Thriving in a Connected World
“Out of nowhere, I had a business trip canceled and free time on my hands. I went home on a beautiful summer day, and as I pulled into my driveway, I realized my family was scattered doing their things and that I had no friends to reach out to or hobbies that I had once loved. I sat in the car for more than an hour thinking about how I had gotten to that point.”
This comment, from a well-regarded software executive, reflects a pattern I have heard in hundreds of interviews of successful executives. Leaving college with a range of interests and friends, they choose a career that optimizes money, status, and maybe a sense of impact. Work ramps up quickly to twelve-plus-hour days. The combination of work, commuting, and travel results in exercise—especially in groups—declining and social worlds narrowing to work and select friends. Soon they find themselves in an echo chamber where work defines their entire existence for years. They fall out of the last of the groups and activities that had helped them cope, and if these were skill-related like music, tennis, or even running with a club, it becomes almost impossible to catch up. If they are lucky, they wake up in an epiphany moment like my Silicon Valley friend.
When I think of well-being, I don’t mean a fleeting feeling of happiness. Rather, well-being is an individual’s sense of satisfaction with their life as a whole, the feeling that “life is good.” A person with high well-being has inner contentment, an enduring sense of fulfillment, and a view that life is heading in a good direction. Unfortunately for many, well-being is elusive. People today feel more under the gun than ever, pressured by endless collaborative demands, long hours, sleep deprivation, and always-on technology. According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, the United States has experienced a two-year decline in well-being, ending at an all-time low in what Gallup’s research director calls “an unprecedented decline in well-being nationally.”1
Behind the decline, Gallup finds a consistent erosion in the elements of social well-being, defined as having supportive relationships and love in your life, and career well-being, or liking what you do and feeling motivated toward your goals. Of course, this idea of relationships being central to well-being is not new. Every model on well-being or happiness has relationships as a core component for people who are thriving. But the models don’t tell you how to initiate or sustain the right kinds of connections. They don’t tell you what to do if you have fallen out of groups and lost these relationships. And they certainly don’t speak to the almost-invisible ways that stress gets created through connections today.
I am not a psychologist or therapist. But I have interviewed enough people about their well-being, or the lack of it, to see strong patterns emerge. Throughout my interviews, people who told a positive life story almost always described authentic connections in two, three, or four groups outside of work: athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs, and so on. Ideally, one of the groups supports physical health—through nutrition and/or exercise norms. And one or two more add dimensionality on intellectual, spiritual, social, or civic fronts. These groups cohere around some common interest or history and help us connect with people from a wide range of life experiences.
The interactions with these people broaden our identity and how we look at our lives. They help us shrug off old identities and remake ourselves into a new and larger person. They shape who we are and how we look at the world. And, perhaps most importantly today, they give us courage to pursue life a little more on our terms and a little less in service of the always-on work demands.
In contrast, when I talked to people who were on their second or sometimes third marriages, physically unhealthy to a point of crisis, or with children who merely tolerated them, I would almost always find that these people had allowed life to become unidimensional. Work success had come to dominate these people’s definition of life success and had slowly taken them out of all groups and activities not associated with this trajectory. Often this felt great: like they were doing critically important things, with other people who were their friends, and they were taking care of their families. This all made sense, right up until a stark awakening. As one highly successful female software executive told me, “My mother battled cancer and passed away after seven very difficult months … No one from a company I had given eight hard years of my life to showed up at the funeral.”
Loss of physical vitality and dimensionality in life makes us susceptible in today’s highly connected world. When all of our relational investments lie in work, we are often pulled into being someone we don’t want to be and experience the vagaries of corporate life too deeply.
A seductive way of dealing with the unending demands of work life today is to justify the sacrifices as being for the benefit of our families. And too often the people I spoke with—at some point in their lives—took this one step too far: purchasing a home that was an improvement for their families or moving into a school district that they felt was critical for their children’s success.
Of course, it is not that family—close or extended—is a bad choice. Family is a critical anchor for most of us. But when it becomes all you have, and you justify the sacrifices for family alone, it leads to vulnerability. This is not materialism in the sense that we often think. People were not defining success exclusively through possessions like a new car or a fancy watch. More insidiously, a social-comparison process—what it means to be a good provider or caregiver—defined what many conventionally successful people thought they needed and pulled them out of the groups and meaningful relationships that provided a sense of well-being.
If this resonates with you, the question is how to emerge from the echo chamber—or, better yet, how to avoid entering it. Where do you start?
My research suggests three important, interconnected strategies:
These seemingly small actions have a tremendous impact in distinguishing those who thrive in their careers and lives. Let’s explore each in a little more depth.
Physical health plays a unique role in well-being. How we feel about our health is a strong predictor of how we feel about our lives. Understandably, feeling physically well gives us the energy and capability to show up at work more vibrantly, to engage others in our efforts, to take steps toward greater well-being, and to respond to challenges in a more positive way. Research consistently shows that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and community have fewer health problems, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and live longer. Positive connections have been related to lower blood pressure, better immune response, and a healthier inflammatory process, with implications for reduced risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. In contrast, social isolation has been found to be “on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.”2 One theory even treats social isolation, conflict, or lack of support as chronically stressful conditions to which our bodies respond by aging more rapidly.
