Ride your stress like a mule

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Sep 05 2016 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Pushing your limits is what allows you to grow stronger, so if you find yourself feeling passive, it can make sense to dial your stress up a little. Get moving. Accomplish something small. Do something you enjoy. Embrace what moves you. And start again.

It’s a mistake to assume that some strategies for dealing with stress are always good or that others strategies for coping with stress are always bad. Instead, research shows that it is your adaptability in dealing with stress that matters.

Your level of adaptability depends on things like: How clearly can you see your situation? How many strategies for adapting to the situation do you know how to use? And how responsive are you to how well your chosen strategy is working, or not working?

If you can’t change the situation causing the stress, it’s smarter to change your response to the stress than to worry about changing the situation. You can reinterpret the event so that your response changes. You can supress your response. Or you can distract yourself so your negative response is cut off before it can do real harm.

If you can change the situation causing the stress, it's smarter to change the situation than your response to the stress. You can solve the problem that is causing the stress, or permanently change yourself so that the stress stops.

You can push your limits for short bursts, but if you push too far there will be negative consequences. If this happens you will suffer high levels of distress, or even hyper-stress, that make you feel weak and brittle just when you need to be powerful and flexible.

When Phil Knight, co-founder of NIKE, fought the US customs department over, what many viewed as, unfair demands for $25 Million based on the flawed use of an archaic regulation that might have bankrupted his beloved company, he hit the wall. In his words:

“Instead of cherishing how far we’d come, I saw only how far we had to go […] I didn’t understand what was happening in the moment, but now I do. The years of stress were taking their toll. When you see only problems, you’re not seeing clearly. At just the moment I needed to be at my sharpest, I was approaching burnout.”

If you find yourself overwhelmed or realise you have an impossible level of commitments, you still have choices:

You can choose to let go of tasks and expectations that will weaken rather than strengthen you. You can choose to get help from others to spread the load. Or you can choose to look forward and become stronger before future challenges.

In his battle with the US government, Phil Knight tried to delegate, and to consider giving up, but in the end he decided to go with his fighter’s instinct. As he explained:

“I knew right then that I’d have to […] take on this fight myself. There was no other way. And maybe it would cure my burnout. Maybe the cure for any burnout, I thought, is just to work harder.”

We can all sometimes take on too much. We can feel stuck with our commitments but unable to complete them, yet we can also learn to let go of what slows us down, including our own desire to expect perfection or please everyone. We can even choose to go faster.

The Nowist mindset allows you to recognise the dangers of obsessive passion. It is a mindset that believes in forward motion and action over inaction. And this flexibility makes it easier for you to grow as you experience stress - it pushes you towards other opportunities. Because you learn to love what you do, you become more likely to experience harmonious passion. Passion without negative stress.

You may still work harder and longer than other people, but you enjoy the work in a way that re-energises you and protects you from becoming burnt out.

Just a year or so after his victory over government bureaucrats who threatened his company, Phil Knight successfully floated Nike on the stock market. He was now worth $178million. Overnight. So was he feeling relief about having escaped the stresses of the past 18 years?

Not really. In fact, not at all. As he puts it, in his memoirs:

“It wasn’t joy. It wasn’t relief. If I felt anything it was…regret? Good God, I thought. Yes. Regret. Because I honestly wished I could do it all over again.”

At first, you just hang on to the stressful situation, and avoid being thrown off.

Then you ride it, and use it to take it to your next place, you keep moving.

And finally, you enjoy it so much that one day you’ll look back and miss it.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.