More than 15 years ago, Nick Petrie walked off a rugby field in Japan feeling more exhausted than he ever had in his life.
The 6-foot-6 professional athlete, just in his late twenties, was used to being in peak physical condition. But when he arrived back home in New Zealand for a visit, his mother didn’t mince words. “You don’t look well,” she told him.
She was right.
Testing and surgery revealed a nightmare diagnosis — stomach cancer.
An operation removed the cancer. A year later, it came back in Petrie’s liver. Another surgery followed. Then 5 years ago, the cancer came back again.
Here’s one surprising piece of this story: Petrie, who still harbors cancer in his liver, is thriving as a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.
And here’s another twist you might not expect: He’s not stressed at all.
Petrie and Derek Roger co-authored the new book Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success. He credits Roger, a British researcher, with transforming his approach to stress and making it possible to live fully in the face of a terrifying illness.
This duo’s insights have important implications for us not only as individuals but also as leaders who are charged with unleashing the full potential of the people we are privileged to serve. Petrie and Roger reject the conventional notion that stress is caused by external circumstances beyond our control, such as our job or our boss or family members. Instead, their work is grounded in 2 fundamental assumptions.
First, there’s a critical difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is the need to perform, and it’s something we all feel at one time or another as we compete in athletics, build a career, or raise a family. Stress, however, is what happens when we let pressure overwhelm us.
Second, we let pressure overwhelm us because of our tendency to ruminate — that is, to continuously churn over emotional upsets. To paraphrase Petrie, rumination is what you do when you wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep because you are thinking about all the things you have to do or haven’t done or should have done. It’s an invitation for worry and permits negative thoughts to take over our minds, and we all let it happen. Some of us even spend most of our lives in this state.
Certainly, it’s where Petrie found himself, ruminating endlessly and understandably over his cancer diagnosis, when he met Roger more than a decade ago. He was able to break the cycle of rumination by following Roger’s advice, and sharing that guidance with others has become one of Petrie’s main missions. Just a couple weeks ago, in fact, he led a workshop for more than 100 pilots at a major airline in the morning and then flew straight to CCL’s headquarters to lead a similar session that afternoon with our board — all the while looking remarkably relaxed!
Here are the 4 main steps that Petrie and Roger advise us to take:
1. Wake up: Most of us spend the majority of our time preoccupied or daydreaming about the past or future, never really plugged into the very moment we are experiencing now. It’s how we can drive to work and forget how we got there or lock the front door at night for the fifth time without realizing it.
It’s a habit that breeds rumination, and it’s pretty much inevitable. The key is to snap out of it as quickly as possible by getting out of our heads and back into our bodies. So clap your hands, stand up, or stretch. If you’re in a meeting, bounce your foot up and down, focus on the colors in the room, listen to the nearest sounds — anything to get you back into the present moment.
2. Control your attention: It seems logical to say, “Why worry about things I can’t do anything about?” But many of us worry about these things anyway. One thing we actually can control is our attention. We can practice consciously putting our attention where want it to be and leaving it there. Petrie likes to draw a circle and then put things he can control inside of it and things he can’t control outside of it as a reminder of where his priorities should be.
3. Detach: This is the ability to keep things in perspective. Look at the current challenge or situation that is causing rumination. Compare it to other things you have experienced over the years. Most of us, hopefully, will not have a reference point as bracing as Nick’s long battle with cancer. But tough challenges come to all of us. How does the current one compare? How much will it matter 12 months from now?
4. Let go: This doesn’t mean doing nothing or letting go of responsibilities. It does mean releasing the negative emotions, or rumination, that have ensnared us. That’s not easy to do of course. Still, we can practice acknowledging situations for what they are, reflecting on what we’ve learned from them, and doing something about it if we can. Beyond that, we do not want to remain focused on them.
These steps take some time to master, but I’ve been working on them myself and seeing real progress, as have many leaders who have employed them over the past 30 years. And there’s no better proof of their power than the inspirational story of Nick Petrie himself.
For more insights, see Banish Stress from Your Life: Stop Ruminating or read more of John Ryan’s LinkedIn Influencer columns.