Is Healthy, Sustainable Peak Performance Possible?
In the summer of 2003, a precocious 18-year-old sat nervously on a grass field flanked by eight lanes of a warmup track, awaiting the final call to the starting line. This wasn’t your ordinary high school track meet, or even a state championship; this was the Prefontaine Classic, the crown jewel of track-and-field. A few days earlier, the same 18-year-old was sitting in his physics class thinking about his high school crush, Amanda. Now, he was sitting amidst the best runners in the world, wondering how he’d measure up in the sport’s preeminent event—the mile.
As he watched stars such as Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat execute their intricate prerace rituals, he tried to distract himself by playing his Game Boy; he stuck out like a sore thumb. A few long minutes later, when the athletes were summoned from the warmup area to the starting line, he was forced to leave the comfort of the video game Super Mario Bros. In a futile attempt to stay calm while entering the packed Hayward Field, located on the campus of the University of Oregon—a running mecca if there ever was one—he kept repeating the mantra, “Don’t look up, don’t look up.” The top of his head, not his face, was broadcast across the country, live on NBC. Before he could process that he was lining up next to Kevin Sullivan, who had placed fifth at the previous Olympics, his name was suddenly belted out over the loud speaker. Any illusion of calm was shattered. A wave of anxiety coursed through his body. Whatever little food was in his stomach rose into his chest. “Shit. Here we go,” he thought, as the starter raised his gun. “Just don’t puke.”
Four minutes and 1 second later, it was all over. In that short time, he had become the sixth fastest high school miler in the history of the United States, the then-fastest high school miler in the country, and the fifth fastest junior in the world. He had gone toe-to-toe with collegiate superstar Alan Webb, who had a 3:53 mile to his credit and who would eventually set the American record of 3:46. He finished within arm’s reach of Olympian Michael Stember and passed the then–US mile champion Seneca Lassiter, who promptly dropped out of the race after the high school kid left him in the dust on the final lap. In other words, he had officially become a teenage prodigy.
Even so, the disappointment that came with finishing just shy of the sport’s magical 4-minute mile was evident. When the official results were announced, the NBC broadcast showed a wiry, completely depleted kid, hands covering his face. As the initial flood of emotion wore off, however, he couldn’t help but revel in a bit of hard-earned contentedness. He thought to himself, “I’m 18 years old and running in the biggest professional meet in the country; breaking 4 minutes will soon be an afterthought.”
NBC’s color commentators were cooing over the performance of the high school kid. “You got to say something about a kid who can stay that disciplined,” they remarked. If only they knew.
Reaching this level of performance demanded more than just talent and hard work. Ask those who knew him and a single descriptor invariably came to mind: obsessive. It was the only word that fit. Friends and family repeated this word so often that it could have easily been dismissed as trite and cliché. Except it wasn’t.
His days were a monotonous pursuit of excellence. Wake up at 6 a.m., head out the door for a 9-mile run, go to school, lift weights, and then run another 9 miles at 6 p.m. In order to avoid injury and illness, he adhered to a rigid diet and religiously went to bed hours before his peers. His life was an exercise in willpower and self-control.
He insisted on sticking to his training plan always, even if that meant running 100 miles during a week-long cruise vacation—circling the 160-meter track on the top deck until not fatigue but dizziness stopped him. He ran through tropical storms, summer heat advisories, and family emergencies. No natural or human disaster could prevent him from getting a workout in. One more example of his obsession manifested itself in his love life, or lack thereof. Apologies are long overdue for the unfortunate girlfriend with whom he cut things off simply because his racing had gone south during their courtship, even though she, of course, had nothing to do with it. His obsession surfaced every weekend when he regularly chose his 10 p.m. bedtime over parties and opportunities to meet girls. In other words, he was far from your average high school boy, but then again, average high school boys don’t run 4-minute miles. He had the rage to master: an unending, unrelenting resolve to do everything he could to reach his goals. And it was paying off.
He was one of the fastest documented 18-year-olds on the planet and one of the fastest high school runners in the history of the sport. He received recruiting letters from nearly every university in the country, ranging from athletic powerhouses like Oregon to bastions of academic prowess like Harvard. His dreams were filled with Olympic rings, medals, and thoughts of conquering the world. And they were all realistic.