Connections with others drive health behaviors through setting norms. Many health-related outcomes move through social networks in a process called “social contagion.” For example, a landmark study of 4,700 people over twenty years found that an individual’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if that individual had a friend who became obese in a given time period. Mental-health outcomes have also been found to be “contagious”: the odds that a person will become depressed increase by 118 percent if a friend is depressed, and the likelihood of a person being happy increases 63 percent if a nearby friend becomes happy.3
Interestingly, in the obesity study, it was not going to fast-food restaurants or cooking high-fat meals together that primarily drove the contagion; increasing geographic distance among people did not diminish the effect. Instead, the key driver was a change in people’s norms about the acceptability of being overweight. With obesity considered normative, the barriers to overeating and sedentary behavior were lowered. The norms established by others in the workplace can also shape our behavior in ways that affect physical and mental well-being. Expectations for long workdays and 24-7 accessibility have become common in many workplaces—sometimes by direct need, but more often by the habits and culture around us. They signal to us that long hours mean commitment and loyalty; indicate toughness, strength, and competitiveness; and mark how indispensable we are.
How do we, as individuals, combat what is going on around us? What can we learn from people who adopt and persist in healthier lifestyles despite these pressures? Close to a decade ago, one of the world’s most respected health-insurance organizations came to me with this question. The company’s chief learning officer at the time said, “We love the research on networks of high performers. But we would also like to understand the connectivity strategies of physically healthy people. In other words, if people decide to change their health, are there certain kinds of network connections that increase their odds of success over time?”
This thoughtful question ultimately inspired a range of quantitative studies over the years to relate people’s personal networks to measures of physical health—days absent, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and self-reported measures of health.
Two important ideas emerged from this work.
First, we could systematically see that people who decided to adopt a more health-conscious lifestyle, and were able to persist in it, enjoyed unique benefits from positive connections around them. In particular, they were more likely to be surrounded by people who influenced their nutrition decisions, their physical activity, and their sense that taking care of themselves was worth doing. In all of the studies we have done, this is the one area where introverts face a systematic disadvantage.
Second—and the real eye-opener—was the disproportionate health impact of negative ties. These connections take two primary forms: people who create stress, and people who enable unhealthy behaviors. The latter group includes people you might go to the gym with but then accompany to a high-carbohydrate meal or drinks that reverse all the positive impact and more. In fact, one study showed that some people needed up to 7.2 positive ties to outweigh the effects of one negative tie.
So, clearly, a focus on ameliorating the negative connections is critical. We just have to find these people and banish them from our lives, right?
Not so fast, it turns out. In all of these studies, when we would prompt people to indicate the most-positive relational influences on their health, we would typically hear some variant of significant other, children, friends, and extended family. Then we would prompt these same people to identify the individuals with the greatest negative impact on their health—the stress creators and enablers. And we often got an almost identical list—significant other, children, friends, and family. So the problem wasn’t so much the specific people as the intermingling of negative and positive health-oriented behaviors in these relationships. The trick was not to banish the negative influencer but to alter the behaviors within the relationships.
Intervening in these connections was critical to success because they enabled a net negative cycle that had to be broken in order for people to move toward a positive trajectory. Our quantitative network models showed that:
No wonder our New Year’s resolutions rarely make it to January 15. And no wonder so many corporate HR executives bemoan the fact that people do not take advantage of benefits that could promote healthy living. Helping people become healthy is not about getting them to make a few specific isolated decisions; instead it is about changing a social ecosystem. Let’s look more deeply at stories of success.
With my close colleague Jean Singer, I interviewed a hundred successful men and women, focusing not on how their networks promote performance but on how they promote well-being. In particular, we focused on the role of relationships in promoting physical health; enabling growth inside and outside of work; providing a source of purpose and meaning; and creating a foundation of resilience to both large and small setbacks.
We began each interview asking people to tell us about a time in their lives when they were becoming more physically healthy. We acknowledged that due to the demands of job and home, health waxes and wanes as one moves through a career. What we were interested in exploring was a stretch where things were moving in what they considered to be a positive direction. Some spoke about times of improving fitness, some about losing weight, some about improved nutrition, some about preventive care (such as sleep), and some about managing blood pressure and stress through mindfulness initiatives. What Singer and I probed for was not what the individual did but rather the role of relationships in this stretch of life.
Let me tell you a few stories from this work.
Seth grew up in an idyllic town at the base of the Rockies. He was an avid athlete through school and was captain of a highly competitive basketball team in his senior year as well as a member of the varsity tennis team. Beyond this, Seth was always outside hiking or skiing, depending on the time of year. Exercise, activity, and good health were in his and his family’s DNA.
Accepted into a well-regarded college, Seth was able to maintain his physical activity through the intramural basketball league and occasional ski trips with friends. He surrounded himself with a healthy group and excelled both athletically and academically. Coming out of school, he accepted a job at a highly regarded consulting firm and moved to Chicago. “Two things started at this point,” he said. “First, the work hours and travel ballooned to a point where I was only able to get to a gym a couple of times a week. Second, the weather was horrible compared to what I was used to in Colorado. Between these two factors I began to fall out of sports and activities I had always enjoyed.”
Life was not all bad, of course. Seth met a wonderful woman. They married, bought a starter home, had two children, then bought a better home in a school district they felt was best for their family. Given the demands of life and work, they decided to specialize in their roles. Seth focused more on the career front. “And all of this slowly eroded my condition and activity,” he said. “We generally maintained good nutrition, but all exercise fell off, and the groups I had been a part of were way in the rearview. I actually tried at one point to join a community basketball league, but I was so out of shape that I twisted an ankle, and this persistent injury led me to fall out of most other forms of exercise for almost seven years.”
