The Growth Equation: Stress + Rest = Growth
In researching and reporting my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, I learned that the world’s best performers — in domains as varied as sport, art, and business — follow a common pathway to continual growth. They take on challenges and make themselves uncomfortable (stress) and then follow those challenges with recovery and reflection (rest). Then they rinse and repeat, with a slightly greater challenge. Too much stress, not enough rest and the result is injury, illness, or burnout. Not enough stress, too much rest and the result is complacency.
Seek Out Stress
Whether it is physical, intellectual, or emotional growth, research suggests that skills from struggle. If we wish to get better at anything, we need stress ourselves, pushing beyond our current limits. Studies show that both the body and the brain respond to stress by becoming stronger — so long as the period of stress is followed by adequate rest and recovery (more on that in a minute). In the words of world champion big-wave surfer Nic Lamb, “It’s only when you step outside your comfort zone that you grow. Being uncomfortable is the path to personal development. It is the opposite of complacency.”
This isn’t to say you should go crush yourself in the gym, or suddenly take on an insane number of projects at work, or go from zero practice on the piano to practicing for hours a day. But it does mean that you should actively seek out what in my book I call “just-manageable challenges.” Activities where you deliberately push yourself ever so slightly outside of your comfort zone.
Have the Courage to Rest
Coach of world-champion triathletes Matt Dixon says that what separates the best from the rest is, well, rest. “Anyone can work their asses off,” he says, “But it takes real courage to rest.” When it seems like everyone around you is working endlessly, it’s easy to want to do the same. But pushing too hard too often — stress without rest — doesn’t lead to growth. It leads to fatigue and burnout.
It’s not just athletes, either. The late mathematician David Goss told me that his groundbreaking ideas hardly ever occurred when he was at the chalkboard, but rather, they occurred when he was taking a break by exercising or daydreaming. Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, puts it like this: “A good idea doesn’t come when you’re doing a million things. The good ideas come in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. It’s when your mind is on the other side of things.”
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.
For our bodies, it is during rest that hormones like testosterone and HGH are released, making us more resilient to future challenges. For our minds, it is during daydreaming, mind-wandering, and relaxation that our subconscious has the opportunity to kick in, helping us generate aha moments of insight (explaining why so many breakthrough ideas occur in the shower). And it’s during sleep that our brains process, consolidate, connect, and store all the information we were exposed to during the day. So many people make the mistake of cutting sleep to do more work when sleep is one of the most productive things you can do. Period.
Take a moment to reflect on your goals. These can be professional, creative, athletic, or even having to do with growing in relationships. Then ask yourself, are you following a trajectory of stress + rest = growth? Are you taking on just-manageable challenges that provide a stimulus for growth, but then following them with rest and reflection to ensure you adapt? Finding the right balance of stress and rest in your pursuits is perhaps the most promising — and just as important, sustainable — way to improve and grow.
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The book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local bookstore, and everywhere else books are sold.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.