Friday 29th January. I’d just finished watching Queen on Netflix. It was a story of a woman from India who after being rejected on her wedding day by her soon to be husband, decided to go solo backpacking around parts of Europe.
It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, the clichés were at every corner, and it wasn’t anything I could really relate to. Yet, her story sparked something. It was about 10 pm and I was wired in bed. I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m exhausted: physically, mentally and emotionally. I don’t think I’ve had a complete break longer than 3 days in close to eight years.”
The signs had been building since November. Rashes on my arms, a pussing skin infection on my scalp, and even partial hearing loss for three weeks. It was a crescendo of new and old symptoms bubbling all the way up till Christmas, where I thought it to be wise to write 30,000 words of a book, instead of taking some downtime. This ‘win’ temporarily made me feel like I’d cracked it (being in hours of flow a day can make you think life is going very well), but as soon as a few weeks of January passed by, my symptoms had yet to dissipate, and only getting worse.
My Achilles heel, burnout, rearing it’s ugly head, yet again. And this time, at a level I’d not experienced before. I didn’t collapse. Instead, I fell into a state of apathy, whereby I stopped caring about the simple things, such as grooming, cleaning and general tidiness. I read it at the time as being laissez-faire; hindsight tells me it was anything but that.
The next day, Saturday 30th January, the universe must have been conspiring. Two friends, in separate circles, text me asking if I was okay. In my own bubble, I curiously asked why. Then it all came out in their answers of similar themes: losing my spark, lack of grooming, no care for certain things, continuously questioning what I was doing, and so on. All the signs of someone burnt to toast.
My fiancé and I had been speaking about it for a few months. She’d seen it with her own eyes: working daily from the moment of waking, the constant and unpredictable battles of a growing business, and in all of this, trying to somehow balance all the other hats in life. All very normal as part of being an entrepreneur, but what wasn’t normal was my body’s way of dealing with it, or rather, my lack of listening to it.
I knew I needed to do something radical. It’d been on my mind all Friday night and Saturday morning. So when my two friends also decided to bring it up on the same day calling for an intervention, it was time.
By the end of Saturday, I’d decided to take nine full days off the following week: Saturday 6th to Sunday 14th February. No work, no social media, nothing. To add fuel to the fire, my fiancé was planning to visit her family for four days, so it was four days alone in lockddown with nothing to do and no one to see. I even decided to turn my phone off for six days. In a previous life, my worst nightmare. As it transpired, the best thing that could have happened to me.
Alone But Not Lonely
Alone with my thoughts with no work to do, no one to speak to, no phone or social media, and no distractions, I was bricking it. On reflection when writing this, I don’t think I’d ever had a time in my life where I just hit pause on everything. I grew up when being online was becoming more of a thing. As I started university, Facebook was becoming more popular and Instagram was in the early days. I don’t think I’d been totally disconnected alone from the world before (my three day digital detox in Cambodia was the closest thing to it, but it wasn’t alone).
I recently (re)read something by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. I’d heard it tons before, and just dismissed it as, “I’m always alone working, so I’m cool”. What I’d never done is actually just be alone and do nothing. The crazy thing is, a recent study
showed that people absolutely hate being made to spend six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think – they’d even rather get an electric shock!
And I now know why. It’s scary as hell. Most religions talk about the consequence of being good is entry to heaven, and the consequence of being bad is going to hell (in a very high level, simply way of putting it). The problem with this is it’s easy to take it on surface level value. The real meaning is in the depth, when you peel back the layers. I now get it, because ultimately, heaven and hell exists in our head. Most of us spend too much time living in hell, in all that we create for ourselves: whether it be pressure, stress, fear, doubt, hate, anger, and so on. With the increasing options of connectedness, working, hustling and doing, I became connected and immersed into everything except myself. And I’m not talking about it in a “I know what I like” type way, but in a way of “I know who I am, I am comfortable in who I am, and I love who I am”.
