Video by Ron Lach via Pexels

How Are You Meant To Thrive Under Pressure?

PUBLISHED November 10, 2021

Dear Nomi, how are you meant to thrive under pressure?

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Pin that in your mind for a second, we’re going to come back to it.

Hello How-To-Thrive, your question is captivating in its simplicity. Generally, a question is coupled with a bit of context, some background on the person, who she is, what is bringing her at this juncture to reach out and seek advice. It’s generally through that context that I’m able to pull at small threads and reveal some type of truth.

This being an advice column, and not a conversation, I’ve but only the one introduction to the individual in question, and that is through her initial letter. And once I’ve sent out the response, unless that person feels so inclined to message me directly, I’ve no real sense of how it was received.

The fortunate thing for advice columns, and the reason they are perhaps such an entertaining read, is that there are simple universal truths in nearly everything we experience. Maybe you don’t have a cheating husband, but you’ve likely at one point experienced betrayal. And perhaps you’re not questioning your sexuality, but you can recall your own nascent sexual encounters and the fear, thrill, and potential shame of those early learnings.

Advice columns invite us to listen in on other people’s inner monologue. We can find reprieve, solace, or comradery in the simple seeking of our fellow (wo)man.

But here comes How-To-Thrive with but an eight word question: How are you meant to thrive under pressure? So little to go off, and yet so many rich layers to unpeel. And so I’ll roll up my sleeves and sharpen my scalpel as I try to excavate the essence of this question.

To go anywhere meaningful we’re going to have to come to understanding of from where we are starting, and to that end I’d have to ask you: what do you mean by thrive?

Because to thrive is to go beyond succeeding. To thrive is to leave happiness, joy, peace, and contentment in the dust. To thrive is almost esoteric–you are above and beyond that which may hinder, hamper, or harm your own sense of purpose. When you say you want to thrive you are reaching for something deep and unwavering; a way of being that channels the best of you into the world.

You, reader, are not here for mere meager material gains and hollow trinkets of success, you want 1. a sense of purpose 2. a clear path 3. the feeling of fulfillment and 4. a certain degree of security. To thrive is an active state of being. Thriving by definition has interia. It’s not something you obtain or acquire, it’s a way to move about the world, a state of mind.

Which leads me to my first point of actionable advice: Cut out the noise.

If you are meant to thrive that means you’ve got to get up close and personal with the stuff that really gets you going. You’ve got to go spelunking in your own inner world, take a dim flashlight to all the damp, dark corners of your hidden thoughts, your buried hopes and dreams. You’ve got to shed light and grant significance to what it is you may really want in life. And it’s so damn difficult to do that when we’ve got the voices of the over 3.6 billion people on social media echoing inside our eyeballs, our parents values and expectations twisting up our intestines, and our own (likely misplaced) sense of past failures and successes haunting us from the past in the form of depressive thoughts and from the future in the form of anxiety.

So cut out the noise. As George Bernard Shaw said, “A fool-proof method for sculpting an elephant: first, get a huge block of marble; then you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” Your process of mental declutter is to chip away everything that’s not the elephant.

How, you may ask? I’d explore Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Regardless of whether you consider yourself an artist or not (which, by your vaguely deep question and the gall by which you asserted into my inbox I’d have to challenge that you are on some level) her book is a timeless resource in self-excavation. There are a multitude of exercises, writing prompts, and reflections that guide you through the process of creative recovery, the most important of which are the Morning Pages:

Every morning, set your clock one half-hour early; get up and write three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness morning writing. Do not reread these pages or allow anyone else to read them. Ideally, stick these pages in a large manila envelope, or hide them somewhere. Welcome to the morning pages, they will change you.”

The purpose of the morning pages, among other things, is to cut away the clutter; to allow your own deep wisdom, your own stifled desire, to gradually eek out over the pages and into your conscious mind.

Great, we’re on the right track. Through personal reflection we’re learning to listen to and trust our gut. But let’s say you’re still missing that spark that will really set you off to Thrivetown. Meet ikigai.

Ikigai, according to Jeffrey Gains, Ph.D, “…is a Japanese concept that combines the terms iki, meaning ‘alive’ or ‘life,’ and gai, meaning ‘benefit’ or ‘worth.’ When combined, these terms mean that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose.”

There are countless versions of similar venn diagrams that essentially drive home the same point–that between what we care about and what we’re good at is a sweet spot that we can massage to the point of life purpose.

