Lean Out: Why It's Okay to Do Less

Stop trying to improve yourself — there's a more constructive way to live in 2017

Illustration / Richard Dale

Think positive. Find yourself. Do more. Aim high. Be happy. Lean in. Not too far, though. If you’re not careful, you could fall into a self-help well and never come out.

Whether you followed Sheryl Sandberg’s gravity-defying missive (and burned out in the process), overhauled your diet/emotions/sleep habits (and bored yourself silly) or sought out your true purpose, (nope, that pole-dancing blog just ain’t gonna fly), you might have found yourself more strung out, self-obsessed and busy than ever.

(Or maybe, having instigated Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People you’re the next Arianna Huffington, in which case, hats of to you.)

But what if there was a better way to live than constantly seeking to progress and improve? What if the answer lay in tempering our ambitions and settling for what we already have? That’s the new wave of thinking gaining ground.

One that’s not too far off what your parents or grandparents might have told you when life got tough.

“My grandmother would probably say, ‘We’re not here to be happy’,” says Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann, the author of bestselling book Stand Firm, Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, on the phone from Denmark. “It’s great if you’re happy from time to time but it becomes a problem when you think it should be the default position, when in fact the default is something else.”

That “something else” may entail what we know as the daily grind: rushing the children out the door, paying the plumber for the pipe that burst at 3am or wading through 75 emails — mundane moments that can help us appreciate real happiness when it does come along.

READ: Dr Libby Explains Why You're Always Tired

Brinkmann’s witty antidote to navel gazing is no dogmatic blueprint on which to base our lives, even though it’s written in the style of a self-help book. Nor is the psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University a curmudgeon, intent on doing nothing with his life. (If anything, he says he’s too happy-go-lucky — he’s also just written the book’s sequel).

Rather, Stand Firm is a cultural critique that questions the self-help industry, one that thrives on the notion we need fixing in some way. Brinkmann argues that the sheer volume of self-help literature is proof it doesn’t work, instilling in us a sense of failure when we don’t become rich, super fit or sublimely happy.

While his book is a polemic against tools that might work perfectly well for some — how can you not love ? — his point is that all this introspection may not be so healthy. The more we analyse ourselves, he writes, the worse we’ll feel.

“The demand people face now to grow as individuals, to take responsibility for our own development, is weighing us down,” he says. “It’s exhausting. Why are so many people diagnosed with anxiety and depression and other disorders now, even in a rich welfare state like Denmark?

There’s not just one explanation but we really are not allowed to stand still. We’re only good enough if we constantly move and improve ourselves and even then, we are never good enough.”

Rather than striving for an improved version of ourselves, he reckons we’re better off taking advice from the Stoics, the philosophers of ancient Greek and Roman societies, whose advice was as direct as the gurus of the modern age.

“They would say, engage in negative visualisation, try to imagine that what you already have — your relationships and belongings — you will lose! Because you will. That’s the reality of life. Everything is temporary. The point is not to want more and more but to be grateful for what you have. Otherwise you are doomed to become miserable. Because it’s never ending.”

READ: How to Live Mindfully On the Run

With one chapter entitled “Sack Your Coach”, Brinkmann’s approach has naturally put him at loggerheads with some therapists and fellow psychologists. His detractors are eager to point out that people struggle if they’re not in touch with themselves but Brinkmann plays devil’s advocate, arguing that the answers are not within but the opposite.

“We’re all relational beings. We’re all part of communities. We’re all part of nations and societies. And that’s really where we have to look in order to solve our problems. We shouldn’t demand that individuals solve problems in their own lives, that are basically societal. That just increases self-blame. It’s blaming the victim.”

Perhaps the most agitating piece of advice he gives is to suppress our feelings, “choosing dignity over authenticity”. In other words, resisting the urge to scream at the guy who just cut you off at the roundabout. Rather than seeking comfort in a self-help book, read a novel, Brinkmann says.

Novels offer meaning without sparing us of any of life’s complexities or disappointments, and steer our attention away from ourselves, helping us to make sense of the world. They also put us in touch with others’ difficult experiences, so we see we’re not alone.

“There’s this old idea in sociology that modernity is a wonderful thing — it’s given us education, knowledge, human rights, scientific and psychological development,” he says. “But the downside is a risk of individualism, loneliness, alienation, a sense of meaninglessness.

And here we have this idea that you must make the best of your life. You have to figure out the meaning or purpose of what you’re doing. That’s liberating — I can be in charge of my own life. But maybe you don’t have the resources. Then if I fail, I only have myself to blame. Even if the cause of my problems is a social or cultural one.”

READ: How to Say No to People You Like


DON’T BURN the self-help literature just yet. An increasing number of influential voices are taking a smart view when it comes to happiness and work-life balance — and their key message is to do less. In her February article The Art of Leaning Back for Stylist magazine, journalist, speaker and author Helen Russell challenges the notion women should Lean In, set down by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling 2013 book.

Russell says the modern woman is taking control of her personal wellbeing and redefining what it means to be successful — and it doesn’t necessarily involve a 24/7 pursuit of achievement at executive level. Instead she’s eschewing worker-bee culture and tackling goals that fulfill her personally — writing a book, studying for yoga teacher training, making time for travel.

“Six-figure salary, flash car, newest Birkin, wired on double espressos? Success has changed radically in the last few years, and material or status goals don’t have the same weight they once carried,” Russell writes. “Now, what’s most precious is career contentment — and that can be achieved in other ways.”

SIMILARLY, WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP expert and mother of two Tiffany Dufu argues that in order to thrive in the areas we deem most important, we need to let go in others. In her Sheryl Sandberg and Gloria Steinem-endorsed book Drop the Ball, Achieving More by Doing Less, the author recounts how, after the birth of her first child, she struggled to accomplish everything.

It might sound obvious but her solution to avoiding meltdown was to re-evaluate her expectations, shrink her to-do list, and delegate. It helps that Dufu’s husband came to the party, picking up the domestic jobs she had felt she had to keep on top of.

But she offers some illuminating advice for working mothers about lowering standards around housework, expecting less of ourselves and more of others, and engaging the whole family to find better balance for everyone.

BALANCE is also at the heart of Arianna Huffington’s 2015 memoir, Thive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, in which the Huffington Post founder confesses to suffering the downside of success: total exhaustion.

By adopting a gentler approach to life, one that incorporates more sleep, mindfulness and meditation, she writes of counter-balancing the quest for money and power with values we’re more likely to hear in people’s eulogies: the quality of relationships and family life.

READ: 15 Ways to Feel Good

LIKEWISE, SILICON VALLEY consultant and Stanford University scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says the secret to productivity is not working longer hours. In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, he shows a rested brain is more creative.

His definition of rest is not necessarily putting your feet up but engaging in restorative, active activities — walking, painting, playing music — like many of history’s most celebrated authors, scientists and thinkers. “Creativity doesn’t drive the work,” Pang writes. “The work drives creativity.”

• Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann, $29, published by Polity Books, is out now.

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