Peak Performance Q&A with Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
I was recently able to read Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness' new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success before it was released. I devoured it pretty fast and shared my thoughts on it here (in a nutshell, it's well worth a read). After I'd read it I caught up with the guys to get more of an insight into the journey they'd been on in putting the book together. The book went on sale today (you can get a copy on Amazon) and so I thought I'd share that with you all now...
Brad, Steve, the book was a really great read. Which specific chapter would you get Young Steve and Brad to read, at what point in your life and why?
Brad: It would be the entire first section of the book, which we titled "The Growth Equation." The overarching premise is that, for pretty much any endeavour, stress + rest = growth. Too much stress, not enough rest results in injury, illness, or burnout. Not enough stress, too much rest results in complacency.
In my early 20s, I didn't respect the "rest" aspect of this equation nearly enough, in both my professional and personal life (though with age I've learned the two are really impossible to separate). As a result, I burnt out from a fairly high-profile consulting gig pretty quickly.
I probably left some of my best ideas unused (really, un-thought of) since I never gave my brain a chance to check out. As I learned in reporting for the book, your best ideas tend not to come during active thinking, but rather, during sleep, mind-wandering, or otherwise "turning off" a racing mind.
Same goes with athletics. I was a decent triathlete, but struggled with injuries. I probably applied too much training stress without enough rest. Live and learn, I guess. The last thing I'll say is, paradoxically, for a lot of people "rest" tends to be harder than "stress." The vast majority of the world-class performers we spoke with while writing this book said they have no problem pushing to the limit but struggle mightily to rest...
Steve: Young Steve also needed to read the section on rest about one hundred times! I had the "stress" part of the equation down, but I would do anything possible to never rest. Days off, or even recovery days, weren't really in my vocabulary at that time. I considered a day off to be a 10 mile run, and a recovery day to be two 8 miles runs in a day.
Learning the importance - and science - behind rest would have had an impact on my running career. Even now, when I'm working with elite athletes, very seldom is it about pushing them further and motivating them. They have plenty of that. It's about pulling in the reins. I always say, my job as a coach is to make sure you don't do something dumb.
Which ideas in the book do you find it most challenging to adhere to? As a reader, the advice around restricting smartphone access seemed great when I read it, but I'm never quite able to stick to it consistently...
Steve: The smartphone and technology restriction is definitely the most difficult. We're inundated by it in today's world. The pull is so strong that research suggests that the devices actually pull us towards interacting with them.
Our brains have a pretty ingenious cheat system to get us to interact with our environment. For example, if we see a chair, we could potentially sit in it, stand on it, push it, or even pick it up and throw it. But if the context surrounding our movement to the chair indicates we need to sit in it, the motor program in our brain to get us to sit starts to activate before we even know we want to sit down. That way we don't have to stand there and think, "hmmm what am I going to do with this chair" every time we interact with one. The same thing happens with our smartphones, only on overdrive, because they have bells and whistles to reinforce our need for them.
All that being said, I struggle mightily with this myself and have to be very intentional about putting it down, turning it off, and not falling into the mind numbing swiping of the screen that often occurs.
Brad: It's funny you both mention the smartphone bit. I'm right there with you! Cultivating a healthy relationship with technology is really challenging for me. Partly because not only do I (and most people) truly need technology to do my job, but I also think technology is pretty great!
It's just realizing the downsides. Mainly, how much your phone can detract from your ability to do deep-focus work and ensuring you're aware of that and take deliberate actions to prevent them. I no longer sleep with my phone in the bedroom and, when I set out to complete a block of intense work (be it with my mind or body) I leave my phone behind. I don't have the willpower to resist checking it, so I just ensure it's physically far away and turned off!
What were the standout things you learned whilst writing the book?
Brad: So much! It's hard to choose just a few. But if I have to, it would be
1) Just how hard it is to figure out the right balance of stress and rest.
2) The power of 'designing' for performance. That is, shaping your routine, physical environment and, to an extent, the culture with which you surround yourself.
3) How thinking less about yourself tends to bring out your best self.
4) Also, sleep. I always knew sleep was important, but really diving deep into the topic blew my mind, to be honest. It's as if everything you do during the day only gets converted into value if you sleep on it, quite literally (again, this is true for both physical and mental).
From a process standpoint, collaborating with someone so smart yet with a different style taught me the power of appreciating (rather than being frustrated by) personal differences in partnerships. Humility, I guess!
Steve: I think more than any one fact it was the amount of "aha moments" I got while researching and interviewing people for the book. As a coach, I'm always connecting ideas back to running or training. I can't tell you how many times I'd be sitting there talking to an artist or musician, or even to meditation experts, and in my mind I'd be like "Wow! That's just like in running or racing or training!"
What's your favourite section of the book?
Brad: Probably "The Growth Equation," for the reasons I mentioned above. Though we've heard from some early readers that both the Priming and Purpose Sections read, at times, like thrillers. Not what we were intentionally going for, but I guess that's a good thing...
Steve: It's so hard to pick a favourite. They change as you go. I remember while writing it Brad was all jazzed about the Purpose section and was kind of down and worried about the Priming bit. He kept saying, "do we need Priming?". I was excited about Priming because some of the science we were finding, in terms of priming your hormones for performance and setting up your environment, was just fascinating. But Brad almost wanted to eliminate it! Then, two months after we finished our final draft Brad was totally excited about the Priming section. And that's how it goes. You fall in and out of love with a section depending on where you're at in 'the process'.
Any sections in particular you found really hard to put together and, if so, why?
Steve: Not really to be honest, no. It helps when you have two people writing the book, because if you aren't feeling a particular section in the moment, you can hand it off!
But I think it's one of those things where you can envision each section and how it fits, but the difficult part is translating that vision from your mind to the page. I really feel like we pulled it off, but it took some massaging of the text to get there...
Brad: The Purpose section includes some really personal and sensitive stories about overcoming death and devastation. I've always believed that you can learn a lot by looking at extremes - which is why those stories are included - but it was real hard to give those stories and the characters in them the respect they deserve, while at the same time, drawing out lessons that can apply to someone struggling at work, or with their physical training.
So, any plans for more books in the near future?!
Brad: I loved collaborated with Steve (and he assures me the feeling is mutual, ha!). We've got all sorts of ideas we'd love to explore over 200-300 pages. Hopefully we have the good fortune to do so!
Steve: Let us get through this one first before we start asking that question! I had a blast writing it with Brad, though...