Sunday, December 7, 2014

Stress-free Living in a World of Continuous Change: Five Attribute Pairs that Could Significantly Help

Stress has emerged as an important characteristic of contemporary living. Many medical experts consider that stress, with its collateral outcomes, has been a major contributor for metabolic disorders and psycho-somatic diseases. However, there are also some who believe that a certain level of stress is required for an individual to perform at his or her full potential. Whatever be the truth of this concept, it would certainly be better if one’s full potential is achieved without stressing oneself. To appreciate this, one needs to delve into the real meaning of stress. Stress is pressure or worry on a person caused by problems and difficulties in life. Stressed individuals suffer by themselves, fighting unseen (and unnecessary) battles with invisible (and unreal) enemies; sadly and inevitably, they also cause suffering by causing stress in, and to, their families and teams. There is a debate whether such perceptions of stress are real or self-inflicted. CNN carried a very nice analysis of stress as a new universal phenomenon and approaches to cope with it. ( It considers stress as an internal factor which can be moderated by the individual rather than blamed on circumstances imposed on the individual externally. A central theme of the article is that pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow, peace or stress – these are not found in external objects or beings but instead are found in the relationship one has with those things. The article also makes two other important points. One’s relationship with the world is entirely dependent on the nature of one’s inner personality, which comprises the mind and the intellect.

According to the CNN post, the mind desires and feels while the intellect reasons, judges and decides. Stress gets generated when the intellect loses control over the mind’s desires. The article hypothesises that the fundamental requirement for a stress-free life is to develop a strong intellect and control desires. The article also emphasizes that intellectual strength is distinct and different from intelligence. Any amount of intelligence, which is knowledge acquired from external sources cannot, per se, develop one’s intellect which can only be developed by individual effort through exercising one’s faculty of questioning and reasoning. Wrong assessments of the external world are also proposed as an important cause of stress. The author of this Blog (“Strategy Musings”) commends the cited CNN article, which reads and feels almost like Hindu spiritual philosophy, as a must-read for its simplicity and relevance. That said, the capitalistic, competitive and volatile nature of the contemporary world makes it necessary for individuals to have attributes that can help them avoid or manage their stress, should the above spiritual approach is not followed. This blog post proposes that individuals must try to develop five pairs of attributes that could help them avoid difficulties and worries in life. These are: Aspirational and Adaptive, Aware and Academic, Alert and Attentive, Communicative and Corrective, and Primal and Philosophical. These cannot be useful individually or even as single pairs; they are effective only as a holistic combination of all the five pairs.

Aspirational and Adaptive

Aspiration is at the root of human behaviour. Some individuals are bold or blasé to declare their aspirations while some are reticent and circumspect to do so. Aspirational means wanting very much to achieve success in one’s career or to improve the social status or standard of living. Stress gets generated as one works to achieve aspirations, more so against odds. When achievements trail aspirations a debilitating circle of increasing stress comes into play. All aspirants tend to choose certain means to achieve their aspirations but somewhere along the route miss the wood for the trees. Take the case of students who aspire to join an elite educational institution, in India or abroad. They typically miss the point that acquiring academic excellence regardless of the institution is more important than wanting to join the elite institution or losing motivation when the admission is missed. Same is the case of professionals who seek to join top-rung corporations; in the process, they miss their own ability to impact positively any institution they are eventually able to join with the right professional skills. Aspiration must be accompanied by an adaptive attribute. Adaptive means being able to change when necessary in order to deal with different situations. Individuals as well as organizations frequently encounter situations which are quite different from those envisaged when they would tune in, and scale up, their aspirations. Being adaptive does not mean scaling down aspirations. The boom in shale gas does not mean that the CEO of the organization that set out to make his company a crude oil behemoth needs to give up; it, however, requires being adaptive to retool the strategy in favour of shale gas exploitation, including new cost-effective shale oil exploration technologies such as fracking. The ability to be aspirational and adaptive comes from an ability to be aware and academic.

