We all live in a world where we have stressors all around us and our ability to manage stress becomes an element that determines how successful we are in whatever we do.
As with everything else in life, stress also has two faces. One kind of stress allows us to be alert and in the moment and leads us to be at our best. The other kind of stress takes a toll on our abilities and leads us to perform at far lower levels than we are capable of. The truth of the matter is that it is not the stressors that are different but our reaction to the stressors that are different. So, the same stressor can have either positive or negative impact on us and on our performance depending upon how we react to them.
So, managing stress is probably is a misnomer. We should probably be talking about responding to stress.
Responding to stress:
It is absolutely critical that each one of us identify and practice a healthy response to stress and make it a habit. I am the sort of person that takes on too much stress and even at times thrives on the physiological response to stress. What this means is that there is a very good chance that every time I get stressed, I may go overboard and my response to the stress becomes more hurting than beneficial. The hurting can happen by way of me becoming extremely cynical or even feel depressed. However, I also thrive on the same stress.
When I was asked to come up with a short video (by BJ Fogg) about how I respond to stress that leads to a more positive outcome, I sat down to reflect on the times when stress actually led me to create something that I would not have normally created. And here are the habits that have helped me convert the stress into positive actions:
1. Talking to someone:
Having someone to talk to without inhibitions is extremely helpful. For me, that person is my wife. I tell her about everything that stresses me. Just the act of talking out loud about what is stressing allows me to release the tension that builds within. At times, it also allows me to see the absurdity of the stuff that I am stressing out about. A lot of times, she tells me how absurd it is to sit and stress about something rather than doing something about the stressor. In all, having someone who can take a call and either comfort you or chide you depending on what we need is a big help in responding well to stress.
The second thing that has helped me a lot is to be in nature (physically or psychologically). I love sunsets. Whenever I am outside and it is time for sunset, my eyes instinctively looks for a way to watch the sun go down. I also like the sound of flowing water, the silence of the woods and everything that goes with being silently a part of nature. If I am in a room and not in nature physically, I find a way to transport myself into nature through my imagination (with a little help from the internet). I hear the sound of flowing water or rain falling in a forest or birds chirping. This calms me down and helps me look at the stressor very differently than how I originally saw it, thereby altering my response to it.
3. Working through the stress:
There have been times when I have decided to work through the stress and not respond to it. My first book “Your Startup Mentor” was created in one such moment. I was extremely stressed out about something and instead of thinking about what was causing me to be so stressed, I decided to instead focus on something that I have always wanted to – write a book. I took out a notebook (physical) and wrote for the next 4 hours. That became the first draft of my business poem, which got eventually published. My podcast came about in a similar situation. I was extremely stressed about something happening at work and didn’t want to think about it. I was listening to a lot of podcasts at that time and on a whim decided that I want to start a podcast. I reached out to 5 people and decided that even if a couple of them agreed to be interviewed by me, I will figure out the rest. Eventually, all five of them ended up on my show, but three of the five immediately responded immediately and the show was born.
There is nothing that can beat stress like play can. It can be any kind of play. The more physical it is the better. Physical activities allow us to produce neuro-chemicals which neutralises the neuro-chemicals that we produce when we are stressed. No stress neurochemicals, no stress. Going out for a run, playing a sport, even walking helps. I prefer taking long walks.
As I have grown older and started to read and understand Indian mythology and therefore Indian philosophy, I have learnt to keep things in perspective. The first three habits are about responding to stress. This one is about not getting stressed at all. The more I learn about the wisdom of men who lived here before me, the more I realise that it is much better to keep things in perspective and not allow anything to stress you. I have learnt that we get stressed when there is a mismatch between our expectation and reality. I have also learnt that we can’t control reality through our expectations. The more expectations we have, the more stress we have. So, its much better to just do our work and not create many expectations. In fact, I have now reached a state of mind where I strongly believe the following – “To each his Own”. Just this one belief has radically changed my perspective on stress caused by other people.
Depending on where I am (office, home, traveling, etc) and what stresses me, I try to choose one of these responses. Like everyone else, I am not perfect. I still get stressed out and perform badly sometimes. But I am finding myself more and more in a relaxed state of mind by not allowing anything to stress me than to manage or respond to stress, once I am stressed. Someone was wise enough to say – “Prevention is better than cure”.
I would recommend that you do this exercise in self-reflection to find out how you typically respond to stress and what kind of responses have helped you deal with stress leading to a positive outcome. Then be conscious of this choice the next time you get stressed about something.
