Navigating life’s unpredictability often resembles the exhilarating world of alpine skiing. Mikaela Shiffrin, a superstar of the sport, imparts insights into a high-performance mindset, saying,
While taken from the realm of competitive skiing, this guiding principle resonates profoundly beyond sports, offering the transformative potential to shape our personal and professional lives. It emphasises maintaining high quality and performance standards while tempering expectations around future outcomes. So, how can we cultivate this mindset, and what benefits can it give?
Standards vs expectations
Fundamentally, standards are often seen as the internal benchmarks or criteria we set for ourselves, encompassing our definitions of quality, competence, or excellence. They are self-generated and typically align with our values, aspirations, and sense of identity. On the other hand, expectations represent our forecasts or assumptions about future events or outcomes. While our personal beliefs and experiences shape them, they are also susceptible to external influences such as societal norms, peer input, or past results. These predictions can significantly influence our emotional responses and subsequent actions, for better or worse.
Insights from the leadership and strategy expert, Sydney Finkelstein, align well with Shiffrin’s principle. Finkelstein highlights,
This mindset promotes the potent power of adaptability, urging us to expect the unexpected and welcome it with open arms. Finkelstein’s emphasis on embracing surprise complements Shiffrin’s philosophy and brings a new dynamic to it – teaching us that the keys to success lie in our ability to pivot, adapt and thrive amidst life’s most surprising turns.
Maintaining excellence and expectations
We should strive for excellence in our pursuits, whether it’s producing top-quality work or meeting project timelines. However, it’s crucial to remain aware that external factors like market fluctuations, organisational shifts, or managerial decisions could impact our anticipated outcomes.
Applying this perspective across various facets of our professional life can yield significant benefits. The following strategies amalgamate Shiffrin’s principle and Finkelstein’s insights:
- Foster a Growth Mindset: Shift the focus from the final outcome to the effort and process. Emphasise the value of consistent effort and dedication rather than setting unattainable, vague targets. This mindset can be reinforced by celebrating the consistent efforts and hard work involved in achieving professional milestones.
- Encourage Personal Bests: Remind everyone that success isn’t always about outperforming others but about personal growth, continuous learning, and achieving personal bests, irrespective of external markers of success.
- Allow Space for Mistakes: Encourage learning from failures. This approach cultivates resilience and adaptability, essential traits in any professional setting.
- Offer Continuous Support: Extend support during the process, not merely after achieving the outcome. This can involve listening empathetically, providing constructive feedback, or offering resources for professional development.
Striking a balance
Among these strategies, it’s vital to remember that balance is key, particularly when it comes to praise and reassurance. Excessive or unfounded praise can unintentionally communicate low expectations, undermining the motivational power of genuine appreciation and constructive feedback. It’s a delicate act of maintaining high standards and keeping expectations in check — a true testament to the wisdom of Shiffrin and Finkelstein in our professional pursuits.
Shiffrin’s approach to maintaining high standards while tempering expectations, coupled with Finkelstein’s emphasis on embracing surprise and adaptability, provides a robust framework to navigate the complex landscape of the professional world. This balanced methodology promotes growth, resilience, and adaptability amidst life’s unpredictable twists and turns, transforming us from passive observers to active, resilient participants in life’s dynamic game.
Exercise and positive expectations
The integration of this philosophy extends beyond professional life into our approach to exercise and overall well-being. A study by Hendrik Mothes and colleagues at the University of Freiburg highlights that individuals’ expectations and beliefs significantly influence the psychological and neurophysiological benefits arising from a single exercise session. Participants holding positive expectations about exercise’s benefits consistently reported greater psychological benefits, including increased enjoyment, mood enhancement, anxiety reduction, and a rise in alpha-2 brain waves, indicating relaxation.
Such findings underscore the profound impact our mindset, expectations, and internal narratives can have on our health journeys. In high-pressure environments—whether they’re sporting arenas or corporate boardrooms—the pressure to meet personal and external expectations can be overwhelming. Ambition can motivate and drive progress, but continuous high-pressure situations can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression.
Organisations must balance their success drive with care for their employees’ mental well-being to foster healthier and more productive environments. Initiatives like emotional well-being programmes provide structures to support employees’ mental health, offering varying levels of care and engagement tailored to individuals’ needs.
By embracing a mindset that unifies an understanding of mental health with Shiffrin’s high-standards-low-expectations approach, we can embark on a holistic path towards better physical and psychological well-being. This integrated approach can significantly enhance our quality of life and performance across multiple life spheres.
More on positivity
- We still need to find out how and why optimism scientifically influences these diagnostics, but we know it yields clear-cut results with empirical certainty. (Read more)
- “Regarding and building upon the last point, mindfulness is deriving positives from what is happening now or not allowing the negatives to alter the future detrimentally.” (Read more)
It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you. Batman said it so it must be true. (Technically it was said to him first then made a running motif of the film’s core theme, but we may be splitting hairs.)
What we do does define us. Look no further than the first question directed your way by any small talk specialist at a party: what do you do? The question has a more pronounced meaning than simply what is your career. It’s designed to get a sense of what that profession says about you – your class, education, status, salary.
The most popular surname in Germany and Switzerland is Müller, meaning miller. In Slovakia, it’s Varga, the word for cobbler. In the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, it’s Smith, due to the word’s attachment to a variety of once common trades such as blacksmith and locksmith . Your work, then, used to be your literal identity.