Aware and Academic

Stress gets generated when people get into situations without requisite knowledge or capability to handle. Smokers who are unaware of the dangers of tobacco or people who are unaware of the deleterious effects of junk food are just examples of how individuals who rely on them for stress relief would eventually be stressed out because of the resultant ill-health. Aware means knowing and realizing something, for the good or for the bad. Awareness is the basic minimum attribute of an individual or an organization that saves a situation. Lack of basic awareness leads to considerable stress as one would get into situations, the gravity or requirements of which one does not simply know. An individual, for example, needs to be, at the minimum, aware that handling chemicals could be dangerous. The awareness would lead to a reference to the knowledgeable experts who can advise on the dangerous chemical reactions and the ways to avoid or control them. Being aware is the first step to being adaptive. Adaptive behaviour, especially to changing environment, eliminates or reduces many causes of stress. Awareness needs access to expertise to be meaningful. Expertise comes from ceaseless academic quest. Academic means a lot of reading, studying, experimenting or research to enhance knowledge. Plastic was a wonder material that ushered in a revolution in the consumer goods and food processing industries. Yet, only subsequent academic studies, decades later, could bring out out the harmful effects of certain types of plastics and the ingredients that are used in plastic manufacture (or remain in the plastic products). Whether it is the harmful effects of tobacco and alcohol or the beneficial effects of herbs and spices, all agrarian in origin, academic development continues to identify new problems, provide new solutions or revalidate ancient knowledge. By being aware generically on a broad spectrum and being academic in the chosen profession through continuous learning one would be in greater command of one’s career and life. As the CNN article points out, however, knowledge and intelligence by themselves are of little use without application which requires one to be alert and attentive.

Alert and Attentive

In the contemporary information society, it requires a particularly isolated and cloistered life not to be in the path of informational torrent. The flood of information numbs the ability of any typical individual to prioritize, let alone be discriminatory or incisive in analysis. Information overload and the conflicting interpretations that emanate with or without expert scrutiny, especially on the Internet, leads to stressful perceptions and dilemmas of “to do or not to do”. Yet, some of the information pieces are true nuggets of wisdom (as the cited CNN post).  Being alert and attentive helps one cope with the stress of being overtaken by progressively or rapidly changing situations. Alert means the ability to think quickly and being quick to notice things. Alertness equally enables a person to judge the nuggets for their true worth quickly and develop response plans. Alertness is reinforced by attentiveness. Attentive means listening or watching something carefully and with interest. Significant stress is generated when people are not attentive and either pass up opportunities (pointers from placement talks by companies, for example) or get into difficulties (not heeding to traffic signage, for example). Typically, all of us get but a few seconds to note each information bit of the scrolling information package of the day. One needs to be alert and attentive to make the best use of such seconds and the information bytes. At the other pole position, being alert and attentive is the only way to remain safe (protected from danger or harm) and stable (steady and undisturbed) through anticipation and caution, whether old or young.

Communicative and Corrective

Unreasonable external environment could sap one’s energies and make unreasonable demands on one’s ability to cope with pressure, leading to stress. All of us would have lived with unpardoning teachers or autocratic bosses. The more volatile the external environment, the less resilient one’s internal faculties become.  This coupled with the traditional Indian mind-set of just taking orders from superiors (reference Vishal Sikka, Infosys CEO’s recent observation) rather than debating contrarian viewpoints results frequently in people building up stressful and bottled up emotions within themselves. As the CNN post says, communication and correction are necessary when the external dependencies warrant it. One’s ability to be effective in communication depends on one’s maturity. Maturity is the quality of thinking, expressing and behaving in a sensible manner. Maturity helps individuals take the adversity in one’s stride and look beyond the problems for opportunities. Correction would, in this context, mean self-correction too. Ability of mature communication flows from a strong sense of reasoned self-worth. Respect (and not arrogance) for one’s capabilities results in authenticity to the communication. Mature and authentic communication results in better receptivity to correction, and has a calming influence on the stress levels. On the other hand, arrogance in one’s capabilities leads to abrasive communication which is, in itself, a trigger for stress build-up.

Primal and Philosophical

Failure is easy to read but success is difficult to fathom. Ironically, people read too much into failure as if it is the end of life, and become too smug with success as if it is the proverbial (and automatic) stepping stone to success. Both the approaches lead to needless stress levels. Research is a classic example of how failures lead to pioneering successes. Almost all great inventions and discoveries were based on multiple failures of experiments. The decline of successful leaders and businesses, on the other hand, points to the possibility that success could be a quicksand-like experience; it could result in irrational exuberance which makes one less prepared to confront new challenges. Preoccupation with failure and exultation with success are respectively leading and lagging triggers of stress. The way to cope with the failure-success cycles in life is by being focused on primal needs at all times and being philosophical when all of the above four factor pairs do not yield the anticipated results. Primal means certain very basic and fundamental needs which must be taken care of at all times in life, for oneself and for all those under one’s caring and protection.  Philosophical means having a calm attitude towards a difficult or disappointing situation. This combination of primal-philosophical attributes certainly helps one cope with failures and successes without stress. One who relies on the least of materialism and the most of spirituality enjoys life as no one else would. Unfortunately, only a wise few are blessed to live like that; hence the need to rely on the paired attribute kit as discussed in this blog post!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 5, 2014 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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