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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Stop trying so hard. Achieve more by doing less by Bethany Butzer at TEDxUNYP
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.
So for you, authentic success might mean having a lot of money or it might mean improving your social relationships or it might mean improving your health. So we each need to define what authentic success means for us because this helps us make decisions in our lives that guide us in the direction of downstream effort.
And so the question then becomes, you know, “How do we enhance downstream effort in order to reach authentic goals?” because when I talk about the idea of achieving more by doing less, what I’m really referring to here is enhancing downstream effort in our lives in order to reach authentic goals.
But how do we do this? There are a few different things that we can do and the first thing is that we need to engage in some inner work in order to begin to cultivate downstream effort in our lives. So one type of inner work that we can do is we can begin to identify what we value in life.
Now values are abstract goals or ideals, they can be difficult to define, but there are things like freedom, authenticity, joy, happiness, stability, and we need to identify what we value because these values then serve as a North Star or a compass to help guide us in the direction of downstream effort in our lives.
Another type of inner work that we can do is we need to identify how we want to feel every day. Now Doug Newburg is a researcher and performance coach from the University of Virginia and he developed a theory that he calls the Resonance Performance Model. And he developed this theory based on interviews that he conducted with hundreds of top performers from a variety of different areas of life so, for example, medicine, sport, business, and music.
And what he found is that these top performers had very specific ideas about how they wanted to feel every day. So, yes, they had a goal. They might have wanted to win a gold medal or a Grammy, but they were more focused on the process of getting towards that goal than the actual goal itself.
Another thing that Newburg found is that these top performers, this is very important, when they bumped up against obstacles towards their goals, they didn’t try harder. So they didn’t exert more effort. Instead, they took some time off for personal reflection and reminded themselves of how they wanted to feel every day. Newburg referred to this as “their dream.” So reminding themselves that their dream, then motivated them to continue towards their goals.
So after we’ve done this inner work of identifying how we want to feel and what we value our job is then to bring this inner work out into the world. So there’s research suggesting that authenticity has two components: an internal component and an external component. So, internally, we need to unapologetically own our values and our feelings and then, externally, we need to act on those values and feelings in the real world.
So, in other words, we need to start making authentic life decisions. So you might choose a particular job or a relationship or life path based on what’s true and authentic for you. And this might sound relatively straightforward, you know, you just make life decisions based on what’s important to you and then you live your life in that way, but, in actuality, sometimes our authentic life choices can go against what society or our friends or our colleagues or our family think we should be doing.
So, for example, when I was working at Harvard Medical School, after a while of working there, I started to realize that that job was no longer honoring what I valued and I was no longer feeling how I wanted to feel every day. And so I made the very difficult but authentic decision to quit my job at Harvard and I ended up living in a cabin in the woods for two months and then I moved to Europe. Now this was not an easy decision to make. There were people in my life who believed I was making a mistake, professionally, by quitting Harvard, but it was a decision that was true and authentic for me.
So our authentic life choices, they won’t always be easy, but they’ll always be worth it because they help us live with integrity. And so after we’ve made these authentic life decisions, our job is then to use discernment to evaluate the results of our decisions. So, in other words, we evaluate which path we’re on. We can ask ourselves has this decision resulted in me moving upstream or am I moving downstream. And there are a few hints that we can use in order to figure out whether we’re engaged in downstream effort.
And the first of these is that when we’re engaged in downstream effort I believe we’re more likely to experience something called “psychological flow” and when we’re experiencing psychological flow, some of you might have experienced it before, we sometimes experience it when we’re engaged in things like music or art. When we’re engaged a psychological flow, we’re so absorbed and engaged in what we’re doing that time seems to get distorted so time might feel like it speeds up or slows down, you might not notice time going by, it can be very difficult to distract you from what you’re doing, the telephone could ring and you might not even notice it, and you might even be so absorbed and engaged in what you’re doing that you become almost one with the activity.
