Stress Is Not Your Enemy

with 4 Comments

Stress is not your enemy

If I had to pick one learned skill that has served me the best in my career, it would be learning to grab my mind by the scruff of the neck and drag it back to the task at hand.

The ability to give focused attention to anything is a skill which is built up by practice, and I think all successful people develop a modicum of this ability simply by practicing their craft. I remember enjoying advanced math and physics classes in college or large programming projects simply because they could make your head hurt as they challenge your ability to focus hard enough to understand and solve them.

It was with interest, therefore, that I read “Stress Is Not Your Enemy” by Tony Schwartz on the Harvard Business Review Blog:

The principle is simple, but not entirely intuitive. The harder you push yourself, the more you signal your body to grow. It’s called supercompensation, and the growth actually occurs during recovery. The limiting factor is mostly your tolerance for discomfort.

Think for a moment about attention. Absorbed focused lies at the heart of great performance. Unfortunately, our minds have minds of their own — they flit from thought to thought. It’s also more difficult than ever to stay focused in this digital age. Never before have we had to deal with so many seductive distractions.

Training your mind operates by the same principle as training your body. By focusing on one thing for a defined period of time — say by counting your breath, or working at a demanding task, or even reading a difficult book — you’re subjecting your attention to stress.

As your mind wanders, the challenge is to return your focus to the breath, or the task, or the book. Effectively, you’re training control of your attention. The more intensely you practice, even for short increments of time, the stronger you’ll get.

My purpose in blogging about this is to tell young people that pushing yourself is an essential part of their development. You increase not only in concentration and mental power, but you also increase in the grit required to continue pushing yourself.

And my second purpose is to remind those of us who are older that continuing to push ourselves is the path toward continued fitness. Without continuing to stress yourself in retirement, you will atrophy and die younger. Part of our retirement counseling includes asking about success and significance in retirement. Retirees have to continue to push themselves mentally and physically in order to stay mentally and physically fit. It is easy to plan financially for a retirement of relaxation because a sedentary lifestyle in retirement won’t be a long one.

So lean into activities that stretch your mental and physical abilities, and if needed join a class or get a coach to help push you in the process.

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. Favorite number: e (2.7182818…)

4 Responses

  1. Edward C D Ingram
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    At 72 I am writing one of the most difficult books to write ever. I have been on track to do so for forty years.

    Maybe I have lost some of the grit that I used to have when I led the financial services industry in the UK in a number of ways and would see things that others failed to see till later or when I pointed them out.

    I am still managing to do that and hope that my book will greatly increase the understanding that we have of how economies behave and why the solutions tried so far have failed and the current alternatives are also failing.

    My book recounts in the introduction (the next edition to be partly published on my blog) how by constantly ignoring my insights the world got into the present crisis, then continued to make it worse, and finally has got to a position where the resources needed to turn it around before it hits bottom are rapidly reducing.

    What I have that others do not have, among other things, is the ability to continue to learn and test and discuss my ideas year after year decade after decade and finally when ready, I am about to publish my findings.

    Academics by contrast, have been paid to publish shallow researches (comparably) at an every increasing pace as time passes.

    At the same time, many of them are so confident taht their learning is the cutting edge that a person who does not belong to their community cannot cut new ground.

    In contrast, a Harvard study showed that prize winners for innovation were mostly drawn from outside of the discipline concerned.

    I look forward to recognition from my coffin – after I have passed on.

    • David John Marotta
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      Greetings Edward Ingram,

      They did a study of art classes, telling half of them to aim for one piece of quality and the other half to aim for quantity. Each student picked their best piece. Art experts judged the quality of each student’s best piece. They found that classes that aimed for quantity produced better quality pieces as their best work than those who aimed for quality directly.

      Work hard!

  2. Dr Mary Gresham
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    I give stress management seminars to corporations often. This article is part of the well known finding that there is an optimum level of stress for the body and the mind.Too little stress results in boredom and lack of growth. Too much stress results in overload on the body and mind. Chronic stress is the most damaging of all as the body has no time to recover and renew. Each individual has his/her own unique stress tolerance level. and needs to develop an individual awareness of the stress level optimum for them and how to manage it when it is too high. Most of the US remains in high stress mode for too long with health consequences. See the American Psychological Association study of Stress in America for more information. Dr Mary Gresham

    • David John Marotta
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      Greetings Dr. Mary Gresham,

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion. I enjoyed your emphasis on each person finding their optimum stress equilibrium, the dangers of chronic stress and the dangers of too little stress. In my experience the ebb and flow of stress throughout my week has a rhythm to it. In my Judeo-Christian tradition there is to be a Sabbath rest once a week. A friend of mine commented that few people felt they could take one day a week off from work at least partly because few people actually worked hard the other six! Finding that optimum balance of work, work, work, work, work, work, rest seems to be critical to a successful work-life fit.