In a real sense, to grow in life, I must be a seeker of stress

DR. JIM LOEHR is a world-renowned performance psychologist and cofounder of The Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. He is the author of 16 books including his most recent, The Only Way to Win: How Building Character Drives Higher Achievement and Greater Fulfillment in Business and Life. Jim has worked with hundreds of world-class performers from the elite ranks of sports, law enforcement, military, and business, including gold medalists, FBI hostage rescue teams, military Special Forces, and Fortune 100 executives. Sports clients include golfers Mark O’Meara and Justin Rose; tennis players Jim Courier, Monica Seles, and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario; boxer Ray Mancini; hockey players Eric Lindros and Mike Richter; and Olympic gold medal speed skater Dan Jansen. Jim’s science-based energy management training system has achieved worldwide recognition and has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Success, and Fast Company, among many other media outlets.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
The book that I have gifted most, and one that I continue to read and reread myself, is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. His brilliant articulation of the importance and power of purpose in life resonates deeply within me. I continue to be struck by his seemingly boundless capacity to feel deep compassion and love for his fellow concentration camp prisoners as well as the cruel prison guards who enabled the horror, and he was able to experience this even as he inched closer to death himself.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
For less than $100, a case of Collins Stretch Tape from Collins Sports Medicine is the best buy ever for active athletes. I go through several cases a year just for myself. Our athletes immediately fall in love with this product. It’s self-adhesive and elastic, making it a perfect performance combination for the support and protection of feet, hands, arms, and legs. It’s the best!

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Three times across the course of my professional life, I have had people whom I have trusted—deeply trusted—take money and intellectual property from me. Twice this happened at the very beginning of my entrepreneurial life, when money was an incredibly scarce resource. I felt and continue to feel these occurrences were serious failures in my judgment of the character of others. I also felt that I had failed to properly vet the “investment” (although, in one case, I actually had a Federal Reserve chairman vouch for one of the individuals involved in the project). And of course, I was so deeply hurt by these individuals that I considered not trusting anyone. I viewed it as a failure of the goodness of mankind and, for a while, it made me bitter.

I’ve learned from years of working with highly diverse populations that nearly everyone experiences this during their lifetime. The only way to make certain this never happens is to build a wall so high and so thick that no one can get close to you. The lifetime cost of emotional isolation far exceeds the pain of occasional betrayal. The truth is that the pain of broken trust and betrayed friendship is simply the cost of caring and deeply connecting to others. My healing occurred through writing about it and by exploring ways I could convert my pain into something positive and constructive. For me, it was leveraging the betrayal to build more resilience and discernment in judging character . . . and learning forgiveness.

Resilience has been a powerful force in my writing more than a dozen books (many setbacks, long nights, and long days) while simultaneously growing and developing the Human Performance Institute. Without learning how to overcome my initial failures, I do not know that I would have had the courage and resolve to assume the risks necessary to build this business. And, of course, forgiveness is a double gift. I’ve learned how to forgive myself, to let go of beating myself up for the mistakes in judgment I had made. Forgiveness has enabled me to let go of the unproductive anger and to replace it with gratitude and hope. I eventually realized that the pain I endured never once created discomfort for those other individuals who betrayed my trust!

Here is what I know now after many years of living: Failure will happen, and failure is an opportunity to build resilience, to practice forgiveness of self and of others, and to gain wisdom.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?

It takes courage to be truly kind. I have met Navy SEAL commanders who can do pull-ups all day long and navigate the coldest, most treacherous waters on dangerous missions, and the most remarkable thing that I walk away with after meeting these men—who appear molded of steel—is the power and authenticity of their kindness and humility. I’ve also witnessed incredible athletes achieve inspirational wins that bestow millions of dollars of prize money on them, and when they take their group of coaches and friends out to dinner to celebrate they refuse to pay for anything . . . even for their own meal. The key insight for me is not that these individuals are winners . . . it is that their self-absorption, inability to feel grateful, and utter lack of kindness toward others can never be justified for any reason, most certainly not because they are champions or are famous.

