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Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Author:Emily Nagoski

     So Emily presented a couple of decades’ worth of peer-reviewed science to Amelia, who had no problem with the first two steps: first, acknowledge when things are difficult; then, acknowledge that the difficulty is worth it. Pessimists assume everything is hard and will require work, so that’s easy. The hard part is acknowledging that those difficulties are actually opportunities.

But positive reappraisal works because it’s genuinely true that difficulties are opportunities! When something feels uncomfortable, you’re probably doing something that creates more and better progress than if it were easy. Just a handful of examples: Students whose assigned reading is typed in an ugly, difficult-to-read font remember more of what they read in the short term and score higher on exams in the longer term than those whose materials are more legible.5 A noticeable, annoying buzz of background noise can increase a person’s creativity.6 Groups that are more heterogeneous generate more innovation and better solutions to problems, even though those groups feel less confident about their solution and find the process more difficult.7 And, most straightforwardly, people who challenge their bodies with regular exercise develop stronger bones, muscles, and cardiovascular systems—strength is the body’s response to doing something effortful.

In fact, there is a distinct downside to effort that is too effortless: When a task feels easy, we feel more confident about our ability to perform that task even though we are actually more likely to fail. Novices who are thoroughly incompetent rate themselves as very confident in their ability to do a thing they’ve just learned to do. By contrast, genuine experts know how difficult their work is, so they are realistic about their competence and thus rate their confidence in their own abilities as moderate, even as their performance is, of course, expert-level.

The reduced stress of positive reappraisal is not an illusion. Struggle can increase creativity and learning, strengthen your capacity to cope with greater difficulties in the future, and empower you to continue working toward goals that matter to you. Reappraisal even changes our brain functioning: The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activates, which damps the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which damps the amygdala, which reduces the stress response.8 Not every kind of stressor is explicitly beneficial, of course. Knowing you’re being compared with other people, for example, is quite likely to reduce creativity.9 But often, the uncomfortable or frustrating process is more successful. As the researchers put it, you can “convert affective pains into cognitive gains.”10

Change the Expectancy: Redefine Winning

Planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal are evidence-based ways to change the effort you invest as you move toward a goal. They’ll reduce your frustration by keeping you motivated and moving forward. But suppose you do all that, and it works…except…it’s much more difficult or much…slower…than…



Even as you’re succeeding, you grow frustrated because your progress is not meeting your Monitor’s expectation about how effortful the task should be. In this case, you need to change your Monitor’s expectancies about how difficult it will be or how long it will take.

Expectancies are the plan. “Twenty minutes to the mall” is an expectancy. “Four years to finish my degree” is another. So is “married with a kid by the time I’m thirty.” When you’re frustrated by the slow or interrupted progress toward your goal, and planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal don’t help with the frustration, you need to redefine winning. Here’s how:

     Say your goal is to climb Mount Everest. If you start marching up the mountain expecting that you’re going to zip smoothly to the peak, as soon as it gets difficult your Monitor will start to freak out. You might give up. You might start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you—after all, somebody told you it was supposed to be easy, and it turns out it’s hard, so it’s not the mountain that’s the problem, it’s you!

But if you begin the climb knowing ahead of time that it’s going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done, then when it begins to get difficult, your Monitor will recognize that without getting frustrated. It’s just a difficult goal, so it’s normal that you’re struggling.

If you’re trying to do something where you will inevitably fail and be rejected repeatedly before you achieve your goal—like, if you’re recording music or you’re an actor or you sell insurance or you’re trying to raise a teenager to be a reasonable adult—then you will need a nonstandard relationship with winning, focusing on incremental goals.

Amelia tested this strategy one summer, at a choral recording session.

If you were to imagine a recording session, you might visualize a group of musicians jamming together for hours, or maybe a singer in gigantic headphones, singing her heart out into a microphone, and the musicians leave hours later, filled with the joy of artistic expression.

Maybe that’s what it’s like sometimes. But most of the time, a musical recording session is more like being stuck in heavy traffic on your way home from work. It’s stop-and-go, when all you want to do is get home.

In a recording session, the goal is perfection, and humans are not perfect, so it’s six measures (maybe fifteen seconds of music) over and over, with a guy behind a window saying, “Great singing, choir; let’s do one more,” in between.

After twenty minutes of singing the same six measures of music over and over…you start to get bored. After forty minutes, the music no longer has feeling. And then the guy behind the window says, “Lovely singing, choir. It sounds a little dry. Can we make the color more specific this take?” And you want to rip your hair out, because no, we can’t make the color more specific, because all the neurotransmitters associated with emotional (and therefore timbral) specificity were burned up fifteen minutes ago when measure two was out of tune. So, no.

     But you have to. It’s a recording session, and the goal is perfection—every take, every snippet, every moment. Six to eight hours of artistic and vocal perfection is the goal.

“So we have two choices,” Amelia said to a choir of forty professional singers. “We can stuff the frustration down deep where it will cause us to explode at someone else at a later date or otherwise adversely affect our art and our health…or we can redefine winning.

“The goal, with each take,” Amelia proposed, “is to fill Andrew with joy.”

Andrew was their guy behind the window, the recording engineer—and not just any recording engineer. Andrew was the Grammy-winning recording engineer who had worked with some of the most prestigious performers of the twenty-first century. It didn’t hurt that he was also a cutie patootie—blond, British, bashful. Everyone in the choir was pretty giddy to be working with him.

Forty singers smiled at the possibility of filling Andrew with joy, and the energy in the room shifted.

“It’s better already, isn’t it?” Amelia observed.

It was.

On the third day of trying to fill Andrew with joy, when it was getting pretty tough to stay focused but they still had another track to lay down, a soprano asked Andrew, “Andrew, are you filled with joy?”

Andrew paused in moving a microphone cable, considered for a moment, and nodded. He said, “Yeah. I really am.”