In this series of posts, professionals reveal their best antidotes to work stress. Read the posts here, and then write your own (use #OutsideWork in the piece).
“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings.” Indeed. Wandering is the best antidote I know to overwork.
I don’t mean wandering through an enchanted forest. And I don’t mean spending hours “wandering” around the internet, watching Facebook videos of funny cats (though I also watch those videos, and laugh out loud). This wandering is a purposeful act, one that provides crucial balance for me to the endless call to busyness.
In our 24/7 world, the fine art of wandering is highly under-rated. This is important to understand, because most people won’t appreciate what you’re doing when you wander. They think you’re “wasting time,” and might lecture you about your bad habit of procrastination. In truth, I do procrastinate. But that’s different. Much of what looks like avoiding work is actually re-charging my batteries, resting my mind, and boosting my creativity.
Wandering to reflect about life is an art because it looks close to other activities, too, not just running from deadlines. On plenty of evenings I kick off my shoes and settle into the couch to binge-watch “House of Cards.” That’s relaxing. But finding a mental escape from the world isn’t the same thing as reflecting on it.
The kind of wandering I’m talking about happens in the privacy of my heart and mind. I turn my focus away from what I’m “getting done,” but instead of turning my mind off, I let it open. I’m still alert, so it feels different from chilling out and watching TV. It’s the opposite from what I’d call work, because “work” takes effort. Roaming around inside of yourself is refreshing and calming in part because it’s effortless.
Effort is why so many of us come home exhausted at the end of the day, even though we love our work. Striving to achieve, accomplish goals, or contribute to society. Effort. Gaining market share, innovating products, ensuring that clients know they come first. Effort. Complying with regulations, engaging employees, launching a new strategy, aligning stakeholders. The list goes on. Effort and more effort. At some point, we need to stop.
For me, the effort-ing doesn’t stop when I leave my office. It’s the experience of “pushing” that I need to balance. I don’t wait for vacation to “un-plug” my active mind. I let my mind wander, reflect, without effort, as often as I can.
A Parable on Striving
Like everyone, I need help to maintain balance between productivity and reflection, between achieving and accepting, between focused concentration and mental wandering. One way I get help is by reading stories, parables, and myths that remind me why this balance matters. Here’s an old one that I love. It’s a tale about a stonecutter.
All day long he labors in the heat, cutting stone with the hot sun beating down on him. Each day he yearns to be more powerful than a humble stonecutter. And what is more powerful than the sun? So one day he calls out and prays to become the sun, the most powerful being on earth. His wish is granted.
With his warm rays he beams down on flowers and makes them grow; shines on children playing, and drains away puddles from the ground. All of a sudden, a large cloud moves in front of him, and he is completely blocked. Shocked by his realization that the cloud is more powerful than the sun, he begs to be made a cloud. His wish is granted.
And he moves around the sky, raining on the grass, making fog over the cities. He is delighted with his newfound power, until one day the wind comes along and blows him out of the way. Distressed by losing his powerful role, he prays to become the wind. His wish is granted, and he blows around the sky, casting a breeze past lovers on the beach, turning umbrellas inside out.
He is content.
Until one day he hits up against a mountain. He can move around the mountain, or over it, but he can’t move through the mountain. “Aha,” he thinks to himself, “the mountain is the most powerful of all.” So he prays and begs to become a mountain. His wish is granted. And he rules over all the land.
Until one day, when he feels the chipping away of the stonecutter.
For me, the story is about the endless quest to accomplish more, to feel bigger and smarter and faster. It captures the drive to reach higher and higher, until you’re so caught in the striving you’re going in circles. You find yourself at the top of every mountain, only wishing to be the stonecutter — again. When this hunger gets out of balance, that’s when you’re truly at risk of getting lost.
I balance that out with undirected musing about life. Like meandering through the winding streets of an old city, it’s not about how many landmarks you visit. Roaming around, turning left or turning right, not caring where you are. Effortless. Just for a while, that is the place where you’re going.