A few years later, across the country in Washington, DC, a young man was preparing for his first day at a new job. He hurried out the door after his usual morning hygiene routine—brush teeth, shave, shower, get dressed, and go—a routine he’d condensed into 12 minutes. His morning routine hadn’t always been such a sprint. But after 2 years of working at the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he’d applied to his own life the uncanny efficiency that he’d helped Fortune 500 companies achieve. No waste. No downtime. Completely streamlined. The sole pitfall of his uber-efficient mornings was that it caused him to sweat, which was only exacerbated by a tight-fitting suit and the thick humidity of summer in Washington, DC.
A single thought dominated the first 10 minutes of his walk to work: stop sweating. He wasn’t accustomed to the suit, which was a step up in dress code required by the new job. He’d have to alter his morning routine: either build in more time or lower the water temperature in the shower. Maybe both. He was good at this kind of analytical thinking. In the months prior, he built a model that projected the economic impact of United States health care reform, a sweeping and messy legislation that would shake up multiple industries. His model had made its way around the Beltway, and experts, most of whom were twice his age, agreed it was pretty damn good. It undoubtedly helped him land his new gig.
When he turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, however, his thoughts shifted away from which variable of his morning routine he’d alter first. “Holy shit,” he thought, “this is awesome,” as he arrived at number 1600, the White House. There, he’d be working for the prestigious National Economic Council, helping to advise the president of the United States on health care.
Like most exceptional performers, this young professional’s journey to the White House was rooted in a combination of good DNA and hard work. He scored highly on an early childhood IQ test, but not off the charts: His verbal intelligence was exceptional, but his mathematical ability and spatial skills were quite ordinary, if that. He worked his ass off in school, regularly choosing to immerse himself in philosophy, economics, and psychology rather than in booze and parties. Though he was good enough to play small-school collegiate football, he instead chose to attend the University of Michigan and focus singularly on academics.
His scholarly success attracted recruiters from the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company. At McKinsey, he quickly earned a reputation as a top performer. In whatever time remained at the end of his 70-plus-hour workweeks, he practiced his presentation skills and read the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and countless economics books. His friends often joked that he was “anti-fun.” No doubt he was grinding, but he was enjoying it, too.
His performance at McKinsey soared on an upward trajectory, and he got staffed on increasingly high-profile projects: It wasn’t long before he was counseling the CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies. That’s when, in the winter of 2010, he was asked to build the previously mentioned model that would forecast the effects of United States health care reform, a herculean task. Imagine being confronted with 50 variables, all of which interact with one another and none of which is certain, and then being asked: “Tell us what is going to happen, and do it on this spreadsheet.”
He dug in and worked harder than ever before. If he wasn’t losing sleep because he was working, he was losing sleep because he was anxious that he wasn’t working. His hands and feet constantly felt cold. Doctors told him it was stress, though they couldn’t be certain; his visits were all conducted via phone—there was no way he had time for an actual appointment during normal business hours.
But he got the work done, and the model worked. It was effective and elegant. Insurance companies and hospitals all over the country used it. As a matter of fact, it worked so well that the White House called and asked if he would help them implement the law. He’d be a few reports away from the president. His friends who once joked he was “anti-fun” now joked that he might run the country one day. In this fast-paced world of high-stakes problem solving, he was a rising star. He was a few months shy of his 24th birthday.
By now you may be wondering: Who are these people, and how can I emulate their success? But that’s not the story we’re here to tell.
The high school running phenom never ran a step faster than he did that summer day at the Prefontaine Classic. And the young-gun consultant didn’t go on to run for office or make partner at an esteemed firm. As a matter of fact, he left the White House and hasn’t received a promotion since. Both runner and consultant shined extremely bright, only to see their performance plateau, their health suffer, and their satisfaction wane.
These stories aren’t unique. They happen everywhere and can happen to anyone. Including us. We, the authors of this book, are the runner (Steve) and the consultant (Brad).
We met a couple years after we had both burnt out, and as we shared our stories over a few beers, we realized they were quite similar. At the time, we were both beginning our second lives: Steve as a performance scientist and budding coach of endurance athletes, and Brad as an emerging writer. Both of us were embarking on new journeys, and we couldn’t help but wonder: Could we reach the highest levels of performance without repeating our previous failings?
