Information for educational purposes only.
I’ve written previously about developing “mental armor” to handle the pressures and demands of life and work. The subject came up once again when I saw a Twitter post featuring Gordon Parker, AO (Officer of the Order in Australia), a prominent psychiatrist, who speaks briefly about burnout—what it is and how to prevent it. Scientia Professor at the University of South Wales, Parker’s research into the symptoms of burnout leads him to promote physical exercise and meditation as two helpful ways to prevent or remedy the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion we know as burnout.
Doing a little further “research,” I learned that while burnout is not recognized as a distinct clinical diagnosis like major depression, the World Health Organization has recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” In this context, when stress is excessive and/or chronic, one’s resources become depleted, affecting one’s performance at work—even if, or perhaps intensified by—working from home.
Professor Parker and a colleague, Gabriela Tavella, recently authored an article on burnout published on the ABC News web site, discussing burnout in a broader context than that of work alone. The authors point out that an event like the pandemic created stress in virtually every context and that while escaping stressors isn’t always possible, there are “…some de-stressing strategies to help curb your burnout symptoms. Things like exercise, meditation and practicing mindfulness are consistently nominated…as most helpful.”
For my own part, I find that challenging physical activities—like climbing mountains—along with meditation, are good preventative medicine and invaluable in maintaining mental clarity and emotional balance.
#ICYMI: As the pandemic, the stresses, and the WFH/school life continues for many, a different kind of fatigue has set in – burnout. @blackdoginst's Prof. Gordon Parker says there are four things people can do, if they're feeling burned out and want to change it. #TheDrum pic.twitter.com/HqmaLwZMwL
— ABC The Drum (@ABCthedrum) September 17, 2021
In July of last year, an essay in the New Yorker proposed that crises can be a catalyst for positive change. As the U.S. suffers a fourth wave of COVID-19, is optimism still warranted? I am hopeful that we can count on human resilience in the face of adversity and historical evidence that suggests the potential of crises to “shake up the way people think.” Those words were spoken by Gianna Pomata of Johns Hopkins University, and quoted by Lawrence Wright’s essay, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – and Open Minds.”
A professor of Medical History, Pomata notes that in the 14th century a virulent disease known as the Black Plague devastated Europe (as well as China and India), but also ushered in the European Renaissance. Arts and sciences flourished in this era of profound change, while hereditary class divisions and control of wealth gave way to new social and economic forms. “After the Black Death, nothing was the same,” Pomata says. “What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen… in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”
Wright adds, “We seem to be at another point when society will make radical adjustments, for good or ill,” and his essay offers a look at the mixed effects of pandemics that emerged throughout the history of the western world. Pandemics almost always triggered economic volatility, but responses varied widely. Wright is hopeful that our present pandemic will open minds to the possibility of “major transformations.” He notes that, “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”
The events of early September 2021 might alert us to the urgency of a response to climate change, as well as to the effects of a COVID-19 rebound which has dramatically slowed hiring. Much still seems uncertain, but perhaps a look at history can help us to find a sense of perspective if not equanimity—and also inspire us to take up the work of creating positive change.
HOW PANDEMICS WREAK HAVOC – AND OPEN MINDS
Lawrence Wright, July 13, 2020
The New Yorker magazine
Over the past year, elite athletes have brought unprecedented focus to the psychological challenges of performing at the highest level. Unsettled by pressure to win the Gold, Simone Biles pulled out of gymnastics events at this summer’s Olympic Games. Earlier, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing depression and mounting anxiety. And in England, Tyrone Mings revealed that his mental health plummeted before Euro 2020, prompting the footballer to call upon his psychologist to cope with competitive anxiety. An excellent article by Simon Usborne in The Guardian takes a look at the pressures faced by professional players and the rest of us: “How to win at life: What sports psychologist can teach us all.”1
To capture a few points in The Guardian article: sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, who has worked with British cycling, football, and taekwondo teams, says that he asks athletes to think about possible scenarios prior to competition to prevent panicky reactions during competition. “I’d take a sprinter and say, this is what could happen in this 100m race: a world record; underperformance; or an unexpected event.” Dr Andrea Furst, who works with England Rugby and the Australian sailing team, says the ability to focus on specific things that need to be improved separates elite athletes and mortals. It’s the focus on the thing that needs to be changed, “. . .done day after day that makes supreme performers.” Others emphasize pausing at critical moments to take control of a situation—but without overthinking it.
I believe that we can all learn from how athletes are nurturing well-being as well as prowess through disciplined preparation, learning to relax while remaining focused, and finally, allowing ourselves to celebrate even a small win. The following is an edited list of 8 practices proposed by the psychologists quoted in the article:
- Break big goals into do-able chunks
- Use positive self-talk
- Visualize success
- Consider potential outcomes. Prior to competition, deal with the chance of a brilliant showing, a stumble or a random event to stay focused and “in the moment.”
- Use relaxation techniques: breathing, meditation, music
- Ask yourself—and your coach or mentor—what’s not helping. Then work on it.