In purely nominative terms, that has changed. We do not live amongst Wayne Footballer, Elon Disruptor or Donald Moron. But in terms of social function, our profession is still the definitive modus of identification, at least on first glance. In today’s world, unlike in Batman’s, our job is both what we do and indicative of who we are underneath.
Work as identity
The vast majority of people spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. That was true pre-pandemic when office work practices were the norm. Home and hybrid working have changed things somewhat. There is more flexibility to work schedules, but that does not detract from the amount of our time given to work. In fact, the ability to do our jobs from home has in many cases seen work spill over into what was once free time. Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, terms the psychological state that accompanies investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy to work as “enmeshment” .
Wilson found that workers with greater autonomy over their schedule – such as those in high-powered executive positions, lawyers, entrepreneurs and academics – were most affected by enmeshment. However, with greater autonomy over scheduling and certainly location now afforded to the many workers across the world, enmeshment’s prevalence is only growing.
What do you mean?
Given the prominent role our career plays in how we either identify ourselves or are identified by others, it makes sense that we want our work to provide meaning. After all, if work takes up most of your time and is seen as a solid representative indicator of who you are, then having a meaningful job surely necessitates that you also lead a meaningful life.
Meaning has the highest impact on whether an employee chooses to stay at their job or move on . In fact, employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organisations . On top of that, employees who consider their work to have meaning report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and are 1.4 times more engaged with their work . Meaning, it seems safe to say then, is good.
And yet a 2017 report from Gallup found that just 13% of the world’s workforce felt “engaged” at work . Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who are “checked out” from their work, distinguishing between unengaged workers and those who are actively disengaged. This latter group, “act out on their unhappiness, take up more of their managers’ time and undermine what their co-workers accomplish” .
According to a separate Gallup study from 2013, actively disengaged workers cost US companies a whopping $450 billion to $550 billion per year . In other words, for any cynical employers reading this who think their workers’ pursuit of meaning is nothing more than a tiresome display of existential narcissism that falls outside their professional remit, think again. Meaning is money. Meaning is business. And your staff’s search for meaning is your business.
A map to meaning
Positive Psychology lays out the most prominent job satisfaction theories. There’s Edwin Locke’s range of affect theory, predicated on the importance of meeting expectations. If employee A wants a team-oriented work culture, for example, offering one will provide them job satisfaction, and vice versa.
Then there is the dispositional approach, which posits that while our job satisfaction may fluctuate slightly according to our specific workplace circumstances, more important than whatever workplace culture we’re currently part of is our natural disposition. People with high self-esteem, high levels of self-efficacy, and/or low levels of neuroticism are more likely to be satisfied in their job than those of the opposite disposition, irrespective of whether the job caters to their specific needs or not.
The Job Characteristics Model argues that workplace satisfaction is contingent on factors such as skill variety, task significance, autonomy and feedback. While Equity theory posits that satisfaction depends on a trade-off between input and output. The level or hard work required, enthusiasm for the job and support of or for colleagues is being constantly evaluated against the financial compensation, feedback from higher-ups and job security the role offers, for example.
No theory is fully complete but all offer windows into what satisfaction supposedly looks like – with a great deal of crossover. Essentially a job that does all of or some of the following will prove satisfying: meets employee needs, offers work that is appropriately challenging, gives staff a decent level of control, provides a positive atmosphere (generally best obtained through co-worker collaboration and feedback from senior figures.). None of that, we’re sure you’ll agree, is groundbreaking information. As solutions, they’re easily identified, but harder to put into practice.
A practice often associated with job satisfaction is that of job crafting. For a deep dive on what crafting entails, read our article on the subject here. In short, it involves redefining the way you work, adjusting your role so that it better aligns with your specific skill sets. Sculpting a more personalised version of your position helps you – and in turn, the business – thrive, while simultaneously helping you derive meaning as you’re less likely to feel that your unique strengths are going to waste.
In accordance with the pursuit of meaning, psychologists Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch acknowledged the significance of finding a “calling” . While many professionals may not end up working in the sphere of what they consider to be their calling, through crafting they can help bring their would-be calling to their existing role.
Another tangible step one can take to ensure they obtain a sense of meaning from their work is to prioritise relationships. Aaron Hurst, founder of Imperative and the Taproot Foundation and the author of The Purpose Economy, notes that his 20 years of research into the subject of workplace fulfilment found relationships to be, “the leading driver of meaning and fulfilment at work. If you lack relationships, it’s almost impossible to be fulfilled at work or life in general” .
Hurst’s definition of meaningful work revolves around three core questions. Do you feel like: (a) You’re making an impact that matters? (b) You have meaningful relationships? (c) You’re growing? If the answer to all three is yes, meaning will surely follow.
Of course, we all ascribe meaning to different priorities based on our outlook, upbringing, and social and fiscal circumstances, amongst other factors. As Douglas Lepisto and Camille Pradies describe in their 2013 book Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, some people “may derive meaning not from the job itself, but from the fact that it allows them to provide for their families and pursue non-work activities that they enjoy” .
As noted earlier, some professions feel less like work and more like a calling. Researchers have found that those in jobs they consider their calling are amongst the most content . One of the examples they give is that of zookeepers, noting that “though more than eight in 10 zookeepers have college degrees, their average annual income is less than $25,000.” On top of that, “there’s little room for advancement and zookeepers tend not to be held in high regard” . Despite the relatively limited fiscal reward and few opportunities for growth, job satisfaction among zookeepers is strikingly high. That’s because many of them are doing a job that they deem to be their purpose.
