Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stress, Success, and Bill Belichick

I recently read (or, more accurately, listened to) Daniel Gilbert talk about a study of academic performance that showed that students who were slightly stressed about examinations consistently outperform those who report feeling no stress at all.

Makes total sense to me. Even though "stress" carries an almost-universally negative connotation in our society, there's a reason why humans have a stress response to certain situations -- it enables them to kick their performance into high gear, focus, and succeed.

The problem with people that are so quick to say "no worries" and "I got it" is that all too often, well, they don't "got it." In an academic environment, they're the only ones on the hook, but all too unfortunately in a professional environment, others have to pick up the slack for these types.

So if you show me a person who claims to never feel any stress at all about their job -- the stress of a deadline, the stress before a performance, the stress of wanting to see the organization succeed -- I'll show you a person who probably just doesn't care.

It's kind of the way I'd feel about a couple who claims never to have gotten into a disagreement -- a human Potemkin Village.

On Sunday afternoon, I'll watch the Patriots kickoff against the 49ers (though it looks like that's all I'll see because I have to run somewhere around that time). Before, during, and after that kickoff, I'm willing to bet that head coach Bill Belichick will have seriously elevated stress levels. His professional success depends on the game, there will be millions of people watching, and he will have to live with the good and bad calls he'll make which will affect the outcome.

I, on the other hand, won't really feel that way. I'll be rooting for a win, but really my *job* for that time period will be to eat potato chips and drink beer. No matter the outcome, I'll have work on Monday and I'll get paid on the 15th. No one will call in to an AM radio station to call for my head and no one will be second-guessing my decisions all week long.

So it seems pretty natural that I won't be stressed in the same way that he will.

As I've written about in previous entries, my work environment is a motley mix of people in demanding positions requiring daily high performance and those awaiting medical or administrative discharge whose main purpose is, like that of Homer Simpson on the nuclear inspection day, to "watch the bee in the jar."

I find it equal parts curious and ironic that those in the latter category, detached of any real *stake* or interest in the organization, are quick to point out that others need to "chill" or not take their jobs too seriously.

That makes about as much sense to me as someone telling an NFL coach to "just not worry about it, it doesn't really matter" on a Sunday around noontime.

I'm not sure what the opposite of 'defensive' is (offensive?) but I'll happily wear it on my sleeve that I take my job VERY seriously and put my professional reputation on the line every time I get in front of a group of people to present information.

Do I sometimes stress about it? Sure I do, though certainly not in a way that materially affects anyone else. I'll do it in my own space, preparing behind my own door, much like an athlete psyching himself up in the locker room before a big game.

And if I were ever in a position to hire people to staff an organization, one of the first things I'd try to screen out is any personality type that conveyed to me, "I just don't really give a rip."

They can backseat drive, Monday-morning quarterback, and [insert any other variation on this theme here] all they want, but I'd just prefer they not do it with me.

Over-the-top excitability and/or stress that's handled by abusing others are definitely counterproductive. But a little bit of stress from time to time is healthy, and it makes us human.

So it didn't surprise me at all to hear that high-performers have that in common, and that the "I got it" crowd often fails to measure up.

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