There’s a truth we’ve learned to embrace—one that has changed our lives and led us to bring the idea of training wellbeing to thousands of people. We call this truth the Open Secret.
You likely already know this “secret.” Think about people you admire, those who seem like they have everything life has to offer: a beautiful home, a great family, and ongoing opportunities. From what you can see, they have it all.
Here’s the secret: Scratch the surface of what looks like success, and chances are you will find a person who has experienced a mixture of highs and lows, moments of deep contentment along with moments of sadness, anger, anxiety, and fear. The fact is that while most of us project a polished facade, we all search for happiness, fulfillment, and joy as we work to navigate the challenges and obstacles that life brings us.
This is likely true of the people you admire. It’s probably true of you. It is certainly true of us.
I am Eric Langshur.
For most of my adult life, I started each day with the same harrowing morning ritual: Wake up. Eyes open. Brain on. Then immediately, the assault of thoughts would begin:
What have I got to get done today? What balls am I in danger of dropping? What is Elizabeth thinking about what I said to her yesterday? I need to remember to call my dad. I should hurry or I’m going to be late for work.
On and on . . . and on.
The experience was so normal to me that I wasn’t even aware it was happening. Somewhere around my fortieth birthday, though, I did start to notice this unrelenting stream of thoughts, and I realized, This voice in my head is exhausting me.
Clearly, this wasn’t the kind of joy-filled life I once thought I would be living when I achieved “success,” and this realization of my incessant inner dialogue wasn’t anything like the kind of “waking up” epiphany that the mystics describe. Instead, becoming acutely aware of my thoughts, worries, and anxieties only intensified the ever-present undercurrent of stress in my life. As a corporate executive and serial entrepreneur, I knew how to build businesses and manage large organizations. But, I began to realize, I didn’t know how to manage my own mind.
This jarring insight set me on a decade-long search to understand how to be happier. I sought wisdom by reading the great spiritual texts: the Old and New Testaments, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the texts of Taoism and Buddhism. These in turn sparked an interest in philosophy, turning me toward the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus), the Romans (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca), the modern Europeans (Nietzsche, Goethe, Kierkegaard), and the American Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson).
I became a philosophy and self-help junkie in my search for meaning. My wife, Sharon, regularly laughed at my enthusiastic exploration of this literature. My head reeled with the plethora of ancient wisdom and advice on wellbeing, and I experimented, bouncing from idea to idea during an amazing period of transformation.
Very slowly, two incredible developments emerged. My mind started to quiet, and after years of deep exploration and study, I began to see that these great spiritual and philosophical tomes shared a similar set of ideas about happiness and wellbeing.
I am Nate Klemp.
At age twenty-seven, I had my life turned upside down.
In the final year of my PhD program at Princeton, one warm September afternoon, my wife and I were riding our bikes side by side, lost in conversation. We didn’t notice as we veered toward each other—until our handlebars locked together at full speed.
CRACK. I heard the spokes in my front wheel shatter as my handlebars twisted uncontrollably. I launched forward headfirst onto the gravel path.
Five seconds later I lay on the ground, staring up at the blue sky, my head, neck, and jaw throbbing, my wife leaning over me.
One month later I began to feel the full effects of the injuries to my head, neck, and jaw. The Princeton campus began to feel like a ship traversing rough seas. My world started spinning. My ears rang. Something wasn’t right.
Four months later my mental and physical condition had gone from bad to worse. Before the accident, I was a happily married, fit, razor-sharp graduate student at Princeton. Now the physical and mental aftershocks of my accident left me struggling to perform even the most mundane tasks. Picking up groceries felt exhausting. Two hours of writing my dissertation felt like twelve. A three-hour flight felt like a trip around the world. My entire life felt like I was running a marathon at mile 25. But there was no finish line in sight.
Until then the biggest challenges I had faced were theoretical. As a grad student in political philosophy, I spent long days at the library, working to understand political rhetoric, inequality, and other abstract questions. Now my challenges were practical and deeply personal. How can I part these clouds of anxiety and fatigue? How can I save my marriage? How can I salvage my career? How can I train my body and mind to live a better life?