Opening music credits goes to my son Yuvan Gupta.
Who is on the show:
In this episode, we host Dorie Clark. She is a marketing strategy consultant, professional speaker, and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press, Fortune, and Inc. magazine, she is the author of Entrepreneurial You (Harvard Business Review Press,), Reinventing You, and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine and one of the Top 10 Business Books of the Year by Forbes. Her books have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, Polish, Korean, and Thai.
Why is she on the show:
I have been reading her blog and following her work for a long time and have personally learnt a lot. She is also part of the MG100 cohort where leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith is sharing all his experience and learning to 100 of the best coaches so they can spread his work. I thought this is a great time to get her on the show.
What did I learn from this conversation:
Here are the lessons I learned from this conversation:
1. We can always re-invent ourselves, if we are clear on what we want to do and give ourselves a good runway for transitions. There are times when we need to burn our bridges but on most occasions it is better to give ourselves a good runway for transitioning. We always have more time than we think we have.
2. It is important to understand that it is easier to find support from strangers during the initial phases of any transition than from our close circles (friends and family). So, when we start the process of reinvention, we need to use the power of strangers and wear out the resistance of our closest allies over time.
3. Consistent content creation is critical if we want to either build a brand, reinvent ourselves or become and entrepreneur. Consistent content creation (audio, text or video) creates the required visibility and can be used build authority over a topic. We can then leverage this authority to create a brand and stand out.
Resources mentioned in the conversation:
How to connect with her:
One of the things that almost everyone of us does is to optimize. We optimise our time, our money and at times even our relationships. We want maximum efficiency in almost everything that we do. In organisations, we compensate sales guys on sales made, product managers on product development, marketing folks on leads generated, manufacturing folks on operational efficiency. Everywhere we look, we can find efforts to maximise efficiency in that part. This, in general, is our attempt to gain local optima. We try to reach optimal performance in that specific domain with no regards to the effect it has on the global performance.
This is why we have sales teams ending up selling something that is easier to sell than selling one that the company strategy is betting its future on. This is why we have manufacturing teams producing more stock of an item then needed to improve their operational efficiency. This is the reason why we have well-meaning folks from Dell outsource everything to their Chinese suppliers leading to the disruption of Dell as the leader of the PC revolution.
So, it is important as entrepreneurs that we understand this dynamic that plays in our very organisations.
The story of Bijlmer:
The Bijlmermeer (or Bijlmer, for short) was built just outside of Amsterdam in the 1960s. This was supposed to be the city of the future. This was classically designed with local optimisation. There would be no chaos. Every functional area (residential, shopping, school, business, etc) was supposed to be separate. No vehicles were supposed to be running on the ground level, which meant that all vehicular movement happened on an elevated road. The ground level was supposed to be only for pedestrian and bicycle use and was supposed to be covered by trees. The houses were near identical high rise buildings laid out in a hexagonal structure. It was supposed to be connected to the main Amsterdam city by subway. If you look at the thinking behind the entire project was to optimise everything locally.
However, due to a variety of reasons (metro line did not come up on schedule, the immigrant population moved in and that drove the local white Dutch people out of these apartments) the so-called utopian city of the future, ended up abandoned and becoming a hot spot for addicts and criminals. I believe that one of the primary faults, which doesn’t really come up in the above list of reasons why the Bijlmer never became the city of the future was its design.
In a complex system, Local optimisation usually creates more problems than it solves.
Let’s consider another complex system – our human body. Each part of the human body has its own rhythms and if the thought of their functional efficiencies, we can see that most of them don’t operate at their optimal efficiency. Our hearts can beat much faster than the ~ 72 beats per minute. We can breathe much more effectively and deeply than we do. We can run much faster than what we normally do.
Each one of our system (digestive, respiratory, sensory, reproductive, etc) allows one system to take the lead so that, we as humans operate at global efficiency. At any point in time, only one of the sub-systems of our human body is operating at optimal efficiency and this too is decided by the environment in which the body is operating and what its objective at that time is.
Let’s consider a typical business. As mentioned earlier, each part of the business usually is trying to operate at their local optimum efficiency. This leads to more challenges and almost never allows the overall business to operate at its peak efficiency. So, the question then to as is the following”
What can be done structurally such that we are able to operate at peak efficiency for the business?