Once he became strong enough, Seth joined a church basketball league. Without realizing it, he found himself in a situation where continued, consistent involvement was a priority, because the physical activity was embedded in social connections. He loved the camaraderie of his teammates, and he was aware that if he didn’t show up, they might not have enough players for a team. He didn’t mind the social pressure to be there, and he loved creating friendships and rebuilding his skills.
Seth took things one step further to ensure success. “I made Thursdays from 9–11 p.m. sacred,” he said. “I told my EA, ‘You can fly me anywhere you want, any time, but have me home for basketball at this time.’” Seth created what I call stickiness with this activity. He leveraged his EA to help hold him accountable and to keep work requests in perspective. His family members were motivated to hold him accountable for attending practices and games, because they were aware that “I would become grumpy when I did not go,” he said.
Seth successfully absorbed basketball into his routine, and this led to his taking better care of himself when he was on the road. He wanted to be physically able to play and avoid injury, so he was much more likely to work out in the hotel gyms, eat a little better, and avoid the second glass of wine. All because he wanted to be there for his friends and show up in the best shape he could. These friends became more than basketball to him. He went on biking trips with two of them, and one was a part of his daughter’s wedding. This is something that too many health-related programs miss. Programs like Weight Watchers create accountability groups that keep us from negative behaviors, and they often work for a while. But they rarely encourage the positive elements such as those that kept Seth involved in this activity.
Seth learned one more thing. He took his success from basketball and parlayed it into a second activity with tennis. This took him into new spheres of people who became friends and confidants. Tennis also deepened his relationship with his wife, whom he began to play doubles with. He wisely concluded our interview by letting us know: “Work adapts to life, if you let it.”
Seth was one of many interviewees who pulled themselves out of their echo chambers by appealing to past skills. Others were successful by learning new skills. For example, one life-sciences executive described her foray this way: “I was the person who did everything possible to dodge gym in high school. I was OK until I hit my late thirties and finally got a rather stern warning from my doctor on exercise.” She started walking around a nearby park at specific times and fell in with a group. “That was key, as it made it more enjoyable. We would share challenges in our work and lives, and it was fab for me because they came from such different perspectives than the people I spent time with at work.” Group members began to set goals on how long they would walk, and eventually this moved to jogging and their first charity run. Fast-forward over a decade, and this executive now plans vacations with her husband around marathons they run together, accompanied by people from this initial group and other people she has become close to through running.
“The people were critical,” she said. “And not just because they made me a little more accountable to show up. It is the depth of the connection. These people have seen me at my worst. They encouraged me on, and I have done the same.” This executive’s narrative contains a critical truism about situating the activity in relationships: these efforts do not just create a social pressure to persist; they also result in new friendships, an ability to be authentic with others and to take on added dimensionality in your life. And because the people often come from varied backgrounds, the interactions shape our perspectives on how we look at our own lives, what we see as stressful, and what we suddenly become grateful for. That’s a perspective we miss if we are constantly surrounded by similarly educated or accomplished people.
Not all the success stories were around group sports or heroic athletic accomplishments. Many were around nutrition and eating more healthily. Others were around weight-reduction goals. And still others centered on managing stress through mindfulness and preventive-care measures. In other words, these steps took many different forms. But the key to all was a shift in the social ecosystem of the unhealthy behavior. Perhaps no story revealed this as clearly as Susan’s.
The story of Susan, a manager at a research organization, shows how engaging in personal networks can help an individual break negative cycles and create deliberate life shifts. It wasn’t until after her divorce, when she started seeing a new group of friends, that she was able to move away from the unhealthy patterns that had been increasing her stress and depleting her energy. Having met a new life partner who shares her values and aspirations, Susan now engages regularly with her new friendship group, and they push each other to be better on both personal and professional levels. Part of that is encouraging good nutrition.
In the bad old days, her ex-husband would encourage her to “just pick up Burger King on the way home” after a tiring day at work, “so we would eat a lot of fast food,” she said. “And the group of friends we were hanging out with were sort of the same way. That was their instinct.” Today, her significant other and her friends support her desire to eat more healthily. “That support system is real,” she said.
Her group of friends encouraged her to move to a home closer to her job, which gave her greater opportunities for walking. This morphed into long walking meetings. She lost fifteen pounds and improved her connections to people at work. Her new friends and her improved work relationships have greatly enhanced her life. “I know I have the right support system,” she said. “If I’m sick, I can stay out of work for three days, and everything will be fine. Those connections and my network will help take care of whatever will fall down on my end.” (See the Coaching Break, “Crafting a Healthy Social Ecosystem.”)
We have all seen the surges in our gyms on January 1, only to see them empty out by January 30. Or perhaps we have made our own resolutions around diet or exercise that fade quickly, despite our good intentions. The research shows that the more-enduring shifts occur as a product of situating an activity in networks and—ideally—sharing a goal with others. Key positive relational elements are critical to long-term persistence. This is a very different approach from the conventional focus on mere accountability.
Step 1. Identify one or two health-related objectives, such as stress reduction, weight loss, or better fitness.
