The Paranoid Survive, but They Burn Out. Take a Break.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Only the paranoid survive.” Ring a bell? If so, it’s probably because that’s the title of a book by Andrew S.Grove, the former chairman and chief executive of Intel.
When I read this book in late 1999, I bought into the need to always be looking for opportunities and to live my life at full throttle. I was afraid that if I stopped for even a moment just to rest, relax and recover, I wouldn’t “make it” (whatever that means).
I was paranoid, and I was surviving — but just barely.
Nonstop meetings and mile-long to-do lists were the norm. Any time I had a block of free space in my schedule, I rushed to fill it. I might be missing out if I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t realize this was a stressful way to live. As the stress added up, I played hard as well to help me deal with it.
I started cycling and brought the same, full-throttle mentality with me. Even though I knew, on an academic level, the importance of rest and recovery, I never appreciated either. I rode hard every time I went out. I kept going until I got sick or injured and had no choice but to take time off.
I repeated this process for years. Go super hard. Crash. Be forced to rest. Feel better. Repeat.
Only recently did I start to understand that the problem wasn’t that I needed something to distract me from my stress. I needed rest. But first, I had to face an underlying problem. I’d bought into being paranoid, into never letting up, and as a result, I was uncomfortable with feeling like there was not any slack in the system.
If I had anything extra — time, energy or money — I felt like a fool if I didn’t spend it.
I’m not alone. I have a friend who makes a lot of money, but he always talks about how broke he is. He’ll even pull out the lining of his pockets to demonstrate that they’re empty. Because I know how much he makes and how much he saves, I asked him why he keeps claiming poverty.
He told me that he and his wife purposely keep their checking account balance low so they always worry about overdraft fees and avoid spending money. It’s their way of dealing with the slack in their system. They cannot handle the thought of extra money sitting in their account.
This is a great approach if you want to save money and be miserable. But there’s a better way to deal with the extra resources in our lives. It starts with thinking about slack a little differently. Instead of spending every extra ounce of energy, maximizing every minute and using every cent, look for ways to reinvest it.
Think of the compounding power of reinvesting interest and stock dividends over time. The same is true for time and energy, and the returns are exponential.
We often think we need to consume everything — kind of a “use it or lose it” mind-set. Maybe you’re filling some free time with a new work project. Maybe you’re using that last ounce of energy to go on just one more ride. Or maybe you’re squirreling away yet another dollar for the future and beating yourself up with the threat of a big, bad overdraft fee.
Whatever that thing you’re doing, it’s time to stop. Instead of going on yet another hard ride, take an easy walk at sunset. Instead of running around with empty pockets, keep a twenty handy and see how long you can go without spending it. Get used to the idea of having a little bit of excess in your system. Better yet, don’t be afraid to do nothing.
For a long time, we’ve been told to squeeze every last drop out of life, but in the process, we’ve gotten close to the redline of flaming out. So cut yourself a little slack and remember that more than just the paranoid survive.
This commentary originally appeared May 31 on NYTimes.com
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