My 2023 Annual Review: Four Insights & A Close Call

How I experienced 2023 through my body.

My Annual Review in Three Anecdotes

To have peace of mind, you have to have peace of body first.

Naval Ravikant

Here is what you can learn in this essay:

  • Embrace the Dual Approach to Stress: Discover how Bessel van der Kolk’s insights on 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' regulation can revolutionize your approach to stress and trauma, making way for a more profound healing process.

  • Personalize Peak Performance: Apply the principles of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, to find your individual equilibrium in stress management.

  • Embrace Nature's Lessons in Humility: Gain perspective from a challenging mountaineering experience about the importance of respecting nature's limits and our own vulnerabilities.

(…and if you just want to read a story this time, scroll to the end!)

I wanted to spend the end of the year singing, writing and playing guitar. My album production was right on track, with the studio sessions and rehearsals scheduled far in advance. I had my career coaching program planned to launch in late November and a number of speaking gigs around Europe in the calendar. 

Then, just as I was getting ready to finish the year with a bang, my body shut down like a computer overwhelmed by too many commands, suddenly going blank and unresponsive – for an entire month.

Back home from a session with my music producer on October 9th, I noticed I felt unusually tired. It is completely against my nature to pass out on the sofa, but that Monday night, I did. I was scheduled to fly to Vienna the next day to deliver a conference keynote about diversity in venture capital. I was proud to be booked there and while I was feeling under the weather, I did not want to give up the chance of speaking at this event or renege on the commitment I had made. When I got to the airport the next morning, I stocked up on Aspirin, Ibuprofen and general pick-me-up vitamins to “keep me going” while I was on the road. 

A review of my speech praised the way Julius “was captivating his audience with his well-timed pauses and thoughtful way of speaking”. Actually, I paused frequently for long, painful swallows around my swollen tonsils, and the thoughtfulness was perhaps merely the confidence of someone on a heroic dose of painkillers. (Still, I won’t be making any corrections to that review!)

It took six visits to different doctors to actually get a diagnosis, including one physician who - with a concerned furrowed brow - inserted an IV drip into my arm to bring down my raging fever. Glandular fever, or Epstein Barr virus, had gotten me in its grips. “There is nothing you can do”, he said, “and with complete rest, you’ll be back to normal function within a month.” When I asked about full recovery? He sighed, his tone was as matter-of-fact as a weather forecast predicting rain: “Maybe three months. Take it easy.”

In the weeks preceding my sickness, I would comment to friends, colleagues, on my overwhelming workload with a wink: “it’s definitely too much and stressful but, you know, it is good stress, and I know I will come out the other side.” I registered the ebbing emotional, mental and physical energy in my body. And I ignored it. And I suffered for that.

This year has taught me to be grateful for the bodies we inhabit. As we are closing down for Christmas and review the year (hope you enjoyed the Annual Review Guide!), I note that burnout can come from good stress. From the kind of work you enjoy. Positive overwhelm can send you into shutdown just as well as the emotional burnout of doing work you are not connected to. If you choose to ignore your body intuition, it will come back to bite you. (Or, as other people commented when they saw me: “that happens when you turn 40!” I just turned 34.)

I am reflecting on how I can be more gentle and kind to the flesh and bones. In the process, I learned about four ways to help me make sense about my relationship with my body. I am integrating these ideas into my life, so this is a work-in-progress. I still wanted to share them with you.

Insight #1: Mindfulness, movement and how stress works in our bodies.

Bessel van der Kolk, in his seminal work 'The Body Keeps The Score’, offers a profound insight into the understanding of traumatic stress. I found this applies for all kinds of stress. He states:

'Knowing the difference between top down and bottom up regulation is central for understanding and treating traumatic stress. Top-down regulation involves strengthening the capacity of the watchtower to monitor your body’s sensations. Mindfulness meditation and yoga can help with this. Bottom-up regulation involves recalibrating the autonomic nervous system, (which, as we have seen, originates in the brain stem). We can access the autonomous nervous system through breath, movement, or touch. Breathing is one of the few body functions under both conscious and autonomic control.'

