Trailhead: Jan Ascher and Fleur Tonies. "How to turn everyday stress into ‘optimal stress’ ". McKinsey Quarterly (2021-02-18).
Taking stress advice from a consulting firm is either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid. Incredibly smart: those that thrive in a top-tier consulting environment surely must have figured out how to deal with their stress well enough. Incredibly stupid: learning how to live with high levels of stress is about as smart as learning how to live with high levels of shotgun wounds (assuming there is an alternative, etc.).
I am a simple man. I like sports analogies. They break down problems into small pieces that my monkey brain can digest.
The analogy between sports and stress helps illuminate a big challenge in managing stress: poor self-awareness. At the gym, for example, we’re acutely aware of when we’re straining muscles or resting them (the two phases of supercompensation). And when we consciously add new, varied exercises (behaviors) to our workout, we become stronger and more flexible over time.
The same should be true for managing stress. Yet at any given time, we’re unaware of which stress state we’re in (engagement or recovery), let alone consciously seeking behavior changes that would improve the efficacy of either state. Managing stress, therefore, starts with self-awareness.
The way I manage stress is actually an awful lot like how I used to train for running—stupid with reasonably good results that allow me to justify continued stupidity. I'm reliving a memory now of running in the San Gabriels, up and over Whitney Saddle from Newhall to Sylmar then back to Newhall, but collapsing on the last four-mile downhill, crawling, puking, crawling. That was inconvenient, but normal. It was just training. No pain no gain, eh? It worked, I suppose. It was unlikely to have a worse time in a race than that. That run was peak bad. It was the kind of experience that could be recalled during a low point in a race, providing a positive response to the often-asked question, "could it get any worse than this?"
That has no place in the rest of life, for the most part. At work? Nah. Maybe if you're a firefighter or a soldier or a cop, where resilience is a necessity. For a White Collar Hero? Definitely not. But I often find myself cranking up the stress internally anyway. Nearly all of the time this is useless, detrimental. But every so often an occasion will arrive that feels catastrophic for most people—but for me, I've found my calm place. I'm not planning for it, I'm just made for it, for good or ill.
I'm scrolling through the article and the advice is sound. Drink yr water. Look at yr dog for 30 seconds. Take a walk around the block you miserable bastard. Then sit back down and produce.
When managed well, however, stress can be a path to personal growth. To turn stress into an opportunity for growth is to find your optimal stress point. The key is understanding our own stress so that we can better harness our body’s normal stress response, rather than only being subservient to it.
Sometimes I read things like this and I don't even want to improve anymore. There's no fault with any of what was written there. It could fit neatly in between advertisements for supplements on The Tim Ferriss Show. It's just weird in a way that only superachievers would find normal. Stress will find me, ready or not, and we wrestle. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins. I don't want to understand it. I have genes. They're not the kind of genes that produce organisms that like to chill out. My goal isn't to optimize stress—what a gross phrase, "optimize stress"—but to just not subject anyone else to any negative downstream effects from it.
Vonnegut, Bluebeard: “I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”
Also, Vonnegut, Bluebeard: "I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive."
Go ahead and learn how to deal with your stress in useful ways. I'm not going to journal about it or monitor my heart rate or whatever. If someone wants to live an optimal life that's fine, I guess. The pedant in me wants to ask: what variable are you optimizing for anyway? But maybe it's just because I don't have my own favorite variable. I like running face-first into difficult things to see if I can survive. We all have our kinks.
I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don't bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone. They will not inherit the earth, but then neither will I... And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there's a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time