Brad Stulberg, in The Practice of Groundedness writes that so many top performers share a common dissatisfaction with their lives. “Deep down, they, too, often sense that something is not quite right, that something is missing.” In recent weeks, I’ve spent many minutes standing before the bathroom mirror, wondering whether it was just me that didn’t quite feel right. I barely resisted the temptation to Google “I feel dead inside,” and then I gave in to the temptation, and watched “Yoga for When You Feel Dead Inside” by Adriene, which would be excellent if only I could do Yoga without injuring myself. The tendency I have during these periods of existential malaise is to dive headlong into work and projects, ignoring the small but insistent alarm bell within telling me that I’m missing something essential. Three weeks and an anxiety attack later, I might finally divine that more groundedness and perhaps a break is in order, but for once, I didn’t succumb to the compulsion to engage in idle business and chose instead to get myself to Waikiki beach, sling a hammock to the two closest palm trees I could find, and cuddle up with The Practice of Groundedness by Brad Stulberg as my latest beach read.
If you’ve been feeling not-quite-right or that something is missing, Stulberg has a name for this condition; he calls it heroic individualism. He defines heroic individualism as a contemporary condition where people feel “restless…rushed…angst, exhaustion, burnout, periods of emptiness, a compulsion to keep chasing the next thing, and recurrent longing.” Fortunately, there’s a cure to all this existential malaise. Stulberg calls it “groundedness.” Buddhists have been calling it meditation and mindfulness for thousands of years, but, hey, whatever it takes.
Groundedness is the opposite of productivity, optimization, and a “growth mindset.” Instead, groundedness involves a radical embrace of things as they are, a commitment to slow down. I rocked in my hammock and sunk deeper into my book, smiling smugly to myself as I considered how consistent I’d been with my meditation timer. Stulberg doesn’t give his readers formulas and much of his advice runs counter to the premise that we need to fit more of our finite selves into increasingly limited hours in the day, maximizing ourselves and our time. Instead, Stulberg calls for greater simplicity. He suggests we aim for greater acceptance, presence, patience, and vulnerability, all the while eschewing traditional notions of productivity, while embracing what Stulberg calls “deep community” and movement.
The smug smile faded from my face as I read about “deep community.” As a misanthropic introvert, my seeming lack of deep community reminded me I was a failure at life. I looked around at all the people hanging on the beach with their friends and sighed.
Perhaps one of Stulberg’s most meaningful contributions in The Practice of Groundedness is his observation that popular notions of optimization, productivity, and growth often run counter to the sometimes difficult and inconvenient process of taking time out of our day to connect with those we love. It may be inconvenient to join a new group to forge new connections, but Stulberg argues that it is essential for mental health. Stulberg notes that going to the gym with a buddy might be less convenient or optimal than going to the gym alone, but that the social connections formed by doing so are well worth the inconvenience.
It’s not so much that Stulberg calls for a repudiation of ambition, but rather that he calls for his readers to put ambition in its rightful place. He writes that in his coaching practice he’ll find that his overly ambitious clients will be susceptible to using exercise and movement practices as a means to achieve goals like running a marathon, lifting a certain number of pounds, or completing a triathlon. While there’s nothing wrong with ambition, ambition can get in the way of the simple practice of enjoying the thing for what it is.
As someone who has often followed ambition up mountains and sometimes off the edge of cliffs, I found myself unhappily seeing myself in so many of Stulberg’s anecdotes. In the pursuit of deadlines and writing goals, I sometimes missed out on phone calls with friends, community-building, and mental health, the end result being burn-out, loneliness, and a feeling of restlessness. Writing can all too often feel like connection, but it’s no replacement for authentic conversation. Surfing is my daily exercise, but even there I found myself focusing on goals, wanting to surf a bigger wave, or reach the nose of my longboard, rather than just enjoying the simplicity of paddling and sliding on the water.
It is easy to read about change, more difficult to implement it. Stulberg’s advice is good. For example, he suggests that we all make an appointment with ourselves for focused productivity, where the phone is put away, and interruptions and distractions are eliminated.
I find that I can get more done when I set a timer and write for an hour at a time rather than let myself freely roam toward a deadline.
Stulberg also urges his readers to schedule time to build deep community, either through volunteering, joining a support group, joining a faith-based group, or building a group around an interest of their choosing. For those of us still emerging from the social distancing of COVID-19, or those of us living in areas of the country where COVID-19 case numbers remain high, this might be harder to do.
Distraction from our cell phones is one thing, but I believe we remain distracted precisely because we don’t have deep community and connections in real life. The human brain is wired for connection. Without it, the brain will seek whatever connections it can, whether they be on social media, or through doom scrolling the internet. It’s emotionally safer to distantly like a friend’s photo, and much more difficult to actually pick up the phone and give a friend a call. The big thing I take away from Stulberg’s book is this—we all should be trying to optimize less, and trying to connect more. It’s messy. It’s hard. It makes us vulnerable. But it’s the only thing that will make us feel better, and the only thing that will combat the symptoms of Stulberg’s heroic individualism.
Come to think of it, it’s not heroic individualism that’s the problem, but rather, chronic loneliness.
I didn’t get the chance to do much beach reading. I heard a commotion nearby. A group of people had gathered to protest local vaccination mandates. Honolulu had implemented new rules that required people to either be vaccinated or have a negative test result to go to a restaurant, bar, or gym.
A crowd marched down the street together, beating drums and chanting, an unvaccinated miasma. I marveled at how deep community in modern life seems to spring from extremist political positions, rage, or violence. Perhaps it’s always been easier to get people to gather out of outrage rather than love. Either way, I took the hint, packed my hammock, and went home.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.
She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.