Success Lessons From The Desert

Confession. I am a recovering over-doer. Well, I like to think I’m recovering. Sometimes, in truth, I’m just as buried in over-doing as I’ve always been, but I tell myself that I’m not.

My default MO is to commit myself to the extreme with tasks, obligations, friends, family, and work. Yes, I have a sneaky way to turn even the client work, volunteer engagements, and recreational activities that bring so much satisfaction for me—everything—into overload. All of this “stuff” gets all of me.

I imagine you know what I’m talking about. Most goal oriented, accomplishment driven people do. After all, it’s what we’ve learned about success and achievement. It’s what we do to earn, deserve, and gain.

We learn that it’s not enough be 100% “in.” We are conditioned that we must give 110%. We must not just work hard, to our capacity. Real success, we learn, is only possible in working beyond our capacity. The flip side of all of this is that nagging notion that if we let up we’re weak, lazy, or that we don’t really “want it” enough (whatever “it” is at the time).

We so like the taste of high performance that we strive to always better even our top performance. Our very value as human beings gets caught up in the idea that if we’re not contributing something huge or making a greater impact than before, that we’re not successful. Before we know it, we’re in overdrive.  

On and on we go, giving more and more of ourselves, exhausting ourselves. As we pour ourselves out striving for expected gains, we totally and completely lose sight of the cost of that gain?

I’ll tell you what it is for me. The currency of my gaining in that way is my best self. That me that makes me good at what I do. That me that knows, lives, and works on purpose. Essentially who I am is the price I pay when I get into overdrive. I lose all but the bare bones of why I do what I do. The values and needs that drive me—meaning, connection, expression, and growth—become like tumbleweeds blowing across a barren land; evidence of previously healthy, thriving life that has dried up and detached from its roots.

A few weeks ago, I noticed I was in this pattern. And I knew I couldn’t continue. I decided to do something different than my usual push onward. I decided to retreat. Literally. I blocked off three whole days. Amidst all that I had going on, personally and professionally, I deliberately stopped. I drove into the desert.

In a rented cottage in the mountains of New Mexico, I disconnected to reconnect. I stopped moving to regain momentum. I looked away, took my eyes off the road, so to speak, to clear my vision and refocus.

Sounds like running away and hiding, doesn’t it? Or like turning away from obligation and responsibility? But here’s the truth. This short FULL break from the busy, the overload, and the turbo pace of work and life positively impacted my productivity, focus, engagement, and ambition. I came back better than ever and I learned some valuable lessons about the importance of breaks. Here are just three of my most treasured lessons from the desert and a few questions for you to consider for a little arm chair retreat of your own.

Lesson 1:  I didn’t know how deeply worn out I was until I stopped. Yes, I was aware that I was going at a pace I couldn’t sustain, but it wasn’t until I had no choice but to surrender to the quiet of the desert that I realized how badly I needed the rest. What I didn’t know could have been detrimental to my ongoing effectiveness and success. Turns out real recovery was the only way that I was going to return to my full capacity and capability. No amount of new strategies to push through harder nor newfangled “get things done” efficiency hacks would have allowed me to recover like I needed to.

Arm chair retreat questions:  What is your real level of overwhelm, stress, and exhaustion? How do you know? What do you need to do to recover?

Lesson 2:  It was so hard to stop and let go of work in progress, shared challenge and possibility that I carry for my clients, and commitments to my partners. Wonderfully though, I had no choice. Because I did let go, I discovered that my mind seemed to be doing some sneaky background work while I was unplugged. Turns out a mind at rest is still processing ideas, possible solutions to challenges, and generating creative approaches to opportunities. Cutting things down to the basics, even for a bit, therefore allowed me to expand my capacity to address complexity and challenge.

Arm chair retreat questions: What might you be clinging to in a desperate attempt to solve or force an outcome around? Could it be that your effort is having a counter effect? Could you literally step away from the problem briefly, retreat from it, and deliberately not think about it at all for a while?

Lesson 3: When I left, I was in a mode of jumping from task, to phone call, to half written article, to life management tasks around the house, etc. My attention was spread thin and wearing away even further. I was shifting into autopilot. My high standard of performance was at risk. A few days of quiet, singular focus, whether on reading, cooking, or on the heavy rain that pounded the roof more times than seems possible in the desert, had near miraculous effect on my attention. It was like a hard reset for my focus. Without divided attention I experienced again what it’s like not to strain to maintain focus. When I came back and reengaged in work and commitments, I was laser focused. I noticed that I complete work more efficiently, at higher quality, and that I am more attentive to clients and family.

Arm chair retreat questions: Is your focus divided? What is efficient about that? What is inefficient about that? What is the effect on your work if your attention continues to be split?

To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone must go offline for days or go out to the desert alone—although I highly recommend it. I am, however, making a case for stopping; stepping away fully in some way at any time that seems to be the worst time to do so. I’m making a case for trusting and knowing that you’re not shirking responsibility, nor setting yourself up to fail by resting. I know that you know that’s not who you are or how you work.

Give yourself a chance to be successful and fulfilled. Give yourself a break.