Not only that, but to follow on from Hurst’s point regarding relationships, zookeepers were found to also feel that their co-workers experienced the same motivation and sense of duty they did, helping them form closer bonds. “It’s not just that you do the same work, but you’re the same kind of people,” explains Stuart Bunderson, PhD, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Olin Business School at Washington University. “It gives you a connection to a community” .
We’ve already looked at the dispositional theory around job satisfaction, which contends that our natural outlook has more bearing on our sense of purpose or satisfaction than the scope of the role itself. But we don’t all need to be shiny, happy people (as R.E.M. would put it) to find meaning in our work.
Michael G. Pratt, PhD, a professor of management and organisation at Boston College, demonstrates the variables of approaches we can adopt by relaying a tale of three bricklayers hard at work.
When asked what they’re doing, the first bricklayer responds, “I’m putting one brick on top of another.” The second replies, “I’m making six pence an hour.” And the third says, “I’m building a cathedral — a house of God.” 
“All of them have created meaning out of what they’ve done,” Pratt says, “but the last person could say what he’s done is meaningful. Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about what” . Perhaps that’s why a 2013 Gallup report found that “employees with college degrees are less likely than those with less education to report being engaged in their work — even though a college degree leads to higher lifetime earnings, on average” . They’re earning more money, sure. But they’re not scratching that vocational itch.
We’ve already written about the professional benefits associated with adopting a positive mindset here. A notable finding is the way that our approaches – both positive and negative – can land us in a feedback loop of sorts. A 2021 study in the European Journal of Personality investigating the relationship between self-esteem and work experiences found that, “The overall reciprocal pattern between work experiences and self-esteem is in line with the corresponsive principle of neo-socioanalytic theory, stating that life experiences deepen those personality characteristics that have led to the experiences in the first place” .
Put more simply:
an individual with high self-esteem tends to experience more job satisfaction, and experiencing job satisfaction positively affects the individual’s self-esteem. Thus, the reciprocal effects imply a positive feedback loop for people with high self-esteem and favorable work experiences and, at the same time, a vicious circle for people with low self-esteem and unfavorable work experiences. 
In your hands
A 2018 PwC/CECP study found that a remarkable 96% of employees believe that achieving fulfilment at work is possible, with 70% saying they’d consider leaving their current role for a more fulfilling one . One in three even said they’d take a pay cut if necessary. Meanwhile 82% considered deriving meaning from work to be primarily their own responsibility, with 42% saying that they were their own greatest barrier to finding fulfilment at work .
There’s no one size fits all solution for finding meaning at work, but adopting a positive approach, building genuine workplace relationships, chasing your “calling”, or crafting your existing role so that it better aligns with your unique strengths and interests are all techniques worth exploring.
It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Fluffy and naïve. “Just be a little more positive and you’re bound to see results.” Healthy scepticism and an eye roll feel a fitting response. And yet the benefits of adopting a positive attitude are increasingly well-documented and steeped in research from leading academic institutions.
Having a positive attitude can transform how we view work and perform in our roles. It also, notably, has drastic impacts on our health and well-being. In fact, John Hopkins Medicine reported that those with a positive outlook on life but with a family history of heart disease were, “one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”1 All of a sudden that eye roll feels a lot less fitting.
To properly implement this advice of taking a positive approach, we must first understand what it is. And, crucially, what it is not…
A positive attitude
A positive attitude is not the same as a blinkered, fact-denying, all-is-shiny-and-well outlook. It does not mean contorting reality or pretending setbacks and difficulties aren’t real. That much positivity would of course, ironically, be a negative, transporting you into the realm of delusion. Indeed, research shows that people who are excessively optimistic might overestimate their own abilities and take on more than they can handle, ultimately leading to more stress and anxiety.2 That’s not what positive psychology is about. Rather, it’s about perspective.
Believing in yourself, trying to learn from setbacks and constantly improve, and attempting to make the most from a bad situation are obviously advantageous traits. But they’re easier said than done. Positive thinking is the tool you can use to turn them from being nice hypotheticals to actionable practices that impact your life and career.
Positivity in numbers
Research into the power of positive thinking has yielded some striking results. In a landmark paper3 published by The Royal Society, Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain, in which 5 segmented groups were shown different film clips (two groups seeing positive clips, one group seeing neutral, two groups negative) and were then asked to imagine themselves in a scenario in which similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do, starting with the phrase, “I would like to…”
The two groups who saw positive clips – of joy and contentment, respectively – wrote down a significantly higher number of actions they would take than both the negative groups and the neutral. Essentially, the findings found that positive emotions helped broaden the sense of possibility in the mind and open it up to more options, while negative emotions narrowed the field of possibility.
Research into positivity in the workplace has found its impact to be similarly prominent. A study by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%4. While Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found that, “doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster.”5 A separate survey found that optimists were 40% more likely to get promoted over the next year, six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burn out than pessimists.6
Clearly, then, positive thinking has tangible benefits in the workplace and elsewhere. But for those whose natural disposition is a little less sunny, how do you start thinking on the bright side?
Techniques for positivity
The good news is that our thought impulses are not fixed. The patterns of our brains can be trained and altered until we’re able to wield them more effectively. In other words, if your natural disposition is to think negatively, you can change that – with practice.
There are a variety of practices you can bring into your routine to help make positivity a default. Atomic Habits author James Clear focuses on three7. First, meditation. The aforementioned Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues found that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not, as well as displaying increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Second, writing. Clear cites a study in the Journal of Research in Personality8, in which 90 undergraduates were split into two groups, the first writing about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days, the second group writing about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had “better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses.”