The first thing that we need to define to operate our business under peak efficiency is to define one (or at most two) variable that when optimised, will optimise the business at a global level. In some cases, it could be increasing worker safety (Alcoa) or reducing cost (Southwest airline) or delighting customers (Virgin). Once we decide what this key variable is, then the entire organisation is asked to optimise for that single variable. What this means is that every time a decision needs to be made, the first question we need to ask is the following
Which decision will lead to optimising the one variable that matters?
If a decision doesn’t impact the variable that matters, then the team can explore local optima. IF it does, the action that optimises the variable that matters is the way to go.
This means that instead of optimising for sales, we optimise for selling the product that we as an organisation are betting our future on, even if that means that we step out of or lose some deals. This means that instead of looking at capacity utilisation of the manufacturing plant, we look at the demand, plan for the demand and manufacture only according to that plan.
Running a business like this is not so easy because of the inherent human nature. However, today, with all the technology solutions available with us, we have the unique ability to use these technologies to see the impact of each one of our decisions on this key variable and then decide in a way to optimise this key variable.
This I believe is the true potential of digital transformation.
It is easier to manage for local optimisation. It is easier to measure local actions and see progress locally. It difficult to see the impact of what we do locally that has a global impact. However, if as an organisation, we decide to avoid local optimisation and go for global optimisation, we will be rewarded with success that will dwarf everything that we could achieve by local optimisation.
This is also the case in our personal lives. We need to identify the variables in our personal lives that matter the most for us and then let everything else lead us to optimise this one variable. At some point, it could be making money, at some other point in time, it could be spending time with family or our personal health or anything else.
The key here is to be intentional about what we want to optimise for and subserve all our decisions to optimise this one variable.
It was April of 1976. It was one of those evenings when Gary Dahl, an advertising professional was having beer with his friends. His friends were going on and on complaining about their pets. In jest, he remarked that he had no complains about his pet. When probed about which pet, he said, that he had a pet rock.
This got a good laugh among his friends and that was that. Just like at time there is a tune or some thought that is stuck in our heads, this entire idea of having a pet rock was stuck in his head. So, he did what any entrepreneur would do – going about creating a product around his idea of pet rock.
It is now October and he has been working on this idea on and off since April. He got hold of rocks, created a carefully designed package – (with holes for oxygen to go through to the rock), soft base of straw so the rock feels comfortable and most importantly the 32 page pet rock training manual.
This manual (you can buy a kindle version here) had clear instructions on how to train your pet rock to sit, sleep, roll down (of course assisted by a slope) or attack the bully who troubles you ( of course with the assistance of the pet owner) and many more skills that can be taught to the pet rock.
He then sent press releases to various media outlets. Some of them picked the PR for the sheer absurdity of the idea. It even got him on the Tonight show. Twice.
The fad lasted for about 3 months and Gary sold about 1.5 Million pieces in those 100 days and netted a million dollars in profit. Each piece sold at about 4 dollars then with a dollar in net profit.
In an interview he said that no one except himself believed in the idea. Not even his wife.
Entrepreneurs have this unique ability to trust their intuition and their ability to make something work. Combine it with marketing smarts and you can make a market for almost anything – even a pet rock.Trust entrepreneurs to create opportunity where none exists... Click To Tweet
Lessons in Entrepreneurship from the Pet Rocks Experiment:
- Any idea can be made to work, if we can put in enough effort and creativity.
- Idea alone does nothing. We need to act on our idea and launch it. It is critical for any product. We can never guess which products can take off.
- Self-belief and the ability to back ourselves is critical for success. Gary ended up taking loans from investors to launch this product. He invested in the packaging (both material and labour).
- Anything that can catch the imagination of people can become marketing fads and do brisk business but for a brief amount of time.
- Packaging is critical. If it were not for the packaging and the accompanying training manual, no one would have bothered about this pet rock. As Gary once said, it is not the rock that he sold, it was pun or humour that sold.
- It is almost never about what we are selling, it is always about the story we create for our customers about what they are buying. Enable them to tell an impactful story, create meaning for the customer and they will buy your story, thereby your product, however effective or absurd it is.
I came across this story when listening to Terry O’reilly. Please do listen to his podcast. It is one of the best produced and most interesting podcast that i have come across on the topic of marketing. You can find more info about the podcast @ Under the Influence and you can subscribe on iTunes here. Highly recommended.
PS: Here is a video where a new pet rock is being trained by his owners.
PSS: Here is another video which explains in detail about the pet rock story.