So, for example, in the moments before an athlete scores an incredible goal, they might feel like time slows down for them, they might not hear the audience around them, and they might feel like their body moves almost effortlessly in the service of scoring that goal. And, in my opinion, psychological flow is actually the epitome of downstream effort because we’re trying but it doesn’t feel like we’re trying.
Now another hint that you can use to find out if you’re engaged in downstream effort is that sometimes synchronicity might be more likely to pop up in your life so the perfect people, places, or opportunities might arise for you without feeling like you had to engage in that much effort in order to make those things happen. So if you’re engaged in downstream effort, the idea is to stay on that path because authentic success is likely to follow.
Now notice I use the word “authentic success” here so your success might not look successful to the people around you but it will feel successful for you internally. So, for example, someone who gets a divorce after spending years in an inauthentic marriage, their life might not look very successful on the outside, so they might lose their home, they might lose some access to their children, they might lose some income. However, their decision and their life will feel authentic for them.
Now, if on the other hand, you engage in an authentic life decision and it feels like you’re engaged in upstream effort, before you start trying harder, there are two questions that you can ask yourself. The first question is “Is this a time in my life when upstream effort is necessary?” So there are some times in our lives when we do just have to put in some extra hours, put in some time, and feel kind of like we’re trying very hard.
So, for example, if you’re trying to get your Master’s or your PhD, sometimes that process can feel like a slog, it can feel like a lot of effort, but if that Master’s or PhD is an authentic life goal for you, then you can remind yourself of your motivations for pursuing that degree and that can then motivate you to continue.
Now, also another question you can ask yourself if it feels like you’re engaged in upstream effort is: “Have my values changed?” So there are times when we make a decision in our lives based on certain values but then those values change over time. So, for example, if when you first finished university, you got a job so that you could get some financial stability in your life, but maybe three or five years later, financial stability is no longer something that is as important to you. That job might start to feel upstream because it no longer reflects your values. In these situations, we need to either quit or let go of or the very least significantly alter the path that we’re on so that we can course correct and bring ourselves in the direction of downstream effort in our lives.
So I believe that there are many times when we’re engaged in upstream effort when we actually need to quit or let go of something so that we can make room for downstream effort. And so my main point here is not that we stop trying. It’s that you stop trying so hard at things that don’t matter to you and start trying at things that do because, when we engage in effort towards goals that are personally meaningful for us, our trying doesn’t feel like trying and our success feels successful regardless of what it looks like to people on the outside.
Now this might sound relatively straightforward; however, very few of us are actually living this way so many of us exert enormous amounts of effort towards goals that are not actually personally meaningful. And even though the idea of downstream effort might sound a little bit counter-intuitive, I believe many of us really resonate with the idea of slowing down and exerting a different kind of effort in our lives. And, in fact, many of the world’s great wisdom traditions actually emphasize similar concepts like practicing mindfulness, non-attachment, and emphasizing being over doing.
So, for example, in Taoism there’s a term called Wu Wei, which refers to a form of effortless effort, and Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, who’s considered to be the founder of Taoism, wrote: “Search your heart and see the way to do is to be.” And so I’ll admit that I don’t have this process completely figured out and my inner achievement addict is still alive and well and comes to visit me quite often, but when she does I try to remind myself of some of the ideas and concepts that I’ve talked about today in order to do that course correction, to bring myself in the direction of downstream effort in my life.
And so I would encourage all of you to take a good hard look at your own inner achievement addicts and ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. What’s motivating you? Are you motivated by something that’s true and authentic for you or are you motivated by something that’s external to you?
And we might ask “Well, why is this important?” Well, I believe it’s important because your health, your well-being and your authenticity are more important than any job, any promotion, any salary, any degree, or frankly, anyone else’s opinion of you. And when we get this, when we truly embody it and start living it, then we really can begin to achieve more by doing less. Thank you.
- Success Isn’t Linear: Jordan Howlett (Transcript)
- Made Impossible Dreams Come True: Nivedha R.M. (Transcript)
- How College Loans Exploit Students For Profit: Sajay Samuel (Transcript)
- How to Design for Dignity During Times of War: Slava Balbek (Transcript)
- The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready: Bill Gates (Transcript)