Objective 1 __________________________
Objective 2 __________________________
Step 2. Share those goals with other people. Informing others helps you maintain your commitment.
Person 1 __________________________
Person 2 __________________________
Step 3. Identify specific activities that will help you meet those objectives—for example, resuming an old skill, learning a new one, or joining charity walks.
Activity 1 __________________________
Activity 2 __________________________
Step 4. Identify positive relational elements that will create accountability and keep you going on those activities. These might include a walking buddy, a weight-loss partner, or a pickleball group.
Relational element 1 __________________________
Relational element 2 __________________________
Step 5. Make commitments to build deeper, more-trusting, more-authentic connections in those positive relationships, and create space for people from different walks of life to pull you into being someone new. Such commitments might include joining an effort toward a challenging goal or making time to connect with people after an activity rather than rushing home. Let people see you when you’re vulnerable; talk about a wide range of topics and life experiences.
Commitment 1 __________________________
Commitment 2 __________________________
Step 6. Create a supportive ecosystem around these objectives, activities, and elements. For example, create “stickiness” at work by setting aside sacred times for your activities; have your assistant schedule healthy activities for you; surround yourself with supportive people outside work.
Ecosystem element 1 __________________________
Ecosystem element 2 __________________________
“OK. So that was a time when you sustained a positive trajectory of health. Now let’s back up a moment. Can you tell me what got you into trouble to begin with? In other words, what led you to the point of poor health where you had to take concerted action?” Singer and I would typically ask this question about thirty minutes into the well-being interviews. Up to that point, we had been celebrating only the positives—the ways in which the interviewees had sustained trajectories of good health and the role of connections in that process. My question about an earlier, unhealthy time often caused people to pause and reflect deeply.
“Just life, I guess,” or some variant, was the most common answer. Singer and I would continue to probe into that time period, always hoping to find common themes—a nasty boss, an unreasonable client, an impossible workload, an obsession with monetary success, a quest to outpace others. To be sure, we did hear some of that, but most people’s reality was defined by something else, what we have come to call relationship-based micro-stressors. The real enemy was not one big challenge or obstacle but rather a never-ending barrage of small items that crowded out exercise, eating well, and sleep.
While relationships are critical sources of well-being, they also have the potential to multiply our stress. Think of a recent conference call in which you disagreed or sensed a disagreement, but the misalignment went unspoken; or you noticed for the third time in a week that a team member really needed coaching; or there was something worrying about a text message that you got from your child. We endure these micro-stressors throughout the day, often without ever being able to put our finger on what is hurting our well-being.
Broadly speaking, relationships create stress for us in three ways: they drain our personal capacity, deplete our emotional reserves, and challenge our values or identity. Let’s look at each of these.
The need to collaborate as part of our daily work has become standard in virtually every profession. We work hard to keep colleagues in the loop, we seek input and support from others, we are added to—and seldom dropped from—cc lists. All of this, of course, comes with ever-escalating productivity expectations. Beyond the “deliverables” that drain us, there are unspoken inefficiencies that arise from the way we work together. These collaboratively complex times create stress when they generate work or reduce our ability to do what we already have on our plate.
The micro-stressors that diminish our ability to complete our work and drain our personal capacity include surges in responsibilities and inefficient norms around email and other forms of communication; subpar performance from colleagues and supervisees; and unpredictable bosses. Most of us would be quick to cite these factors as stress points. But one that you might not have considered is misalignment of roles and priorities.
In today’s workplace, the bulk of work is done through teams, and performance hinges on effective collaboration inside the team and beyond. As a result, we all experience a lot more misalignment than we realize. A functional counterpart of yours announces that her group is starting a task, but your group is already working on that, so you have to schedule a meeting to clarify who is doing what. Or tension rises as team members emphasize their functional contributions over the team’s mission or align with incentives from their home units, setting up competing priorities.
We may be fully aware that these invisible relational issues need to be figured out and dealt with, but most of the time we just don’t have the bandwidth. In today’s work environments, people are scattered across so many teams that there is no time for anyone to engage in effective team development. So teams continue to lurch from issue to issue, misalignment continues to drain our personal capacity, and there is a constant and growing hum of stress.
These reserves help us counteract difficult feelings and negative interactions, such as worry about people we’re close to, uncertainty over the impact of our actions, fear of repercussions, and simply feeling de-energized by certain types of interactions. While my research shows a significant performance impact from positive, energizing interactions, I have found that the effect of negative ties—those that de-energize us or create mistrust or fear—is even more important to attend to. Negative connections, ranging from people who harbor hidden agendas that are at odds with their stated motivations, to individuals who don’t deliver what they promise, to teammates who can’t admit to their limitations, are typically only a small portion of our network interactions, but their effect can be significant. For example, when people have hidden agendas, “it’s really draining because you’re never quite sure where they’re coming from,” said Zack, a senior scientist with a biotech firm. Even if negative interactions are brief, they can leave a footprint of worry that lasts for hours or even days.
Management itself—just being a manager, with responsibility for others’ success and well-being—can seriously drain our emotional reserves. None of us wants to be seen as a “bad” boss. We want to do the right thing for people, but often we feel limited in being able to provide subordinates with sufficient time and attention, the tools and training to be successful, or the rewards and recognition to feel appreciated. We have to manage performance issues, give critical feedback, resolve group conflicts, and, in unfortunate circumstances, have confrontational conversations and even fire people. Handling these situations in a way that is simultaneously constructive, empathic, and moral can push us past our emotional limits.
