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As an athlete, if you want to improve something—your 100-meter time, say, or your deadlift PR—you’ve got to apply a challenge, some sort of “stressor,” and then follow it with a period of rest and recovery. Too much stress without enough rest and you get injury, illness, and burnout. Not enough stress plus too much rest and you get complacency, boredom, and stagnation.
Stress + Rest = Growth. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
Since Peak Performance was published a little over a year ago, no theme from the book has garnered as much attention as that equation. And for good reason. The American College of Sports Medicine, the country’s premier body on the application of fitness science, has officially endorsed training in this manner to increase size and strength. Meanwhile, a 2015 study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology found that best endurance athletes in the world all have one thing in common: they oscillate between periods of stress and rest.
And yet the more feedback I get from readers, the more I see how that equation can be beneficially applied not just to fitness but to all areas of life. Below are a few of the most common examples, along with some practical advice on how to make what I’ve come to call the “Growth Equation” work for you.
Grow Your Career
When I’m coaching non-athlete clients who are striving to excel professionally, I start by asking them where they want to be in their careers and what they are doing to get there. In my experience, people in the workplace—myself included—tend to fall into one of two traps: either getting stuck in a rut where they are just going through the motions or taking on so much hard work at once that they become completely overwhelmed. Neither is conducive to long-term progression.
I encourage my clients to systematically challenge—to stress—themselves in the direction they want to grow. And then I ask them to follow those challenges with rest and reflection. What went well? What didn’t go well? What could I do differently next time?
Career progression is generally more complex than going from a 6-minute mile to a 5:45 mile; or from squatting 200 pounds to 210 pounds. It’s harder to dial in the right amount of “stress.” On a scale of one to ten—with one being "I could do this in my sleep" and ten being "this is giving me panic attacks"—I ask my clients to take on projects that they’d rate a seven; assignments that they think they’d get right seven or eight out of 10 times, but not every time. These are just-manageable challenges.
Another way to think about stress in the context of career growth is something I got from my co-author on Peak Performance, Steve Magness. He says: “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the next logical step?’ And then do that.” For example, if you’re used to presenting to middle managers, try to create a situation where you’re in front of a vice-president. If you manage a team of five, talk with your boss about trying to expand that to seven or eight.
Just make sure you don’t go from challenge to challenge without giving yourself some time to catch your breath. Much like a muscle grows in between challenging workouts, career growth is more sustainable if you respect the need to rest, recover, and reflect in between challenging projects.
Grow Your Team and Organization
What do Kodak, Blockbuster Video, Borders Books, and the Cleveland Browns have in common? They were all busy doing things the same old way over and over again when the world around them was changing; they neglected to “stress” themselves in the direction of growth. The first three are out of business and the Browns are perennially at the bottom of the NFL.
What do Google and the San Antonio Spurs have in common? They all continue to evolve their strategies to stay ahead of the competition. Google does this by extending into new markets—think: from an internet search-engine to self-driving cars. The Spurs do it by constantly evaluating and adjusting their style of play, including overseas recruiting of little-known players who become hard-to-guard stars. An area of business research called Organizational Ecology says that organizations that are forward-looking, reflective, and challenge themselves to grow tend to survive and sustain their performance over time.
Grow Your Relationships
I am by no means an expert on relationships, but something that comes up repeatedly in the Q and A part of my workshops is how the growth equation tends to apply here, too. Be it friendships or romantic relationships, people in audiences always call this out. Bonds strengthen after two people experience a challenge together and then openly reflect on it. A handful of experts think the same. But just like in the other contexts, too much “stress” without enough rest and the relationship can flame out.
Make the Growth Equation Work for You
- Pick an area of your life.
- Reflect on where you currently are and where you want to be.
- Think about whether you ought to be in a state of stress—taking on just-manageable challenges—or in a state of rest, recovery, and reflection.
- Align your behavior accordingly.
- Check in every few weeks, just like you would for any other training program, and evaluate your progress.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.