What started out as a two-person support group morphed into a close friendship founded upon a shared interest in the science of performance. We became curious: Is healthy, sustainable peak performance possible? If so, how? What’s the secret? What, if any, are the principles underlying great performance? How can people like us—which is to say, just about anyone—adopt them?
Consumed by these questions, we did what any scientist and journalist would do. We scoured the literature and spoke with countless great performers across various capabilities and domains—from mathematicians to scientists to artists to athletes—in search of answers. And like so many other reckless ideas conceived over a few glasses of alcohol, this book was born.
We can’t guarantee that reading this book will set you on a path to winning Olympic gold, painting the next masterpiece, or breaking ground in mathematical theory. Genetics play an unfortunately undeniable role in all of those things. What we can guarantee, however, is that reading this book will help you nurture your nature so that you can maximize your potential in a healthy and sustainable way.
Let’s start with a simple question. Have you ever felt pressure to perform? If you answered no, perhaps you’ve hacked some meditative, Zen-like trance. Or maybe you just don’t care much about, well, anything. In either case, this book probably isn’t for you. But if you answered yes, then you can consider yourself to be like just about everyone else on the planet. So read on!
Whether in school, the office, the artist’s studio, or the arena, at some point most of us have experienced a desire to take our game to the next level. And that’s a good thing. The process of setting a goal on the outer boundaries of what we think is possible, and then systematically pursuing it, is one of the most fulfilling parts about being human. It’s also a good thing that we want to take our game to the next level because, more than ever, we have no other choice.
The majority of this book is focused on showing you how to improve your performance. But first, let’s set the stage by briefly exploring why doing so is more imperative than ever.
The bar for human performance is at an all-time high. New athletic records are being set weekly. College admissions requirements are at unprecedented levels. Cutthroat competition is common in nearly every corner of the global economy. In his book The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton writes that we are on the precipice of “an all-out global war for good jobs.” It would be one thing if a disgruntled employee was saying this on a ranting blog. Clifton, however, is anything but that. He is the chairman and CEO of Gallup, the global research firm that has an international reputation for its rigorous and scientific approach to polling. Clifton goes on to explain that recent polling at Gallup unequivocally shows that global competition has led to a shortage of “good jobs for good people.” As a result, he writes, “An increasing number of people in the world are miserable, hopeless, suffering, and becoming dangerously unhappy.”
Clifton paints a scary picture; unfortunately, he’s right. Data shows the use of antidepressants by Americans has risen by 400 percent in the past decade and anxiety is at an all-time high. Though these conditions may have genetic roots, they are most likely also triggered by the environment we live in, the one that Clifton describes.
To grasp how we arrived at such an environment, we need look no further than the electronic devices we grasp most of the day. By placing the entire world within a few taps and swipes, digital technology opens up access to talent in a big way. Both the number of people available to do a given job and the places where a given job can be done have increased dramatically. Dan Schawbel, a human resource expert and author of the New York Times bestseller Promote Yourself, puts it this way: “This isn’t the workplace of 10 years ago. There’s a lot of pressure. And it’s competitive in the sense that anyone in the world could take your job for less money, so you have to work harder.” And in the workplace of 10 years from now, it won’t just be other people we need to compete against but also a superhuman species that never tires and requires little self-care.
COMPETING AGAINST THE MACHINES
The use of computers, robots, and other sources of artificial intelligence is increasingly exerting pressure on human performance. This often happens in such subtle ways that we don’t even notice. For example, by using ever more sophisticated technology to eliminate the need for physical space, inventory, and a salesforce, companies like Amazon can drive down their operating costs. This allows them to sell just about anything we might want at hugely discounted prices. But there is a dark side to such online megastores: the vast number of jobs they make obsolete. Indeed, the rise of Amazon marked the fall and eventual bankruptcy of some of their competition, notably the iconic brick-and-mortar bookstore Borders. At its peak, Borders employed about 35,000 people. That’s a lot of lost jobs. The scariest part of this story is that, today, Amazon sells far more than books, and the company is starting to explore how it can deliver almost everything not with humans but with mechanical drones. Still happy with your Prime membership?
It’s not just retail and sales jobs that machines are crowding out. Zeynep Tufekci, PhD, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the social impacts of technology, writes, “The machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” Over the past decade, machines have learned how to process regular spoken language, recognize human faces and read their expressions, classify personality types, and even carry out conversations.
