No matter what phase a company is in, or the level of employee or management, work stress goes with the territory.
In this Tough Things First podcast, Ray Zinn draws on decades of experience to talk about identifying stress and dealing with it before it throws you off your game.
Rob Artigo: Welcome back to another edition of the Tough Things First podcast. I’m your guest host, Rob Artigo. I am a writer and entrepreneur in California. Hi, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Hello there, Rob. So good to be with you this morning.
Rob Artigo: Sure. I hope you’re not too stressed.
Ray Zinn: Well, in these days with all the things that are going on, this pandemic and economic issues and political issues, you just can’t help but be stressed.
Rob Artigo: Yeah, I guess it’s kind of natural. So, that’s where we lead into here. And stress at work, it seems, is about as ubiquitous as stress in life. In particular, like you said, in a situation like this. And I think it comes down to a matter of degree. And most times in our lives, we don’t have as much turmoil as we have now, but it sort of depends on how we respond to it. And so let’s talk about the workplace stress aspect of it and inside and outside of the situation that we’re facing now, but something that we would most likely face going forward is our stress in our workplace. So is workplace stress inevitable?
Ray Zinn: Yes. We talk about stress as though it’s some kind of a medical issue, but stress actually comes from fear and fear is the predecessors to stress. So we’re fearing something and that’s what causes us to be stressed. And so if we can recognize these fears, it’s kind of like climbing a mountain that’s got some really difficult slopes to it. And so as you approach the precipice or whatever it is you’ve got to navigate around, there’s stress. And so if you’ve done it before, in other words, you’ve made that climb many, many times before, then the stress is down because the fear is down. You’re just less fearful.
A friend of mine was doing a serious climb up in the Grand Tetons and he had never done it before. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he just tossed and turned. He says, “Why am I doing this? Why am I tearing my mind up and my body up just so I can say, ‘I climbed the Grand Tetons.'” We all face at some point a Grand Teton type journey, where if we’ve never done it before, if this is something new and different, there is that potential to not sleep well, to not eat well.
The first thing you have to do is recognize whether or not you are engaged in a stressful situation. You can tell that by, are you agitated? Are you eating well or correctly? Are you sleeping well? And so I think that the first thing to do is just really sit back and just kind of analyze what’s causing my stress. And then if you can kind of understand it, then you can probably reduce the fear factor. You’re not going to get totally rid of it, but you will understand why am I fearful? What is causing this anxiety?
Rob Artigo: Have you met the kind of people in the workplace who will try to avoid approaching a subject or understanding something because they’ve created basically an irrational fear of what lays on the other side of the question? So they’ll inculcate themselves or insulate themselves from this question. It’s kind of like, “I don’t want to open that letter over there because I’m afraid what it will say.” And then reality is if you were to get past that and understand what’s going on, then it liberates you from that fear, which should help you at least reduce the stress even if you don’t like what’s in the envelope.
Ray Zinn: I know a person, for example, that won’t balance your checkbook because they don’t want to see how little money they have. And I’m sure many of who are listening to this will kind of smile when they hear that because we don’t want to open up that letter from the IRS. We don’t want to open up that bank statement to find out that we’re negative or some other document that’s going to give us some bad news. Maybe it’s a recall on our vehicle or something. And so you talk about irrational stress or irrational fear. Did you say rational fear or stress?
Rob Artigo: Irrational fear, but the irrational fear is what leads to the stress.
Ray Zinn: Right. So irrational means it’s unfounded. And so that doesn’t really play to what we’re talking about because unfounded, again, is an experience thing. So the difference between knowledge and wisdom is experience. And so if you’re wise, that means you have the experience. For example, we talked about the trek up the mountain, up the Grand Teton, and you stepped around that crevasse and you’ve done it many times, and also your guide. And so it’s no different for the guide than it is for the inexperienced climber, except for experience. That’s the only difference. You got the same health, you’re physically fit, you’re capable of crossing that crevasse, you’ve got the stamina. And so it’s nothing to do with the physical, it has to do with experience. It’s just the lack of experience.
For example, taking a test. If you can take the test over and over and over and over and over, let’s say many times, and you’re only graded when you turn it in, that’s experience. And so the only difference between you want to call it irrational fear and actual fear is just experience. If you had the experience, you don’t fear. And so I think that the way you would quell your anxiety is by just getting experience.
There’s going to be that first time for everything. That first time for eating a particular meal that you’ve never tasted before, or going on a particular trip that you haven’t done before, or climbing that mountain you haven’t done before, or going to that new job you haven’t had before. So if you’ve done something over and over and over and over many, many times, you’re not fearful because you understand. And that difference between fear and not fearing, or being fearless, is experience. That’s the only difference there is.
Rob Artigo: Isn’t it true that in your analogy there, like climbing the mountain or any kind of situation, is that if you have the experience of knowing what you will feel in it, and so you know that you’re going to feel some stress. Let’s look at public speaking, which a lot of people get stressed out about, is that you know how you’re going to feel, you know what the reality of the situation is, and that you just learned based on that experience how to cope with those sensations so they don’t overwhelm you.
