Over the past year, the global wellness industry reached a valuation of 4.2 trillion dollars. For perspective, that’s equal to nearly a third of China’s entire GDP. Though there are no reliable statistics for the size of the performance industry, just listen to the advertisements on your favorite podcast (or scroll through Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram) and you’ll quickly realize the deluge of products, services, and “hacks” promising increased productivity and performance. It’s not that none of this stuff can work. Surely, some of it can. But the fact remains: performance and wellbeing is not something that you buy. It’s a lifestyle that you cultivate.
Although the current has been moving strongly in the direction of the wellness industrial complex, I’ve been doing my best to swim upstream. This means exploring the evidence-based concepts that actually lead to wellness and performance. The stuff supported by decades of research and practice.
I’ve found mountaineering to be a useful metaphor in this context. There are practices that help you build a robust base camp, have a solid climb, and a successful summit. Here’s what works, along with some of my essays and articles from 2019 where you can learn more.
Basecamp: Physical Health, Mental Health, Community
Long-term performance and wellbeing always rests upon a strong base of physical health, mental health, and community. Move your body regularly. Avoid processed foods. Follow your interests. Prioritize spending time with friends—not just digitally, but also in real life. The people you surround yourself with shape you, so choose wisely! Make yourself vulnerable and seek help when you need it.
Keep up with these practices in an ongoing manner. Think of them as basic hygiene. Regardless of how much time you spend working on the upper levels of the mountain, without this strong foundation, when rough weather comes the whole thing is susceptible to disaster.
The Climb: Passion, Drive, Toughness, Core Values, Stress, Rest
With a strong base camp in place, you can focus on the qualities that propel you toward higher ground. Develop your passion and drive, but make sure you keep that passion and drive focused on the activities you love, not the external validation you get from doing them. The former leads to fulfillment, the latter to anxiety and burnout. Don’t let your entire self-worth be connected to your career; you want to control your work, not the other way around. Remember that real toughness is not an external facade—the anonymous commenter acting hard on message boards—but rather an inside game. It’s experiencing something that is subjectively distressing, and then leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take a thoughtful action that aligns with your core values. Seek out challenges and make yourself uncomfortable, but also make sure that you follow periods of stress and adventure with rest and routine.
The Summit: Self-Awareness, Habits, Flow
The closer you get to the top of your game, the harder it becomes to make improvements. Reaching and sustaining peak performance requires a keen ability to show up and get started, even when you don’t want to. It also requires knowing how to stop. Instead of relying on willpower, which all too often fails, focus on cultivating solid habits. Intentionally design your surroundings to make your desired behaviors as easy as possible. Gradually phase out the gizmos and gadgets so you can stop trying to force peak performance; you want to shift from a mindset of making it happen to letting it happen. The great paradox of flow and peak performance is that it occurs as a result of trying really hard, and then not trying at all.
Thanks for reading the column this year. I look forward to continuing these conversations into 2020. If you have any feedback, questions, or topics you want to see covered, hit me up on Twitter, where I do my best to be a signal amidst a whole lot of noise.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.