One of my favorite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children . . . to leave the world a bit better . . . to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded.”

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
The practice of daily journaling has been a remarkable tool in helping me navigate the storms of life and be my best self through it all. The daily ritual of self-reflected writing has produced priceless personal insights in my life. For me, daily writing heightens my personal awareness in a nearly magical way. I see, feel, and experience things so much more vividly as a consequence of the writing. The hectic pace of life becomes more balanced and manageable when I intentionally set aside time for self-reflection. I am able to be more in the present in everything I do and, for whatever reason, more accepting of my flaws.

Journal writing can be used for catharsis and healing or for growing and expanding capacity. Entries can be as short as a minute or as long as time permits. It typically takes two to four weeks before one can see and feel positive results. For the best outcomes, entries to one’s journal should be made by hand rather than on a computer.

My experiences with journaling began in my early work with athletes. Every athlete was required to keep a detailed training journal on a daily basis. An important insight gained over several years was that anything that was quantified and tracked on a regular basis would invariably show improvement (sleep times, liquid intake, stretching frequency, nutritional habits, etc.). Quantifying behavior raises awareness and, as a consequence, habit acquisition times are typically accelerated. Eventually, we applied this understanding to mental and emotional training. Using daily journal entries to quantify the frequency of positive versus negative thinking, giving 100 percent effort in practice, engagement levels, the tone and content of one’s private voice, anger management, etc., produced similarly exciting results. Because of these insights, I decided to take up daily journaling myself. After only a few weeks, the only regret I had was that I hadn’t started the process much earlier in my life.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Be your authentic self.”

I understand the intent of this statement, but it can be used as a lethal weapon to hurt others. In many cases, people use the statement “I’m just being authentic” as cover for treating others badly. You see people being dismissive or rude in a discussion and they brush off any personal accountability by stating, “Hey, I just have to be myself.” The truth I have discovered after working with incredible athletes, leaders, and individuals from across the globe is that our humanity is expressed most fully in our treatment of others—when we are respectful, humble, caring, honest, and grateful despite our struggles, disappointments, and failures. It represents the heart and soul of who we are at our best.

Think of the tennis player who, in the middle of a match, blows up at the umpire and begins yelling and screaming at her. Is he being truly authentic because he is a frustrated and angry person? Or is there more to consider, such as, where on his scale of importance is his treatment of others? Consider another tennis player who is certain that a linesperson has made an incorrect call. She appeals the call to the chair umpire and the umpire does not overturn it. That player immediately feels cheated and angry. Reflecting on her core values of respect and patience for others, she takes a deep breath and proceeds calmly forward in the match. Which example is more representative of true authenticity?

For me, when the statement “I just have to be myself” is used to justify bad, unethical behavior, the argument is nothing but a ruse.

Another piece of bad advice: “Protect yourself from stress and your life will be better.”

Protection from stress serves only to erode my capacity [to handle it]. Stress exposure is the stimulus for all growth, and growth actually occurs during episodes of recovery. Avoiding stress, I have learned, will never provide the capacity that life demands of me.

For me, balancing episodes of stress with equivalent doses of recovery is the answer. Playing tennis, working out, meditation, and journaling provide rich mental and emotional recovery. Adhering to my optimal sleep, nutritional, and exercise routines during stressful times is critical. Seeking stress in one dimension of my life surprisingly brings recovery in another. Avoiding stress simply takes me out of the game and makes me weaker.

In a real sense, to grow in life, I must be a seeker of stress.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I immediately begin by recalling all the things I am grateful for in my life. I start with each of my three sons, my brother, sister, and on to my mother and father. I then allow my thoughts of gratitude to go wherever they go, from the smallest things to the largest. Literally within minutes, the perspective I have about what’s happening in this stressful moment takes a dramatic shift. I become calmer, less panicked, and more measured in my feelings and thinking. I then pull forward the thought of my best self and who I most want to be in the storms of life. Connecting with my deepest values and purpose in life strengthens my resolve to respond to the crisis according to my highest ethical and moral character.

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