In Part 1 of my letter to my younger burned out self, I described how an understanding of how our minds work points us away from effort and struggle. (click here to read Part 1) Here’s Part 2…
Something about less effort sounds good right about now. But what does that have to do with mental speed?
Burned Out Jason
Burned Out Jason,
Here’s where we can start with mental speed. If you are driving on a winding road, and going 100 miles per hour, chances are pretty good that your focus is naturally going to narrow to what’s right in front of you. That narrowing of your focus is your wisdom working for you, keeping you safe. If you started to look around, you might find yourself in a ditch or wrapped around a tree, so probably not a good idea. Going this fast, you’ll reach your destination more quickly, no doubt about it.
Driving this same windy road at 65 miles per hour, you might begin to notice more around you as the need to focus so intently eases. More than just the cars in front of you and the curve of the road, you begin to see the landscape around you.
Slowing to 35 miles per hour, even more things start to become visible to you. The bird on the branch of the tree. The signs of fall in the changing of the leaves. The way the shadows fall on the road. The shade of blue in the sky.
It’s pretty simple: what you see is a function of how fast you are going. The bird on the branch was there all along, but when you are going 100 mph, it doesn’t register. What bird?
Our mental speed works the same way. Without realizing it, we can get in the habit of going 100 mph mentally most of the time. If we drove this way most of the time, we’d cover a lot of ground, but our driving experience would leave us tense and exhausted. If our minds are humming at great speeds all the time, our experience will be no different. Tension and exhaustion.
And when our habit is for our mental speed to be in high gear most of the time, it can feel odd to shift into a lower gear, just as it can feel odd to drive even 10 miles per hour slower on your way to work.
Burnout is a product of not noticing our mental speed and how high we are revving our engines all the time. It’s our wisdom illuminating the “check engine” light on our dashboard. Remarkably, this warning sign is simply your wisdom speaking to you.
If your “check engine” light comes on in your vehicle, you can ignore it and keep driving if you wish. Chances are, though, that it won’t end well. Same with your mental speed.
If you’re feeling exhausted, frustrated, bitter, alienated, victimized, can’t keep running fast enough to keep up — that’s your “check engine” light.
So the invitation of burnout is to notice our mental speed and to see that we have more gears than just the one that we’ve become accustomed to spending our time in. And the key — this is the really important part — is that all we need to do is notice and understand that we’ve got lots of speeds and we’ll naturally know what to do.
Here’s the thing. When the problem looks like it has to do with our circumstances, then we are constantly trying to figure out a better way to deal, to manage, to handle those circumstances. But when we see that no matter the circumstances, we’ll be able to see more — more options, more resources, more hope — when we allow ourselves to shift into a different mental gear. Seeing more is how we find the current in life, how we accomplish more with less effort.
Often when I share this with people who are chronically in overdrive, I get some version of the question “so are you saying I should just be a couch potato?” You wouldn’t be alone if you were wondering something similar. And while I understand that exploring different mental speeds can be an unfamiliar experience, this question reflects confusion between internal speed and external activity.
Here’s an illustration that might help. I was reading an interview with a skilled home run hitter in professional baseball. Here’s a guy who is performing in front of tens of thousands of people, with a projectile flying at him at nearly 100 miles per hour. He said “…everything slows down so much, in my mind, that I can see the stitches on the ball.” Slowing down internally was exactly what enabled him to excel in his fast-paced environment.
The same benefit of noticing our mental speed exists when things feel urgent, or even life-threatening, too. Many years ago I took an advanced wilderness first aid course from a long-time veteran of backcountry medicine, and a guy who had led many search and rescue missions. After a couple days in the course, he asked all of us in the class, “what’s the first thing you do when you come upon an accident scene?” Trying to be good students, we began offering our best ideas, all of which he brushed away.
“Check airway, breathing, consciousness!”
“Ensure the safety of the scene!”
He shook his head.
Feeling like we were failing the course, the inevitable question arose…. “well, what is it?”
“Smoke a cigarette,” he said.
25 years later, what has stuck with me from that course was the instructor skillfully pointing out that when we rush into a scene with a mind that is racing with “what do I do?, what do I do?, what do I do?” we’re far more likely to do more harm than if we find a calmer mind, the place where our thinking is clear, and we have access to all of our skills and training.
Without stopping to question the logic of our approach to life, it can seem like running our minds at full speed is the way we’re going to get it all done. But when we step back to see the evidence all around us that using the full range of mental gears that we’re endowed with is a helpful, productive, and less taxing approach to life, we find hope for a new way of moving through life.
Alright, I’m starting to see how I might be revving a little high pretty much all the time. But honestly, I don’t really know how else it could look. Are you talking about stuff like meditating or mindfulness, because I tried that and it didn’t seem to do anything? Tell me more about how I can slow it down or explore these mental gears?
And by the way, what’s with the “Ordinary Jason” thing? Being ordinary doesn’t seem like something I’m striving for?
Burned Out Jason
[If you want to see how the conversation continues to unfold, check back soon…]