Here is the full transcript of mental health and wellness advisor Bethany Butzer‘s TEDx Talk: Stop Trying So Hard. Achieve More by Doing Less at TEDxUNYP conference.
I’ve spent most of my life trying really hard to succeed. When I was in high school I pushed myself to win every academic award that I could. When I got to university, I pushed myself to get straight A’s in all my classes. I ended up spending ten years in university and got my PhD in psychology. From there I pushed myself to succeed in the corporate world and then I pushed myself to be successful as an entrepreneur.
I eventually ended up getting a job at Harvard Medical School, which is one of the top academic institutions in the world. And by this point, I’d won a lot of scholarships and awards. I was reasonably successful and there were many people who were quite proud of me, but I still wasn’t happy.
So, for example, when I was in my 20s, on the outside, I looked like a thriving young woman who was doing well academically and who had an active social life. But inside, I was struggling with crippling self-doubt and perfectionism. I ended up spending six years on antidepressants and many hours in therapy.
Now I eventually managed to get off the antidepressants and I got into things like yoga and meditation and personal development and I started to make my health and my well-being my number one priority. But still, there was something inside of me that kept pushing me to strive and to achieve and to succeed and I eventually realized that I had become an achievement addict.
So I had become addicted to the attention and the approval that often come along with being successful. And so what I would do is I would get into this pattern where I would overwork toward some goal, I would burn out, then I would maybe take a little bit of time to recuperate, and then I would start over-working again. And I would go through this pattern over and over and over. So this cycle might sound familiar to some of you.
You know, these days when you ask someone, “How are you?” The most common response tends to be “busy.” So we wear our busy-ness like a badge of honor, as if we don’t feel like we’re worthwhile human beings unless we’re incredibly busy doing something. But all this busy-ness is coming at a cost and the cost is our health and our well-being.
So a question that I’ve been working with in my own life both personally and professionally over the last few years is what if there was another way. So what if we could continue to be productive members of society without destroying our health and our well-being in the process? And might it even be possible to achieve more by doing less.
Now I want to make it clear from the very beginning that I’m not advocating that we not try. Life involves effort and I get that. If we didn’t exert any effort in our lives, we probably wouldn’t brush our teeth, or feed ourselves, or even leave the house. So obviously, we need to engage in some effort, but the trick seems to be learning how to balance effort with ease.
And there are two different types of effort that I believe we can engage in, in our lives. The first type is something that I like to call “upstream effort.” So when we’re engaged in upstream effort, it feels like we’re paddling a boat upstream against the current of the water. So it feels like you’re trying really hard, you’re pushing, you’re striving, you’re maybe burning out your health and well-being, are maybe suffering, and even though you’re engaged in all this effort, it doesn’t really feel like you’re getting anywhere.
Now upstream effort is the type of effort that I believe most of us are engaged in on a regular basis and, in fact, society even encourages and rewards upstream effort. So from a young age, many of us are taught to believe statements like “Nothing in life comes easy, and if it was easy, everyone would do it.” and “You have to fight really hard to make it in the world.” So most of us are familiar with this, this type of effort.
But there’s another type of effort we can engage in and I call this one “downstream effort.” So when we’re engaged in downstream effort, we’re still engaged in effort, we’re still trying, we’re rowing a boat, but we’re paddling that boat downstream, with the current of the water, or with the flow of life, if you will. So we have a goal, but we have a loose grip, or loose attachment to that goal, and we’re more focused on the process or the journey of getting towards that goal.
Now in the same way that there are different types of effort, there are also different types of success. So many of us are taught to believe that success means having a lot of money or a nice car or a big house. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with these things. It’s just that we each need to define what authentic success means for us.