The key insight for me was that “healing” from stress requires a two-pronged approach: mentally, by being mindful of our body's sensations and learning to regulate them; and physically, by engaging in activities that directly soothe and recalibrate our nervous system. By understanding and applying this dual approach, we can foster a more profound healing process, ultimately leading to better emotional regulation and overall well-being. Where appropriate, I have incorporated body work into my coaching to reflect this insight. I also began to understand this year that “trauma” is a pretty broad concept and does not have to be dramatic or shocking. Van der Kolk’s work (although not the lightest read) helped me bring more nuance to my understanding of stress, trauma, and everything in between.

(I want to say that I have included Yoga in my exercise regime but so far, I have failed for numerous non-sensical reasons… )

Insight #2: Peak performance is not the same for everyone.

Friederike Fabritius, author of The Leading Brain, shares that we are not created equal in our response to stress. Some of us need more stimulation to get into a flow state (or “high performance”). 

This stimulation isn't necessarily negative stress, but rather a level of challenge or engagement that keeps us focused and energized. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law (see the graphic below), there's a sweet spot for each person where the amount of stress or stimulation is just right - not too little that it leads to boredom and disengagement, and not too much that it causes overwhelming anxiety or burnout. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law: everyone’s stress/performance function is different!

I noticed this year that my optimal level of stress has been shifting. I used to be run well at high temperature (read: fast-pace work with a bit of urgency). In this phase of life and in the work mode that I am in now, writing, coaching, creating and leading, I am at my best when I am at rest (read: time-abundant, relaxed, no meetings on the calendar). I integrate this into my schedule by generally working less and working “slower”, that is by increasing the duration of my deep work slots in my calendar. 

To define what optimal performance means for you, consider the Yerkes-Dodson Law as a guiding framework. This law suggests that our best performance doesn't arise from a constant state but fluctuates with our stress levels. So, take a moment to reflect and jot down your thoughts on a sheet of paper, divided into three columns. 

  • First, ask yourself, at what stress level do I manage to perform at a 'barely surviving' level? This is the point where you're just getting through each day, but it's not sustainable in the long run. 

  • Then, consider what level of stress allows you to work sustainably, where you can maintain your performance over time without compromising your well-being. This is crucial for long-term success and health.

  • Lastly, think about the stress level at which you truly thrive. This is where you're not just doing well, but you're also a source of inspiration and energy for yourself and those around you. Here, you're not merely leading; you're uplifting others, setting a benchmark in your field.

By understanding where you stand on this curve, you can tailor your work life to match your unique stress-performance profile. This personalization is not just about efficiency; it's about aligning your work with the deepest rhythms of your being. In doing so, you're not only optimizing your performance but also honoring the intricate balance of your mind and body, thus leading a more fulfilling and balanced life.

Part of understanding your optimal performance is noticing when you're not at your best. Think about the simple, everyday things: How much sleep do you need to feel good, not just okay? How often do you really need to see your friends to feel connected? What about your hobbies, like reading for fun or exercising? And think about what kind of behavior or situations make you feel stressed or unhappy. These small details can tell you a lot about whether you're thriving or just getting by.

Insight #3: Our nervous system is so much more powerful and sensitive than I thought. It’s everywhere!

In reflecting on this year, a curious revelation about our nervous system has offered a new perspective on how we inhabit our bodies. It's a common misapprehension to limit our understanding of the nervous system to the brain and its immediate neural extensions. However, this year I learned that it's not just confined to these areas; it extends into the very fabric of our being, including the fasciae—the connective tissues that hold our muscles and bones together. These tissues, often overlooked, are richly endowed with nerves. And they are everywhere in the body! 

Our capacity to sense and perceive is far more expansive than we often acknowledge. It's like discovering a secret language spoken by our bodies, one that we've been oblivious to for so long. 

I learned all this in a training on somatic coaching and trauma earlier this year.

This understanding holds a particular resonance in my coaching practice. The dominant narrative often champions the brain as the sole command center, focusing on efficiency and performance. Yet, we're more than just cerebral beings; we're organisms alive with sensory potential. Embracing this view compels us to reconsider our how we approach leadership, of ourselves in our bodies and lives, and of our business.. It invites us to tune into the subtle, often ignored sensations of our bodies. 

There's a profound wisdom in acknowledging 'I'm sensing something, but I don't know what it is.' It's an admission that our bodies communicate in ways beyond the immediate grasp of our rational minds. This intersection of bodily intuition and conscious thought might just be the key to a more empathetic and effective form of leadership, one that respects the silent yet powerful language of our physical selves.

