Is Stress a Requirement for a Successful Career?

Credit: The Big Bang Theory via CBS

Walk into any self-help section of the nearest bookstore, and you will find the shelves stocked with different advice on managing stress and overcoming anxiety.  Attend a meeting or conference with a health focus and stress is sure to be a discussion topic.  Go out to dinner with friends or co-workers and the conversation will invariably turn to our stresses at one point or another.  Stress is a normal part of our lives that we deal with and twist and mold into different forms that can often help and hurt us.  But is stress a requirement for a successful career?

Stress is the carryover of our instinctual fight or flight response hormones, but most often these days, your stress is not related to being chased by a bear.  At work, it’s probably caused by fear.  Fear that you won’t get everything done; fear that you will screw up a project; fear that you don’t know what you’re doing, and at any minute someone will finally figure that out.  Fear and the stress associated with it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but understanding your stress, including its root causes and severity is important.

In psychology terms, there are two types of stress: eustress and distress, and I often try to gage my own stress by these two benchmarks.  Eustress can be a beneficial stress in that it forces you into action at gets you through a difficult situation.  Most of my working experiences have included some type of eustress.  I spend a lot of time worrying about how I will get all of my work done on time, or if the quality of my work with be sufficient.  This usually propels me to work harder and smarter to ensure I’m working at a level that is up to my standards.  And this, in my opinion, is the stress that pays off.  It’s the stress that gets you that promotion in the future.  It’s the stress that pushes you to be better than yesterday.  

Alternatively, distress presents itself in a less desireable light.  This type of fear can be paralyzing, and detrimental to your development.  Think about the impact that a terrible boss can have on your stress levels.  Often you become unable to focus on the tasks at hand because your thoughts become consumed with fear and anger associated with the situation.  This stress may be harder to overcome, and it may require you to reassess your goals and strategies for their achievement.  You may need to make a change.  

While I’d love to say that stress is not an essential part of a successful career, I find it difficult to identify examples of where that might be the case.  Stress is often an indicator of growth, and in general growth is painful.  Most of the time, we are not innately good at something, but instead have to work and hone a skill until we learn what works and what doesn’t.  In the words of former football coach and author, Lou Holtz, “In this world you’re either growing or you’re dying so get in motion and grow.”  If your stress is a byproduct of growth, stick with it, and see where it can take you.  Alternatively, if you know that there is a stressor that is impeding your growth, see if there are solutions to get around that obstacle.

So let yourself be stressed, but make sure you think about your stress. Take time to assess if it’s the kind of stress that’s being caused by your individual and professional growth, or is it useless, or even debilitating stress.  Can you see getting through this stressful time in a way that you are better off for it, or is this stress detracting from your life with no benefits in sight?  If it’s the latter, it may be time to consider making a change.

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