Ray Zinn: Exactly. I remember years ago when I was a pilot flying my own plane and I’d have a difficult time sleeping. I’d have to be tossing and turning and my wife is sleeping away like a baby. I would often ask her, “How can you sleep so well when I’m tossing and turning before our flight?” And she says, “Because I have more faith in the pilot than you do.” Which is again, you have to have faith in yourself. You got to believe in yourself. And if you don’t believe, if you have this lack of courage, this lack of valor as they say, then of course you’re going to have anxiety.
Every single trip, no matter how many times you’ve taken it is going to be fearful. And so you just have to, as they say, buck up buttercup. You got to grab your shorts by the tops and jerk up and tighten up and get ready.
Rob Artigo: So let’s talk about stress in general. And I mean everyday stress, whether it be at work, whether it be at home, in life. And in your experience, let’s talk about some of the strategies that you’ve used for coping with daily stress. So what kinds of things have you done and what seems to work for you just to mitigate basic stress in life?
Ray Zinn: I know this is a good lead-in, isn’t it, for Tough Things First?
Rob Artigo: Yeah.
Ray Zinn: So what I do is every night or evening before I retire or settle down is I make a list of things that I’m going to do tomorrow. And those involve all these tough things. Eating that ugly frog first thing every morning. And so I just made a habit of really jumping in and tackling those tasks that I didn’t want to do first thing every morning. Got them out of the way and the rest of my day went like a dream.
Rob Artigo: That’s the very definition of tough things first, which obviously our listeners can read about in your book, Tough Things First. And I think about the fact that I know that you’re an exercise guy. That you get up, the first thing you do is exercise in the morning. And myself as getting out when I have the time to get out on my bicycle, which I used to ride regularly and train all the time and be a real athlete in cycling, and then later on it kind of wore off. But most exercise experts will say that just being able to get some exercise in every day will release a lot of tension, it’ll release the endorphins your body needs that actually lift your spirits.
Ray Zinn: Yes. And it’s interesting, you say when you used to do it and when you had time to do it. Well, the time is when you decide. You decide if you’re going to take the time. So that means you have to wake up a half-hour earlier, you wake up a half-hour earlier, which is what I do. I still want to get in my time, so if I want to get my exercise in, I just get up early enough to do it and I just plan for it. And it doesn’t take long to get out of the habit as you have found out. So I have been exercising every day, roughly an hour a day, for my entire adult life. And even at my advanced age, I’m over 80, my stamina and my physical prowess is still pretty good for a person of my age.
Discipline is doing what you don’t like doing and doing it well. So again, overcoming that fear is doing something that you don’t like doing. And so once you learn to do things that you don’t want to do, you learn to love the things you hate. And that’s another aspect of tough things first is just come what may and love it. In other words, just say, “Whatever comes in my way, I’m going to deal with it and I’m going to love it.”
This friend of mine that went on the Grand Teton journey, he really didn’t want to do it. And so that, of course, added to his anxiety because if you’re doing something you don’t want to do, you’re also increasing your anxiety. And so you just got to learn to love the things you hate. You got to look for why. What is good about what I’m doing? What’s the positive about this? Where do I find the golden nugget in this morass of manure that I’m having to deal with?
It’s that story told about this eight-year-old boy that was extremely optimistic and so the parents wanted to teach him a lesson maybe to calm down his optimism. And so for Christmas one day after he went to bed, they filled his room full of horse manure about three feet deep. The next morning when they got up, they heard all this thrashing around and just all this noise and everything. And so they opened the door up and they said, “What’s going on?” So Johnny popped his head up out of the manure and said, “With all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here someplace.” And so he’s looking on the bright side. He said, “Okay. Sure, there’s a lot of horse manure in my room, but there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”
And so if you can find that pony in your life, if you can find that golden nugget in that morass of baloney that you’re dealing with, then you’ll be a happier person. Going on a trip that you don’t want to go on or are going to that new job that you have anxiety about, focus on the good things. Focus on the increased pay, or the better benefits, or the better hours, or maybe a better job function you’re going to do. Focus on the positive.
Like this friend of mine who did this Grand Teton thing, if he focused on the good thing rather than on the bad things and all the danger and how stressed he’s going to be and how much effort he’s got to put into it. If he focused on, “This is a challenge that I’m just looking forward to getting up that summit and raising my arms in the air exclaiming, ‘I did it! I did it!'” That’s what you want to do. You just want to look for the good. Be positive. Use optimism as a weapon against this fear factor.
Rob Artigo: And as always, you can reach out to Ray Zinn with your questions at toughthingsfirst.com, continue your education right here, and the conversation with all the podcasts, blogs, and links to information about Ray’s book, Tough Things First. His other book, The Zen of Zinn, which is a collection of writings on interrelated topics of entrepreneurship, leadership, management, discipline, determination, society, people in life. It’s the Zen of Zinn. Thanks, Ray.
Ray Zinn: Thank you, Rob. Oh, that’s a fun conclusion you did.