Insight #4: Humility - you can’t control everything

(Or: How vulnerable we all are in the face of nature.) 

It was tk date and time-setting, I was in the Alps near TK specific thing / place, and I was making every big mistake the mountaineering booklets (and common sense) advise against:  I was hiking alone (don’t!), started late on the mountain (don’t!!) and I did not check the weather forecast (don’t!!!).

Isn’t it idyllic in the Alps?

I had already been hiking for five hours, when, descending from the summit, I rested at a wood-plank cabin nestled halfway down the mountain, beside a stream in a field protected by 500 meters of rockface towering above. The patio was strewn with blissed-out mountaineers, their tired limbs on their packs. The staff—straight-forward mountain people who yawn at the sight of a yeti—gave me friendly but firm advice: “Well, it seems you might be a bit out of your depth here. If you try crossing the mountain range now, you won't make it back before nightfall. We'd suggest you play it safe – descend from the mountain now and catch a ride from the town. It’s clearly the wiser choice for someone in your... situation.”

I thanked them and was secretly disgruntled. I started trotting down the valley, the sun beating down, soon realizing that my new destination was significantly further away. But that late summer afternoon, with August’s humid breath sliding heavily through the forest, I grew unsettled. 

At every turn of the path, the village failed to come into view, and m sense of foreboding increased. I could feel how the air had shifted and I started to look around for places to shelter if lightning started to hit. I had no network connection to check the distance or the weather–but I had a rain jacket in my pack.

Minutes later, I felt the first drops.  I squatted on the ground, rummaging through my pack to retrieve the sacred jacket, when all around me I suddenly heard the click, chip, click I dreaded… hail.

Within seconds, the impact of the hail on the ground sounded like actual rocks falling from the sky–which is exactly what it was! Chip off my wrist as I pulled on my thin, useless jacket. Chip off the back of my head. In the blink of an eye, the situation of my discontent had turned to an afternoon of outright danger. I felt utterly naked and vulnerable, there alone on the side of a mountain,  hailstones now the size of tennis balls crashing into earth. 

I scrambled down the path to take cover under a fallen tree trunk, contorting myself so as not to expose any part of my body to the icy projectiles shooting from the sky. The forest was roaring now: the hail was tearing off tree branches as thick as my forearm. Quite literally at that moment, the sky was falling.

I am not making this up. I couldn’t.

Then, I heard a swooshing sound and turned to realize that the path I had come down was quickly turning into a stream: the rain up on the mountain had started to flow down into the valley and the ditch that I was squatting in was filling up with water, fast. I had heard too many horror stories about mudslides in the mountains to stay under my cover any longer. I scrambled out of the ditch and up the embankment into the forest, exposing myself to hail from above but hoping to get out of the way of a potential floodwave of mud, rainwater, trees, and rocks that might surge down the mountain at any moment.

If you’ve ever tried to operate a smartphone in a thunderstorm: touch screens do not work when wet. Even when you are deep in despair! Eventually, I was able to get my father on the phone–with one bar of service and a dwindling battery. The sound of horror in his voice as I quickly recounted my position did nothing to calm my spirit! I did not know where I was and there was no way to find out. My wrist had swollen to the degree that I could barely use my hand. Though the hail had now subsided, I wondered whether I could dare turn my back to the mountain to continue on… with a possibly deadly mudslide coming down the hill after me.

Because I am oh-so smart, I decided to sprint down the mountain… turning around at full speed every ten seconds, just in case. What I would have done had I actually turned to see a mudslide behind me, I cannot tell you. Luckily, finally, after what felt like several football fields of downhill sprinting, I could make out the parking lot of a hillside public swimming pool. Descending on the scene, I encountered disturbed families with crying kids surveying their wrecked cars in shock and disbelief after the storm. This is when I finally got to reconnect with my dad who was already in the car, driving into the general direction of where he might find me.

(my heart is still beating fast as I am writing this)

Zooming out from these inspirations, I want to recognize that however much awareness we give our body, there are things we cannot control. This experience that taught me humility: always keep the first three pieces of advice in perspective… It is sometimes freeing to realize our own insignificance in the big picture of nature, and the focus on where we do, in fact, have agency.

Since we are not going to read from each other before: Happy New Year! If you are looking to review your year, check out the Annual Review & Goal Setting Guide!

Stay safe.


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