5 min read

Coping with Stress

Three tips for dealing with stress at work.
Coping with Stress
Three tips for dealing with stress at work.

Show Notes

Alright, let's talk about stress. Not the low-grade stress from things like your student loans or your ballooning waistline. Not even medium grade stress, like when you're trying to zipper merge, and everybody else on the highway thinks they're in a game of Mario Kart. That's not really stressful. You see, that's just life.

No, I'm talking about real stress, the kind of workplace stress that gives you PTSD. Let me give you an example. I worked for a mar-tech startup for a bit. Now all startups are kind of nutty, but this place was on another level. In the first four days at this company, I was asked to step in as a lead engineer to rescue a floundering team. The team had mysteriously imploded the week before I started, under circumstances that I still don't fully understand. My mentor at the company and the individual with the deepest knowledge of the systems was fired, which left me to operate a huge system I had no hand in building, using tech I'd never seen before. So naturally, there was a major outage that brought down a critical third-party integration for 36 hours.

The company was getting absolutely crucified on social media, and the CEO of the company, who I'd never even seen in person, started lashing my team over Slack, publicly shaming us for breathing his air. Remember, this all happened in the first four days. You would not even believe all the other shit that went down at this company. A few weeks later, at an all-hands meeting, about 70% of the company was laid off via PowerPoint ambush. Yes, after an excruciating dissertation on the rule of 40, and a slideshow showing the Titanic hitting a glacier, the CEO announced that if your name is on the next slide, clean up your desk and leave the building. Yeah, that's the kind of acute stress I'm talking about. That's PTSD, stress, the kind of stress that takes years of your life. Oddly enough, throughout all of this drama, I heard a very common refrain for my teammates. How are you so calm right now? Why aren't you freaking out? How are you keeping it together?

Well, I wasn't always good at dealing with stress, I had to learn how to do it. And I didn't figure it out by working in tech, that's for sure. You know, listeners of this podcast might recall that I have a background in coaching. So I know a bit about emotional management. Much of coaching is really about emotional management. Now I don't coach athletes anymore, but I still compete in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. That's a full contact martial art where guys with cauliflower ears try to strangle you unconscious or break your arm. Imagine you're getting strangled with the collar of your own gi...your field of vision is shrinking to a pinprick...and then you realize you're seconds away from soiling yourself and potentially dying. Well, compared to that, the nonsense you encounter at work in your air-conditioned office seems kind of trivial.

But Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not for everybody. But I think most people could benefit from better stress management. So for this episode of The Imposters Club, I thought it would be good to share some stress management techniques I've picked up over the years. Here we go.

The first technique is called three by three. This is a technique taught to special forces who have to deploy to combat zones and here's how it works. When you feel yourself starting to panic, you state three things you can see. Then state three things you can hear, then state three things you can feel. The effect of this exercise is that it gets you out of your head and grounds you in the present by activating your senses, which are your connection to the real world. And when you activate your senses you connect to present reality and disconnect from the crazy jumble of worries and fears that turn your head into a shark-nado. After doing three by three, hopefully, you'll find that the reality around you is rarely as bad as the crazy spider web of nightmare scenarios that your imagination can conjure.

By the way, there's another version of three by three called 54321. This technique requires you to see five things, hear four things, smell two things, feel three things, and taste one thing. I have used this technique successfully in the past, but it takes a little bit longer than three by three. And so it's less useful when you need to ground or center yourself quickly. You can kind of see why the special forces would prefer the shorter three by three version. It's probably not that easy to think of one thing you can taste when bullets are whizzing past year years. So I do the three-by-three exercise. Literally every time I compete in Jiu Jitsu, or when I'm just feeling overwhelmed at work, it's an incredibly powerful way to manage your emotions when stress is threatening to overwhelm you.

The second technique is from Lou Holtz, the legendary coach of the Fighting Irish. Coach Holtz would train his teams to short circuit stress by asking themselves what's important now, the acronym is WIN, the win principle is incredibly powerful because it forces you to solve the problem that's in front of you, rather than fretting about imaginary problems. If you allow your mind to wander to things that might happen, you end up pursuing fool's errand like say, future-proofing. Now we all know that future-proofing is a terrible idea when it comes to the software, yet countless cycles are wasted protecting against problems you might have. When you focus on what's important, you give yourself permission to apply maximal force to the problem you know you have. So the WIN principle works because you free yourself of an enormous mental burden and a major source of workplace stress.

Now coincidentally, the third stress management technique I want to share also comes from Notre Dame. This is from Ken McDaniel, who was captain of the Fighting Irish football team in 2014. I heard Ken on a podcast about mental performance, say something that blew my mind. To paraphrase, Ken said that world-class performance and false humility cannot coexist. Think about that. world-class performance and false humility cannot coexist. In other words, false humility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself you're not good enough , or that you're not up to it...well then, you're not good enough. You're not up to it. Hw are you supposed to deal with all of the challenges that you face at work? If you don't even believe in yourself, how are you ever going to cope with workplace stress? Sorry, but the stress is not going away. You have to change.

So when I was working at that dumpster fire of a startup, it would have been really easy to let myself off the hook. "I'm not up to this. This isn't what I signed up for. This is above my paygrade." Etc. It's kind of hard to stay calm when things are crumbling around your ears, when customers are flaming you on Facebook, and the CEO is taking potshots at your team over Slack. But world-class performance and false humility cannot coexist. As Henry Ford once said, "whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." So why give away your power? Most stress is self-inflicted. If you don't like it, choose to be world-class or die trying.

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