So the week began, and as expected, I was staring down the barrel of a ton of compressed issues for years. Issues I’d been ignoring and sweeping under the carpet with the mantra of “just keep pushing forward”. With nothing to do, I faced all the thorns. I observed, accepted, and reframed everything, and turned the muck into gratitude and compassion. The perceived thorns became blossoming roses.
I hadn’t realised just how uncomfortable I was with solitude, and how much I was avoiding it. Interestingly, I can’t believe just how much I love it now, and how creating intentional white space in my day is a non-negotiable. Time in my day where I just sit and do nothing, and let my mind wonder, instead of being on a relentless hustle of doing, which can be a very addictive distraction. Even a few minutes can be life-changing.
Work, Addiction, and Hustling
This brings me onto the interesting topic of work, addiction and hustling. Since starting the business now four years ago, I’d not changed my style and approach of working along with the growth of the company. I’ve maintained a day 1 mentality everyday, along with the drive of “I hope we can make it to the next month”. Not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps you on the hunt, but it’s punishing. Especially when it starts to actually become a business risk.
I asked a friend earlier this year, what’s my biggest bottleneck to business growth? The reply was simply: “your self-care”. That took me a while to understand, because it wasn’t about my physical self-care. Rather, it was how I approached my days and weeks. Being on the hustle bullet train is an absolute necessity to get a start up going. You need serious resilience, willpower and brute force just to get through the first few years, and all the problems that arise. Especially when you transition from the fun and beloved “band of brothers” to a grown up, professional environment. That’s normal and part of the game, and it’s the unsexy bits no one ever tells you.
But I’ve now learnt you can only apply brute force for so long, and it’ll only get you so far. Another friend of mine always says to me: “success and failure are both very predictable”, and that as you move away from the start up years and into the next phase, business is about being strategic and trying to pull together a rubix cube. That means more time thinking, and a shift from more tangible to an intangible style of working, where white space is the most valued part of the calendar. And working smart becomes the focus.
The best analogy I’ve come across on this has been from Naval Ravikant, who talks about the need to work like a lion. Sprint to catch your prey, then rest, recharge and wander, and let your best ideas, work and thinking come in the time away from formalised working.
On reflection, all the issues I faced with burnout in the latter part of 2020 came from simply being afraid to not do anything and just be. Distracting myself with work to run away from solitude, and not changing my strategy of working just led to being on a hustling hamster wheel that was going nowhere, and with a really bad crash on the horizon. I wasn’t addicted to work, I just didn’t know any other way. My masked addiction meant I was starting to resent my work, even though I knew I was living out my purpose and mission. It was the ultimate paradox, and one which I’m so glad I broke the shackle of.
Family, What Now?
This brings me to a thought I’d been fearing for years. “How could I bring a child into this world and give him/her the attention they deserved?” Whilst I’ve spoken about family before, deep down I thought to myself it just wasn’t possible. Coming out the other side, it’s now finally a confident reality. I don’t believe balance is a real concept. I think work and life just mixes together, and we can only really ever have three priorities that matter. For me it’s been my work, my close relationships and my health. In the different seasons of life, one will dominate, and so long as I ensure the gaps aren’t too great, the others will flourish too. Interestingly, in the three I have, I tend to put my work as number one, but I know improvements in close relationships and health are what allows the big step changes to happen in my work. If quarter one of 2021 has taught me anything, it’s exactly that.
So where to now? Since this big intervention, I’ve stopped Toggl – an app I used for two years to track my working time. Initially, I used it to track what I can dump/delegate/automate from my day, but it was starting to outlive its purpose, and become a slavedriver. I was measuring my week by how many hours I put in, and if I toggled lower than normal, I’d beat myself up over it. Dropping this has allowed the shift to more strategic, intangible workdays.
Another quote I heard recently which sums this period up for me is: “It’s hard letting go, it’s even harder holding on”. I was holding on for dear life for about six months. Waking up everyday asking myself and writing in my journal, “when will this exhaustion end?”. I was holding onto this idea that I needed to wake up at the crack of dawn to be productive, even if my eyes were drying up and carrying huge bags with it. I was holding onto a survival mentality in my work, instead of shifting gears to thinking bigger, being more creative, and thriving with my purpose. But now, as I write this in the middle of April, I feel like a new person. I’ve shed the skin of my old way of being and thinking, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the results. I’m more productive, despite working less ‘hours’; more decisive, despite having to make difficult choices lately; and the spark that was dying a slow death is now shining to a level I’ve not had before.
