What can something as simple as water teach us about resilience?
According to Bruce Lee, everything.
“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
It’s in our nature to try to control our surroundings. But Lee, a famous martial artist, film star and cultural icon, understood that there is power in mastering the art of detachment.
In many ways, Lee’s philosophy has less to do with “toughing” things out and more about balancing our energy — of becoming flexible instead of trying to exert our will. And this easily applies to our tendency to overwork ourselves.
While startup culture often glorifies the 24/7 hustle, one of the biggest misconceptions about building more resilience at work is that we have to gut things out, when in reality, it’s about taking the time to fully recharge.
Why our brains need rest
A Harvard Business Review story by Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor illustrates why we need to stop working tirelessly in order to keep going. They write:
“We often take a militaristic, ‘tough’ approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be.”
They also point to a 2010 study published in the journal Ergonomics that shows a link between a lack of recovery with increased health problems like fatigue and problems sleeping.
It makes sense that workaholism makes us sick. Even small problems can become magnified when we’re not getting enough rest. Research shows us that overworking not only depletes our mental and physical resources, it also lowers our productivity.
In the early days of building my company, JotForm, I was so excited by my idea of creating drag-and-drop web forms, that I’d work from morning to night answering emails and support calls. During that time, I always had to be doing something to get results, even if it meant clocking in 16 hour days.
And while I remember that time with great fondness, over the past thirteen years, I’ve come to realize that growing a business isn’t about working yourself to the point of exhaustion. I believe that one of the reasons I’ve been able to successfully reach 5 million users is because I’ve viewed quality time off as a measure of success, and made recovery a core tenet of my company.
Remember: creating a sustainable startup or business means learning to balance pursuing your passion with developing personal growth and wellbeing.
Be like water
The meaning of resilience is about adapting and responding positively to stress and adversity. Many of our brightest ideas will come to us not through force, but because we allow them the space to flow. As Bruce Lee said:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”
Think about the last time you felt truly energized after taking time off. Did you spend your hours catching up on work emails or trying to solve problems over dinner?
Even with good intentions, many founders forget that downtime means exactly that — time to stop and reconnect with other areas of your life. Still, it’s not enough to simply not do a particular activity, you also have to give your mind a rest from thinking about it.
As Gielan and Achor note:
“If you lie in bed for eight hours, you may have rested, but you can still feel exhausted the next day. That’s because rest and recovery are not the same thing. Stopping does not equal recovering.”
And if recharging is a challenge, I would like to share what I believe is essential for learning to build these pauses into your day.
Ways of strengthening resilience
Use strategic periods of rest
Are you working through significant blocks of time without giving your mind a rest? Managing your focus and energy can be as simple as using the right tools like setting up automatic reminders on your phone to take a break or unplug altogether.
After working through a 90-minute block, pause and leave your desk. Don’t take your phone with you. Instead, spend time chatting with coworkers or go outside for a walk. As Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness have written: Stress + Rest = Growth.
“It can take guts to do, but there is real magic in stepping away. Though it may seem paradoxical, after a certain point, it’s not hard work that is the key to improvement. It’s rest. It’s only when we step away — nothing more powerful than when we sleep — that both our bodies and brains rebuild and strengthen.”
Nothing brings on burnout faster than filling all of your free time with activities. Overscheduling can easily make you feel like you’re on an endless treadmill of meetings and networking dinners.
One of the best ways to avoid this pitfall is by managing your priorities and scheduling non-negotiable personal time. This way, even when you’re caught up in the day’s to-do list, you’ll have programmed in a recovery period.
Protect your downtime
In addition to scheduling, remember to keep your blocked-off time sacred. You wouldn’t book an activity during an important meeting with a client — and the same rule applies to your downtime.
Remember: building resilience starts with setting aside these cognitive breaks and letting your batteries fully recharge.
Finding the right balance of work and recovery means adapting to your surroundings, and like water, allowing yourself to master the art of detachment.