Tufekci isn’t alone in her concern about technology’s escalating impact on humans. Some of the world’s brightest minds agree. Physicist Stephen Hawking, serial inventor Elon Musk, Google’s director of research Peter Norvig, and others cosigned an open letter calling for researchers to take special care in developing new artificial intelligence. Hawking told the BBC, “The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
This book isn’t about doomsday scenarios in which we find ourselves at war with machines. But in more ways than one, we are already waging that war. And in order to keep up with the machines, we will need to up our game. It’s inevitable.
COMPETING AGAINST EACH OTHER
In 1954, when Sir Roger Bannister became the first ever person to run a mile in under 4 minutes, many thought it represented the outer limits of human performance. Shortly after crossing the tape, Bannister remarked, “Doctors and scientists said that breaking the 4-minute barrier was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.”
Today, more than 20 Americans break the 4-minute barrier every year. When athletes in other countries, including running powerhouses such as Kenya and Ethiopia, are taken into account, experts speculate hundreds of people run sub-4 miles annually. Heck, some runners even do training intervals at this pace. Nuts is the new normal. Just look at the current mile record—3 minutes and 43 seconds—set by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. Sir Roger wouldn’t even have been on the same straightaway when El Guerrouj was crossing the finish line.
In nearly all sports in which we compete against a clock, what were world records a half century ago are now regularly surpassed by high schoolers. Team sports, too, have become increasingly competitive over time. In 1947, the average height of a professional basketball player was about 6 feet 4 inches. Today, that number has grown to 6 feet 7 inches. It’s not just genetically determined physical traits like height that have increased but also skills. If you watch game tape from the 1950s, you’ll notice that even the point guards—the players who specialize in ball handling—dribbled almost exclusively with their dominant hand. Today, nearly every player on the court appears to be ambidextrous.
Why and how did this happen? Much like in the traditional economy, in the economy of sports the emergence of a global talent pool has increased the number of people “in the game” with ideal genetics for a specific sport as well as the number of people willing to dedicate themselves to achieving greatness. Layer on enhanced and more scientific training, nutrition, and recovery methods, and it becomes easier to comprehend the 16 seconds separating El Guerrouj and Bannister.1
Increased pressure to perform is ubiquitous across domains. This is a movement with no end in sight, and if Stephen Hawking is right, we may only be experiencing the beginnings of it. It should come as no surprise, then, that people are going to great lengths in search of an edge.
GOING TO GREAT LENGTHS
Have you ever walked into a GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, or any other supplement vendor? If you have, and if you’re anything like us, you’ve probably wondered: Who buys all these pills, powders, and shakes? Judging by the numbers, the answer is, well, just about everyone. Although only a tiny minority of the developed world’s population has mineral or vitamin deficiencies that stand to benefit from supplementation, annual revenue in the global supplement industry regularly exceeds $100 billion.
Even more remarkable are the outlandish claims made by many of the manufacturers of top-selling supplements and related products. Take, for instance, a product called neuro Bliss—a drink that promises to reduce stress and enhance brain and body function. It sells for over $2 a bottle. While the company’s website says, “In a fast-paced world, neuro drinks help to level the playing field,” we’ve yet to see any science that backs up this claim. Yet neuro Bliss continues to be a popular-selling drink. People are desperate for an edge—any edge—even if there is no science to suggest that such an “edge” exists. Unfortunately, this kind of desperation is often the first step down a dangerous path into the world of exploiting controlled substances for performance enhancement.
It was exam time at a major university and a student whom we’ll call Sara couldn’t help but notice a trend that was making her a bit more nervous than usual. More and more of her peers, students she’d be measured against, were taking Adderall. Intended to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or the clinical inability to pay attention and focus, Adderall combines the stimulants levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine, yielding what in essence is a tempered version of the street drug speed.
Although many experts believe the naturally occurring rate of ADHD is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 6 percent of the population, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that the diagnosis is being made at twofold rates, or in about 11 percent of American youth. But from Sara’s perspective, just about everyone on campus was using Adderall, regardless of whether they had an ADHD diagnosis or a prescription for the drug.
