Lower Stress

“What is the 30-second version?”

That is their question most of the time.  The questions begin, innocently, with “So what do you do?”  When I mention that part of what I do is speak to groups about stress reduction, that is when their eyes widen and they say, “Wow.  I certainly need that.”


And I know what is coming next – “What is the 30-second version of how to reduce my stress?”

So here is the 30-second version: Excellence and consistency over targets and ambition.

Need more?  It is how I kept my heart from exploding from stress while managing a financial business during the Great Recession while being a dad to eight kids who needed college and weddings.  Oh, and just to make it fun, we had just made a move my family did not want to make to a place where we knew no one.  As an added bonus, the individual who recruited me there (and made up a sizable percentage of the revenue of the new business) lied to me and left the firm.  Did I mention we were levered up in real estate that all went under water?  Or that we had two houses to also pay for?  The question I most often heard during that time was, “My God – how are you doing this with eight kids?!”

What I learned in that season is what helped me find peace in the middle of the turmoil.  The surprise result was that my performance results actually increased after becoming peaceful, after letting it all go.  I came to understand that the former led to the latter.

Here is the key: we had focused on consistently working toward excellence and had forgotten the targets and left ambition behind.  It had worked.  My stress was in the basement and performance had never been higher.  Excellence and consistency had triumphed over targets and ambition.  I have now seen it hundreds of times in the work and lives of others.  Quietly, unassumingly, there are countless individuals who outperform by simply focusing on consistently doing the activities each day that produce something of excellence.

And then they go home and sleep well at night.

The Einstein Way

It’s not that I am so smart; it’s just that I stay with the problems longer.

–Albert Einstein

That is the statement of a man who gets it.

Now I know you’re thinking that Einstein would be SO excited that I agreed with him, but seriously, let’s think about what he is saying for a minute.  It is well known that there were several individuals during Einstein’s time that were close to the Theory of Relativity.  One of the reasons Einstein discovered relativity before any of the others was that Einstein continued to come back to the problem with curiosity rather than frustration.

Obviously, Einstein was smart.  But interestingly, it was not his “smarts” to which he attributed the discovery of relativity.  It was his perseverance.

Think about your experience with life: if you have walked this land for enough time to be reading this blog, you have seen some individuals accomplish more than you would have guessed they could.  I am thinking about acquaintances of mine from high school who were somewhat awkward and were never consistently on the dean’s list, but now have a LinkedIn profile that would send any Ivy League alumnus into a fit of envy.  I am thinking of the friend who went to work instead of college because he had to and now is at the top of many net-worth lists.  These did not accomplish great things because they thought they were smart.  It was because they thought they were not smart that they put their heads down worked longer.

They stayed with problems.  A little bit at a time.


In the epic struggle between Excellence vs. Ambition, excellence wins. Even if it were not more effective, excellence wins just by the mere fact that ambition requires the extra step of taking one’s focus off himself and placing it onto tools that actually accomplish the ambition – habits and actions.

Excellence already resides squarely in the community of habits and actions since excellence is the balance of two components: speed + detail.

Excellence keeps us on the right road and will take us further than ambition.

Are You Paddling as Fast as You Can?

I was paddling as hard as I could but going nowhere.  I was making no progress that I could tell.  The next bridge seemed to be getting no closer and I knew there was at least a mile to go after that.  And it was getting dark.  Then I remembered she had said they would open the floodgates.  No wonder – we were rowing against the current.

But there is a lesson here that can help us all accomplish more every day.

My 14-year-old son had planned a wonderful day: kayak on the lake, go to his favorite book store, and have a little dinner. We had arrived at Lady Bird Lake, which flows through downtown Austin, a little later than we meant to, but that just made the view of the evening sun on the water and on the reflective downtown buildings that much more beautiful.  We kayaked east toward the South Congress Bridge and sat on our kayaks as a band played jazz on the green of the southern bank of the Lake.  It was a perfect day.  We enjoyed it so much that we lost track of time and noticed how low the sun was in the sky almost too late.  We said goodbye to that perfect spot and started paddling back to the West – upstream.  It was then that we noticed how strong the current was flowing against us.

For quite a while I focused as far down the Lake as I could.  As I got more tired, I thought about just focusing on the next bridge (there were four bridges between us and where we were going).  I had been looking down and just paddling as hard as I thought I could, but when I looked up the next bridge was no closer.  It was getting dark and all I could think about was that mile-and-more I knew I had to go before I could return the kayaks.  That is when I remembered myself; I remembered that I talk about the power of small steps all the time.  Why was I not using that power?

With the water flowing by me, there was no landmark except the next bridge to measure myself against.  I looked around and then moved close to the shore. There, I was next to stationary objects and I could see myself moving, ever so slowly, forward as compared the bushes on the shore.  That became my measurement: “How fast could I make it to the next bush?”  I mentioned earlier that I thought I had been paddling as fast as I could, but in these small sprints to get the next bush and then the next, a little faster and a little faster, I found extra energy I did not know I had.  I played that game for a while and then paddled under a shadow – I was at the next bridge.  I kept focusing on the shore, the next bush, and crossed under another bridge.  There came a point I got tired and considered trying to pull the kayak out of the water and carry/drag/pray it back to the check-in.  I told myself I would consider that after a few more bushes.

