… not how long you can endure

Have you felt low in energy and motivation and wished you could be tougher? You’re not alone if you do. We all believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. That is how most of us understand resilience.

My mistaken approach to resilience

My journey to ‘resilience’ started as a necessity of enduring pain from a very young age. It started off with me, a scared seven-year-old who had rheumatic heart disease, having to take an intramuscular penicillin injection every 20 days — 10 ml in the consistency and viscosity of curd. The pain from the injection blinded me. I had to learn to face the day of the injection with courage and to endure blinding pain every time I walked in the next couple of days.

Eventually, I got so good at it that when I broke my back and doctors told me I could never walk without surgery — I learned to not just walk but to run and lift. I once lived with a broken ankle for months. More recently I got electrocuted on an 11,000-volt line — the pain was unbearable for days. A few months later, I cut the artery of my left forearm in an accident. The blood spurted all over my face, eyes, and clothes, so I wiped the blood from my eyes, injected myself repeatedly with drugs to prevent both blood loss and shock, and then drove an hour to hospital with my one good arm.

At work, when I started TWB, I remember working for 16 hours a day for two years without a day off. Today, it’s been seven years since I took a vacation or watched a movie in a theater. I thought I was resilient and tough, but I was wrong.

I have always prided myself on being able to take a lot of punishment, but the last few years have taught me that I had learnt all the wrong things about resilience and developed a bad work ethic. I mistook what it meant to have resilience for how much punishment I could take when it actually is about how quickly I could recover to 100% performance capacity time and again.

The Resilience Model

Much of what we perceive about being tough is inspired by the military. It was certainly true for me. I came from a military background, and as a boy, I read about battles and courage because I knew I was scared. The image of a soldier fighting without stopping when they are shot, or a boxer fighting one more round when they are badly beaten was what toughness meant for me.

Even if the military is not where your idea of resilience comes from, another wrong idea of resilience is bred into you from an early age. You are valued for how early you wake up to study or how many hours you stay up working on a project.

These ideas of resilience become part of our work ethic when we join the workforce. Nobody is punching us in the face but we put in long hours that leave us exhausted. Soon we start thinking of overwork and exhaustion as the same as having a work ethic. Long hours of work become a measure of how we should be seen as professionals. The satisfaction derived from driving late from work and waiting for the weekend so you can hit a pub is now an epidemic. Working and being exhausted from it is now the example of having grit — when actually it is trying really hard, recovering, then trying again.

What is so Exhausting About your day?

After being exhausted for years, I learnt that resilient people operate in either of two zones — the performance or the recovery zone. The performance zone is about making a concerted effort to drive a result. You can operate in this zone for a few hours at most before fatigues sets in.

This is why we need to get to the recovery zone, where we recharge to get back to 100% capacity before we push again. This comes from a fundamental concept in biology called homeostasis. It describes the ability of the brain to continuously restore and sustain wellbeing.

Essentially high performance has a cycle — work hard, rest, work hard and rest. You can see this in sportspersons for they train, rest, train and rest. The more time we spend in the performance zone, the more time we need in the recovery zone. The value of the recovery period rises in proportion to the amount of effort, which is fatigue.

The massive effort itself does not cause exhaustion; it is when we do not have enough time in the recovery zone that we feel we’re overworked and stress starts building. When our body and brain are overworked we have a negative balance and use a vast amount of mental and physical resources just to return to zero before we can get going again.

This is an actual physical condition called ‘upregulation’. Filling the negative balance repeatedly that is ‘upregulation’ causes exhaustion. This is why even one late night can leave you exhausted.

There is another powerful phenomenon that is taking place at the same time, which is ‘the fear of doing nothing’. This is an actual unsaid fear that has been trained into us from our wrong idea of resilience. The fear of doing nothing initially starts as a fear of not contributing to our goals or relinquishing our responsibilities. It is a powerful emotion because this fear is mixed with guilt. When your child is unwell or you require a large sum of money, taking a break feels like a crime. So how do you cope with feeling guilty about resting?

Rest and Recovery are not the same

We fill this ‘recovery’ period with what we think are activities that are relaxing or less intense — such as looking at the phone or checking messages or e-mails. When we first do that, our fear subsides and so does the tiredness. Our body and brain think, ‘Hey I can do this’ because there is no guilt of taking time off.

Without thinking about it, you assume that shifting attention from work e-mails to a Facebook/WhatsApp conversation with a friend will aid in recovery. But the fact is that you are still active and engaged, thinking about, “What did she mean by that,’ or ‘What did I say for him to assume this?’

Even when you come across a video with political views or when you lay quietly thinking about how to change your life, your brain has not received a break from its arousal state. I know people who come back from vacations — exhausted!

Changes I made to my life

Many people ask me how I function — how much time do you need to work off an INR 20+ crore deficit when you are alone? I lived an extreme life but these are some actions that allowed me to function and work against tremendous odds:

  • I have learnt to actually divide my work equally and be ruthless with my time. When I am thinking of work or actually working, I’m in the performance zone. The time I spend with my dogs or working out is my recovery zone.
  • My hours of working have dropped dramatically (to around four from 10-12 at TWB_) but my productivity, energy, and creativity have skyrocketed.
  • If there is any activity that does not fall into either of these — meeting a friend or working on something that puts me in a deficit (read about procrastination here) then I think hard whether it is worth investing my time in it all. Invariably the answer is no.
  • For years I could hardly sleep but now I am fast asleep by 10 pm, and up by daybreak — though I sleep so light. The change in breathing of just one of 20+ dogs around me will wake me up.

I can’t say I have a work-life balance because I do not seek it. I run a 24-hour day whether I work for money, or am with my dogs or working out. I only stop to sleep. It has been seven-plus years since I have taken a vacation both because I could not leave the city and I did not have the money to spend on a ticket or a night out. For years I thought, “Next year I will take that vacation,” but now I have decided against it. I don’t need a vacation; when I am not working I am on vacation!

Not resting strangely allows us to feel connected with our goals. You eventually fall asleep exhausted with thoughts and plans of how much work you’ll do tomorrow. Its a poor relationship but a strong habit. The very lack of a recovery period is dramatically holding back our ability to be resilient and successful.

You don’t have to have a life like mine, of course, but there are important techniques in the ‘Stronger with Rakesh Shukla™’ programmes through which you can learn how to build the resilience you need to have a rich, proud and fulfilling life.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.