Answering these questions became my passion in life. I used my training in philosophy to search the texts throughout the ages for answers. These readings led me to a new set of life practices. I learned to meditate. I became an avid practitioner of yoga. Soon, my career ambitions shifted outside the conventional academic path, from tenure to wellbeing, from the theory of happiness to its practice. After years spent understanding philosophy as a set of ideas, I now wanted to experience philosophy as a way of life.
Life Cross Training
So began the work of Life Cross Training (LIFE XT). Like many people on the journey of self-discovery, we each felt lost in a sea of conflicting insights, ideas, and programs. Then fortuitously we met and discovered each of us had separately followed a similar path, studying many of the same texts, coming to similar conclusions.
Sorting through this maze of wisdom and advice on how to live a better life became our deep passion. Our hunger for greater wellbeing worked like rocket fuel to motivate us to bring together the most powerful ideas and practices for achieving wellbeing and happiness.
We began with ancient wisdom. For thousands of years, after all, philosophers and spiritual teachers have put forth wisdom and ideas for living a better life. To guide our journeys, we decided to create a map—a framework that would synthesize this expansive body of ancient wisdom. With the help of leading experts in classics, philosophy, and religious studies, we explored the vast array of practical advice offered by the great philosophical traditions of the East and West. While we found differences in doctrine and practice, we also found a powerful underlying set of shared insights. Just about every tradition converged on certain core practices: presence, gratitude, compassion, contribution, and more. You will find the most potent of these in the nine practices of LIFE XT.
Then we started to live these practices, comparing our experiences as we journeyed on. We turned the gym in Eric’s home into a training room for happiness and wellbeing, writing out the early LIFE XT framework on the walls, reviewing our results, and weaving the pertinent practices into our daily lives.
As we developed our daily practice, we looked to advances in the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology, where we found scientific validation for the synthesized framework we had developed. Working closely with Dr. John Cacioppo, the pioneer of the field of social neuroscience, Dr. Richard Davidson, the preeminent researcher on the neuroscience of meditation, and other leading scientists highlighted throughout this book, we researched the vast body of evidence to support the LIFE XT practices. We were excited to discover that the benefits of these timeless practices were grounded in hard scientific fact.
These ancient insights and modern scientific discoveries captivated and inspired us. They helped us develop a more optimistic picture of what it is to be human and how all of us can live a good life. True, we all face constant challenges but, we discovered, with the right practices and applied effort, anyone can learn how to train this essential life skill of wellbeing.
Nate recalls how his body and mind changed as a result of this training:
My posture shifted from slumped to upright. I had more energy and felt more at ease. My mind also changed. This new training in happiness didn’t eliminate negative emotions like sadness, fear, and shame, but it created a subtle sense of space around them. It helped me learn how to stay in the fire of even the most uncomfortable states without having them overtake my life. These benefits rippled through all areas of my life. I felt a deeper sense of purpose in my career, more connected to my friends and family, and more present in my marriage. Through it all, my life became richer, more meaningful, and above all, happier.
Eric had a similar experience:
Although I continued to hear the unremitting voice in my head, it no longer gripped me in its manic swirl the way it it once did. Over time, a peaceful spaciousness developed inside me and I began to witness my thoughts—watching them come and go without getting caught in their often painful hold. I was thrilled to realize that I was actually developing the skill of attention, actively choosing where to place my focus. This simple skill has given rise to profound changes in my life, making me more joyful, more productive, and a better husband, parent, son, colleague, and friend.
Now, years later, LIFE XT has been adopted by thousands of people seeking to optimize their lives as well as companies dedicated to elevating their employees to peak performance, including top law firms, digital media agencies, and venture capital firms. Through our individual, group, and corporate training programs, we have helped people enhance their wellbeing, with dramatic and lasting results. Start Here—the book you are holding—will lead you to these same discoveries.
Start Here begins with the Open Secret: the simple truth that we all encounter a myriad of challenges and obstacles as we move throughout our lives. In everyday life, we easily lose sight of the fact that everyone struggles. Turn on the TV and we see attractive celebrities who seem to have it all together and commercials that spark fantasies about how good life would be with a new car, bigger house, or more attractive mate. Log on to Facebook or Twitter and we mostly see a similarly idealized world—a world full of vacation photos, professional triumphs, and peak moments such as getting engaged, having a child, or getting married.
In this selectively sunny world, other people don’t get stressed, feel anxious, or spend their days running worst-case scenarios in their minds. But of course no one actually lives in that world. Picture-perfect celebrities struggle and experience the very same negative emotions that the rest of us do. That friend who just returned from Maui is already back in her daily rut of stress and irritation. The handsome, blissful couple with all the glossy wedding photographs went through months of anxiety planning the event, and may spend years stressing over how to pay it off. While we may not talk about it openly, the truth is that everyone experiences difficult moments.
Take Andrea, for example, a dedicated LIFE XT practitioner. On the outside, she looks as though she has it all: She’s a successful entrepreneur, a high-powered corporate executive, and a respected community leader. But she, like everyone else, has a powerful narrative about the challenges she has faced in life:
Growing up, life was uncomplicated and somewhat predictable. My summers were spent waitressing at the Jersey Shore, waiting for Bruce Springsteen to show up while my friends hung out. I felt safe and loved. I earned my degree in social work and set out to change the world! At thirty-one, I fell in love and got married. But less than two years later, life started to throw me curveballs. My parents died within six months of each other, the doctors told us that our second daughter might never walk, and our finances became a concern as medical bills mounted. Joy and optimism shifted to anxiety, depression, and a fear of what’s next. I was working 24/7, blaming others for my unhappiness, and seeing no light at the end of the tunnel—I shut down and became numb. It was years later, when I experienced a bad case of vertigo, that I was forced to begin to untangle the web.
Like Andrea, we all have a story and a deep desire to improve our lives. Of course this insight isn’t new. The nature of human dissatisfaction and the quest for greater happiness is part of the human condition. Now, though, our modern age presents us with a unique set of challenges that can make wellbeing seem especially elusive.
Consider just a few of the most pressing challenges in our modern lives. Stress has become a way of life for many of us. According to the American Psychological Association, 70 percent of Americans report that they experience physical or nonphysical symptoms of stress, and 80 percent say their stress level has increased or stayed the same over the last year.1 Stress also makes us sick: The American Institute of Stress estimates that more than half of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints.2
While smartphones, tablets, and other technologies have improved our lives in countless ways, these tools also pose a deep challenge to our wellbeing. They consume our time and attention. The average adult spends more than eleven hours a day exposed to electronic media (TV, radio, computer, etc.), and checks his or her phone more than 150 times a day, which makes it difficult to focus, work, and be present with the people we care about.3
Add to this the speed of our modern lives. We now move through the day at a dizzying pace. We can communicate more in an hour than our grandparents could in a week. We can, for example, stand in line for coffee while attending an important meeting via conference call, emailing our friends, and catching up on the latest headlines. This warp-speed pace makes it difficult to slow down and simply be present in the moments of our lives.
It’s not just the stress, technology, and speed of the external world that challenges our wellbeing. It’s also our human biology that shapes the way we react to these external conditions. Our brains, after all, didn’t evolve to live in the midst of constant digital distraction—to multitask, write emails, or face the continual low-grade stressors of the modern world. The human brain evolved to handle a much more primitive state of affairs: gathering food, building shelter, and running from the occasional saber-toothed tiger.
This is the real paradox of our modern age: Our bodies and minds simply weren’t designed to handle the near-constant stress of the modern world. As we will see in the next chapter, this biological contradiction keeps us in a state of vigilance and anxiety, skewing our thoughts toward the negative and causing our minds to wander for about 50 percent of our waking hours.4 In short, we are biologically wired to experience the very opposite of happiness and wellbeing.
Hope for Happiness
Fundamentally, we are all seeking to be happier. The problem is that there are so many different books, programs, and systems for living a better life that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast array of conflicting approaches. This was our experience. In the development of LIFE XT, we explored bestselling books on happiness that made big promises. But we found that within a few weeks, or even a few days, after turning the final page, we returned to our old habits and began searching for the next book, system, or seminar. While we uncovered many amazing tools and insights, we didn’t find any comprehensive programs that offered a clear road map to wellbeing. We also simply didn’t know what to believe. Many of these books and programs were based on intuition and personal experience—not scientific evidence.
In the end, we found that most programs presented wellbeing as something that happens in an instant—a kind of “get-happy-quick” approach. But we knew from our own lives and from the vast body of emerging research in neuroscience that happiness doesn’t spring from an idea or a flash of insight; wellbeing is a skill that must be trained, and this training has the power to change the brain.5
This idea may sound obvious, but it is truly revolutionary. Until just recently, most scientists viewed altering the structure of the brain through training our ability to direct our attention as impossible. The adult brain was considered to be fixed, resistant to change. Recent discoveries have led researchers to revise this understanding of a fixed brain, and we now know that the adult brain is capable of change throughout our lives. Just as we exercise to train our bodies and increase physical fitness, we can train our brains to optimize wellbeing.
A New Kind of Program
Inspired by this emerging science of neuroplasticity, the insights of ancient wisdom, and the encouragement of countless friends and colleagues, we set out to create a different kind of program—a comprehensive training system for wellbeing grounded in rigorous research. LIFE XT is based on three core insights, drawn from this research:
• Training. Wellbeing is a skill that can be trained.
• Attention. We can develop this skill by learning to direct our attention, which shapes our experience of life.
• Integration. The ordinary moments of everyday life offer the ultimate training ground for this practice of wellbeing.
LIFE XT is a comprehensive training program for complete wellbeing designed around these themes. The program consists of three stages with three practices each. You will develop one practice at a time, and at the end of each stage, you will measure your progress using the LIFE XT assessment tool. Nine practices may sound like a lot, but we have designed LIFE XT for maximum efficiency so that you can minimize the amount of time you need to devote to these practices by integrating them into your everyday life.
• • •
To help you cultivate this new way of life, Start Here offers step-by-step instructions. Think of it like P90X6 for the soul—a structured program designed to help you develop physical, mental, and emotional fitness. The program also provides access to a cutting-edge assessment tool designed in close collaboration with Drs. John and Stephanie Cacioppo at the University of Chicago to help you track your practice and measure your progress. This human analytics platform will allow you to see how these practices have an impact on just about every aspect of your life: happiness, energy level, focus, stress, sleep, health, and more.
As the LIFE XT program becomes integrated into your daily life, you will find yourself more at ease, waking up each day to the moment-to-moment feeling of being fulfilled, fully engaged in the world that surrounds you, quietly content with your life and conscious of its blessing. In short, you will be happier.
Welcome to LIFE XT. Your journey starts here.
Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing
Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing
Imagine being less stressed, more focused, and happier every day of your life. Start Here outlines a program designed to help you do just that by cross-training the skill of lifelong wellbeing.
If given the choice, we would all choose to be less stressed, to feel happier, and to experience a more optimal state of wellbeing. So why are these outcomes so hard to achieve? The answer is quite simple. No one has taught us how. It turns out that just as you train your body for fitness, you can train your mind for wellbeing. We call this Life Cross Training (LIFE XT), and Start Here is the manual for anyone seeking to achieve emotional fitness. Combining ancient wisdom with modern neuroscience from the world’s leading experts, LIFE XT is a groundbreaking training program to master the art of wellbeing. The program teaches practices proven to rewire the brain for increased focus, engagement, and resilience to stress. By offering specific practices, habits, and assessments to manage your training and by helping to build up core skills such as mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion, authors Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp lay out a thorough and sustainable program that anyone can integrate into their daily lives.
With Start Here, you will:
-Feel less anxious, distracted, and overwhelmed, and more focused
-Increase your productivity
-Feel a stronger sense of meaning and contribution
-Build stronger relationships with family, friends, and coworkers
These are benefits we all seek and can all experience by cross-training with the scientifically validated practices presented in this book. Want to become less stressed, more emotionally fulfilled, and more in harmony with the world that surrounds you? Start here.