Why might this be the case? According to WebMD, which is a likely source for college students who are looking for a layman’s description of a drug, Adderall “increases the ability to pay attention, concentrate, stay focused, and stop fidgeting.” Never mind side effects that include loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea, headache, insomnia, and hallucinations. These students, who had no sign of ADHD, were using Adderall like a steroid for the brain to get a psychological edge. This student drug abuse is much like athletes who abuse steroids in sports, where drugs initially intended to treat medical conditions are used illicitly by healthy individuals to gain a physical edge. Some researchers estimate that 30 percent of students turn to stimulants like Adderall for nonmedical reasons. Not surprisingly, Adderall misuse is most common during periods of high stress, for instance during exams. Countless students report that the drug reduces fatigue while it increases reading comprehension, interest, cognition, and memory.
For a recent investigative report, CNN asked student-users about their experiences with Adderall. The answers sound like an infomercial:
•“The fact that it’s illegal doesn’t really cross my mind. It’s not something that I get nervous about because it’s so widespread and simple.”
•“I just feel very alive and awake and ready for challenges that come my way.”
•“I’m on page 15 of my paper in just a few hours . . . and I’m very confident in it.”
No wonder Sara is feeling a bit under the gun. “I won’t use [it]because I think it’s cheating, but it’s rampant—just rampant,” she says.
It’d be bad enough if the illicit use of drugs in search of an edge were confined to academic settings, but it seems this trend is becoming increasingly pervasive in the professional workplace as well. Kimberly Dennis, MD, is the medical director for a substance-abuse center outside of Chicago. She says she’s observed a dramatic uptick in the use of drugs like Adderall in professionals ages 25 to 45, who, just like students, are looking to gain even the slightest advantage.
One such worker, Elizabeth, told the New York Times, “It is necessary—necessary for survival of the best and smartest and highest-achieving people.” During the process of founding an innovative health technology company, Elizabeth sensed that working hard simply wasn’t enough. She felt she had to put in more time, and sleep was getting in the way. So she turned to Adderall. “Friends of mine, people in finance and on Wall Street, are traders and had to start at five in the morning and be on top of their games—most of them were taking Adderall. You can’t be the sluggish one . . . it’s like this at most companies I know with driven young people—there’s a certain expectation of performance.”
Anjan Chatterjee, MD, chief of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital and author of The Aesthetic Brain, sees the use of workplace productivity drugs as the “probable future.” Americans will continue to work longer hours and take fewer vacations. “Why not add drugs to energize, focus, and limit that annoying waste of time—sleep?”
Though it may seem like a dire one, Chatterjee’s prediction is not unique. Another expert who agrees with him is Erik Parens, a behavioral scientist at the ethics think tank The Hastings Center. He says that the epidemic of stimulant use in America is simply a symptom of modern life: on your game 24/7, tethered to your email, needing to perform better today than you did yesterday. But that doesn’t mean this lifestyle, nor the stimulant use required to support it, is a good thing. As we’ll soon learn, drugs or no drugs, performing in this nonstop manner without sufficient rest is suboptimal at best and dangerous at worse. A culture that pushes people to break the law and cheat just to stay in the game, let alone get ahead, is not a good one—nor is it sustainable.
When Chatterjee and other experts talk about workplace doping, they often draw analogies to sports—intensely competitive, high-stakes, win-at-all-costs environments where even the most marginal advantage can produce huge gains. Unfortunately, if the workplace is truly moving in the same direction as sports, that’s very bad news for everyone.
BIGGER, FASTER, STRONGER—BUT AT WHAT COST?
Home run records, Tour de France yellow jerseys, and Olympic medals represent feats of superhuman performance. Unfortunately, many of these performances have proven to be just that: superhuman. They are illusions aided by pharmacological resources and medical sophistication that rivals what you’d find at the best hospitals. Although less than 2 percent of dopers are caught, research suggests that up to 40 percent of elite athletes use banned substances to enhance their performance. More than a quarter of the athletes we watch on TV could be competing dirty.
While it’s easy to think the problem is limited to the upper echelons of sport, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Doping is alive and well in collegiate, high school, and amateur athletics. A 2013 survey conducted by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showed that 11 percent of high schoolers used synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) at least once in the prior year. Let that sink in. Eleven percent of teenagers are injecting a chemical rendition of the body’s most powerful hormone straight into their developing bodies. Perhaps the only thing more disconcerting is that these high schoolers might be drawing inspiration from their parents.