Third, play. Clear advocates for taking time to do some fun activities, even at the expense of work (within reason – don’t skip that big meeting to have a quick go on the swings.) Too often, he argues, we are slaves to our calendars, to the detriment of our merriment and well-being. Stifling our joy stifles our work too. In the long run, taking and making time for more enjoyable activities helps far more than it hurts.
Those are just Clear’s three staples. Advice from others includes starting a gratitude journal9 (documenting some things big or small each day for which you are grateful), adjusting your language to introduce more positive phrasing, or even just smiling. A University of Kansas study found that smiling – fake smiles included – reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations10.
Broaden and build
The benefits of positive thinking don’t stop at mood enhancement. For anyone looking at the numbers cited in this article and wondering, “how can a simple adjustment in temperament bring all those results?” The answer is that it’s not just about the improved psychology, but all of the other avenues that psychology opens up. This is what Frederickson refers to as “broaden and build.”
Because positive emotions broaden the number of possibilities you consider (as opposed to actively narrowing, as negative emotions do), you are then more likely to use that positive thinking as the launchpad to build more skills, resources and relationships, which then lead to further opportunities. By broadening the avenues you consider, positive thinking opens up a whole world of additional prospects. Essentially, then, positive thinking sets the wheels in motion for further success, which will likely produce further positivity – and so the cycle is born. As Clear says, “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.”11
Bringing positivity to the workplace
The benefits of positive thinking are clear and obvious. And better news still, positivity spreads. Amy Finlay, co-founder of Edinburgh IFA, notes that “Exuding positivity can be infectious and, over time, can influence your co-workers.”12 The same is true for negativity, however, which is why it’s crucial for those in management positions to facilitate a positive workplace culture. If employees are imbuing each other with positive energy, they are more likely to concentrate, improve their productivity, volunteer for tasks, and better manage their time. If management lets a negative attitude set in, it’s bound to lead to worse productivity, sloppiness, and generally make the company an unpleasant place to be.
To cynics, adopting a positive mindset sounds like a frivolous, new age concept, especially compared with more tangible changes one can make to workplace practices. But in reality, positive thinking goes a long way to improving the quality of our work, our creativity, our attitude around the office, and our dealings with others. As well as just being a nicer way to live.
Looking for a more productive, fulfilling, happier work life? Why not give positive thinking a go?
Leading by example is a long-standing trope. So far as it concerns setting the tone—it is the foundation for all that follows. However, one cannot expect to manage others effectively if they do not manage themselves well. That means being aware of your emotions and thoughts, processing and regulating them, and effectively dealing with high levels of sustained stress and its ripples.
Not a mantra but a mindset
Mindfulness, or being mindful, is an idea that many of us are familiar with. We hear it used in various contexts and situations, yet, for many, it is as ambiguous as ubiquitous. Although it is slightly more complex than it seems, once we grasp its underlying meaning, the rest quickly falls into place.
Both an act and state of being, mindfulness implies being aware of the present moment and, crucially, understanding its effects and impermanence. It is a concept that has been explored in Buddhist teachings for thousands of years but has reached a critical mass contemporarily because it is really about how we navigate our human experience. Here are some beginning parameters:
- Mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation; instead, meditation is an exercise in mindfulness. One is a mindset the other is a formal practice. One cannot easily meditate during the day, especially at work, but one can be mindful anytime, anywhere.
- It is less something for you to do and more a state of being that is best characterised by awareness and acceptance. The latter is not passive but a means of moving on to what comes next.
- Regarding and building upon the last point, mindfulness is deriving positives from what is happening now or not allowing the negatives to alter the future detrimentally.
In the current era we live in—defined in part by its relentless pace, high visibility, technology-driven communication overreach, and burn-out-oriented lifestyles—mindfulness is a necessity. You may already be practising it without knowing that you are. If that is the case, expand from that base. What is more, the better you become at being mindful, the more likely you are to minimise stress and potentially gain some of these additional mental health benefits:
- Externally, better emotional regulation and reactivity.
- Internally, plugging deeper into somatic experiences (i.e., sensations and emotions).
- Broader self-awareness and an attuned understanding of one’s habits and patterns.
- A reduction in mental fatigue, an increased capacity for focused decision-making and the power to contend with anxiety and doubt.
- More clarity at points of physical fatigue.
Not surprisingly, mindfulness-based relaxation techniques also boost overall well-being. In this way, it is a foundation for everything that comes after. Moreover, its evident slant towards processing somatic experiences and managing a range of psychosocial dynamics promotes healthier relationships. Within leadership, your greatest skill is adroitly managing your charges. The second to that is managing yourself. Mindfulness holistically aids both.
It starts within
Self-management is the bedrock of employee management. It requires being and projecting calm, impulse control, applying short, medium, and long-term vision, making hard decisions at difficult moments, reading and responding to subtle or hidden cues, navigating factors outside of one’s control, and overcoming consistent stress. Let us expand on the last since effective stress management buttresses the potentiality to execute most leadership tasks.
Stress is universal, but leaders contend with the highest levels of review and scrutiny because they are ultimately responsible. They face numerous and sometimes-unknowable problems. If the unexpected provides some mitigation for setbacks, it does not shield anyone from the fallouts of unmet objectives. There must always be answers or solutions. For this reason, leaders must be answerable to the present, future, and sometimes even the past. Eliminating stress is, therefore, not a reasonable goal when these are the stakes, and its triggers are particularly multi-layered for those making decisions. Rather than seek the impossible, or hide from the inevitable, stress management is then a twin pillar of performance and leadership.