- Pause before all-out effort – but not too long
- Celebrate triumphs big or small
- Usborne, Steve, “How to win at life: what sports psychologists can teach us all,” August 21, 2021, The Guardian, retrieved 8/22/2021 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/aug/21/how-to-win-at-life-what-sports-psychologists-can-teach-us-all
At the Summer Olympics in Athens, twenty-one-year-old Oscar Figueroa placed 5th in the men’s weightlifting competition and came to Beijing in 2008 hoping to better his performance. Unfortunately, due to a cervical disc injury, he failed to make a lift in the snatch category and left the Games without posting a result. Failure and a risky surgery did not stop Figueroa. With a new coach, he began training immediately and arrived in London in 2012 stronger and mentally committed. With maximum concentration, he completed an Olympic Record lift of 177 kg, earning a Silver Medal.
A second painful surgery followed success in London, yet Figueroa maintained focus, practicing meditation and preparing mentally as well as physically for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Observers noted that he remained remarkably calm before a roaring crowd, with Colombian fans “in a frenzy” and rivals falling away.1 In Figueroa’s own words, he knew that in order to win, “…you had to believe, to trust, to desire, to be disciplined…the only way was to keep working.”2 At age 33 in Rio, Figueroa fell to his knees and burst into tears after winning the men’s competition and taking home Gold. “I never give up.”
- “Against All Odds,” video, retrieved January 10, 2021, https://www.olympicchannel.com/en/athletes/detail/oscar-figueroa/
The emergence of Covid-19 has forced all of us to change the way we conduct our lives. For nearly a year, people in every circumstance and walk of life have dealt with an invisible threat to the health of family, friends, and neighbors, as well as the distress imposed by economic uncertainties.
While there is encouraging news about COVID vaccines, daily life continues to be challenging as infections again surge. We still need what some military sources call “mental armor” to cope and carry on, to remain resilient and adaptable.
A key component of my own mental armor is meditation, which I use to mask the “noise” of the daily news and other distractions. I use both inner-focused meditation techniques and outwardly directed practices to help me to focus and “clear the decks.”
The second component is finding a purpose beyond my own immediate concerns. As psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” I also adhere to ideas expressed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: “It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” For me, this means being clear about my intentions, setting goals slightly above my ability and engaging in physical activity. I see these philosophies at work when I run marathons and climb mountains to raise money for cancer research and in my commitment to financially support an Asian researcher. Fighting cancer has profound personal meaning for me.
Finally, I find the Stoic philosophy helpful. Epictetus (50 A.D.–135 A.D.) wrote that, “Some things are within our control and others not.” The Greek philosopher consistently considered the capacity for choice and the limits of “volition,” writing, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
In essence, leadership is the art of guiding a group of people toward a common goal. But what are the qualities of an effective leader? Is it a matter of charismatic personality or something that can be learned and cultivated? My interest in leadership led me to an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart?”
The writers of the HBR piece, noting that 25% of CEO departures are involuntary, conducted a ten-year study called the CEO-genome project. The resulting data disputes the frequent assumption that a successful CEO is most likely to be a tall, extroverted visionary with an Ivy League education and an astronomical IQ. In fact, the key finding was that, “successful chief executives tend to demonstrate four specific behaviors” and that most high-performance CEOs excel in more than one of these four behaviors. Those with a poor leadership profile rarely do so.
The Four Behaviors
Deciding with speed and conviction
High-performing CEOs “make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction…even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains.” In fact, leaders who were indecisive were much more likely to be fired than those who simply made one bad decision.
Engaging for Impact
Once a decision has been made, the CEO must get people “aligned around the goal of value creation.” Per the study, CEOs with a results orientation were “75% more successful in the role.” And while good leaders do solicit information and ideas, they must also be willing to engage in conflict and ultimately, chart a clear course—giving “everyone a voice but not a vote.”
The authors’ analysis shows that leaders who excel at adapting “are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.” Equally, the ability to adapt requires an ability to think long-term and anticipate change.
Project data indicates that reliability is paramount. “A stunning 94% of the strong CEO candidates we analyzed scored high on consistently following through on their commitments.” The writers also note that reliable results require the ability to effectively organize, plan, systematize and build a strong team.
I think anyone can benefit by practicing these four behaviors. After all, imagine an indecisive military leader, a football quarterback who can’t adapt to moment-by-moment shifts on the field, or any leader in business who doesn’t engage and motivate his or her team. I hope you will find this information as useful as I have.
— CNBC (@CNBC) May 20, 2019
Botelho, Elena Lytkina; Powell, Kim Rosenkoetter; Kincade, Stephen; Wang, Dina, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart,” Leadership Transitions, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2017/05/what-sets-successful-ceos-apart
The question arose after reading an article in The New Yorker by Douglas Starr, professor emeritus of science journalism at Boston University.1 Although the article was written with regard to how the concept of swarm intelligence might apply to guiding a response to the current pandemic, Starr prompted me to consider how it might apply to sports and even more broadly.