It’s unfortunate but true. Competitive weekend warriors—middle-age amateur men and women trying to win their age group in running, cycling, and triathlon races—have increasingly been caught using performance enhancing drugs. The problem is so large that the governing bodies of these sports are implementing drug testing programs even for those who aren’t racing for a paycheck. David Epstein, a well-respected investigative reporter who covers doping, dug deep into the world of performance enhancing drug (PED) use among weekend warriors. What he found isn’t pretty: He says that some $120 billion are attributed to “anti-aging,” much of which is the peddling of steroids to middle-age men. This market is only destined to grow as baby boomers, with their disposable incomes and desire to stay young and competitive, grow older. Epstein sums up the situation in the report’s title: “Everyone’s Juicing.”
The consequences of this performance-at-any-cost culture cannot be overstated. Unbelievable performances, the type that once lifted individuals to stardom, are now literally unbelievable. Whenever anyone does something great, be it on campus, at the workplace, or on the playing field, we are forced to question their integrity. As Michael Joyner, MD, an expert on human performance at the Mayo Clinic, says, “We live in a world where all exceptional performances are suspect.” However sad this state of affairs may be on a cultural level, it’s perhaps even worse on an individual one. This is especially the case for those who, like the student Sara, choose to compete clean and not to sacrifice their health and morality. As a result, people like Sara are forced to raise their game to an illusory bar. Far too often, the outcome is a bad one.
A 2014 survey of over 2,500 companies in 90 countries worldwide found that a pressing challenge for most modern employers is “the overwhelmed employee.” Workers, perhaps fearful that they must always be “on” because someone else will be, check their cell phones almost 150 times per day. And when they swipe to the right on their devices, what they find is an utterly overwhelming amount of information. One study found that more than half of white-collar workers believe they’ve reached a breaking point: They simply can’t handle any more information, and they report feeling demoralized as a result.
Even so, regardless of how futile our efforts might be, we feel compelled to keep up. This urge is especially common among Americans. Only a third of American workers say they take a proper lunch break (i.e., leave their desks). The other 66 percent opt to eat while working, or not at all. It’s not just lunch that Americans are working through, but dinner, nights, and weekends, too. In an aptly titled paper, “Americans Work Too Long (And Too Often at Strange Times),” economists Daniel Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that 27 percent of Americans regularly work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 29 percent of Americans do at least some work on the weekends.
It would be one thing if we were making up for our workaholic tendencies by taking elongated breaks to recharge and rejuvenate. But that’s not the case. On average, American workers leave 5 vacation days unused at the end of each and every year. When you add all of this up, as Gallup did in 2014, you find that the typical American workweek is 47 hours, not 40. In other words, American workers are grinding away for almost an entire extra day each and every week. Against this backdrop, it’s by no means shocking that 53 percent of American workers report feeling burnt out.
Nonstop, frenetic work won’t just leave us feeling completely depleted; it’s also bad for our health. One extreme case is that of 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch who, after working 72 hours straight, was found dead in his shower. According to an autopsy, he died of an epileptic seizure that might have been triggered by fatigue. Shortly after Erhardt’s tragic death, Goldman Sachs, another preeminent investment house, put a restriction on the number of hours interns could work in a day: 17.
Less extreme than Erhardt’s awful story, but far more common, are cases where unsustainable workloads and constant tension contribute to anxiety, depression, insomnia, obesity, infertility, blood disorders, cardiovascular disease, and a host of other biophysical consequences that are detrimental to both our quality and quantity of life. The irony is that burnout isn’t just common in the corporate world but also in fields that exist to educate people on health and to help them achieve it. Studies have found that over 57 percent of medical residents and up to 46 percent of bona fide physicians meet the criteria for burnout. Other research shows that over 30 percent of teachers suffer from burnout as well.
The seemingly imprisoned 9-to-5 worker might envy the flexibility and freedom of an artist or writer, but it turns out flexibility and freedom are not the cure-alls to burnout that we imagine them to be. Nearly every artist has struggled with creative burnout at some point in their career. Burnout is common in artists because their passion serves as both a gift and a curse. A gift, because, as Plato remarked in the 4th century BCE, passion is “the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings,” fueling original, imaginative, and inspired work. But left unchecked, passion can drive artists to work themselves into the ground.