Under the surface, the amygdala is the area of the brain that processes feelings and memories associated with anger and fear and governs strong or sudden emotions. Duly, it is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. When facing a perceived threat, the amygdala will send information to other parts of the brain to prepare the body to face the situation or flee. While its primary role may relate to survival, it is also essential to daily functioning. Without this, we risk amygdala hijacking, losing control, and generating overemotional or irrational responses to situations that should not elicit them.
Additionally, research indicates that the amygdala influences cognitive functions such as memory formation, decision-making, attention, and social behaviour. Studies suggest that intense or chronic stress is linked to unwanted neuronal activity in the amygdala (Correll et al., 2005). Tangentially, synaptic plasticity, which is the ability for synapses to strengthen or weaken, and is tied to learning, may be impacted by stress (Vouimba et al., 2004). If nothing else, these findings reflect that the brain’s capability to respond optimally to anxiety or tense moments and carry out some basic cognitive tasks can be weakened by prolonged stress. One’s overall psychiatric state can be eroded or made erratic (Radley et al., 2015). These streams of neural activity also steal resources from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain utilised for effective problem-solving. If stress is unavoidable and destructive, dealing with it, and being able to reset amid tremendous pressure, is of the utmost importance.
Training your mind and body
There is not a more competitive environment than the world of elite sports. Today’s most successful teams hire specialists from inside and outside the game to maximise all aspects of performance. Routinely, mindfulness coaches work with athletes to overcome performance constraints like anxiety, doubt, distraction, and physical and mental fatigue. These problems extend beyond sports; we must also learn to push back these disruptive forces.
On an upcoming episode of the 1% podcast, we sat down with Christian Straka, a former professional tennis player who is now a mindfulness-based mental performance coach for Adidas running. He is a member of the International Mindfulness Teachers association and works closely with the Mindful Awareness Research Centre at the University of California Los Angeles. It is one of many. The fact that these types of organisations and institutions exist reiterates interest in and the value of mindfulness. Christian himself views mindfulness as ‘the next great competitive edge.’
If athletes turn to mindfulness for marginal gains, you should too. So how do we train our minds to perform better in comparatively more mundane circumstances? Think of mindfulness as you would fitness. Develop a routine. There are health-based apps for yoga, relaxation and other related practices. For those starting from scratch, there are one-stop mindfulness apps offering everything from instruction, guided meditation, sleep schedules and data sets for mind-body health. Helpful as these are, mindfulness is about more than using technology. Eventually, it has to come from a deeper place. We must be the gadget, as Christian advises. Hence, the change must come from within. That means making mental health more of a priority.
Incorporating mindfulness practices is not always easy for those whose schedules are already overburdening, and we frequently assume we do not have time. That stance may seem practical and inconsequential, but it is an example of the mental training paradox, which has to do with rationalising a lack of personal investment in committing ourselves to mental health. We make excuses for not caring for our minds like we would our bodies. We should be wary of these thoughts. Even minor changes can spark significant transformation down the line. Forbes Health offers these tips for the workday:
- Set reminders to be present – check in with yourself periodically; this allows you to reset and focus on the immediate.
- Sense the bottoms of your feet – this promotes interoceptive awareness and deescalates your flight or flight mechanism.
- Taking deep breaths – helps restore your parasympathetic nervous system, ushering in a calmer state by delivering oxygen to your brain, which helps you think clearly and make better decisions.
- Focus on your heart – now shift attention to the area around your heart; use box breathing or take slow breaths until you feel at ease. This exercise cools the body’s stress response.
- Reframe your perspective – recognise stressful or unwanted thoughts and blunt their effect by relativising outcomes or situations
- Be aware of your body – notice where you are physically expressing stress, tension or anxiety, then try to release it through progressive muscle relaxation by tightening different body areas and releasing them.
- Push the pendulum the other way – acknowledge that some things may create unease inside you, but appreciate what is going right.
Replenishment, rest and recovery, reframing
Emotional intensity wears us down. Focus is lost more easily when fatigued. There is an obvious need to deal with stress when it surfaces, but what about after? How do we stop a cycle of mental and physical erosion, which feed off each other? The most important answer is allowing oneself means of replenishing and modes of relaxation during and after the workday.
Recovery does not pertain to the body alone. It is a means of dealing with and overcoming stress, and its role is paramount relative to performance. Rest matters. Simply put, we cannot reach our peak physical or mental performance levels—and sustain them—without establishing a consistent and healthy sleep routine. The same can be said for de-escalation and relaxation at home. Establish firm boundaries between your work life and personal life.
Reframe your relationship with stress. Many believe overcoming intense periods of pressure created a foundation for later success and shaped who they are. Surveys show that we associate these points in our professional lives with growth. We repackage it as fuel. The suffering is made to appear necessary. It is not. Just because stress is inevitable in the corporate world, we should not celebrate it. Mindfulness teaches us to work well through difficult moments, to minimise the damage, and give us a basis to recover after.
At points of acute stress, be aware that the current moment is temporary, and take concrete steps to reduce your anxiety and tension. This awareness separates the very best performers from everyone else. It is not entirely about skill or talent but about aptitude to deal with the moment.