Gerhard, a biotech manager who is responsible for about two thousand people, described the constant concern he felt as he led his group through a reorganization: “Everyone’s going to go through substantial change in the next four to five years. How do I get them through the change curve? Is everyone being supported in the right way? Are we communicating in the right way? How do I get through this reorganization effectively with the team and for the team? That’s where my angst comes from.” Behind Gerhard’s stress lies a fear that he’ll fall short, that he won’t get it right and will let his people down. “What information do you let people know and when? Everyone has a different opinion about how to do that. And sometimes I have to mediate differing opinions between management versus my leadership team. If it were just up to me and I was in a bubble, it would be less stressful.”
Fear can have a profound effect on our experience of stress. Some people create fear through their dictatorial styles. Others are fearmongers who see and experience fear in a broad number of interactions, often where it simply does not exist. These people make things worse, not better.
Anxious leaders can also create chain reactions of stress that reverberate down the hierarchy. When an overloaded leader is unavailable for guidance or decision-making, the stress passes onto their subordinates. We get two-line emails that launch us into action, and we start working without really knowing whether we’re on the right path. Secondhand stress also occurs when, as a result of overload, leaders make snap judgments without taking the time to delve into the issues. We’re left trying to figure out whether to follow their lead or push back. Leaders may also pass on their stress by tone of voice, impatience, or body language—a transmission of a negative emotional state that can trigger us to feel likewise.
Most of us would like to think that the values and sense of identity that guide our actions, both at work and home, are solid and fixed, but often they are more susceptible to influence than we realize.
Have you ever felt pressure to do things that didn’t feel entirely right? For example, if you deal with clients, have you felt pressured to meet “the numbers” by pushing expensive pricing rather than aim for client satisfaction? Have you been told to fire someone who had been a faithful contributor for decades? How about pressure to be all in, meaning available 24-7 regardless of the needs of your personal life?
Every week, people face many such moments that chip away at their values and sense of identity—moments that nudge them from being the person who always stands up for what’s right to becoming the person who does what’s expedient because it’s better in the long run for the career, or it’s just how life is. These moments don’t come with neon signs saying “Warning: This decision will change how you see yourself!” Instead they sneak up on us, and often they come and go before we realize what has happened. But over time, they can lead us far away from what we truly value.
Throughout my interviews, I heard many successful people describe stark moments when they realized they had spent years in pursuit of goals that were misaligned with who they were when they started their careers. And these were the lucky ones. Many of us never have these moments of revelation. Instead we toil along, sensing on some deep level that our lives have become inconsistent with our values and identity. As this disconnect between who we are and what we stand for continues to grow, it takes a toll in stress, which gets worse if we start to feel self-doubt for not pushing back harder.
Stress, of course, is not unique to today. What is unique is the quantity, rate, and variety of these micro-stressors and how they come to us through relationships in so many forms. They are part of the rhythm of our work lives, and we take them as a normal cost of doing business. So they rarely rise to the level of deliberate examination and action.
Traditional advice on coping with negative or stressful interactions doesn’t work in this domain, because micro-stressors are deeply embedded in accepted ways of working together. They come at us through interactions that are too numerous and high velocity to handle one by one. Have you ever tried to take just one micro-stressor, such as a colleague who missed the mark on a joint project or the emotional toll from the departure of a trusted work colleague, and explain it to someone close to you? Often these discussions are helpful for processing and managing the stress, but it can take twenty or thirty minutes just to describe the history, dependencies, and context so your listener can empathize and possibly make helpful suggestions, which (if that even happens) might take an additional half-hour. We might have time for one of these per day or per week, but we are getting hit with twenty to thirty micro-stressors a day. Who has time to articulate this all? And who, on the receiving end, wants to hear it?
Micro-stressors pose a different dilemma than we have seen before, so we need new approaches for dealing with them. (See the Coaching Break, “Identifying Your Micro-Stressors.”) The table there will help you identify two to three micro-stressors that have a persistent impact on your life. Micro-stressors create an emotional buildup that needs to be released before you can think rationally about a constructive response, so it often helps to first undertake an activity, such as exercise, time with family, or a favorite hobby, that helps you decompress. You’re then in a position to reflect on and process your stressors.
First, indicate two or three micro-stressors that have the greatest impact on you at present. Place an X in the appropriate cells to identify the source(s) of each. Focus on those you can take action on. Then take a second pass through the table and reflect on micro-stressors that you are creating for others. Place a Y in those cells. Finally, in a third pass through the table, reflect on micro-stressors that you are unnecessarily magnifying—points where you need to learn to keep things in perspective a little better. Place an O in these cells. Think about how you can act on your top micro-stressors and de-escalate the others.
The true source of stress can get lost in the noise of anxiety or defensiveness, and conversations with others can help you unpack what’s really bothering you and why. One leader facing a work situation that almost drove her to leave her job found that sitting down with a trusted colleague helped her diagnose what the issue really was. “I remember at the time just feeling really frustrated,” she said. “And I couldn’t exactly unpack where the frustration was coming from. Was it just the pressure? And, ultimately, through the questions that she asked, I was like, ‘You’re right. It’s because I don’t feel like I’m having the space to contribute what I’m capable of.’” Pinpointing the problem enabled her to engage in a dialogue with her boss and relieve the tensions.