All of a sudden, I rounded a corner and there was the check-in dock.  Now the end was in sight and my afterburners kicked in.  I pulled up to the dock exhausted.  It had been an amazing workout and an important reminder.

Have you ever been in the middle of a long project?  Maybe a tough situation?  The death of a loved one?  A divorce?  Have you ever figuratively or literally had miles to go and you were already tired?  This was not the first nor will it be the last time I will be in that position.  But hopefully I am learning to more quickly practice what I preach about incremental steps succeeding more easily.  And if you have never tried Incrementalism, I am only that much more convicted to strongly encourage you to give it try.  You’ll look up and be surprised how far you’ve come.


My face was getting closer to the ground and only my hands were supporting my weight.  I had not ever committed to the crow pose in yoga to this degree but I wanted to push myself a little past my point of comfort today, to see if I could do it.  It felt good and steady.

…at first.

Then I started to tip forward.  My face was the closest thing to the floor so I ducked my head and ended up doing a summersault across the ground and onto the mat of another yogi, knocking her out of her crow.  I apologized profusely and turned back to my mat.  “Dweck!” I said smiling under my breath.

Carol Dweck is a professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  In her book, Dweck describes two mindsets she has experienced through research: the Fixed mindset and the Growth mindset.  The Fixed mindset believes that we have as much intelligence/personality/ability today as we will ever have.  The Growth mindset believes those traits can be expanded through effort.

In her years of research, Dr. Dweck has observed that many with a growth mindset get to the top of their profession even though they had no goal to do so.  They get there because their constant improvement, learning, and excellent work puts them there.  Incidentally, they also enjoy the path.  Those with a Fixed mindset do not have any greater probability of getting to the top.  They just take the traditional path we hear so much about: set a massive goal and you either have what it takes or you don’t.  A primary difference between the two is that the Growth mindset can enjoy every day moving closer to excellence but the Fixed mindset only enjoys it when she reaches to ultimate goal.  And if she does not reach the ultimate goal, life sucks.

yoga crowSo in the Growth mindset, we find success in the effort.  And in my yoga practice, pushing for a crow pose is that effort.  Why would we stay in the safe zone, right?  In the traditional sense I failed; I fell out of the pose.  But Dr. Dweck’s book is one reason why I laughed about it.  Because I had already won by pushing beyond my point of comfort.

I know there are challenges you are looking at that are daunting and you may be tempted to turn to a path of more certain outcomes.  I would encourage you to read Mindset with me and realize that turning onto the challenging path is the win.

When We Do Not Want to Exercise

How do you make yourself exercise when you do not want to?  By telling yourself not to exercise.

Let me explain.

I was sitting on the edge of my bed yesterday morning not wanting to go to the gym when a dim memory pushed its way forward to grab my consciousness.  I remembered years ago the first time Incrementalism worked for me.  I was standing in front of my high school weight-room mirror staring at my dream to play football fading from my own eyes.  “I can’t do it,” I remembered thinking.  I had been told by my coach that I had to be able to bench-press 300 pounds by the end of August to be able to play on the football team.  It was May and I had just struggled with 130 pounds.  “I can’t do it,” I said again as I looked into my eyes watched my dream dying there. 

And I did quit for a week… without knowing it.  I tried to get excited by the thought of lifting 300 pounds, but each time I thought about working toward the 300 at the gym I would find something else to do rather than go lift.

“If I cannot do it,” I finally thought, “at least I can work as hard as I can and get as far as I can get.  Maybe the coaches will see my hard work and let me play.”  Then I stopped testing my bench-press maximum.  Instead, I began measuring the number of days in a row I worked out.  I recorded the repetitions I lifted each day and the weight in each muscle group and tried to improve one or both a little bit every day.  Some days I would see that I could lift more weight more times.  Some days a win was just doing the workout because I plateaued.  Some days I conned myself that I was just going to put on my workout clothes, just step inside the gym.   But I would not go backward.  My minimum requirement was a slight improvement in the activity of lifting weights… every day.  Give up on the big goal; instead, just try to consistently improve a little each day.

At the end of August on the first day of football try-outs, all the guys gathered in the parking lot outside the stadium.  Our coach emerged and the first sound that came from his mouth deflated me, “Everybody to the Weight Room!”  My time came to test my bench-press.  I lay on my back and 2 guys stacked 300 pounds on the bar.  The spotter helped me pull the bar up on top of my locked-straight arms.  “Stay close,” I told him, “this could be ugly.”  The bar came down onto my chest; I closed my eyes and prayed… and pushed.

The bar was up.  What happened??  Had the spotter helped me?  No, he was still standing back.  The 300 pounds had lifted somewhat easier than the 130 the last time I had tested my maximum.

“Add 5,” coach said.  305 went up as well.

“5 more.”