Stress filters out
Workplaces are social ecosystems. That last word is intentional; it implies a purposeful balance. As discussed in a previous 1% Extra article, leadership, organisational structure, the material office environment, and opportunities for cooperation and promotion contribute toward cultures of meaning. Scientific research and analysis from the Harvard Business Review show that these factors also affect employees’ well-being, happiness, sense of purpose, and performance. Stress, as an element, is a fifth column. It disrupts the balance in the workplace, impedes productivity, and creates low morale.
Thus, try to reduce the impact of the inevitable. Many companies offer training on how to mitigate stress, which sheds light on adverse health effects. Encourage others to take up these types of programmes if available, and implement them if they are not already. Mental health is not and should not feel like a stigma. Do not let people get stressed out about being stressed out.
Learn to recognise and eliminate stress factors in your control. You may be one of them. Through expectations and demands, managers can escalate a group’s anxiety level. Actively support team members by displaying a level of investment in them. This small act shows that you are aware and supportive. As a leader, this is a skill you should have and rely on to inspire.
The corporate professional landscape often generates stress as a fait accompli. Therefore, navigating obstacles in one’s mind matters as much as navigating everything else. Mindfulness, as a force encompassing reflection, perspective and responsiveness, is not a marginal gain. It is a must. Being mindful throughout the day supports mental and physical health and strengthens your outward demeanour and social relationships.
Use the numerous apps, therapies, activities, and meditative outlets available. Anything that works has merit, at least in the short term. However, by approaching feelings of anxiety, mental and physical exhaustion, or any other manifestation of stress through mindfulness, you may see more significant benefits in the long term. In this regard, it is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It is exponential, so add it to what is already benefitting you. During high-pressure situations, it offers a sense of calm. As concerning matters pile up in your inbox or fester in your head, it brings focus and positivity.
Incorporating mindfulness into your day can be simple, even during the busiest times. Engaging in a few brief positive exercises can have a lasting impact. Every hidden advantage counts even more as the stakes rise. You need to be at your peak when things are on the line. When that is impossible, you need to perform well through adversity. Remember, influential leaders do not ignore stress or suppress emotions; they contend with them like they would any problem or task. That means finding mindful solutions.
Achor, S. (2012, January 1). Positive Intelligence. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence
Borst, H. (2021, November 16). How To Practice Mindfulness On The Go. Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/how-to-practice-mindfulness-on-the-go/
Correll, C. M., Rosenkranz, J. A., & Grace, A. A. (2005). Chronic Cold Stress Alters Prefrontal Cortical Modulation of Amygdala Neuronal Activity in Rats. Biological Psychiatry, 58, 382–391. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.04.009
Dalton, S. (2022, December 16). Creating and fostering cultures of meaning. Steering Point Leadership Advisory Firm. https://steeringpoint.ie/insights/creating-and-fostering-cultures-of-meaning/
Frothingham, M. B. (n.d.). Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn: How We Respond to Threats. Simply Psychology. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/fight-flight-freeze-fawn.html
Guy-Evans, O. (n.d.-a). Amygdala Function and Location. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/amygdala.html
Guy-Evans, O. (n.d.-b). Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response. Psychology Today. https://www.simplypsychology.org/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack.html
McDermott, N. (2022, August 12). What Is Mindfulness—And How Can I Incorporate It Into My Daily Routine? Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-mindfulness/
Radley, J., Morilak, D., Viau, V., & Campeau, S. (2015). Chronic stress and brain plasticity: mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive changes and implications for stress-related CNS disorders. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 58, 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.06.018
Vouimba, R.-M., Yaniv, D., Diamond, D., & Richter-Levin, G. (2004). Effects of inescapable stress on LTP in the amygdala versus the dentate gyrus of freely behaving rats. The European Journal of Neuroscience, 19(7), 1887–1894. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-9568.2004.03294.x
Dublin is an inspirational setting. Past and present stories of resilience are written into the city’s fabric and carried by its people. In Merrion Square, there is a unique totem to hopefulness that stands out more than most, the Oscar Wilde memorial monument honouring one of Ireland’s lauded poets and playwrights. Memorably, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde wrote, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ The power of these lines goes beyond their poetics, positivity, or universality because they touch upon something more profound, the hidden strength of the human psyche.
Optimism is a source of scientific inquiry and has been studied extensively to ascertain its physical and psychological benefits. These studies are ongoing, but optimism supplements better health. Research shows that it is associated with contributive behaviours such as being physically active and not smoking (Boehm et al., 2018), a healthy diet score (Hingle et al., 2014), better sleep quality (Sims et al., 2019), and higher composite cardiovascular health scores (ibid, see also Hernandez et al., 2015, 2018). We still need to find out how and why optimism scientifically influences these diagnostics, but we know it yields clear-cut results with empirical certainty.
Other points of influence that may not affect you daily but are impacted by optimism include high capacities for surviving a disease, particularly heart disease (Tindle et al., 2009). Studies also correlate optimism with improved recovery from surgery, broader immunity, positive cancer outcomes, positive pregnancy outcomes, increased pain tolerance, and more stability amid other health concerns. In all of these metrics, those with an optimistic outlook had better results than those who were pessimistic.
Even more impressive is optimism’s association with overall health and longevity. Having a positive outlook is predictive of a greater quality of life (James et al., 2019) and a lower death rate (Rozanski et al., 2019). Optimistic people—whether by disposition, purposeful mindset, or praxis—lead healthier longer lives. Although living better or ageing gracefully does not determine success, health is essential if we approach success as a web of holistic factors related to achieving maximum performance. The evidence is unequivocal; having a positive outlook can boost your physical robustness and provide the platform from which you will most likely achieve consistent success.
