Welcome to my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you'll find my take on the week's news stories, my favorite pieces on how we can thrive even in our stressful world, and some fun and inspiring extras.
Today's read is ~5 minutes.
Transformative change rarely happens without a catalyst and a crisis. A crucible. A time of profound trial at the end of which something new and much better emerges. The term comes from the vessel used by medieval alchemists that withstood extreme heat to turn base metals into gold.
In modern times, "crucible" has taken on a metaphorical meaning: an event, moment or experience that transforms us. The alchemy that takes place is a journey toward a psychological and spiritual — as opposed to physical — transformation.
We find ourselves in a crucible now. The severe trials of the pandemic have revealed fundamental weaknesses in our society — many of which we knew about but were content to ignore. In a world where real change is hard to come by, the pandemic has, in effect, forced our hand: we have an opportunity to change because we have to, to emerge into a world that is not merely new, but better, fairer and more compassionate than the one we leave behind.
Because there is no going back. The pandemic has made it all too clear that we cannot continue to live and work the way we have — breathlessly and always on. The casualties of this way of living have been proliferating for years: the skyrocketing increase in chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension; the increase in mental health problems like depression and anxiety, the increase in stress and burnout, which the World Health Organization identified as a workplace crisis last spring.
And now a time of profound loss — lost lives of loved ones, spouses or co-workers being laid off and the ongoing uncertainty about the future — has exacerbated the mental health crisis we are already facing. Two thirds of Americans say they've felt anxious, depressed, lonely or helpless in the last week, and more than half say coronavirus-related stress is negatively affecting their sleep, the foods they eat, their alcohol use or their chronic conditions. And even losses that may seem trivial on the surface compared to matters of life and death — weddings, graduations, travel and vacations — mean, as Kim Hart writes in Axios, "huge parts of our lives will stay shuttered well through August and possibly beyond."
But this crucible is also a time to reimagine a world better than the one we're leaving behind. As Kim Stanley Robinson writes in The New Yorker, "the virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable." And what can help us imagine and build the future is looking to the past and drawing on its wisdom — from the Stoics to the Bhagavad Gita to Lao Tzu and the Zen traditions of Japan, we are powerfully reminded of what modern culture has forgotten: we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength. And since life is shaped from the inside out, if we lose our connection with it, in small ways and large, our life unravels.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of Stoicism's most famous practitioners, lived through a plague during the last 14 years of his life. But as he wrote in his book Meditations, we can always return to that "inner citadel" of peace and imperturbability — from which he could much more effectively fight all the challenges he had to face, including the plague, invasions and betrayals.
The Bhagavad Gita is another source of wisdom in this crucible time. The 5th-century-B.C. section of the Hindu epic Mahabharata chronicles three different kinds of life: a life of inertia and dullness with no goals and achievement; a frenetic life full of busyness and desire; and a life of goodness, which is not just about ourselves but about others. It's that second life that much of our modern lives seems to be based on, but the pandemic has shown us the emptiness of this approach to living. To thrive, we need to combine it with the third kind of life. Similarly, in China, the Taoist tradition of yin-yang sums up exactly what we've lost in modern life: yang is going out into the world, achieving, conquering; yin is coming back to ourselves to refuel. As Lao Tzu put it, "thirty spokes share the wheel's hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful." (Here is the series on Chinese wisdom we recorded for Thrive.)
We've lost touch with the center. We've crowded our lives so much that we've lost what the Japanese call Ma — loosely translated as the essential space, or interval, or gap between things, and the importance of creating and fully experiencing such spaces full of possibilities.
These traditions can help us make the changes we have been talking about needing to make for a while now. Long before the pandemic, there was no shortage of science-backed advice on the need to change the way we work and live so that we can live healthier lives with more happiness and meaning. Now, the crisis has made brutally clear the consequences of ignoring this and has underlined the urgency of building a future where our physical health and mental resilience are at the forefront.
We are still in the crucible. Building the habits we need to carry us into a better world is not easy. But this is a historic opportunity for alchemy, and one we can't afford to miss.
Read More on Thrive: We Are Never Going Back
Even under normal circumstances, healthcare providers suffer from burnout at an alarming rate. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 78% of physicians surveyed said they had experienced some symptoms of burnout. Now, these healthcare providers are being asked to shoulder once-in-a-lifetime burdens. And the tragic suicide of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, a top emergency room doctor at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, underscores the public health crisis brutally unfolding before us. To begin to address this crisis, hospitals and healthcare organizations must recognize burnout as a priority. And just as important, we must remove any stigma around seeking treatment for mental health. We owe it to these heroes to show up for them the way they've shown up for us, through this crisis and beyond.
Mental Health Month. And science has taught us that positive affirmations are a great way to silence the voice of self-doubt and judgments — what I call the obnoxious roommate living in our head — at any age! Here is one of my favorite uses of affirmations practiced by Ayaan on his way to school before the pandemic closed our schools.
What's Your Stress Sign?
As Dr. Leanne Williams, Dr. Laura M. Hack and C. Lauren Whicker of Stanford Medicine write on Thrive, "the research on mental health during COVID-19 has mostly focused on frontline healthcare workers, with good reason, but all of us are experiencing some level of increased stress right now." This Mental Health Month is the perfect time to learn more about the biotypes Dr. Williams has identified — different types of brain "short circuits" that can occur when we're under extreme stress. "Just as there are a diversity of sources of stress, so too are there a diversity of ways that we process and react to stress," they write. When we understand our individual signs of stress, we can take Microsteps to build the mental resilience we need. That's always important, but it's essential in trying times like these. Learn more about the biotypes and identify which one is yours here.
Do We Really Need This Meeting?
We've all been there: seeing a meeting mysteriously pop up on our calendar with no explanation, agenda or stated goal. Sitting through a meeting we really don't need to be a part of. Or reaching the end of a meeting-filled day and realizing we haven't really done anything.
Last week, perhaps suffering from an acute case of too-many-meetings malaise, I took a few minutes at Thrive's weekly all-hands to share some best practices designed to help us course-correct away from some of our bad habits and create some more productive new ones. The goal? To cancel as many meetings as possible! And to fully empower everyone at Thrive to decline any meeting they deem not worth their time. (To make things interesting, the Thriver who cancels the most meetings will be receiving a basket of delicious treats of their choice.) Here are a few of the tips and questions I shared, so we can be respectful of each other's time and make the best use of our own:
- Every meeting invite must include a clear agenda and desired outcome.
- If relevant, send a pre-read. Never spend any meeting time with someone walking you through a deck and reading you the contents of each slide. Assume your colleagues can read.
- Don't default to 30-minute meetings. Can a meeting be reduced to 15 minutes?
- Can you make your meeting a walking meeting? Even when working from home, take the opportunity to walk, move and stretch during a call. Not everything has to be a Zoom call!
- Create a Google Doc for each meeting so the owner can assign action items to everyone who attends.
- Block off time on your calendar for deep work. Don't assume it will just get done when everything else is done. Meetings expand to fill all of the time available on your calendar — it's the law of meetings.