But calling out the micro-stressors that have the greatest impact on you is easy compared with the two other activities in the “Identifying Your Micro-Stressors” coaching break: reflecting on micro-stressors that you create for others and those that you are unnecessarily magnifying.
Most of us don’t want to be sources of stress, but the reality is that when we collaborate, we inevitably throw micro-stressors at others all the time. We don’t quite get all our work done by the deadline. We prioritize our personal goals over the group’s. We send those late-night emails. We make a cutting or unfair comment at breakfast that sours our spouse’s entire day. We undermine a colleague’s self-confidence. And on and on. I’m not saying that you need to be perfect; I’m only asking that you think about the micro-stressors you perpetrate, as a perspective-building activity.
Another perspective-building activity is asking yourself where you are needlessly magnifying your micro-stressors. Is it really that big a deal that someone didn’t deliver reliably or prioritizes her own goals over the team’s? Could you ignore those late-night emails? Could you let a family member’s unfair remark just roll off your back? Could you learn to be immune to confidence-busting comments?
If we are able to tackle two or three micro-stressors proactively, what do we do with the rest? One solution is to keep them in perspective. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or gratitude journaling, can be helpful. And, of course, maintaining physical health through exercise is probably the most important lever we have for combating stress. But there are also important relational solutions: people who have greater dimensionality in their lives and broader connections just don’t experience micro-stressors in the same way. They have a greater tendency to keep them in perspective rather than magnify them through rumination or conversations with others.
I equate this to a scenario most are familiar with. Have you ever had something traumatic happen that instantly changed the way you thought about all the little inconveniences and annoyances in your life, and made you wonder why you had been so consumed by them? Experiences like this shift our perspective and help us to see the small items for what they truly are: small. I am convinced that—without the need for trauma—people who manage dimensionality experience micro-stressors this way. They are able to laugh or shake their heads over small things. Their identity and existence is not challenged in the same way.
Well-being is clearly tied to a sense of purpose—in essence, a belief that life is meaningful and serves aims higher than yourself. People with a strong sense of purpose in life tend to do better on a range of measures of physical health, psychological health, longevity, and overall well-being. Sense of purpose has been related to a reduction in cardiovascular disease. In one study, a one-point increase on a six-point scale measuring purpose in life corresponded to a 27 percent decreased risk of having a heart attack among people with heart disease. For older adults, a one-point difference in purpose translated to a 22 percent decreased risk of stroke.4 A sense of purpose can work to reduce stress. A study of 6,840 teachers found that individuals with a greater sense of purpose in life were better at managing stress and had better self-rated health status.5 Having a sense of purpose has been linked to better sleep, lower risk of dementia, and lower risk of depression.6 People with higher purpose in life tend to engage in healthier behaviors such as exercising more and availing themselves of preventive health services, leading to better overall health.7
Interactions with others can create a sense of purpose by helping us find our higher aspirations, feel part of something larger than ourselves, and connect on meaningful grounds. Connecting with others who share values or care about similar outcomes helps build purpose. So does working with energizers—people who leave you feeling enthused and motivated. Energizers, who often talk about the “why” of the work and what is possible rather than focusing on the demands or the negatives, can contribute to our sense of purpose. The flip side is that de-energizers can drain us of our motivation and sense of value in the work we do. As people experience interactions with energizers and others who help them see that their efforts have meaning, they bring themselves more fully to their work. Negative or draining interactions may remain, but they seem more manageable or balanced if we have a few purposeful relationships at work.8
Throughout my interviews, I would routinely hear people who appeared to have it all describe how demanding and difficult their lives were. But, like clockwork, I would encounter one in ten people who would tell a different story: they enjoyed the positives of being high performers, but they also lived life a little more on their terms. Their day-to-day lives were busy, but they were less reactive, and they more effectively shaped their realities at work and at home. The key difference for these people lay with the breadth and dimensionality in their networks.
These people—whom I call ten percenters—generally had life anchors that ensured that they did not let themselves become too unidimensional. The anchors took three forms: life roles, process orientation, and value anchors.
LIFE ROLES. Impose structure through role clarity, connections, and rituals (such as journaling) that shape life and connections, rather than letting systemic pressures take over. For example, more than twenty years ago, just as his career was at a major inflection point, Philip, a senior leader in the software world, had an epiphany. While he was sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in North Carolina, he suddenly realized that if he took the next logical step in his career—a step that would have been the natural outcome of his decades of work and that would have been considered a dream job by most people—he would be unable to live the way he wanted. He spent three hours that day clarifying, with his wife, the experiences and contributions he wanted to make with his life and boiled these down to six roles. He saw that he was and wanted to continue to be a “natural being,” meaning a person who respects the body’s need for sleep, healthy food, and exercise. He also wanted to continue to be an organizational pioneer, a good friend, a good family member, a global citizen, and a “spiritual being.”
Each of these roles translates into specific actions that he takes and groups that he engages with. Every week he journals on how he has fulfilled and made progress in these roles, and he adjusts his plans for the next week on the basis of where he needs to invest time. Every morning, he journals his hopes for the day, keeping some or all of these roles in mind. “It is amazing to me how often just writing things down seems to almost make them happen somehow in the day,” he said. As you can imagine, he has accumulated stacks of journals over the years. The roles form an anchor for him to plan how he is living and who he is engaging with.