What is more, optimism is blind. The data suggests that optimism is a boon regardless of demographic factors such as income level or general health. Maybe this should be less surprising since the positive thinking associated with optimism is also attributed to effective stress management. Stress may not be equal, but it is universal.
Mental health and mentality
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a ‘state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in.’ Critically, WHO’s definition includes this addendum, ‘Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders.’ It is more variable and directly assists our health continuum, which, by extension, aids our self-maintenance and performance.
Optimism is intersectional within the body and mind realms it inhabits. It supports psychological well-being, especially during uncertain times when the risk of deteriorating mental health rises. As recently as last year, a statement made by the American Heart Association (AHA) declared, ‘Positive psychological health is also multifaceted and may be characterised by a sense of optimism [my italics], a sense of purpose, gratitude, resilience, positive affect (i.e., positive emotion), and happiness.’
Moreover, mental health’s positive emotional and social dimensions help us foster productive relationships personally and professionally. Being aware of the many unseen components of mental health can help us generate empathetic responses to problems that arise with staff. None of this comes as intuitively as you might presuppose.
Our most recent 1% podcast with Dr Libby Sander identified some gaps in professional culture regarding expectations, an overemphasis upon certain kinds of productivity, boundary setting, burnout, the role of emotional intelligence in leadership, and even the physical space that we work in. I must reiterate Dr Sander’s points. Ultimately, everything is a possible component of our successes and our failures. It is up to us to harness them for our means rather than leave them to become something to be dealt with later.
Pushing out pessimism
Optimism’s counter-force is a balanced critical perspective, not pessimism. The AHA statement outlines that pessimism may be understood as ‘the tendency to expect negative outcomes or by the tendency to routinely explain events in a negative way.’ Just as optimism engenders varied physical and mental health benefits, pessimism is linked to unwanted outcomes such as cardiovascular risk and hopelessness (Pänkäläinen et al., 2019).
Optimism is an active process. Harvard Health Publishing explains that optimism is divided into ‘dispositional’ or ‘explanatory’ modes. Regarding the latter, being optimistic does not mean ignoring less pleasant situations. Accept them and approach unpleasantness more positively and productively. Imagine the best or at least the best possible scenario, not the worst. Be confident you can make it happen. Reconfiguring your visions to even moderately desirable outcomes is beneficial. On these terms, optimism is often a form of honest appraisal and reframing when unexpected or unwanted events occur.
Positivity often begins with self-talk. The thoughts within us can uplift or inhibit us. Much self-talk comes from logic and reason; listen to it. Equally, self-talk comes from misconceptions we create from doubt, if not fear, a lack of information, impossible or unrealistic expectations, and preconceived ideas of what will happen to or against us. These thoughts are not reasonable. Quiet them. Cynicism and downbeat steadfastness are not virtues and spread quickly in a pressurised workplace. If you tend to be pessimistic, you can still learn positive thinking skills. Optimism is part mind state, part mental practice. Identify negative thinking, and try to reduce it. Examples include filtering out what is going well and emphasising what is not, personalising setbacks or making them your fault when they are not, blaming others when it is your fault, expecting the worst possible outcome as opposed to planning for it, magnifying minor setbacks, setting impossible standards so that disappointment becomes a fait accompli, and adopting a polarising view of things as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ whereby leaving no room for nuance. Envision what you want to happen next or understand what remains possible and focus strictly on actualising it.
I began this article with a personal flourish intentionally. We are human, and success is not mechanical or natural. It is earned and does not typically follow a linear or smooth path. Similarly, goals require commitment, and so does our physical and mental health. If these elements in any way become a hindrance, our long-term professional performance will likely dip. Without question, our ability to reach and maintain maximal performance levels will be diminished.
In a piece fittingly titled, ‘The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn reminds us that ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives.’ If nothing else, science backs up that very last point incontrovertibly. Zinn continues, ‘The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.’
At this moment in time, the global context is bleak. War, economic, and energy crises loom overhead. More things are more uncertain than they have been for a while. All of which impact our work and our lives. We must take nothing for granted and care for our bodies and minds. We may not know why, but optimism significantly helps us do so.
Boehm, Julia K., et al. “Is Optimism Associated With Healthier Cardiovascular-Related Behavior?” Circulation Research, vol. 122, no. 8, Apr. 2018, pp. 1119–34, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.310828.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Optimism and Your Health.” Harvard Health, 1 May 2008, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health.
Hernandez, Rosalba, Hector M. González, et al. “Association of Dispositional Optimism with Life’s Simple 7’s Cardiovascular Health Index: Results from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) Sociocultural Ancillary Study (SCAS).” BMJ Open, vol. 8, no. 3, Mar. 2018, p. e019434, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019434.
Hernandez, Rosalba, Kiarri N. Kershaw, et al. “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Health Behavior and Policy Review, vol. 2, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 62–73, https://doi.org/10.14485/HBPR.2.1.6.
Hingle, Melanie D., et al. “Optimism and Diet Quality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 114, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 1036–45, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.018.
James, Peter, et al. “Optimism and Healthy Aging in Women.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 56, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 116–24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.07.037.
Levine, Glenn N., et al. “Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.” Circulation, vol. 143, no. 10, Mar. 2021, pp. e763–83, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000947.
Pänkäläinen, Mikko, et al. “Pessimism and Risk of Death from Coronary Heart Disease among Middle-Aged and Older Finns: An Eleven-Year Follow-up Study.” BMC Public Health, vol. 16, no. 1, Nov. 2016, p. 1124, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3764-8.
