All my life, I was the classic A+, gold-star, “good girl” who lived to exceed expectations. Despite my upward career trajectory and steady stream of accomplishments, you couldn’t tell that on the inside, I was a mess.
Constant stress left me frazzled, restless, and emotionally depleted. And rather than seeing my emotional state for what it was – a sign that something was off – I felt like a failure. Everyone else seemed to be so confident and in control. Why couldn’t I get it together? What was wrong with me?
No one knows this better than Brad Stulberg, author of the new book The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul. In this interview, Brad discusses his personal journey and shares why groundedness is the new key to success.
Melody Wilding: What inspired you to write this book? Is there a personal story behind it?
Brad Stulberg: I actually like the process of writing to try to figure things out, both for myself and in those that are closest to me. In this case, I felt like there was a lack of solid foundation in my own life, even though it seemed like there ought to be by conventional standards.
I was quite successful and I had a happy relationship. At the same time it though, beneath all the frenetic day-to-day energy, I just wasn’t really sure what was there or what was even supposed to be there. I was constantly on the ascent or striving towards the peak, but then I wasn’t sure what the foundation holding this whole thing up was.
I started hearing more and more of that in my coaching practice, which works almost exclusively with executives, entrepreneurs, and physicians. Again, folks that are conventionally super successful and have everything together, but they felt like they were on shaky ground, restless or like the frenetic energy of life was kind of pushing and pulling them from side to side.
I’ve also been through an experience of having really debilitating anxiety and secondary depression, so I also know what it’s like to have the ground completely swept out from underneath you.
So all of that led me into the process of trying to answer the question of why so many of us feel like we’re not on solid ground? And what, if anything, can help cultivate that sense of groundedness?
Melody Wilding: How do you define groundedness, especially as it relates to our careers and professional lives?
Brad Stulberg: I define groundedness as a sense of inner strength and stability that allows you to be strong and durable amidst all kinds of weather. Whether it is the highest highs, the successes, or the lowest lows, the most challenging experiences. How can you maintain a sense of self, stability, and presence?
Groundedness changes the texture of that ambition and that striving. It becomes less frenetic and less from a place of spearing compulsion. It helps change your mentality to avoid thoughts like “if only I get this promotion, then I’ll be happy”, “if only I saved this much money, then I’ll be secure.” It shifts it more towards the here and now, what do I value in my life? How can I pursue those things right now at this moment and not be so forward-looking?
Melody Wilding: Why do so many high-achievers struggle with groundedness?
Brad Stulberg: I believe it is truly a moving target. I think no one is ever completely grounded. We have periods where we’re more grounded and periods where we aren’t.
What tends to happen career-wise particularly, we get super focused on chasing bright and shiny objects, for the external achievement, and that feels in itself shaky because then we get busier. So we start doing more, and as we do more, we start to forego our basic hygiene that creates professional success, that fulfillment that contributes to a sense of groundedness.
The first principle of groundedness is acceptance over magical thinking, realizing this is what’s happening right now. When things are going really well, or certainly when they’re not, we can lose connection with reality. Acceptance is about constantly blooming where you are, whether you like it or not.
The second big principle is living with presence. Again, when things are going well it’s really easy to get completely overwhelmed with busyness. One thing leads to the next, it is like a never-ending to-do list. As a result, you lose the ability to be present because you’re constantly running from one thing to the next.
The third principle is patience and flow. We are in a culture that says move fast and break things. We make heroes out of people that have so-called overnight success, when in fact if you peel back the onion a bit, you‘ll see that there is no such thing as overnight success. What might seem like a sudden breakthrough is almost always built on years and years of work to get there, you just don’t see the progress until that breakthrough happens. Many of the people that move fast and break things tend to end up as a broken organization. We should really ask ourselves, at what costs should you move fast and break things? And at what level of risk?