Obsession, perfectionism, hypersensitivity, the need for control, and high expectations are common traits in great artists, and they are all linked to creative burnout. Add to this the pressure of making a living as an artist, harsh criticisms, social comparison, and the solitary nature of creative work, and it becomes easier to understand why so many artists suffer from burnout, or worse. Research shows that people who work in creative fields are especially susceptible to anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and suicide.
Another pursuit in which passion and pressure commonly collide is athletics, where burnout is one of the main reasons why everyone—from kids to weekend warriors to professional athletes—quits playing sports. So frequently do athletes push themselves too hard without taking a break that there is even a medical term for it: overtraining syndrome. In overtraining syndrome, the central nervous system is thrown out of whack, yielding a cascade of negative biological effects. Ultimately, overtraining syndrome results in deep fatigue, illness, injury, and performance decline. It’s the body’s way of saying “I’m done—absolutely no more.” A forced shutdown of sorts.
Overtraining syndrome sounds like something to avoid at all costs, especially if you make a living with your body. Yet over 60 percent of elite runners say they’ve been over-trained at some point in their careers. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not just elite athletes who succumb to the temptation to do more when their bodies are telling them to do less: Thirty to 40 percent of high school and amateur athletes have suffered from overtraining at least once in their sporting careers.
By now it should be clear that pressure to perform comes from all directions. As a result, more and more people are working themselves beyond the point of diminishing returns. Some are even turning to performance enhancing drugs, risking their health and reputation while breaking ethical and legal codes. Is this really the new requirement for success in today’s society? There’s got to be a better way.
It turns out, there is. The rest of this book is dedicated to exploring it.
A BETTER WAY
Over the past few years, we’ve had the privilege of delving deep into the practices of top performers across a wide range of capabilities and domains. We’ve studied, interviewed, observed, and in some cases worked with individuals who are not only at the top of their game, but who are also at the top of the game. In doing so, we couldn’t help but notice striking similarities in how these great performers approach their work. It turns out that whether someone is trying to qualify for the Olympics, break ground in mathematical theory, or craft an artistic masterpiece, many of the principles underlying healthy, sustainable success are the same.
These principles—each time-tested, safe, ethical, and legal—have been used by great performers for centuries. Only now, however, is fascinating new science revealing why and how these performance principles work. This understanding makes them accessible to everyone. The rest of this book is dedicated to examining these principles inside and out, merging story with science to leave you, the reader, with concrete, evidence-based, and practical takeaways to help you improve your game.
Our journey into understanding the science and art of performance requires us to make links between traditionally siloed domains. It is through these overlooked connections that powerful performance insights emerge. In the words of Eric Weiner, author and innovation expert, breakthroughs occur when “people realize the arbitrary nature of their own [field]and open their minds to, in effect, the possibility of possibility. Once you realize there is another way of doing X, or thinking about Y, then all sorts of new channels open up to you.” With that in mind, throughout this book we’ll uncover what an artist can learn from an athlete, what an intellectual can learn from an artist, and what an athlete can learn from an intellectual.
We’ll show you how strengthening your ability to solve complex cognitive problems is similar to strengthening your ability to lift weights—that the world’s best thinkers and the world’s best powerlifters follow the same processes to elicit growth. We’ll investigate the influence of routine and environment, and explain how and why the pregame warmups of all-star athletes, artists, and public speakers are so alike and so effective. We’ll even discuss fashion, and use science to explain why the geniuses of yesterday, such as Albert Einstein, and the geniuses of today, such as Mark Zuckerberg, don’t care much about it. We’ll explore why after they achieve breakthroughs—be it painting a masterpiece, penning an award-winning novel, or setting a world record in sport—so many great performers often thank and attribute their success to forces beyond themselves: be it family, God, or some other transcendent power.
If we’ve done our job well, by the time you finish reading this book, you’ll thoroughly understand:
•The scientific cycle behind growth and development
•How to prime for peak performance and daily productivity
•The power of purpose as a performance enhancer
Far more important, though, you’ll be able to use these concepts in your own pursuits, whatever those pursuits may be. To help you in doing so, throughout the book you’ll find brief sections titled “Performance Practices.” These sections are meant to hammer home key points and help you reflect on how you can apply them to your own life.
1We’d be remiss not to mention doping, or the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, doping has played an undeniable role in far too many record performances, something we explore in much more detail in this book. Still, the general uptick in performance across all of athletics is far too great to be attributed solely to doping.