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Why a Step Back Can Bring Success

Jana is a student of human nature, forever seeking the truth about the complex issues that face relationships, productivity and daily life.


Conditioning Starts Early

Few escape modern conditioning. It's the way we were raised and the things we were taught in school. Competition becomes a part of life from the first day a kid arrives at class. You're made to feel inadequate for not knowing your tables and when you do, the teacher sticks a gold star on your forehead. For many years, we are taught that the top achievers — in the classroom and sports field — handle life correctly. Those who don't rise are vaguely viewed as faulty somehow. Adults face the same pressures in the office, the boardroom and entrepreneurial competition. Top dogs are rewarded with grown-up gold stars; admiration, prestige and promotion.

There's nothing wrong with achievement. However, a constant need to be the best is what drives athletes to performance enhancing drugs and academics to cheat on tests. Achievements are wonderful, but not when they become the criteria by which you value yourself, carve chunks out of one's health or wreck relationships. Many overachievers have been abandoned by their “crowd” when things go wrong. When health or home life suffers from the stressful pace, it is not “their” problem.

Then There are Conditions

Some people rise to the top because they know what it's like to hit the bottom. Apart from social conditioning, they also want to escape certain conditions. Bad circumstances represent a cold, hard place where the black despair stays with anyone who hit that floor. Some are born there, others fall by circumstance. Determination drives the belief that hard work will bring safety. Instead, many burn themselves out. Even when they recognize what's happening, the dread of staying or returning to less than desirable conditions is stronger than the need for rest. Memories of hunger, abuse, poverty — and the despair that comes with it - are powerful demons.

Fear of the Past

Too often, overachievers are running from bad memories; abuse, childhood poverty or another life destroying situation.

Too often, overachievers are running from bad memories; abuse, childhood poverty or another life destroying situation.

Fear of Falling Behind

This fear grabs both individuals groomed by social conditioning and those trying to rise above bad conditions. In our society, nobody is made of gold. More like Styrofoam — when you break, leak or get old, there's a new cup with fresh coffee waiting to take your place. Unfortunately, some people in leadership positions make no bones about this and instill an atmosphere of mistrust and job insecurity among their staff. For some reason, this type of boss believes it will make employees more dedicated and loyal. However, most achievements that the staff produces are often the result of trying not to lose their jobs or favour within the company and often, this frantic performance equals more hours and stress.

The fear of falling behind is not limited to the work place. We all fear our limited time on this Earth and what that means for dreams and hopes. Every passing year seems to go by quicker. There are growing demands on our day and life gets increasingly complicated and expensive. These days people don't calculate having babies because they'd like a bigger family but rather whether they can afford children. We need to work harder in our jobs but also at our relationships, home life and personal dreams. More often than not, a smothering realization hits that you've done nothing significant in a long time..., that dreams die because you get stale, old or cannot get together the money.

You're a Race Horse

For a moment, imagine that you are thoroughbred trained since you were an adorable foal. Let's add shiny hooves and a great butt. One that gets whipped by a jockey the whole time, trainers inject you with boosters and you're only as good as your performance. You run the race tracks of work, dreams, family, vendettas, your past, all of them. You might win a few but too many tracks mean that burn out is inevitable. The time has arrived to choose a few worthy tracks. Though society may believe otherwise, the worthiest aren't always the ones rewarded by the shiniest trophy or adored by the biggest crowd.

The Answer is Simple but Hard

Here it is — maintenance. The hard part is that maintenance requires a step back or at least, slowing down. But what exactly does this mean? Let's saddle that horse again. Imagine it must run for hours a day, every day for years. Sometimes it skips meals or proper sleep because it's just so busy sprinting for first place. Small injuries don't have the time to heal and lead to bigger problems. Soon, that horse is so physically messed up, a walking donkey can beat it.

Now, imagine another horse in the racing business. The creature enjoys adequate rest, proper feeding and injuries are allowed to heal. Which animal will have the longer career? You got it, the second one. The first may produce more and faster – in the beginning. But the second will produce more quality work over a longer period of time.

Power of Mindfulness

The smallest comfort, like hot tea or coffee, can bring relief when done mindfully

The smallest comfort, like hot tea or coffee, can bring relief when done mindfully

Life is not Stress Free

Learning to pause or slow down can be difficult, especially for workaholics or those with a lot of responsibilities. One cannot drop everything, but you can learn to shave extra weight off those burdens. A good first step is to look at all life areas; family, work, dreams and even problems. Brutal honesty about what stresses you out in each field is critical. Are the kids too much to handle? Money problems sucking the joy out of every hour? Maybe you or a loved one are dealing with a serious diagnosis or life change such as divorce or bereavement.

Everybody can relate to stress spiraling out of control. Usually, this is because we're Horse Number One. Burned out, flying too high, caught in the riptide of work and crisis. Even at night, when rest is supposed to be the idea, people still worry themselves into insomnia. We cannot shut down. A crisis here and there, seemingly endless problems pop up and life throws curveballs. The best way to succeed in a hard world is to be Horse Number Two. Our thoroughbred is a busy star but it knows when to take a step back.

How to Step Back

Stepping back doesn't necessary imply abandonment. It means slowing down and engaging in moments that are refreshing. Performance can be greatly enhanced when you make refreshing yourself a priority. However, unlearning the habit of hard, constant work and putting out fires can be hard. Here are some tips.

  • Once again, understand and list your priorities, responsibilities and worries to get a clear overview of the things that command your time
  • Look for a way to take a step back in each. Don't immediately assume there are none, especially in sticky issues
  • That being said, when you have hectic responsibilities and projects, a “step back” is usually something small but powerful. Say you are a caretaker of a sick child or parent, or you have a stressful deadline – focus on small, relaxing treats. Five minutes of quietly drinking your favourite coffee and exhaling can do wonders
  • As mentioned before, learning life maintenance is hard. Therefore, start small. Make goals you can routinely keep
  • Know your limits; say no to too many projects, favours for others or bad habits such as drinking and smoking too much

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

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