Ritual and Tradition

Last week, I mentioned an article called The Making of the Corporate Athlete (originally published in 2001 in the Harvard Business Review).  If you haven’t read it, you should — it’s a short read.  Long story short: successful athletes take a “whole body” approach to optimizing their performance, and other kinds of professionals could benefit from doing the same — in other words, willpower and brainpower alone are not enough.

One idea that stuck with me is the importance of rituals as a training activity.  In each case study, the authors, who are acting as consultants (or therapists) for corporate clients, make a point of establishing “positive rituals” to help train their clients out of old, unhealthy habits, and turn them into corporate (and personal) superstars.  According to the diagram below, rituals are the hand-holds for ascending the “High Performance Pyramid”.

I particularly like the idea that rituals create an explicit opportunity for recharging:

Our own work has demonstrated that effective energy management has two key components. The first is the rhythmic movement between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery), which we term “oscillation.” In the living laboratory of sports, we learned that the real enemy of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is actually the stimulus for growth. Rather, the problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery. Chronic stress without recovery depletes energy reserves, leads to burnout and breakdown, and ultimately undermines performance. Rituals that promote oscillation – rhythmic stress and recovery – are the second component of high performance. Repeated regularly, these highly precise, consciously developed routines become automatic over time.

and that they are an important technique for stepping off the daily grind treadmill:

The inclination for busy executives is to live in a perpetual state of triage, doing whatever seems most immediately pressing while losing sight of any bigger picture. Rituals that give people the opportunity to pause and look inside include meditation, journal writing, prayer, and service to others. Each of these activities can also serve as a source of recovery – a way to break the linearity of relentless goal-oriented activity.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and I’ve started to apply it to my own life.  For instance, blogging here helps me clear my head and recharge, but it’s hard for me to find time or space to do it during the regular day-to-day (plus, that’s what Tumblr is for).  But I’ve found that firing up ScribeFire first thing on the mornings when I Amtrak it from Boston to NYC works – so that’s what I’m trying to do now each week.

Another example: Theo and I have been doing swim lessons together every Saturday morning for the past few months, and that time has quickly become my favorite part of the week.  Thinking about it a bit, I realized that, besides the fact that he and I are spending dedicated time together, there’s something particularly comforting and recharging about that time being blocked off from the rest of the week — no email, no phones, etc — and the fact that it is the same time and day somehow adds to that recharging ability.

And then of course there is my hero-blogger Fred Wilson, whose pattern of writing is entirely ritual-oriented (1 blog post per day, ~3 tumbls a day, weekly series, etc.).  I am clearly inspired by the way Fred writes and you can see that reflected in how my own online presence is set up (and probably even in how I write).

At a certain point, rituals can become traditions, which take on a different kind of long-term social value.  For example, my father in law has been having lunch with his friend Bob every Saturday for the last 40 years (maybe longer).  As long as my wife can remember, her dad slipped out for an hour every Saturday.  He also recently told me that his father took him out for breakfast every Sunday when he was a kid.  There is something really powerful about the connections that these ritual/traditions create.  It can be hard to keep them in place, but I suppose that’s what makes them so meaningful if you can.

So, at risk of caving to my own OCD tendencies and immediately hyper ritualizing my entire life, I will say that I see the value in integrating these ideas.  On a personal level, and also on a company / team level.

For instance, at OpenPlans, for the past year or so I have been super focused on external issues — raising money, developing business, making partnerships, etc. — to the point where now that those investments are paying off, I really want to refocus on making sure our internal operations are healthy. To some extent, I think that means working to institute some positive rituals into our work week (without digressing into toxic meetings).

So, there you have it: this week’s personal self-help installment, brought to you by a nice window seat on the Amtrak Acela, somewhere in eastern Connecticut.  See you next week.

One thought on “Ritual and Tradition

  1. At risk of being that guy who’s sitting alone commenting on his own blog posts, I’ll add one more thing: I think a critical part of establishing meaningful rituals & traditions is “delivering, not promising”. In other words, there is little value in saying you intend to establish something, and negative value if you fail to deliver. Rather, I prefer the route of having an idea, doing it, and then calling it something once you’ve proven that you can actually deliver on it.


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