This process allows him to put structure into his life and helps him prevent work from taking over. Philip is quicker than anyone I know to choose not to do things that don’t align with his roles. And most people respect the heck out of him for living life this way. I have known Philip for twenty years, and he always manages to come out on top with fantastic jobs but also a life that most can only envy.
PROCESS ORIENTATION. People who fall into the process-orientation category tend to have heuristics for embracing the moment with other people. They are more likely to see life as emergent and to cherish time with others. What is cool about these people is their ability to lean into the flow of a situation. For example, rather than define who they want to have dinner with, and spend weeks trying to align calendars, they might simply tell a large group that they are going to dinner and ask whether anyone wants to come.
In a range of subtle ways, they work with the flow of life and lean into relationships and experiences more than most people would think possible. They capitalize on micro-moments to expand their connections and grow, they embrace moments fully, and they take opportunities as they arise. “I am a chronic learner,” one executive said to me. “I have an old house built in the seventeenth century, so I spend a lot of time working on that and spend a lot of time talking to people about that. I am a novice sailor and enjoy sailing through a yacht club I belong to. I enjoy gardening, so I am active in our gardening clubs. I teach two classes a term. I am actively involved as the president of my alumni association. I keep in touch with friend groups from all stages of life, and I now run a barbecue that brings all of these people together and has become a four-day event.” Like others who have adopted a process orientation, this person fully embraces chance micro-moments as they arise, capitalizing on them to expand his connections and grow, and using them to move forward, often in surprising new directions.
VALUE ANCHORS. These are anchors that people cultivate through life experiences. They are less holistic than the first two, but provide non-negotiable points that people tend to form connections around and through which they create dimensionality. One common value anchor is faith—for example, as a way to develop a sense of self in the universe or as a channel to help the underprivileged. Others include spending time with family, whether direct or extended; spending time with friends—really prioritizing time with them and being present for them; and volunteering, which includes serving as a role model.
To keep work in perspective—her company is in the midst of an acquisition—Lanie leans heavily on a mentor and friend in another division, as well as her husband and a close circle of friends. She said:
The acquisition is complicated. The day-to-day work is complicated. I lost my quality director at a crucial time leading up to a quality audit. We’ve had issues with a supplier. Our financials are good, but the other divisions are struggling, so I feel that weight. I’m Type A and push myself and others pretty hard, but I’m clear on my purpose: to make the business better and do it in a way that brings other people and teams with me. Plenty of people can make the business better for the short term, but nobody wants to work for them. So I’m honest with my leadership team about my values and priorities. I’m also clear that work doesn’t define me or dictate everything—my husband, my kids, and my church family keep me grounded in what matters most.
Lanie’s work demands are global and the hours are long, but she focuses on the positive side of 24/7 connectivity. “It goes both ways,” she said. “I can view work as interrupting my family life, or I can take advantage and unapologetically integrate it all. I can be at a kid’s event and respond to a text or email. I usually spend a couple of hours early in the morning doing focused work, but otherwise I appreciate the ability to be where I need to be and know people can reach me. I also have to check myself: How do I give the most value, not necessarily give the most time?” She meets with her assistant every Friday for a calendar review, looking two to three weeks out. “We move things around, say no or delegate things that other people can do, and make sure I have built in blocks of time for longer-term goals. Those things can fall off easily if I’m not proactive.”
Our sense of purpose in life is deeply constructed through interactions we have inside and outside of work. In my research, I have consistently seen that organizations doing noble work—curing cancer, saving children’s lives, eradicating disease—can be among the unhappiest, while those doing seemingly mundane things can be the most engaged.
Purpose is not just in the nature of our work but also in the networks around the work. Two broad spheres of connections generate a sense of purpose for most people:
Far too often people tell me: “I don’t have time for these interactions that will generate purpose. My job is too demanding. My work does not allow me time to engage in this way.” The list goes on. But the consistent theme is that these people are treating work and life as a trade-off. They are not looking for the synergies they can get from adapting small activities to lead to a greater sense of purpose in these spheres.
To see how a successful individual engages in activities that allow for multiple touchpoints of purpose, consider Juliet, whose promotion to head of product development for her tech company has taken her far beyond the world of research that was her original training ground. The job is intense, but she finds dimensionality outside of work through volunteering, family, and her community of friends.
Much of her volunteering happens in the context of her children’s school. As busy as she is at work, she still spends time working for the school. She and her husband go to the school “a ridiculous amount of time—some days it feels like we live there, even more than the kids do.”
It was clear to me how Juliet’s volunteering dovetailed with one of her other purpose-related anchors, family, but I was surprised at how it also connected with the value that she places on friends and community. “A lot of the people that I consider my closest friends are people I’ve met through the school,” Juliet said. “These are the people I like to hang out with socially anyway.”
Or consider Eric, who demonstrates that a single activity can drive multiple sources of purpose. In Eric’s case, the activity was connecting with colleagues to change his workplace’s “pizza culture”—there was pizza at virtually every meeting, and a pizza party at 4 p.m. every day. This was painful for Eric, who had grown up in France and for whom thoughtful cooking, eating, and sharing mealtimes was an ingrained part of his culture.
Eric connected with the company’s leaders to make the case that the workplace needed to be a healthier environment for employees and that supporting broad aspects of employees’ lives should be emphasized as a company value. He challenged the leaders to have the courage to change the company’s entrenched culture.
