Read an Excerpt
Who Needs Stress?
“I’m so stressed!” We hear it dozens of times a day. It’s said in different ways in different languages all over the world. Here where I live in California, stress is a way of life. We worry about the fires that are eating away at our natural beauty, or the earthquakes and floods swallowing homes. We worry about the price of gas that is choking our car- driven culture. We worry about our economic survival, layoffs, war, and health care. If you want to worry, you’ve come to the right century!
That we are beset by both global and everyday stressors is obvious to most of us. The barrage of media messages we receive is like an assault—economic collapse, home foreclosures, terrorism, wars, loss of savings, starvation, bankruptcies, natural disasters, and failing health care systems. These messages accentuate the strain we feel from ordinary stressors, such as arguments with our spouses, difficulties raising our children, getting overburdened at work, struggling to pay the bills, health concerns, and so on. Unfortunately, stress feeds upon stress. The more stressed we are, the easier it is for the little things to upset us. Worry impairs our ability to think clearly and function productively, and that in turn stresses us out even more. In fact, we are so used to being stressed that we have come to think of it as a normal part of our lives.
Yet stress is not normal. It is an imbalance experienced in the body when the stress system is chronically activated. The factors, or stressors, can be internal or external, but one thing is clear. The stress we feel is uncomfortable, interferes with our ability to function, and is generally harmful to our physical health.
One of Edd Hanzelik’s patients once declared, “I think it would be very strange to be free of stress.” In fact, there can be a seductive energy to living a high- stress lifestyle. Some people even think that stress is good for you—that it motivates you and gives you a competitive edge. When I coach businesspeople, I see that attitude all the time: “You’ve got to be more aggressive than the competition to succeed. You’ve got to drive yourself. You’ve got to have a warrior mind- set.” In our society, we even admire people who live on adrenaline, with their buzzing BlackBerrys and eighteen- hour workdays. We consider it a badge of honor if someone can get by on four or five hours of sleep a night.
We’re conditioned to view stress as necessary and inevitable, but the opposite is true. Our bodies seek homeostasis—balance. That is what’s natural, and that is what works. Likewise, our minds need to be in balance, not in turmoil. Priorities need to be clear, and that includes our own well- being. It’s a myth that we need stress to achieve high performance. In fact, studies show that chronic stress impairs our health, leads to serious disease, and impedes successful performance.
When we do see individuals who are beset by great challenges, yet manage to keep their cool, we are impressed. While he was running for president, Barack Obama was dubbed by the media, “No Drama Obama,” and his calm demeanor gave increased hope to people around the world. Another outstanding example is Nelson Mandela. After spending twenty- seven years in a prison in South Africa, he emerged to form a government with those who had jailed him. He later said about this time, “For the political prisoners, determination and wisdom overcame fear and human frailty.”
We all are in some ways imprisoned by the threats around us, or by our own personal situations. For some, illness is a prison. For others, grief, poverty or family struggles become paralyzing realities. The question then becomes, how can we access our own determination and wisdom, and not be overwhelmed by helplessness and hopelessness? Just as stress breeds more stress, hope and wisdom breed stability and well- being, no matter what comes at us from the outside.
PRESSURE VS. CHALLENGE
We can begin by acknowledging our own role in creating stress. I am reminded of an interview with a relatively unknown Brazilian tennis player named Gustavo Kuerten, who went on to win the French Open three times. Reporters, amazed that he was defeating more highly ranked players, asked, “How do you handle all that pressure?” His response was, “What pressure? It’s not like I handled the pressure. I didn’t feel it.” No one seemed to understand his response. The press kept asking, “How could you not feel pressure under these circumstances?” He said, “I had a wonderful time. I enjoyed playing these people. I enjoyed playing well. I don’t get it—what is it about this pressure?”
Obviously, to the reporters, “pressure” was a reality that existed at higher levels of competition. But to Kuerten, it wasn’t a reality. What was real to him was that he had the opportunity to compete with the best players in the world and to enjoy playing well. He was playing in a mental state that reinforced enjoyment and a high level of performance. In such a state there is little room for stress to enter.
Perhaps it should be added that Kuerten, after winning his first French Open in 1997, did not remain stress free. His growing popularity in Brazil, and the high expectations of others, did trigger for him something he perceived as pressure, and his tennis game suffered for several years. He didn’t win the Open again until 2000.
This idea that we need pressure to succeed is imbedded in us from childhood. From about three years old, the pressure is on— walk faster, talk more, do better. It’s a constant theme throughout our lives. It never stops. In my experience, though, it’s when you stop pressuring yourself that you can be more successful. There is something innate in all of us that wants to improve. Yet when I coach executives, they have a hard time grasping that fact. The assumption of the boss is, “Unless I put the pressure on, the job won’t get done.” And the employees will say, “If I don’t look like I’m pushing the limits, the boss will think I’m not working hard.” This is an unproductive cycle.
It’s important here to make a distinction between pressure and challenge. When I feel I have a challenge in front of me that I accept as something I want to do my best with, I generally don’t get stressed, yet I can rise to the occasion. I am alert, and my abilities are accessible to me. Pressure, although we experience it on the inside, feels like something is pushing us from the outside. Living up to the expectations of others has replaced our own motivation to excel. With pressure comes fear of failure and inner conflict. With accepted challenge comes relaxed concentration, clarity of intention, and the ability to reach for one’s best. Both put us in a state of aroused attention. But an accepted challenge, though it may produce tiredness at the end, does not carry with it the harmful physical and mental by- products of stress.
I once coached the sales teams of a fine East Coast consulting company. I explained to all the teams that sales performance was not the only “game” at play. The other challenges included what they learned in the process of selling and how much they enjoyed themselves. These, I suggested, were the three stable components of work: performance, learning, and enjoyment.
I recommended that for the sake of the company’s success, as well as their own personal success, they try to balance these three work goals. What I did not know was that the lowest-ranking sales team took this to heart and decided that they were feeling so pressured to perform that they weren’t doing very well. The team leader, determined to redress the imbalance, told them, “For the next month, I want you to go out there and enjoy yourselves and learn as much as you can about the customer and how he views our product and how he views the competitor’s product.” His basic balancing message was, “Be curious and enjoy.”
I heard about this a month later when it turned out that this team had come from last place to first place in sales. Obviously, when the pressure was taken off of performance, the challenge to perform remained, as demonstrated by their results. What they perhaps didn’t realize at the time was that the energy they had put into this non- pressured approach was the kind that could be replicated over and over, without the experience of burnout.
The three components of work are interdependent. If, in the drive toward performance, the learning component is ignored, performance will inevitably fall or level out. Likewise, if enjoyment is missing from the work equation, both learning and performance will suffer. This holds true in all human activities.