Study the education and careers of most successful, skills based professionals and you will see a pattern emerge. Take the path to becoming a doctor as an example. The formative years leading to a career in medicine are spent under great stress. Medical school is demanding on all levels of human efforts (and it’s expensive too). This is followed by extended periods of residency and often years of on-the-job training. These activities are stressful based on the physical demands, and are compounded by the psychological strain of medical decision making. Despite all of the stress, most people would agree that medicine is a meaningful vocation and has the potential for high levels of life satisfaction.
On the other hand, as a profession, medicine is currently experiencing unparalleled and historic levels of burnout and even suicide. Doctors, as a group, have a suicide attempt rate nearly double that of the general population. Additionally, owing to their access to and skill with medicine, doctors fail less often when attempting suicide. This situation is causing the current estimate of U.S. doctor suicides to rise to roughly one doctor per day (a good reason to smile at your doctor next time you visit). Stress induced depression and other related mental health issues are considered major contributors to this problem.
So here lies the stress paradox at its core. It is because of the great amount of meaning and real significance in the work doctors perform that they are under so much stress. Yet, despite this seemingly necessary stress, doctors are suffering from burnout, depression and even suicide. Where does this leave us in terms of the value of stress? Is stress derived from meaningful work favorable? Or perhaps becoming a doctor is too stressful and therefore the downsides outweigh the benefits?
You may have no interest in becoming a doctor or any other type of skills based professional, nonetheless the answer to this question is fundamental to everyone. No matter what it is that you decide to do, there will always be this question. “Do I push myself to become the most I can despite the increased stress? Or, do I just take the path of least resistance and avoid stress as much as possible?”
The answer to these questions is no and no. You cannot ignore stress entirely. You always need to ensure that the additional efforts you make will not damage your physical or mental health. That said your life will be miserable if you do not challenge yourself. Lack of increased effort leads to unfulfilled wish lists, as well as an ever increasing load of “if only”thoughts that will wear you out mentally. What you really need is to plan your upward movement so that it stretches your comfort zone, but doesn’t bust it open all at once. You can make great strides in many areas by continuously taking little steps in the right direction.
I will use Jane Darrell as an example. Jane is a sales representative for a software company that provides industry specific workflow solutions. She has been with the company for three years and has experienced limited success (a euphemism) in expanding the client base. Most of her work involves visiting repeat customers to ensure that they renew their software purchases for the next 12 months. Jane finds this somewhat boring (make that really boring) and the pay leaves a lot to be desired. She envies her more successful sales colleagues who spend their time presenting to new customers and earning sizeable sales commissions. Jane knows that these sales representatives put in a lot of extra time and effort and she is hesitant to adopt their techniques. She knows they make a lot of calls directly to potential clients and frequently meet with high level decision makers whom they do not know previously. This type of work frightens Jane and she feels stress just thinking about it. She knows however, that she will never get ahead in her company without exactly this type of work. This is how the stress paradox presents itself to many people.
You are probably dealing with this paradox on some level yourself. It is relatively easy to develop a routine that works and become complacent. Therefore, most people do not prioritize the consistent push to widen individual comfort zones. You know that if you pushed harder you could attain your dream of a promotion, raise or other special opportunity contingent on performance. At the same time you do not want to “rock the boat” and experience uncomfortable and potentially stressful situations. You want to keep doing what you are doing and still get the desired results. Of course this is an exercise in futility. You will never get different results until you change your methods and actions.
The stakes here are enormous. You can spend the rest of your life stuck with your reassuring routines and never accomplish your dreams, or you can take the plunge and put in the extra effort. The method to overcoming this inertia is straightforward. You must first establish what it is that you would like to accomplish. Suppose like Jane you would love to expand your work into more interesting assignments with better earning potential. You then need to determine the exact skills you will need to acquire to make this happen. You may need to take a sales training course, improve presentation abilities and work on social skills. Each one of these items is simple and should not overwhelm if approached correctly. Pick one and take a small step towards making it happen. These steps should be truly small so that they do not create panic and strong stress reactions. You should be stretching your comfort zone slowly not busting it wide open. I will examine the small steps approach in detail in the next post.
Tell me about one area in your life where you are experiencing the stress paradox. I love to hear from you.