genuine connection and belonging. Prioritizing not just productivity, but people, too. Immersing yourself in supportive spaces that will hold and bolster you through ups and downs, and that will give you the chance to do the same for others.

 6. Move Your Body to Ground Your Mind.

Regularly moving your body so that you fully inhabit it, connect it to your mind, and as a result become more firmly situated wherever you are.

--

Excerpted from The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.

What’s the difference between being grounded and being mindful?

Mindfulness is one component of groundedness. Whereas mindfulness focuses predominantly on your state of being, groundedness focuses more on your actions in the world, on your doing. Groundedness argues that perhaps the best way to improve the quality of your being is to improve the quality of your doing. It is why each of the above principles are accompanied by concrete practices. No doubt, mindfulness— and more broadly, the teachings from ancient eastern wisdom traditions—are a component of groundedness, but far from the whole thing.

In the book you write powerfully about being diagnosed with O.C.D, and how transformative it was learning to accept, rather than struggle against, the disorder.  I find myself at once nodding along with the wisdom of that approach, and then a second later wishing all the tedious, unpleasant things in my life would go away. How can we get better at accepting the things in our life that, clearly, our life would be better without?  

Acceptance does not mean passive resignation. I think a lot of people get confused there. What acceptance actually means is seeing things clearly as they are, which, of course, opens you up to taking the productive actions that actually give you a chance to change those situations. So the first step to improving the things in your own life that, as you put it, "you would be better without" is to accept them for what they are. Practicing acceptance is often very hard in the short-term and in the acute moment, but it makes life much easier in the long-term. 

I suspect I’m not the only person who struggles with what you call the “knowing-doing gap.”  How can I better align what I know I should be doing with what I actually do?

The first thing is I would try to get rid of the word "should" altogether! Shoulds are tough. Wants and wishes are much smoother. So, for instance, maybe make a list of all the things you genuinely want to start doing, and that becomes your starting point for progress. From there, it is about taking small consistent steps which compound over time for big gains. The number one cause of falling off the bandwagon with progress is doing too much too soon and getting discouraged as a result. You don't need to hit home runs. You just need to put the ball in play, over and over again.

But still, this stuff is hard! I am just as guilty as the next person of reading a leadership or personal growth book and feeling super inspired but then not really doing anything different, at least not for more than a week or two. I knew this about myself and other readers heading into this project, which is why I held myself to ensuring each chapter of the book includes very concrete and practical and accessible practices to help readers close the knowing-doing gap. 

A line of yours I love is “marrying self-discipline with self-compassion.”  In pursuit of the former, we often lose touch with the latter.  How can we stop doing that?  

Doing hard things is hard. You cannot get the most out of yourself without occasionally being scared and failing. If you beat yourself up, you just waste energy. Being kind to yourself is key. It is what allows you to quickly dust off and get back on the wagon. 

Being a human is filled with challenges. Caring deeply is hard (because the things you care deeply about are the things that tend to break your heart, since they never go exactly as you wish). It is a constant reminder: This is what is happening right now, I am doing the best that I can. The most genuinely tough people I know, the true badasses, are also some of the best at self-compassion. This is not a coincidence. If you want to go to the edge, particularly for a long time, you better be kind to yourself.

--

Edward Stephens is a Senior Editor with Brunswick, based in London.

Photos courtesy of Brad Stulberg.