He connected with peers, co-creating ideas for a new workplace culture and engaging others with values similar to his, and he connected with his nonwork community by sourcing healthier foods from a nearby fruit and vegetable market. “I started interacting with all those people, and we turned the situation around,” he said. Gradually the workplace culture shifted—people became more aware of what and when they ate, and there was an increased emphasis on healthy behaviors, such as walking outside and taking the stairs. (See the Coaching Break, “Shift Activity to Optimize Purpose.”)
Reflect on the figure below, which will help you to prioritize the work-defined and life-defined connections described earlier in this chapter. First, allocate 100 points to the spheres that currently provide you with a sense of purpose. Distribute more points to those that provide an exceptionally high sense of purpose and fewer points to those that provide less of a sense of purpose. Allocating zero points to one or more spheres is OK. Review your allocation of points to identify spheres that you would like to better connect with to add dimensionality to your life.
Second, in the middle of the circle, indicate one activity that you currently engage in—maybe exercise, music, community service, or spiritual pursuits—that, if you shifted slightly, could have the greatest impact on the largest number of spheres and draw arrows to the spheres that this activity would affect. If this is not immediately obvious to you, think about interests from your past. Leaning back into athletic pursuits, hobbies, and passions is often the first step for entrenched people to slingshot into new groups. Simple shifts to include different spheres of people in your pursuit of these activities can often magnify purpose. Rather than pursue a 10K running goal in isolation, consider running with your child, the child’s friend, and the friend’s parent as a way to lean into a larger group.
Then create “stickiness”: commit to a goal with this group, set hard rules, and engage family or friends in reinforcing your pursuit. Consolidate the shift into your life and then do it once or twice more—it is amazing how work adapts to life if you let it.
Look to engage more purposefully in small moments. Anchor this from values within and focus on how to shape, rather than be shaped by, all the interactions coming at you.
Live micro-moments intentionally—show intentionality in all of the small moments. Believe in people, lift them up; help them do the right thing; uncover commonalities; understand aspirations. Simply altering the way we engage in existing relations often uncovers ways our existing networks can fuel a sense of purpose.
Create a persistent dialogue on what is worth doing. People who avoid crisis moments in life spend more time talking with others about ways to live life. One successful executive formed a board of people who showed up in life as she wanted to. Rather than being a traditional advisory group of mentors, this group was younger and older and from all walks of life but helped her consistently reflect on how she was engaging with purpose.
Return to relationships, often forged by fire through difficult situations. How you handle adverse moments with others—seeing possibilities, being proactive, commiserating to some degree but not too much—gets you through but also builds connections that you go back to.
A final lesson from our successful people is to see transitions not as threats but as opportunities to discover a new and better version of yourself. Look to see and unplug from things that are draining purpose and invest in new activities that slingshot you into groups you want to engage with as part of your identity—and then stick it out.
Consider a very successful high-tech executive who, over a twenty-year career, had become someone she had not planned to be. The job’s toll on her health and identity slowly burned her out, and she quit a job that many would envy. She was determined to lean into her health. Although she prides herself on her skepticism, she decided to give yoga a try. She promised her husband she would try it three times before giving up.
The first time, she rolled her eyes at the overly nice people who showed up. The second time, she internally mocked the “flaky” and “granola” instructor. The third time, she endured a little better but nevertheless felt she was done. As the class ended, the instructor walked around the room and touched every person on the head.
To my friend’s deep surprise, she burst into tears. As she unpacked this, she realized that this was the first time she had let herself be vulnerable or authentic in a long time. Falling out of pose. Exhausted from what looked easy. And sharing this vulnerability with strangers in the room. This was not something that her corporate persona would have tolerated.
Flash forward, and yoga has become a central component of her and her husband’s life. It defines a large portion of their social world and even their vacations. This never would have materialized without her leaning into and persisting through a transition. It wasn’t so much the yoga as the relationships formed through the activity that mattered. They added dimensionality and perspective to her life that had not been there when work ruled all. They became a source of resilience. And they helped give her courage to live life on her terms rather than others’ definitions of success.
Most of us experience large portions of life on autopilot. But growth happens in moments when you either capitalize on an emergent opportunity or initiate a shift. Consider some insights:
We live in challenging times, to be sure. But our experience is often of our own making. Never in history have we had a greater ability to shape what we do and with whom. Don’t give up this control.
The infinite loop
On the left side, you play offense in addressing collaboration overload by challenging your beliefs, imposing structures that shield you from unnecessary collaborative demands, and adapting behaviors that ensure efficiencies. On the right side, you engage in strategies for drawing on personal connections to become a more effective performer, achieve scale, and increase your well-being.
I hope that by now you can see—and really feel—that this is not just some abstract board game, that the infinite loop is real, and all of these elements are interdependent. Each side of the loop reinforces the other: the strategies on the left side create time, space, and courage to take actions that improve effectiveness and well-being. The strategies on the right side yield greater performance and reputation, which in turn help you engage in higher-value collaborations and further improve your performance.
As you become more proactive, and as you grow into the skill of shaping your work, rather than letting it shape you, you can truly free yourself from the work culture that demands more, more, more of your time and energy. Instead, you can focus on bringing more to your life in a holistic sense: more to your deepest work-related passions, more to your family, more to your friends—and more to yourself.