Stress, Fear, Courage & Collaboration

6 minute read

For a few years now I’ve been a silent sufferer of elevated stress. Summers & holidays spent off in my own mind with work and responsibilities. If I’m honest with myself, the actual influences causing my stress are arguably trivial compared to what many others take on but, to steal from the infinitely entertaining Malcolm Gladwell:

To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.

An old, Yiddish proverb (apparently).

Clearly, the passive ‘just let go’ approach to stress management wasn’t working, so I decided to educate myself a little. I re-watched Kelly McGonigal’s 2013 TED talk on the reality behind stress. Most of us (myself included) are of the opinion that stress is to be avoided. Controlled. Minimized. Stress is the mind-killer. Stress kills creativity.

Well, in a surprising twist, she explains to us the results of a significant US study:

Kelly McGonigal clearly has stress under control.

People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

Kelly McGonigal

Let’s mull over that a little bit. The study showed stress is associated with a 43% increased risk of dying - but only IF we believe it is bad for us.


Fear is the mind-killer

From a mindfulness perspective, our desire to escape our stressful situation is a rejection of our current reality - the moment. Good practice tells us that the way out of this trap is to acknowledge our present, stressful situation and move onwards whilst accepting it - the courageous choice.

Now, there’s a fine distinction here. As noble as marching bravely into the onslaught sounds - this hasn’t actually helped us any. To us, it’s still going to suck, but we’re just going to do it anyway. The dread is still there. If we’re to cheat death, a change in perception is necessary.

…in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed like this. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.

Kelly McGonigal

The change is actually in believing that stress is a constructive response. In my opinion, ‘stress’ is mostly about fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the consequences. So when we’re talking about making peace with stress, I believe we’re actually talking about making peace with fear.

And it’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and realising, “Oh, you mean it’s good for us? Well that’s alright then!” We need to devolve the idea of stress from being our stalking enemy to being a natural companion, an every-day part of our being.

That’s some deep-seated emotional refactoring that needs to take place.

Courage is the mind-maker

Yesterday, I was engaged in some light intellectualism (meaning: beer & hookahs) with a mate of mine here in Helsinki and I learned that he had also, at once stage, been a climber. So we took to talking about climbing, as good climbers do.

I love meeting other climbers because almost universally they’re all people who have developed an advanced relationship with fear. Alex Honnold, the psychotic beast-machine free-solo climber, is an extreme example of how far such a relationship can develop, but start climbing and quite soon you’ll encounter the relationship yourself.

Your arm’s stretched high overhead, gripping a jagged hold mercilessly. Your feet are placed awkwardly on alternate footholds. Above you is… nothing. You crane your neck as your loyal fingers start to betray you, uncoiling slowly. Your forearms burn. Where was that hold? Can you reach it? Is it any good?

Your mortality rushes back into you. Adrenaline fills your veins.

Mostly, climbing is very calm, but in these moments, you’re faced with a choice. Go for it, or give up. Fight or flight. Indoors, you’re afforded the luxury of flight. Even outdoors, to some degree, on sport climbs, you can reasonably rest on the rope with safety and come back down.

But as you start to do more advanced climbing you will inevitably reach a situation where resting on the rope is no longer a reasonable thing to do. You don’t actually know if it’s safe - you’re just testing the odds. There’s no rescue chopper you can call to come get you and your buddy Timmy is relying on you to finish it - on you fighting.

Let me be clear about this - dealing with fear is not about removing fear. Being courageous isn’t the same as being fearless.

Fundamentally, climbing requires you to be present. But mostly importantly, it gives you the opportunity to learn to deal with fear in a constructive way that doesn’t break your presence. To learn courage.

As you gradually deal with discomfort, you’ll notice your attitude towards fear changing - and this becomes reflected in all things. It becomes easier to remain calm. You make more constructive choices. You don’t shy away from discomfort. You accept difficult situations.

Eventually, there’s no adrenaline at all.

A lot of people assume that I must be an adrenaline junkie, but climbing is actually very low adrenaline, because it is very slow.

Alex Honnold

Collaboration is the stress-breaker

Timmy and You.

There’s another part to climbing - and that’s the vulnerability you’ll have in your relationship with your climbing buddy, Timmy.

It’s probably going to be one of the most resilient relationships you’ll have in your life and there’s a reason why. This is where my story comes full circle. Let’s harken back to Kelly McGonigal’s talk and listen to her next great reveal:

To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin, and I know oxytocin has already gotten as much hype as a hormone can get. It even has its own cute nickname, the cuddle hormone, because it’s released when you hug someone.

But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support.

Kelly McGonigal

Okay, so now wow.

Now we know why Design Factory has hugging points everywhere.

I’ve always noticed that climbers from anywhere always seem to get along. There’s every chance that if you met in any other setting you’d think Timmy was a dick, but through the rigours of climbing, you’re body is pumping out oxytocin to make sure you can work together - to ensure you can collaborate. To rise above. To overcome. To climb upwards.

So here is my contention: Stress and collaboration are symbiotic.

Without stress, we can’t effectively collaborate. The depth & meaningful engagement of team members with each other is limited.

Without collaboration, we can’t effectively cope with stress. Our body, flooded with oxytocin, is demanding support and connection.

The idea isn’t new - team sports, hazing, military indoctrination and tribal coming-of-age ceremonies are all clearly composed of stresses and togetherness in order to form bonds.

There’s no delusion about stress in innovation & entrepreneurship - pressure and ambiguity are some of the first characteristics we are made at home with. But there are much more elusive qualities that make an effective team.

Like trust and vulnerability, which both take a healthy measure of courage to bring out.

Maybe they’re not actually elusive qualities that are found in people, but grown through the natural, but necessary, stresses of the creative collaboration journey.

Leave a Comment