I had spent almost a year working towards my first promotion at work. It was constantly on my mind. I worried about what would happen if my promotion did not come through. When I finally got the news of my promotion, I stepped outside of my office building, looked up at the sky and took a sigh of relief. My wife and I went out for dinner that evening to celebrate. The next day, when I went back to work, I had forgotten all about my promotion. Very soon, I started working towards my next promotion. The cycle started all over again.
I have always been amongst the toppers in my class. I am a senior manager at work with a decent growth trajectory. I have a happy marriage. I have a son who I love dearly. My parents are close to me. I am doing reasonably well financially. I travel. I read. I blog. I am not satisfied. I want more from life. I am highly competitive and want to be the best at everything I do. I am my own worst critic. When facing an unknown, I get anxious until things are resolved. I impose unreasonable deadlines on myself and then feel anxious to meet them. I am always looking for the next peak.
I have wondered for a long time how I could live a life of contentment. Religious texts state that desire is the source of all pain and suffering. Does this mean that I need to give up on my desires if I want to be happy? I am just a few years shy of forty. I have had desires and goals all my life. As far back as I can remember, working towards my goals and desires always gave me stress.
Good news is that over the years, my relationship with stress has changed. I still have desires. I still set goals. I still get stressed when I work towards those goals. However, I am able to manage my stress better than before. I am able to do so because I am able to manage my goals and desires better than before. In this post, I share how my personal experience of dealing with stress has changed over the years.
You are Successful! Phew
I had spent almost a year working towards my first promotion at work. It was constantly on my mind. I worried about what would happen if my promotion did not come through. When I finally got the news of my promotion, I stepped outside of my office building, looked up at the sky and took a sigh of relief. My wife and I went out for dinner that evening to celebrate. The next day, when I went back to work, I had forgoton all about my promotion. Very soon, I started working towards my next promotion. The cycle started all over again.
When the same thing happened with my second promotion, I wondered why this was the case! The answer came to me several years and a few more promotions later. Ideally, our emotional steady state should be neutral — neither happy nor sad. When something good happens to us, we should become happy. When something bad happens, we should become sad.
In my case, as soon as I desired for something, I would start stressing about it. Getting my desire fulfilled would take my stress away. I would feel normal again. Not happy. Just normal.
Over the years, I realized that I often fail to get what I want. When that happens, life still goes on. Things always go back to normal. Every time I failed, I looked back and wondered why I took all that stress along the way!
We all need something to drive us. Something to get us out of our bed in the morning. In my case, stress used to be that driving factor. Relief of stress that would come with success used to be my reward. I still do get stressed from time to time when I work towards some goal. However, I am now able to tell myself that I am going to be fine regardless of the outcome. Sometimes I will succeed. Often, I will fail. In the long run, things will average out and I will get what I deserve.
You can’t be successful everyday
Software engineering is a challenging profession. Technology changes rapidly. Each new project requires brand new set of skills. We need to explore new ideas and come up with prototypes. We can never be sure whether things will work out or not.
For the first few years of my career, start of each new project used to be a time of high stress for me. The initial phase of the project, which included learning of new technology, developing of prototypes and designing the system used to be a time when I could not disconnect from work. I would want to just keep working until things were figured out. I would feel as if I am constantly being judged. I would feel crappy on days when I could not make progress. On such days, I would not want to go home. I would just want to keep working.
Over the years, I realized that our performance at workplace is not judged on a daily basis. No one cares if we generate results each and every day. In fact, unless you are working in a labor intensive job, your output cannot be linear. There will be days when you don’t make any progress and there will be days when you make a lot of progress. People only care about the cumulative progress you make over an extended period of time.
I work with unknowns all the time. In the past, I used to be stressed until I could figure out the unknowns. In most cases, I did figure them out, but not without getting stressed along the way. Slowly, I realized that life isn’t one big test where we are being constantly judged. There is no shame in asking for help when we are stuck. As long as we are generating results, no one cares whether we did it all by ourselves or in collaboration with others. In fact, making others a part of our success is likely to have a multiplicative effect on our own success.
You don’t need to be the best to be successful
I have the urge to be the best in everything. I am very competitive. In the early days of my career, when I would come across someone who did something better than me, which happened often by the way, I would want to be as good as that person. If I worked with someone good in infrastructure development, I would want to become good in infrastructure development. If I met someone good in machine learning, I would want to become good in machine learning. If I saw a good manager, I would like to develop good management skills.
I was seeing the skills that multiple individuals had acquired through years of hard work and I was wishing to acquire all of those skills. Within a few years, I realized that my desire was impractical. I simply can’t acquire more than a small set of skills. And I don’t need to. I realized that I need to work on building a few key skills that I most care about and utilize them to maximize my impact.
Even for the few skills that I choose to develop, I cannot expect to be the best. And I don’t need to be. We usually compare ourselves with people better than us at any given skill and feel inadequate. However, the reality is that in most cases, there is room for more than just one person. The world needs more than one machine learning expert. The world needs more than one manager. The world needs more than one infrastructure developer. Often, in life, being good enough is good enough. There is room for everyone. What matters more is how much impact we have with the skills that we do acquire.
Importance of succeeding at the right goals
My son recently started going to school. The process of selecting his school was long and painful. School authorities made us believe that this is one of the biggest decision we are ever going to make in our life. We were told that getting admitted into a good school is next to impossible if we miss this window.
My wife and I spent several weeks researching different school options. We read up extensively about the difference between CBSE, ICSE, IB and IGCSE boards. We visited numerous schools dragging our son along with us.
I was talking with my father on this topic one day. I told him that school admissions have become very competitive these days. We need to block a seat in a good school right now — getting admission in a good school in a higher class is next to impossible.
My father asked me, “Do you even know where you will be a few years from now? What if you decide to spend a few years working in USA? How will your son get admission into a good school when you come back?”
My father made me realize that, fueled by my insecurities, I was trying to solve a problem that did not need to be solved right then. All I needed to do was to find a good preschool for my son. I did not need to find the school my son would go to for the next fifteen years.
My father asked me another question, “Why are you so worried about choosing the right school? What is it that you really want?”
What I really want is that my son becomes a capable and successful individual. School will definitely play a role in achieving this goal, but it is not the only thing that matters. I am sure that a lot of capable and successful people come out of most good schools in my city.
It is useful to remember that there is usually more than one path that can lead us to our underlying objective. When working on something, it is important to keep self checking that we aren’t getting caught up trying to meet a secondary goal and in the process forgetting all about the underlying objective that we really care about.
My relationship with stress has changed over the years. I still set challenging goals for myself. I still get stressed working towards those goals. However, I now know that stress is a part and parcel of our life. In fact, I now see stress as my friend — It is the reason I am where I am in life.
I now know that stress loops don’t last forever. Spending a few nights without sleep is not the end of the world. This realization comforts me and helps me not get stressed about being stressed. Over the years, the duration and intensity of my stress loops has been getting shorter and shorter.
My relationship with stress is still a work in progress. These days, I am trying to not to get too obsessed about my goals. I have been trying to take a break every day and spend time doing things that I enjoy. I blog, listen to music, read, cook, workout and talk to friends a lot more frequently these days. These activities help me forget about my desires just for a few moments. Most of the times, a few moments of break from a busy day is all we need.