Downstream Effort: Achieving More by Doing Less

Have You Ever Had That Feeling Of Trying So Hard It Hurts?

It’s like trying to climb up a descending escalator — you keep walking but you don’t seem to be getting anywhere.Upstream effort is what most of us are engaged in on a regular basis, and this is the type of behaviour most societies encourage.

Take Japan as an example — the overwork culture is so extreme that there is a special word for working yourself to death: karoshi.

All my life I’ve taken pride in how hard I worked to achieve my goals. I sacrificed dance classes for straight A’s, set aside socializing to hold on to my work schedule, spent hours at the library and guess what? I did succeed. I graduated with honours from my Bachelors degree in Toronto and went on to complete a Masters degree from a world-class university in London. I was ready to take off, armed with a license to ‘make it in the world’ and a shiny diploma to prove my worth.

Redefining Success.

Most of us grow up with a carved-out notion of what success means.

We’re told to choose our career paths at seventeen when most of us are high on hormones and other stuff of questionable legality. A lot of us end up choosing the path we’ve been told we should want, and committing the next five years of our lives to it.

After graduating from University, I convinced myself that I wanted what everyone else in my degree wanted — to work for a top-notch international organization like the UN, the IDB or the WTO. Over the next 5 months I would work morning to evening writing the perfect cover-letter over and over again and mass-submitting applications, and….Nothing.
Nada, niente, zilch.
I was left wondering why me? I had done everything right, I had checked off every single box on the list. Yet, as I wrote cover-letter after cover-letter, something kept nagging at me. Logically, I had convinced myself that this is what I wanted, this was the sheer image of success in my field…How could I not?

But deep down, I felt as if someone was gripping my heart tightly, making every single application a grueling task.

This was my gut’s way of telling me to stop — it’s way of begging me to draw the white flag and wave it. Deep down I had always known that I didn’t truly want the jobs I was applying for, but I was too stubborn to face this inconvenient truth.

Ultimately, when you are chasing someone else’s dream, every step feels like clawing your way up a very steep cliff while the air around you gets thinner and thinner the higher you climb.

We all need to take the time to redefine what success means to us.

Authentic success can mean a lot of different things — becoming a millionaire, improving your relationships, having a positive impact in your community — but you have to do some inner work to figure out what authentic success feels like for you.

Old Assumption: There is an objective measure of success — money and recognition.

Reframe: Success is subjective — authentic success varies from person to person.

Choosing Right.

How do we recognize what actually feels authentic for us? Where do good choices actually come from?

A significant part of our brain that help us make decisions is connected to the ganglia, which is our ancestral brain. It does not communicate in words it communicates in feelings and via connections to the intestines ‘gut feelings’. (Bill Burnett, 2016)

Choosing right means silencing our noisy judgmental brains in order to connect with our gut feeling. Emotional intelligence is when you make decisions based on instinct (what feels right) instead of cognition (what you’re told should feel right).

When I was a kid I would spend days on end working on what I would call my ‘projects’. One of my many attempts at making something out of nothing was deemed the ‘Cat mobile’.
I had dismembered a stroller to end up with just the skeleton, made an empty box into a cat apartment and stacked it on top, hung 6 of my favourite cat toys from the handle, and crowned my creation with a portable litter box. I then fetched my little white cat and stuck her in the box to her dismay. She shrieked, scratched and bit me until I had no other choice but to let her out.
Even though my Frankenstein of an experiment backfired, I loved every step of the process. I loved the feeling of coming up with an idea from scratch, looking for loose items around the house and assembling my own creation. Time seemed to stop. Everything around me would disappear and I would feel a rush of energy as I immersed myself in the project.

I was in love with the process of creating — just the act of doing was more important than the outcome itself.

Old assumption: I choose with my rational brain — Targeting a goal and putting all my efforts towards achieving it.

Reframe: I choose with my gut feeling — I identify the activities that give me energy and joy, and choose a goal that aligns with them.

Downstream Effort.

What if it was possible to achieve more, simply by doing less? The trick is learning how to balance effort with ease. (Bethany Butzer, 2018)

In downstream effort, we have a vague notion of what our goal is, but we’re more attached to the process than reaching the goal itself. We’re still putting effort in, but this time we’re paddling our boat downstream with the current instead of fighting against it.

Two months ago, I finally got a corrective eye surgery to get rid of a severe myopia. After the surgery, my world went dark for four days, giving me time to ponder over existential questions in between audio-books and mouth-fed meals.
What am I here for? Is there any purpose in life or is it all just random. What makes life worth living? What makes work worthwhile?
Finally the eye patches came off, and the first thing I came across as I opened my mailbox was an email from an old friend recommending me for Entrepreneur First, a talent investor that allows you to find a co-founder and build a company from scratch. I was baffled, it felt like I had woken up from a really long slumber.

I was finally seeing things clearly, literally and figuratively.

I was reminded of my childhood projects, and finally gave myself permission to be what I already was, a creator. I spent the last two months in quarantine brainstorming ideas, prototyping minimum viable products on my own, and taking online courses on entrepreneurship to prepare for the application.

And guess what? I loved every minute of it.

I played my way through the application process and I put in the effort for myself. Not to prove my worth to anyone else, not to gain approval or to ‘get a job’. I wasn’t waiting for anyone to hand me a diploma to prove my success…I was ready to create my own version of it, on my own terms. Old Assumption: No Pain No Gain.

Reframe: Follow your joy, authentic success will follow.

How To Enhance Downstream Effort In Order To Reach Authentic Success.

  1. Look inside: Begin to identify your own values — freedom, stability, loyalty etc. To do this ask yourself this question — what makes life worth living? Your answer will help you identify what authentic success means to you.

  2. From The Inside Out: Align your internal values with your external actions. In other words, make sure that the job you go for aligns with the core values you have identified. Follow up the first question with this new one — what makes work worthwhile? It’s like your very own life compass, keeping you heading north in the direction of your own dreams — towards a life where your achievements reflect your own priorities and not someone else’s.

  3. Identify how you want to feel every day: Identify the activities that make you feel good, energized and engaged. Bill Burnett, author of ‘Designing Your Life’, recommends keeping a daily activity log to identify how each one of your work activities make you feel throughout the day. By prioritizing activities that give you joy, you will end up focusing on the process more than the goal itself. Success is a by-product of joy, not of sacrifice.

“Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking.” (Antonio Machado)

Recent Posts

See All