I’ve never seen as much stress as I am seeing right now in the work place. Most people are putting on a good front, but when you scratch the exterior you find an ocean of suffering right below the surface.
A recent cover story from Atlantic Magazine talks about how U.S. high school students are the most anxious and stressed of any generation.
There are lot of people offering solutions but most (according to the research) start with exactly the wrong premise – how to get rid of all those stressful events. That doesn’t work.
This is what I’ve learned about stress and resilience, and is how I learned it:
At the age of 25, while playing professional rugby in Japan I got stomach cancer. The surgeons found and removed 3 large tumors from my abdomen. My response to the situation was not shock, but denial. went back to Japan picked up my life again and pretended nothing had happened. One year later, after my MRI scan, my doctor told me that the tumors had returned, this time in my liver.
Now there was no denial. My mind started to go crazy, “Why did this happen to me?” “What if I only have 6 months to live?” “Why didn’t I make better use of my life?”
During this period, I read a newspaper article about a British academic, Dr. Derek Roger, who was visiting my hometown. He had dedicated his life to studying why it was that some people go through difficult situations and are overwhelmed, while others go through the same event and cope.
I wanted to meet him and find out what he knew, so I wrote to him. He agreed to meet and over coffee he taught me a lesson that has stuck with me ever since: what causes stress is not the event, but the rumination about the event.
Cancer for me was the event and it was unavoidable. But what was optional was the endless rumination about what if’s and if only’s.
Over the next several years, I started to apply the steps that Derek taught me to reduce my rumination. At first it was hard, my situation had a lot of uncertainty and the stakes were high. But over time, bit by bit, my rumination decreased and my ability to handle my situation increased.
When I originally took the resilience survey, I scored 10/10 on rumination (the highest level of stress). When I take the survey now, I score 0/10.
What is most interesting about this for me is that my situation hasn’t actually changed. The difference now is that I never spent a minute of my day ruminating about them or most anything else. I have come to see that stress and rumination are a complete waste of time.
Derek became a mentor of mine after our meeting and I started to teach the methods I learned from him to others who needed these tools. I’ve now taught the tools to thousands of leaders in workplaces around the world and the response is nearly always the same:
- I wish someone had taught me these at the start of my career.
- I wish my direct reports, spouse, and children could learn about these tools.
This index card summarizes what I’ve learned about leadership resilience:
This is why Derek and I decided to write Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success, to educate others about how stress affects you, what concrete things you can do to avoid chronic rumination, and how to build resilience.
Although it takes intention and practice, it’s possible to live life without stress.
A version of this post was originally published in September 2015 on Nick Petrie’s blog.