My closest people around me have noticed, and my amazing team have all mentioned a change, and I’m confident this is only the beginning. Each week that goes by, it feels better. And it all comes back to a few behavioural shifts that have compounded into all aspects of my life.
Big things are coming with RNT, as we are now building out and upgrading the entire experience, which will be launching later this summer. I’m so glad the intervention came when it did, because otherwise, there’s no way I’d be able to give to this project what it deserves. The mission continues, the movement grows, and the physical continues to always be the vehicle!
The Transformation Journey Link
Circling back to the transformation journey, what I’ve described is the ever-increasing levels of introspection that comes with it, the deeper you go. The first time we experience this is in the Grind, where limited calories, higher expenditures and lower energy levels create a distraction free environment of many external crutches. This is often the first time in life such an experience has been created, which is why it’s so powerful in forcing new introspection, insights and ideas.
However, every level has a new devil, and the deeper you go on this journey, the more layers you need to peel back to facilitate more change, greater transformation, and ultimately, being at the core of who you are.
I described this in my five pillars article
, whereby once you master the physical, you move up the levels to explore greater control of mental, emotional, social and spiritual health. As you do so, you see more and more how each interlink, and how when one is off balance, the first symptoms to show this misalignment is almost always physically: whether that be through uncontrolled weight gain, skin or bodily manifestations, or changes in behaviour.
For me, it’s always in skin or bodily manifestations. My physical bodyweight and strength remained the same through this period of escalating exhaustion, as I maintained control of my nutrition and activity levels. Where the struggle lied was higher up the levels, why is why such a drastic intervention was required.
It’s an interesting time of my life. The renewed sense of appreciation for the little things and joys has catapulted my well-being, mental health and purpose to new heights. I’m back to waking up everyday excited to start, but instead of going from the bed to the laptop in 15 minutes, I’m reading books, being active and enjoying conversations with my fiancé first, then cracking on when it feels right. Strangely, there’s no more guilt around not working in those moments, because I know the most important work begins with myself, before anything else. And, what ends up happening is all the deeper work happens subconsciously in these moments, so when I open the laptop, working is merely a formality.
Two bits to finish on. I’ve been getting asked what some good book recommendations are. Of the ones I’ve read this year, here’s my top five from the year so far, in no particular order, and a mix of fiction and non-fiction:
Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak. I loved this book, couldn’t put it down. Really clever writing, with a book within a book, along with plenty of lessons and learnings to soak in and absorb. I particularly enjoyed her push to explore the depths of old scriptures, rather than reading them at face value. And I read this at the exact right time too, deep in the depths of self exploration.
Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens. Another page turner that explores themes of loneliness, rejection, hope and survival, all with a captivating story and a great twist at the end. And I hear it’s being made into a film!
Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris. A real page turner that grips you right from the start. The story behind the creation of the book is remarkable. The lead character, Lale, had a story to tell and waited a long time and the right person to tell it. Heather does it fantastically, and in a gripping fiction read.
Skin In The Game – Nassim Taleb. This is one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time, and it’s not actually a business book. Filled with models of thinking, framing, and understanding behind how so much of society works, it’s probably a book I need to re-read a few times to truly understand. The key point: beware of anyone with no skin in the game. I thought of the fitness industry a lot when reading this.
The Almanack of Naval Ravikant – Eric Jorgenson. I was gifted this book a few weeks back and read it twice on a weekend. It’s a fantastic resource and collection of Naval’s thinking on navigating business, health, and happiness.
My finishing note for this first installment of Quarterly Insights, 2021, is a clip that I watch often – the infamous Apple’s Think Different campaign. If we consider the size of the task we have to create a change in the world’s thinking and behaviour around health and fitness, this is the spirit we must all embody. The world will only transform if we let the domino effect take a life of its own, and spread through the masses: