Hey folks, looking back at 2022 and the pandemic years in general, our collective understanding of, and experience with, mental health has evolved in significant ways. The recent release of Stutz a Netflix documentary by Jonah Hill couldn’t have been more timely.
I love the movie, it made me laugh and think, and following watching (and rewatching) the movie I dove into Stutz’s two books co-authored with Barry Michels, The Tools (2012) and Coming Alive (2017.) While I enjoyed both books and think there’s useful ideas and tools contained within I struggled with some of the framing around spirituality, a new spiritual order? Really? and more generally the use of personification to explain the reasons behind our struggles. So I thought I’d create my own perspective to highlight how you might access these useful tools without too much emphasis on the spiritual, humans as the center of the universe, packaging found in the books. Welcome to my interpretation of Stutz, or a skeptics guide to Stutz, if you will.
Let’s begin. We start with the concept of our inner self and our outer-self. I think that’s easy enough for us to agree with, we understand how our outer strength derived from our muscles is different compared to our inner strength such as will power. We can agree that making an internal commitment and keeping it is different from an external action like turning a light on and off.
Another area of agreement is the belief we have an internal commitment we must make everyday. Our existential question is do we want to choose to be helpful and hopeful in a possible world or do we choose to be helpless and hopeless in an impossible world? Stutz and co-author Barry Michels frame this as a choice between being a creator or a consumer. However, this framing didn’t resonate with me. It feels like a classic false dichotomy. Each of us are consumers and creators, and so to me the important construct is really around this choice of how you want to show up in the world. Are you here to be helpful to those around you? Are you prepared to be hopeful, and look for the lessons and value in big and small interactions? Because if you are, there’s a world of fantastic opportunity waiting to be explored.
Intuitively this seems like the choice everyone would make, why would you choose to be hopeless and helpless when you could choose the opposite? And while these two extremes rest on a gradient and your degree of hope will fluctuate from time to time, it’s the choice of orientation that is the critical internal commitment. So why would anyone not make the positive choice?
Well, it turns out being helpful and hopeful in today’s world is hard. Which isn’t to suggest it’s ever been easy. It takes a lot of energy to help others and to look for lessons and bright sides in difficult situations. To turn the other cheek and be the bigger person takes effort, even for those of us blessed with sunny dispositions from our earliest days. So how do you generate the energy to get out of bed everyday and choose to adopt this positive orientation and try to be helpful?
I think Stutz nails this part. It’s about practice. Knowing his tools is not helpful in and of itself, you actually need to use the tools. And as with everything else, it gets easier with practice. The place to start in my mind is the question, everyday. Do I choose to be helpful, hopeful and live in a world of possibility?
In addition to practice and orientation there are other elements that will serve you well on this journey and I refer to them as your foundation. For me the foundation starts with integrity, which is understanding what’s important to you and living your life in accordance with those things. This includes small things like doing what you say and being honest and big things like trying to find ways to reduce your carbon foot print if you’re concerned about climate change (and I hope you are.) As I like to say – “Integrity is a gift you give yourself.”
The next layer of the foundation is inner strength and it is built up over time. It serves as a mini engine or flywheel between the other layers of your foundation, your integrity and your forward momentum. It’s the glue, or rebar, or nuclear fusion that helps you go from making the positive choice, understanding your personal values, and making the tough choices and taking the associated actions in life that generate forward momentum, in alignment to those values. And ultimately a life in a world of incredible possibility. So what is this internal strength?
In the books, Stutz and his co-author are a little vague, comparing it to outer strength and the internal equivalent of needing to exercise to build muscle to support outer strength. I think that’s fair however perhaps not specific or as helpful as it could be. In the film Stutz seems to acknowledge this and outlines a pyramid as one of the places to start, this pyramid seems like a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, starting with a focus on body and exercise, other people, and then yourself as 3 levels of awareness to focus on to help build inner strength, or what he refers to as a connection to your “life force.” I think this is good, however it could again benefit from a bit more granularity, and a bit more specificity to be the glue that holds our foundations together and propels us into a world of possibility.
My rendition of the inner strength pyramid has 4 levels.
Energy is the same as Stutz’s model, the best path to this type of energy is physical exercise, healthy eating and living. There’s no two ways about it, getting in shape offers huge benefits in terms of making you feel alive and having the energy to make tough choices and get things done. However it’s insufficient on its own.
The second layer of inner strength comes from maintaining an open mind. Like many true ideas this may seem like a contradiction. However, it’s not through dogmatic subscription to our beliefs that we generate inner strength. It’s through separating our identity from our beliefs, and maintaining that separation. Your beliefs can trap you, your beliefs can be untrue, hold them apart from yourself so more paths forward can be apparent. Be humble, be curious, tap into the energy and wonder of childhood by avoiding the tyranny of potentially toxic beliefs. As oft is the case, there’s some truth in the humorous expression: “It’s not what you don’t know that’ll get you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just isn’t so.” – Anonymous*
This open mind enables selflessness and universal love as the next layer of inner strength. Again we see this potential dichotomy of if I’m incredibly super internally strong shouldn’t I be super important and the centre of everything? No, inner strength comes from serving others, loving others, all others or as many others as possible. Free yourself of toxic beliefs of in groups and out groups, your own self importance, superiority and righteousness. Try to serve and love others, even if you disagree with them. I like to say “You have to love everyone, or you can’t love anyone.” It’s easier said than done! Fortunately Stutz’s tools do a particularly good job of laying out how to do this and warning of the pitfalls associated with failure (being stuck in the maze!)
If you can do these things, exercise, practice maintaining an open mind and serving others with universal love, as the last layer of inner strength, you get a gift. Perhaps not as grandiose as Maslow’s Self Actualization, however perhaps you’ll find it more pragmatic. You get improved discipline, self discipline, that allows you to make hard choices and take their subsequent actions to build forward momentum. Your foundation is now in place for a life of immense possibilities!
By asking yourself the question, and developing your foundation you receive the resilience you will need when things get tough and don’t go as planned, or fear is standing between you and something you really want. This practice, this personal commitment and repetition leads to more forward momentum, helping you move forward and accomplish things you never thought possible, and what dare we ask is the ultimate reward beyond said accomplishments? More energy! (You might call it life force, or positive energy or karma.) Regardless, this is additional energy to be more helpful and to keep reinvesting in making positive choices. A larger personal fly wheel, or virtuous cycle, of positive choices, energy and big and small accomplishments. The secret to living a happy, fulfilled and meaningful life.
Everyday won’t be a perfect day, and not all our goals will magically be accomplished. However I do believe that despite some of my reservations with the materials laid out by Stutz and Michels in the books there are a lot of useful tools and ideas there as well, in addition to what was a fantastic movie. You practice this stuff enough, you’ll develop an increased appreciation of the journey and more energy to devote to skillfully navigating the inevitable ups and downs.
So if you’re like me, and a little skeptical of higher powers and personified spiritual villains, I’d still encourage you dig into the materials. I think there’s still lots of potentially helpful ideas there without having to join a new spiritual order. If you choose to go on that journey I hope some of the framing shared here is helpful to you, with respect to incorporating those aspects of the tools that will be most helpful to you.
Good luck honing your interconnected personal flywheels. The flywheel of your foundation and inner strength, and the larger flywheel of a fulfilling life, brimming with energy, to help you accomplish the things that matter most to you, and those around you. May they support you well in good times and bad, and may 2023 and the years beyond offer improved mental, physical and material health for all!