The Practice of Groundedness, by Brad Stulberg

Why I read it

Over the course of Pocket Wisdom, it won’t come as a surprise to you that I have researched a lot of books. For reference, here is how I find most of them: books by authors I’ve already read; books recommended by those authors; books I discover on podcasts; personal recommendations; trawling through lists online. I remember hearing Brad Stulberg speak about his books Peak Performance, and then Groundedness, and decided to go for the latter. Here was a successful, intelligent chap appealing to the audience to take stock of their busy lives and be present. Also, the cover. I love the cover.

In summary

Brad Stulberg noticed a trend among friends, colleagues, and coachees, that something was happening in their lives that didn’t bring contentment. Despite their success, they felt something wasn’t quite right – something was missing. They were essentially looking for peace, but on the life / work treadmill, just couldn’t find it. They told themselves how much they wanted to turn it all off – the news and business, and emails and notifications. And yet when they did, they felt unsettled and restless.

Stulberg calls the restlessness heroic individualism – an ongoing game of one-upmanship, against yourself and others, paired with the limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success. You feel as though you never quite reach the finish line.

In Ancient Eastern psychology this is a concept known as the hungry ghost. It has a bottomless stomach. It keeps on eating, stuffing itself sick, but never gets full.  For us, this can be seen as ambition always exceeding the results obtained, and nothing giving satisfaction.

That’s why Stulberg created the principle of Groundedness. The book outlines what issues we tend to face in our society, and how they affect us as individuals. A wealth of scientific research is used to reveal what causes unrest but also happiness. Stulberg then introduces 6 pillars of groundedness, with each one exploring a range of practical ideas about how to introduce them into your life.

Is this a self-help book? Yes, I suppose it is. It is evidence-informed, practical, and very wise. Stulberg draws from many ancient and religious figures, too, in the quest to help us become truly grounded in the present, to lead fulfilled lives. I read it through the eyes of an individual, but also a leader – every page of this book helped me to reflect on how I can help others become more grounded, too.

Key Takeaways

Groundedness ‘is unwavering internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, wellbeing and fulfilment emerge. When you prioritise groundedness, you do not neglect passion, performance, or productivity. Nor does it eliminate ambition. It situates and stabilises these qualities, so that your striving and ambition becomes less frenetic and more focused; less about achieving something in front of you and more about living in alignment with your innermost values. When you are grounded, there is no need to look up or down.’

The six principles of groundedness:

  1. Accept where you are to get where you want to go. Stulberg discusses how this applies to both your own life circumstances, and the norms of stress. In the words of Marcus Aurelius ‘it’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. For a human being, stress is normal – if you are living a normal life’. This chapter really helps one gain acceptance and perspective of life.
  2. Be present so you can own your attention and energy
  3. Be patient and you’ll get there faster
  4. Embrace vulnerability to develop genuine strength and confidence
  5. Build deep community
  6. Move your body to ground your mind

Each principle has a chapter of explanation, examples, and research to go along with it, as well as practical case studies about how to enact the principle.

Achieving happiness: Stulberg explores scientific research about happiness, concluding that it is usually found in the present moment and not in hopes of the future; once we secure a comfortable income, happiness doesn’t tend to increase (it can occasionally for a short time). Conversely, Stulberg references Ben-Shahar’s ‘arrival fallacy’, the way that we live under false hope that once we ‘make it’, we’ll be happy. We may see a temporary boost, but it doesn’t last; when this cycle repeats, it can be easy to lose hope. In conclusion, enjoying what we have in the present is the most likely way to feel fulfilled.

Performance: Performance science is revealing that lasting success requires a solid base of health, wellbeing, and general life satisfaction. Without this foundation, someone can perform well for a short period, but will inevitably experience burnout. Linking to intrinsic motivation, performance is maximised when goals are worked towards from deep within, and not from a more external source. Further, when you adopt a performance-approach mindset, you are playing to win, with confidence and focusing on the rewards of your success; this positive approach means you find it easier to get lost in the moment and enter a flow-like state; however, with a performance-avoidance mindset, you adopt more of a deficit model where you fear failure, try to dodge mistakes and circumvent danger. Research shows that the latter leads to poorer performances, and while performance avoidance can lead to some short-term wins, it won’t help in the long run. As an individual and leader, how can we help imbue a performance approach in ourselves and our teams?

Technology! I don’t want to demonise technology in fear of sounding hypocritical and extreme, but Stulberg looks at many studies which (unsurprisingly) reveal the negative effects of social media, smart phones, notifications, etc. on our wellbeing. We are validated by activity on our phones, and  apps are deliberately designed to appeal to our sense of what might be important or exciting. The content often triggers a dopamine release, making experiences seem meaningful, and therefore, desirable to repeat. Fortunately, Stulberg provides a few solutions about how to separate ourselves from this world, and by preparing us to feel worse before we feel better, if you do separate yourself from technology. This sounds simple, and yet we are all guilty of the above!

Favourite quote

The book is packed full of practical exercises you can try to better attain a sense of groundedness. There are far too many to list, but they occur at the end of chapters and are straightforward to follow. These are always accessible and can be adapted to your daily routine. But importantly, they urge the reader not to merely think / read about groundedness, but to try it out and experience its principles in a proactive sense.

 As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘if you want to garden, you have to bend down and touch the soil. Gardening is a practice. Not an idea.’ And so it is the same with groundedness!

Favourite moment:

Under the Deep Community principle, Stulberg creates a beautiful analogy. The Redwood trees in California, the tallest in the world, can grow 200-300 feet. And yet, their network of roots only plunges six-to-twelve feet underground; instead they spread hundreds of feet laterally, overlapping and linking with the roots of other trees, forming a formidable, unbreakable foundation. Like the redwoods, we can thrive by having a community of people around us, to build a mutual network of support and acceptance.

Read this if

You want to slow down and be more present

You are looking for more fulfilment in your life; you want to prioritise yourself, and your contentment

You want to help others become more grounded, as individuals and a team

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