I find the ikigai a useful thought exercise, and encourage you to spend time sketching out the various bubbles, but also want to be mindful of navigating around value traps. We are told rather incessantly that life is about finding a purpose, which capitalism conflates with an occupation. In fact, even in regards to the understanding of ikigai itself Gains writes, “Not all the above dimensions are necessarily components of ikigai as traditionally understood by its Japanese adherents (Ikigai Tribe, 2019). Some adherents will say that one’s ikigai does not have to involve something the world needs, or that you can get paid for, or that is a talent. These adherents hold that ikigai is not a ‘lofty and formidable goal to achieve’ (Ikigai Tribe, 2019). Instead, they believe that the traditional Japanese concept of ikigai is closer to: ‘…embracing the joy of little things, being in the here and now, reflecting on past happy memories, and having a frame of mind that one can build a happy and active life.’ (Ikigai Tribe, 2019)”

To this end, thriving is centered more in the mind than in the activities of everyday life. Psychologists are driven towards this definition of thriving–as a way of relating to your own life that often involves a fair bit of resilience.

Which leads to me to the second half of your initial question, which tasked us with not only how to thrive, but how to thrive under pressure.

Here’s where I rant about struggle being relative, and where I don’t start to spin out about how damaging the pandemic was for everyone and question all the ways your life was potentially affected by the events of the past year. I’m not going to bemoan these times we’re in or offer any real sympathy for the degree of burnout, exhaustion, and social anxiety you likely feel.

Throughout history we, as a species, have tended towards a feeling of impending doom with every societal shift. It’s a pattern of human evolution to fear the change that grows in the generations under you, to be fearful and overwhelmed as the world morphs into what we’ll never be able to fully grasp without the perspective granted by centuries of distance. And while we are facing a much needed reckoning in our relationship to the forces that shape our lives, there will inevitably be adversity ahead.

Under pressure is when we thrive. The actual Oxford definition of thriving is to grow or develop with vigor; there is inherent tension there. You are necessarily becoming something that you previously weren’t. Tension and resistance is how muscle is built; it’s how we get smarter, stronger, and more adapt to our world. If there was no pressure brought on by our environment, no challenge ever posed and presented to humanity, we’d be static beings that ne’er ventured far from the cave. Situations of stress are what generate the energetic force that propel us forward.

I’m not fetishizing struggle or glorifying the grind–I’m aiming to adjust your perspective to perhaps beset a victimized point of view and gain a sense of control over the only thing you can really control, which is how you relate to your own life.

There is a quality of resilience that one must cultivate to truly thrive. Because life will shit on you, and the news will be depressing, and intellectuals will scoff at your dreams, and you’ll feel perpetually misunderstood–but you’ll need to find a way to keep going; to imbue your life with a sense of irrevocable dignity; to find a way to continue to give a shit about the fact that you’re here, alive, on earth, drawing breath, taking up space, consuming energy, radiating energy, affecting the lives of the hundreds of people you’ll come into contact with in small and great ways over the course of your lifetime.

You’ve got to feel that life matters, that YOUR life matters. And that other people matter just as much, if not more. Because then, suddenly, what you put into your body is significant, and the way you prepare your coffee, or the sheets you buy, or whether or not you pick up the book that’s been gathering dust on your end table. How you respond to the checkout clerk shifts; how deep you let a rude word settle into your skin. Your life is not an inconsequential collection of minutes that clot into clumpy decades of aging, shedding, greying, flesh; it is your glory, your small and infinite ways to cultivate joy, or rinse your soul in the full embrace of life’s pains. You turn towards feeling, towards discomfort, confusion, exploration, uncertainty; you become vulnerable to other people; you open to them. You start to live, you start to thrive.

To thrive under pressure requires the audacity to know that you matter. Not “believe” that you matter, but know it. Know it in the same way that you know the color of your eyes and the name of your first kiss; as an irrefutable fact folded into your existence. You’ve got to shake yourself out of autopilot, look around and say, this is water.

Which brings us back to the fish.

David Foster Wallace gave what is now a famous commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. He tees things up with the story of fish as an extended metaphor for lifting ourselves out of the mechanical self-centeredness that motivates much of our everyday lives. I’m sharing an extended quote here, but encourage you to read the full piece for context:

If at this moment you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things–if they are where you tap real meaning in life–then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…Worship power–you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart–you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”–the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness–awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

So, How-To-Thrive, how’s the water?

Content text