I maxed out at 315.  I was shocked.  But it has been a pattern I have seen ever since.  Individuals can surpass a seemingly impossible achievement by moving in its direction incrementally but consistently.

So yesterday morning I told myself, “Don’t workout.  Just put on workout clothes.” Once that was done I “just walked into the gym” and then “just did one set” of one muscle group… and ended up having a great workout.  Our willpower is weak sometimes when faced with a large task.  But small steps feel easy and get us further than we ever think we can go.


“So, what do you want to do?”  It was the second time I had asked.  His eyes were still blinking trying to take it all in.  I was pretty sure he was still breathing… although I had not seen his chest move for a minute. Or more?

This was my son.

“You ok?”

“Yeah,” he finally said.  “It’s just so… bright. And so many people.”

And that is how my son’s first New York experience began.  We took the train into the city at night and climbed the stairs onto a quiet, dark street.  We walked a few blocks, turned a corner, and…

<<<Times Square>>>!!

…on a Saturday night, even.

Asking ourselves what we want to do with our lives is a little like asking a teenager what he wants to do on his first trip to NYC – “What DON’T I want to do??”  But we have to choose.  Time is a constraint, in our lives as much as on vacation.  It is the difference between rushing from museum to museum just to put our hand on the outside wall so we can say we visited all of them, verses limiting ourselves to one, maybe two, and drinking in the knowledge and treasures they hold.  The first is a frenetic race that yields nothing.  The second is a joyful, peaceful experience through which we grow.

And the choice creates an emotional energy like air being squeezed to move through the valley of tall buildings or a canyon.  It creates a wind-like momentum that can carry us along when things get hard.  It is progressive inertia.

Most of us will probably be able to stand on a mountain top of achievement in our lives, but we can probably only stand on one.  Maybe two.  But not six.  Choosing the Vision we will hike toward is the beginning step in the Low-stress High-performance Life.  There are many helpful tools to help choose, but one is Jim Collins’ three circles in his book, Good to Great.  Circle 1: “What are you deeply passionate about” or what do you love?  Circle 2: “What can you be best in the world at” or what are you good at?  Circle 3: “What drives your economic engine?” or what can you make a living doing?  Your best Vision probably finds itself in each of these Circles:  You are good at it.  You love it.  You can make a living at it.

There is a trail head in Utah where you can park to hike to the peaks of Mt. Ben Lomond and Mt. Lewis.  But the paths go opposite directions.  Both are beautiful hikes and well worth the effort, but you can only do one in a day.

A beautiful time and rewarded effort begin with that choice.

Extreme Achievement Launches from Peace

Now don’t get me wrong, I like achievement.  A lot.  In fact, the primary reason I advocate a low-stress mindset is that it is the straightaway which allows achievement to run.  Stress, fear, anxiety all put curves in the road that cause achievement to slow down to navigate.  Let me give you an example:

Two days ago in Austin, Texas, the roads were probably too wet for how fast I was driving.  I had come down a hill after a good business lunch and my head was somewhere else.  The light at the intersection had been showing green for a while and so as I took the left turn, I accelerated into the turn – not a good idea on wet streets.  I felt the back tires give way and the tail of my car began sliding to the right into the other lane.  Immediately I remembered my wreck years ago, the wreck with my wife and children in the car.

We had been traveling back home late at night and it had been raining.  I was sleepy, but assured my wife that I was fine to drive and I wanted to get home to my own bed.  We were driving through a hilly area and came up to a spot where our highway intersected another highway at a stop sign.  It was late, I wanted to get home, and there did not seem to be any traffic, so I accelerated through the stop sign turning left onto the new highway.  And I felt my back tires let go of the pavement.  As they started to hydroplane to the right, I panicked.  “My babies are in the car; my wife is asleep beside me!  What if we go off the edge??”  As fear mounted, I jerked the wheel all the way to the right… and overcorrected.  In horror I watched as the world began slowly, then with increasing speed, to spin to the left.  At first I could make out images, but quickly everything in sight meshed together into the same kind of blurred vision you see from the seat of one of those spinning carnival rides.  Time stopped.  I was desperately smashing the break, cranking the wheel.  Was I screaming or was it my babies in the back seat?  Then it happened.

The back quarter panel of our little Ford Escort crumpled into a guardrail.  I have never been so overjoyed to hear my car get ruined in my entire life.

My wife was now FULLY awake.  “What! The!…???”  You get the picture.

So two days ago my back tires let go of the pavement and this was the movie running in my head.  But in the last few years, I have practiced purposeful calm in tense times.  So I said my trigger phrase, “It just doesn’t matter,” (more about how this became my trigger phrase in a future blog post) and I smiled.  Then it happened.

I instinctively leaned back in my seat, turned the wheel in the direction I wanted to go, fishtailed back and forth a few times in my own lane, and then drove on down the road without incident.

The old thinking is that we have to build massive energy and stress to achieve.  But in a fast-moving world where creativity is vital to win, extreme achievement is determined by how we react to surprises in the moment.  Extreme achievement launches from a position of peace. 

And it is better on car insurance.