First, a definition: swarm intelligence is the “phenomenon in which groups of animals act in concert” or when people “come together to create a synergy that magnifies their individual capabilities.” It differs from cooperation, in which people work together in a structured way to achieve a specific goal. Starr notes that, “…it’s an emotional and reactive behavior, not a plan that can be written out on a flowchart.” It’s the unified action of soldiers in battle, or the way that a basketball team can seem to move as one.
I drew from Starr’s article 5 essential elements of “swarm intelligence:”
- Unity of purpose
- Adoption of a spirit of generosity
- “Stay in your lane”
- “Check your ego at the door,” decline to seek credit or assign blame
- Interpersonal trust and respect
In an interesting way, retired college football coach Urban Myers’ in a recent Twitter post, refutes the idea that “bad players” are the cause of poor team performance. According to Myer, you have to “look under the hood,” where you will discover:
- Trust issues – between players and coach or among the players
- Dysfunctional environment – e.g., high-performance expectations, but a lack of discipline and hard work
- Selfishness – a lack of generosity and mutual support among players
For both journalist and coach, exceptional performance as a team or in Starr’s case, a task force, requires a shared sense of purpose, a spirit of generosity and an environment of trust and respect. These values are at work whatever your game.
Over the years I’ve learned a couple of useful facts about cutting weight. Once the food you eat leaves the stomach, it passes into the large and small intestine, which are approximately 25 feet long. Generally, it takes steak three days, chicken two days and fish one day to travel through our gastrointestinal tract (GI). Take those time frames into consideration as you get closer to competition day. Since your intestines are a membrane, proper hydration is necessary. Be sure to drink plenty of water and get in some pool or tub time.
I blend half of my favorite cereal along with Fiber One Cereal, Original Bran. It makes a great late-night snack instead of a midnight burger run. Also, consider cutting out fiber the night before a competition.
Intestinal health appears to be important to one’s overall health, resistance to disease and response to treatment. Recently, I read a study stating that cancer patients with good gut bacteria were more receptive to immunotherapy treatments.
If you had 15 minutes with a Nobel Laureate, what would you ask?
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) March 7, 2019
“The organization will let you work on whatever you want to work on. You just have to make sure you are working on things only you can work on… Certainly true if you are going through a period of tremendous scrutiny or big changes… You have to set time aside to make sure you know where you are.” Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf, minute 22.
Mr. Mollenkopk’s words had a big impact on me as an entrepreneur as there are no shortage of items that need attention. His comments bring clarity to how to prioritize tasks to determine what needs should be delegated versus owned. End goal is efficiency as to avoid burnout as one scales mountains.
Louis Gerstner’s book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance is a fascinating account of the former IBM CEO’s historic turnaround of the tech giant. One lesson I took away from the book (available on Audible.com) was that Gerstner initially made no major decisions, but rather spent time talking with different divisions. One when he had a clear idea of IBM’s needs across the organization, did Gerstner develop an overarching strategy that served to right the ship. This collaborative approach relates to author Steven Kotler’s statement in Stealing Fire about the kind of leader Google was seeking in a CEO: someone able “…to let go of his ego, merge with the team…” Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal is available on Audible.com.
How Google used Burning Man to find a CEO who was familiar with group flow pic.twitter.com/saUgEX2q2r
— Business Insider (@businessinsider) January 19, 2019
“They also make the very clever shift away from seeing those in their industry as competitors and rather see them as rivals. A competitor is someone you want to beat. And the obsession again is too much on the finite. What are the metrics, how are we going to get ahead of them? A rival is someone who’s strengths reveals to you your weaknesses. So to see those in your industry and admire where they are better than you, instead of trying to beat them, you look at where your weaknesses are, and improve. It’s constant improvement.” -Simon Sinek
Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse is a very interesting book and available on Audible. The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek is scheduled to be released June 6, 2019. Can’t wait!
Success demands not believing the hype, or lack thereof, tunnel vision, GRIT and resilience. Each level becomes ever the more challenging but the formula remains the same: Just do the work.
Just downloaded Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Eric Barker on Audible.com.
The average GPA of college millionaires is 2.9 — find out why pic.twitter.com/HSpkveZHqS
— Business Insider (@businessinsider) December 13, 2018
A recent conversation with a friend about acid reflux brought up a 2004 email from my father. Below content from his email is the framework in which I think about the food I eat. While the average pH value of yogurt is about 4, which is somewhat acidic, a drinkable yogurt from Trader Joe’s always settles my stomach.
“Strong alkaline food: Grape, tea, Seaweed.
Medium alkaline food: Yellow bean, tomato, pumpkin, strawberry, lemon,
spinach, banana, & egg white.
Weak alkaline food: Red bean, apple, onion, tofu, green color
Strong acidic food: Egg (yellow portion), cheese, persimmon.
Medium acidic food: Bacon, pork, beef, margarine, bread, wheat,
chicken & fish.
Weak acidic food: Rice, peanut, beer, clam, oil fries.
85% of cancer patients have acidic body fluid (pH< 7.4). Best acidic foods: alkaline foods ratio is 1:3”