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The Virtues of Stress


Stress is often seen as part and parcel of entrepreneurship. Although it often comes with a negative connotation, from time to time, a stress test is a good thing for you and your business. It lets you know whether your organization will bend in the wind or will snap at a weak point.

Biologists have identified two types of stress humans can be subjected to. ‘Distress’, is characterized by that lingering grey cloud that hangs over us when we feel overwhelmed and seemingly unable to make a right step. ‘Eustress’ on the other hand is the positive kind. The Greek prefix ‘Eu’ literally translates as ‘good’. This is the kind you feel when you have a surge of adrenaline as are pushing through the last repetition at the gym, or the butterflies in your belly the night before an exam that you are ready and confident to take. In business, ‘Eustress’ comes to us when we are struggling forward. When we a scaling are scrambling to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

To my mind, the act of exercise perfectly encapsulates the virtues of Eustress. Right now, I am training for a 10-mile spartan race. It is the first time that I have ever done anything with such a long distance, and the mileage doesn’t take into account the energy sapping obstacles that will be intertwined with the course. So how am I training? I am running, 2/3 times a week, increasing the distance I run 10 to 15 % each time. I am progressively pushing my body each time, incrementally allowing it to adapt. Each training session, I subject my body & mind to an external stressor, widening my own sphere of comfort so that eventually, when the race comes around I can stand at the start line with confidence.

So much of the way in which we live today is centred around making our lives as comfortable as possible. Technology has facilitated immediate gratification and access to resources that were scarce for our ancestors. In one way this is no bad thing. I for one am grateful that in the developing world we have access to clean water, ample nourishment, and especially the peace of mind not to worry about lurking predators in the bush. At the same time, such mental and physical stressors that are seemingly absent in our own modern lives have always been vital our biological equilibrium.

Like in all the other spheres of life, in entrepreneurship and in our business we should be grateful for the challenges and cleansing storms that often come our way. Moreover, we should actively be subjecting ourselves and our companies to regular stress testing. It is often said that a company without problems is a company that is dying.

The Hungarian – American Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the world to the concept of ‘flow’. He hypothesised that the peak experience for any human being, is when we are in a state of total of immersion in a task that both challenges and intrigues us. The pre-requisites for this ‘flow-state’ include a high level of skill and simultaneously high level of difficulty and challenge. Simply put, for a human to experience this peak level, stress, in its positive form is required.

In summary, not all stress is bad. Actually, we should be actively seeking the right type of stress, both for ourselves and for our companies. As Carl Jung famously said, ‘man needs struggles, they are necessary for his health.’


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