The fourth principle is vulnerability. There is this notion that the more distance there is between our front stage selves, the one we bring to the workplace, and who we actually are, the more distressful cognitive dissonance we feel. Then the fifth principle is community. When we get really engrossed in a cycle of optimization and efficiency, the first thing that tends to get crowded out and cannibalized is the time that we make for community. This was true before COVID, it’s certainly true now when it’s even more complicated to build community. You spend all this time pushing, pushing, pushing, and then the event happens, the success you’re experiencing tapers off, you experience failure, there’s an illness, or there’s a huge setback. If you haven’t been tending to these principles of grounded-ness, then it can feel like there’s nothing underneath you.
Melody Wilding: What are the initial steps readers can take to put the principles of groundedness into action? (will probably expand on this in our conversation)
Brad Stulberg: This is a really good question. It requires a fair amount of going against the grain, at least initially. What I’ve found is that most people feel this happening, they just don’t necessarily have the language for it. My main goal in this book is to give people a language so that they can communicate about it with each other, their peers, and their colleagues. If you’re reading this book and you’re wondering how to start doing this, the first thing that I’d recommend is trying to define what your core values are. What are the things that you really aspire towards, what are the qualities that you’re looking to embody when you’re at your best?
How do you define those qualities? If you want to be more present or a core value of yours is presence, ask yourself: How do I define presence? What does that mean to me? How do I practice it? That’s how you get from an esoteric core value of presence all the way down to making the decision that three days a week, you’re going to schedule an hour and a half to do deep focus, to work on something that’s important to me. Deciding, during that hour and a half, I’m going to put my phone in another room. I’m going to close my email browser or my email client and come hell or high water, I’m going to do the thing that I want to do. When it’s seven o’clock, it’s time to sit down for dinner with my partner, with my family and I’m going to turn off all my devices. I’ve had coaching clients that practice presence by leaving their laptop in the glove compartment of their car in the garage because if it’s in their house they’re going to use it.
It is about selecting very noble qualities that you aspire towards and navigating all the way down to the most effective day-to-day practices. Then you have to start showing up and executing on those practices day in and day out, even when it’s hard. What happens is that at first, it feels worse. You might feel uncomfortable as if you’re going against the grain, but eventually, you start to feel better. Usually, others will start to notice the change you’ve made and start inquiring about it, then you get to share your new fulfilling practice. Often you’ll find they then want to start working towards a similar practice. There is a contagion effect that happens because so many people are struggling with this, they might just not have the language to define what they are experiencing.
Melody Wilding: Burnout is growing at epic rates. What can readers do to better protect their well-being?
Brad Stulberg: I think the most important thing if I had to give one concrete practice would be to set boundaries. Do not strive for balance. I think balance is an illusion that sets you up to fail.
We have this assumption that we should be a great worker, a great parent, and partner, a marathon runner, a Peloton rider, and you should try to do all of these things in some kind of proportion. For any kind of high achiever, it’s just going to lead to misery because you either try to do them all at a hundred percent which leads to being totally burnt out or you’ll end up doing them all but it will be at a level that feels like you’re not giving it your best shot and you’ll be beating yourself up for not going all in.
So instead of thinking about balance, I like to think about prioritization and boundaries. What are the couple of things in my life right now that really matter, that I want to give my all to? How do I set up my life to pursue those things?
Next is about how to set firm boundaries so that those things don’t come into conflict with each other. The most common ones are work and family, for most people those are very high on their list. There are going to be times when work wants to encroach on family and perhaps your family wants to encroach on work. So how can you get pretty rigid about saying, “Hey, I don’t do this after 7:00 PM or I will not miss a kid’s event for anything.”
It’s this subtle shift in mindset from trying to do everything to getting really clear about what do I want to do right now and how do I set boundaries between those things that are important. Know that there are different seasons, season to start a company, a season to go all-in on parenting or there’s a season to be a manager. It’s not about trying to do everything right at the same time.
Melody Wilding: Anything else you’d like to add?
Brad Stulberg: I believe that in order to be successful and fulfilled, you need both self-discipline and self-compassion. You need to be able to be really responsible and push yourself as an individual while also realizing that there are all kinds of structural things that you can’t control and if you judge yourself for those things, you’re going to be miserable. I think that such an issue in this genre of work, if people fall into these two camps without realizing that there is not a singular solution that can get you to the top. It is so important to take a dual approach to gain true success.