Good Pressure, Bad Pressure

Here is the narrative that sometimes runs through my head. Raise your hand if it’s familiar:

I need to do something because…

  • Everything around me will fall apart otherwise.
  • I’ll be a failure if the thing I’m working on fails.
  • People I care about are going to think I’m incompetent.
  • I’ll be found out as a fraud.
  • I’m worried about my career, which will put my future and my family’s future at risk.

It’s not a good place to be, having those thoughts. I call it being in The Pit, when you feel there are thousands of miles to go, but you’re stuck in a hole. It’s when the scathing commentary of your inner critic echoes off the sheer walls, turning from whispers into screams. In the Pit, you feel so very alone. Doubt is your soundtrack and fear is your sustenance. It’s the sensation that you’re teetering along the edge of a sheer cliff with flailing arms, the whole world watching and waiting to see when you fall.

Here is another narrative that sometimes runs through my head:

I want to do something because…

  • I believe my work matters
  • My teammates inspire me to be my best
  • I want to be the change I want to see in the world
  • I’m empowered to have even more impact
  • I feel supported by those around me in reaching my goals

When I have those thoughts, everything changes. I’m on steady ground and looking out into the horizon. The challenges near and far — the mountains to scale, the rivers to swim, the ravines to cross — are no less difficult, but I know they are not impossible because I believe in where I’m going. I know that any journey of thousands of miles comes down to simply putting one foot in front of the other. If I take a wrong turn or mess up, I have a community who will help me get back on my feet. No matter what happens, they’ve got my back and they’ll tell me: “You’ve got this.”

In the first world, I feel alone, afraid, and untethered. I feel that I am fighting for survival. In the second world, I feel a sense of safety, belonging, and confidence. I feel like I am doing what I believe is right.

After witnessing these two narratives play out time and time again, I’ve noticed something: when I feel external pressure that is controlled by fear, my work is not great. I can’t be creative. It’s hard for me to think long-term. I don’t end up being a great partner to others.

But when I feel intrinsic pressure is motivated by own personal values, I do my best work and become a better teammate to everyone else around me. And together, we grow closer and achieve more together.

I believe this is true for teams as well. I can’t recall an example of groundbreaking work coming from an environment of stress, anxiety, and fear of failure. The best work I’ve seen comes from groups that have conviction in their vision, clarity on their principles, and the sense that even if they don’t know everything and make mistakes along the way, they’ll be okay, because they’re going to learn and get better as a result. They are curious and seek to understand different perspectives because they know that’s the fastest path to learning.

There is research to back this up:

The problem is, when things aren’t going well, it’s easier for all of us to fall into bad pressure.

When you’re not confident in yourself and your colleague gives you what should be helpful feedback, how do you receive it? With a big, hearty “thanks!” or bristling like a porcupine as you wonder: Oh god, does this mean I’m a failure?

When you’re reviewing your product’s performance with your manager and all the graphs are going down, is she more likely to say: “I believe in this team 100%” or to furrow her brows and say: “Our success is at stake if your team doesn’t turn this around?”

When you’ve been up for 36 hours burning the midnight oil because things are crazy and you need a colleague to do something for you, do you politely request: “Hey, mind helping me with someone?” or do you say “Do this or we’re hosed?”

How can we get out of this cycle?

The answer is two-fold:

Focus on yourself first. If you find yourself stuck in the Pit, recognize that you’re not going to be your best until you get out of it. Rest up. Be kind to yourself. Take time off if you need to. Seek the company of those you know will support you no matter what, so you can be reminded that you are awesome, and you are enough.

Remember and repeat the why. Why does your work matter? What got you into this game in the first place? If you and your team are successful, what will be better about the world? Remember this — find the shiny kernel of meaning — and repeat it over and over again. Focus on the why, the long-term vision. “Not failing” is not a good enough reason to succeed.

Support each other. One of the great things about being in a team is that you don’t go it alone. Even when the outside world is slowly exerting its relentless pressure on your group, push back together. Remind each other of what matters — your mission and values, the steps you take today that will lead to shining tomorrows. Believe in each other, and let that belief transform bad pressure into good pressure.

“Pain pushes until vision pulls,” said Dr. Michael Beckwith. Which would you rather propel you?

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