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Opinion: Frustrated with a lack of progress? Time to redefine winning

Sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski have written a book on burnout – and in this extract, they explain that redefining winning can help you reach your goals in a way you didn’t expect.

Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski

SISTERS EMILY NAGOSKI PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA know all about burnout.

They’ve written the book on it: Burnout – The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle.

The book explains why women experience burnout differently than men – and provides a simple, science-based plan to help women minimise stress, manage emotions and live a more joyful life.

In this extract, they look at the idea of redefining what winning is – if you feel like your progress is slow, or stagnant.

The ‘Monitor’ they mention is a concept introduced in the book – think of it like that internal voice that wants you to do well, but which can sometimes get in the way.

Change the Expectancy: Redefine Winning

Planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal are evidence based ways to change the effort you invest as you move toward a goal. They’ll reduce your frustration by keeping you motivated and moving forward. But suppose you do all that, and it works . . . except . . . it’s much more difficult or much . . . slower . . . than . . . you . . . expected.

Even as you’re succeeding, you grow frustrated because your progress is not meeting your Monitor’s expectation about how effortful the task should be. In this case, you need to change your Monitor’s expectancies about how difficult it will be or how long it will take.

Expectancies are the plan.

“Twenty minutes to the mall” is an expectancy.

“Four years to finish my degree” is another.

So is “married with a kid by the time I’m thirty.”

When you’re frustrated by the slow or interrupted progress toward your goal, and planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal don’t help with the frustration, you need to redefine winning.

Here’s how:

Say your goal is to climb Mount Everest. If you start marching up the mountain expecting that you’re going to zip smoothly to the peak, as soon as it gets difficult your Monitor will start to freak out.

You might give up. You might start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you — after all, somebody told you it was supposed to be easy, and it turns out it’s hard, so it’s not the mountain that’s the problem, it’s you!

But if you begin the climb knowing ahead of time that it’s going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done, then when it begins to get difficult, your Monitor will recognise that without getting frustrated. It’s just a difficult goal, so it’s normal that you’re struggling.

If you’re trying to do something where you will inevitably fail and be rejected repeatedly before you achieve your goal — like, if you’re recording music or you’re an actor or you sell insurance or you’re trying to raise a teenager to be a reasonable adult— then you will need a nonstandard relationship with winning, focusing on incremental goals.

Amelia tested this strategy one summer, at a choral recording session.

If you were to imagine a recording session, you might visualise a group of musicians jamming together for hours, or maybe a singer in gigantic headphones, singing her heart out into a microphone, and the musicians leave hours later, filled with the joy of artistic expression.

Maybe that’s what it’s like sometimes. But most of the time, a musical recording session is more like being stuck in heavy traffic on your way home from work. It’s stop-and-go when all you want to do is get home.

In a recording session, the goal is perfection, and humans are not perfect, so it’s six measures (maybe fifteen seconds of music) over and over, with a guy behind a window saying, “Great singing, choir; let’s do one more,” in between.

After 20 minutes of singing the same six measures of music over and over, you start to get bored. After 40 minutes, the music no longer has feeling. And then the guy behind the window says, “Lovely singing, choir. It sounds a little dry. Can we make the colour more specific this take?”

And you want to rip your hair out because no, we can’t make the colour more specific, because all the neurotransmitters associated with emotional (and therefore timbral) specificity were burned up 15 minutes ago when measure two was out of tune. So, no. 

But you have to. It’s a recording session, and the goal is perfection — every take, every snippet, every moment. Six to eight hours of artistic and vocal perfection is the goal.
“So we have two choices,” Amelia said to a choir of 40 professional singers.

“We can stuff the frustration down deep where it will cause us to explode at someone else at a later date or otherwise adversely affect our art and our health … or we can redefine
winning. 

“The goal, with each take,” Amelia proposed, “is to fill Andrew with joy.” 

Andrew was their guy behind the window, the recording engineer — and not just any recording engineer. Andrew was the Grammy-winning recording engineer who had worked with some of the most prestigious performers of the 21st century.

It didn’t hurt that he was also a cutie patootie — blond, British, bashful. Everyone in the choir was pretty giddy to be working with him.

Forty singers smiled at the possibility of filling Andrew with joy, and the energy in the room shifted. 

“It’s better already, isn’t it?” Amelia observed.

It was.

On the third day of trying to fill Andrew with joy, when it was getting pretty tough to stay focused but they still had another track to lay down, a soprano asked Andrew, “Andrew, are you filled with joy?”

Andrew paused in moving a microphone cable, considered for a moment, and nodded. He said, “Yeah. I really am.”

Redefining winning made the recording session far less agonising.

Burnout, published by Penguin Random House, is out now.

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Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski

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