Rozanski, Alan, et al. “Association of Optimism With Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” JAMA Network Open, vol. 2, no. 9, Sept. 2019, p. e1912200, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.12200.
Sims, Mario, et al. “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study.” Preventive Medicine, vol. 129, Dec. 2019, p. 105826, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105826.
Tindle, Hilary A., et al. “Optimism, Cynical Hostility, and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Circulation, vol. 120, no. 8, Aug. 2009, pp. 656–62, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.827642.
World Health Organisation. Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response. 17 June 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response.
Zinn, Howard. “The Optimism of Uncertainty.” The Nation, 2 Sept. 2004, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/optimism-uncertainty/.
“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” 1 So said Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1886 philosophical treatise Beyond Good and Evil. In the more than a century that has passed since that book’s publication, many other leading public thinkers from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs also preached the virtues of walking as a tool for thought. And they were right to.
The Stanford Strolling Experiment
A 2014 study2 co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition found that walking dramatically enhances creativity.
176 volunteers, mostly Stanford undergraduates, took part in the study. Across four marginally varied experiments, the study assessed the difference in creativity that emerged when the subjects were sat in front of a drab wall, walking on a treadmill (also in front of a drab wall), walking outside, sitting outside, and being pushed in a wheelchair outside. They assessed creativity through cognitive tasks commonly used to measure “divergent thinking”, marking the novelty of an idea as an indicator of its creativity. For example, when asked for the possible use of a loose button, one participant offered, “as a doorknob for a dollhouse.” This constituted a creative response.
The findings showed that not only does walking enhance creativity by as much as 60%, but that the positive impact of walking outside is only minimally more than walking inside. In other words, it is the act of walking itself that produces the results, not the surroundings. As the authors note, “While research indicates that being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking has a very specific benefit—the improvement of creativity.”
The results also showed that creativity remained high when participants who had just gone for a walk then sat down to undertake a task. We are not just creative when walking, but for a period of time afterwards too.
Creativity, not mood
A similar study3 was conducted by researchers at the University of Graz in Austria, published in Scientific Reports in 2020. The findings were along the same lines, though with an interesting twist. While it also concluded that, “active people come up with more and better ideas during tests of their inventiveness than people who are relatively sedentary” 4, it then factored in happiness too.
Its findings? While greater activity contributed to increases in both happiness and creativity, the two were not interlinked. In other words, being happy does not make one more creative.
This point is both backed up and contradicted by a 2018 study5 in The Journal of Positive Psychology. While this study, using a sample of 658 young adults over a thirteen-day period, agreed that undertaking creative tasks does not necessarily lead to one being happy, it did result in participants having greater energy and feeling more fulfilled. Creative output can stem from or exacerbate negative emotions but embracing that negativity and wielding it within one’s creative arsenal can foster a greater sense of meaning and engagement, if not necessarily fixing deeper lying issues.
Creativity is not the reserve of creative professions. One need not be an artist, musician, or poet to benefit from a boost to those creative juices. Creativity has endless benefits across almost all endeavours—professional and personal.
As Michele Root-Bernstein, co-author with Robert Root-Bernstein of Sparks of Genius6, surmises, “It’s the problem-solving processes they exhibit rather than the content or craft that make [people creative]. Just about anything we do can be addressed in a creative manner, from housecleaning to personal hobbies to work.”7 Self-imposing limits on our creative potential based on arbitrary measures like job title benefits no one. Creativity can and should be wielded by all, especially when something as universal as walking can help.
The static age
We are more sedentary than ever8. Strewn on our sofas, the latest streaming venture spills from the screen ahead of us while global catastrophes play out for cheap clicks on the one in our hands. We are in an era of perpetual information, digitally overloaded, mentally fatigued. And as a result, creatively stifled. Walking can serve as a simple fix, not to mention a welcome respite from the virtual onslaught.
Three brain researchers, writing in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, posit that our complex human cognition, including our remarkable capacity for innovation, developed alongside our ability to walk9 in an evolutionary sense. So, opting for that daily stroll may not just be a way of experiencing nature but embracing your own. And given the current state of global economic affairs, walking is one of the cheaper routes to inspiration available too.
The reasons for walking’s impact on creativity aren’t fully understood but have been widely speculated. Its rhythmic nature is thought to have the greatest effect as it allows walking to work in a similar way to meditation and other activities that incite a semi-fugue state. Rhythm is known to lower brainwave frequency. The lowest frequencies our brainwaves reach throughout the day are right before we sleep and right after we wake up, known as alpha waves10. This state appears to be the best at inducing creative thought.
Essentially, the less active our brains are, the further their reach may expand. Think of all the times the name of that song you were desperately trying to remember came to you in the shower or during any other such everyday act in which the brain is seemingly unrequired, and you’ll recognise that mundanity can free our minds in surprising ways. The simplest acts help access our deepest complexities.
This is another reason it may be best to eschew our phones when walking. Enjoyable as listening to music or a podcast may be, it is keeping our brainwaves active, and thus potentially limiting the beneficial effects walking can produce.
Walk the walk
Hippocrates called walking, “man’s best medicine.”11 Proverb fans may prefer to sub in laughter. The more practical amongst us, penicillin. But walking has certainly proved to be an effective and enduring form of creative inspiration.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. Beyond Good and Evil : Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. London, England ; New York, New York, USA :Penguin Books, 1990.
6 Root-Bernstein, R., & Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of creative people.