Relaxation is Overrated

The past few months I’ve been working through a great online course by Cal Newport and Scott Young titled, “A Life Of Focus.” It’s about getting to what truly matters in your life, pruning the unimportant, and learning to stay focused on what is essential – without distraction. A central theme of the course, which is well aligned with my work, is reducing the time we spend distracting ourselves with screens.

When we put our devices down and get present to life, one of the many fears that can surface is that, without Netflix or social media, our minds cannot relax after a hard day of mental activity. However, research tells us that our mental faculties are capable of continuous hard activity; they don’t tire like an arm or a leg. Other than sleep, our minds don’t need rest. What they need is variety.

You don’t need to binge Netflix to relax. You don’t need to surf social media or get lost in a vortex of YouTube to give your mind a break. In fact, quite the opposite.

Your mind wants activity and diversity. Continuous hard activity and lots of variety. High quality pursuits like creating something, training for a sport, writing, reading something challenging, getting involved in a project that requires mental effort, learning to play an instrument, going for a walk, working out, doing volunteer work, or engaging in good conversation. All these activities add energy to our lives instead of subtracting it.

If you replace idle “vegging out” with thoughtful, intentional activity you’ll end up more energized and more satisfied with life.


For several months I’d been helping a client prepare for a speech she was to present to one of her important clients. Knowing that this one presentation could be a key to leveraging her career, she put all her energy, including many coaching sessions and a great financial investment, into the crafting of the speech.

It resulted in an incredible delivery that far exceeded her client’s expectations. However, she received one small piece of corrective feedback and went into a dark funk for days. She became so despondent she considered walking away from her entire career.

After a long debrief about the experience, we explored the trap of putting our identity and worth into one facet of our lives. Like our financial net worth, we’re vulnerable and even fragile if it’s all in one basket. What happens when our entire life is defined by our work, and we retire? What happens if our identity is in raising our kids, when our kids leave home? What happens when our worth is attached to a healthy, strong body, and you become injured or get old? What happens when your worth is attached to your position on a board of directors and your tenure comes due? What happens if our identity is tied entirely to our possessions, and a fire destroys our home and everything in it?

Diversifying your identity, a concept I first learned from Brad Stulberg, is parallel to diversifying your financial investment portfolio. If you place your investments with a mix of stocks, bonds, international companies, and domestic companies, when one goes down, another one might be going up or staying stable.

The story of world record holder speed skater Nils van der Poel illustrates what it means to diversify your identity. Prior to his phenomenal performance at the 2022 games, Nils was struggling. He wasn’t performing at his best. When he stopped and reflected on what was going on, he realized that every time he stepped onto the oval to compete, fear began to consume him because his entire identity was derived from speed skating. This singular identity resulted in excessive, destructive pressure. Nils van der Poel as a person was synonymous with the results he generated on the ice.

Nils decided to create a strategy to diversify his identity. During the week, he trained with the same level of commitment and intensity. On the weekdays he remained a world class athlete. However, on the weekends he stepped back and allowed himself to be a person away from speed skating. He started hanging out with friends who weren’t athletes. He started going out for beer and pizza. He went bowling. He went on hikes. It wasn’t just giving his body a rest. He was giving his mind a rest. As he diversified his identity, he developed a sense of worth beyond speed skating. No longer was he just Van der Poel “the speed skater.” He was Nils Van der Poel, the friend, the community member, the man who loved hiking in the mountains.

Not only was Nils preparing for life after his sport, diversifying his identity also allowed him to come to the ice with less fear. He started to race with greater ease and joy. He was more relaxed. He was less attached to having to win to prove his worth because he had an identity away from the ice. And, at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, van der Poel, paradoxically, went on to win two gold medals and set a world record.

Identity diversification isn’t just good for sport. Many great difference makers were diversified. Da Vinci wasn’t just an artist. He was also a mathematician, inventor, and writer. Eleanor Roosevelt was a writer and great humanitarian. A well-worn fiddle case accompanied Einstein wherever he went. Diversifying your identity builds resilience by becoming a more well-rounded person. It also strengthens your primary path of focus.

Reflect on what you might be overly identified with at the present time. Where is there vulnerability, fragility, and unnecessary pressure from being overly attached to one identity? Where is there a need for “identity diversification?” What relationships might you be neglecting? Where might you need to let go of some over-attachment to roles you currently have? What is something in a totally unrelated field you could learn about that would enrich your life? What hobbies could be developed? Where is there an opportunity to do some service in your community – beyond your current role?

My client turned her experience into a learning opportunity. While she did take her career to a new level with an amazing presentation, after an extended holiday following the experience, she came back more well-rounded and committed to continue to work on diversifying her identity – with much more joy and greater resilience.

CIVILITY AMID DIVERSITY  How To Rebuild Trust in A Fractured World

As Canadians, we were collectively shocked and dismayed at the spate of divisive behavior across this country recently. And now, the crisis in the Ukraine has given our situation in Canada a new perspective. The disunity in our country appears to be indicative of the divisions in our communities, our workplaces, and even our families. It’s been said that a crisis doesn’t determine a person; a crisis reveals a person. Although I’m not sure that we are not any more divided today than we have always been, the dissection has been exposed and amplified.
We used to be able to leave our political, religious, and personal value differences at our office and front doors. But in the pandemic, policies that govern our behaviors with the intent to protect us, have inadvertently divided us.
In short, politics and personal values are now in our face. As teams are balancing a return to the office with remote work, the challenge in front of us is how to rebuild trust in a fractured world.
To rebuild trust requires deep understanding of each other without the need to correct, fix, or “straighten out.” You must get beneath the surface of opinions, positions, views and even values, and connect with the deeper emotions to begin healing what divides us. It’s critical to shift the goal from agreement to understanding. You don’t have to have the same values to value someone. What you do have to do is separate the person from the issue.
Here’s a little model I learned from teams who are debriefing and recovering from trauma. It’s called the SELF model:
Story. Everyone has a story from the pandemic. Let’s take the time to understand each other’s stories that are coming out from the past two years. We just don’t know what people have been through.
Emotions. The past two years have been a form of collective trauma. What emotions have been a part of your experience over this time? What have you had to give up? Where have feelings such as self-doubt, loneliness, fear, excitement, clarity, or anger been a part of your reality? What have you done with these emotions?
Loss. Since the beginning of the pandemic we all lost something and are going through the grief process to some degree. Here are a few losses: our health, a loved one, some of our freedoms, spontaneity, rituals in gatherings like funerals and weddings and church services. I’m not making a judgement. I’m simply stating the obvious and facing reality.
Future. The future depends on the decisions we make today. How will we rebuild? What do we need to feel safe and supported? What needs to be let go of so we can create an opening for change? What do we need to say good-bye to? What decisions need to be made? (e.g. to let go of blame and judgement and resentment; decide to be a contributor instead of a consumer, a builder rather than a destroyer)
A crisis is too significant to be wasted. Let’s embrace this time of difficulty and allow the pain to break us open so a stronger, wiser and kinder self and a better world can emerge.