Grinding Through Stress

“I have no idea.”

That’s the thought that pops in my mind like an image of a platypus wearing high heels and a top hat when somebody says “don’t think of a platypus wearing high heels and a top hat.” (admit it’s now in your mind as well).

This happens whenever people ask me questions like:

“What is your mission in life?”

“What drives you every day?”

“Which type of pie is better, apple or lemon meringue?”.

For the sake of length and reducing incongruity, I’ll cover why I give this answer for the former two questions, not the latter question (I’ll write an entirely different article about that in the future since it is also an important subject that I don’t think gets enough attention).

Sure, due to my embarrassment at the moment I get asked the question, I usually come up with one of the trite and saccharin answers reminiscent of a Miss Universe contestant who had one too many Xanax before coming on stage.

“I want world peace”

“I want to improve the human condition for all people around the world and save the puppies”

“etc, etc, yadda, yadda, ad nauseum”

But, my dirty little secret is that that’s not true.

I would even go so far as to venture that since so many people give those same answers, it is probably not true for them either. It is a lie. Don’t get me wrong, most of my fellow “liars” and I do want the world to be at peace and for everybody to live better lives… but that is not our mission in life. That’s not what drives us.

The truth is, that for many of us (dare I say most of us), it’s not some grand future that makes us roll out of bed and take off our superman/women pajamas each morning. It is a past, or even worse, the present.

This idea came up today in a conversation I was having with my friend, let’s call him Chris (because that is his real name). He is – or if you are reading this from the future hopefully it is now “was” – going through some hard times. During such times he finds he is unable to focus on anything but what is stressing him out and is not able to get anything done.

He asked me what I do to deal with the stress of hard times.

I told him the truth. I work. A lot. (yes, I realize I am blessed to have a wife who at least accepts, if not quite understands why, that it is what I do)

Now just to clarify, I normally work a lot of hours – because like a labrador retriever being assigned to be a ball boy at Wimbledon I love what I do – but during times of high stress, I become a workaholic.

If a problem can be fixed by thinking hard about it and putting in the work, doing exactly that helps me relieve the stress.

It dawned a few hours after talking to Chris that I actually did know the answer to the questions I mentioned at the start.

No, not the pie one, the other two. Stay focused.

It’s just the phrasing of the questions that always throws me off. They imply something about the future. But the problem is that it’s not some utopian future I am running towards that gets me up in the morning. It is not the idea of world peace that makes me wake up at 430 a.m. every day and grind like a US accountant 1 minute before midnight on April 15th.

I don’t do it because of the future.

I do it because of the past and even more powerfully the present.

I grind because I don’t like feeling powerless and stressed.

Every time it happens, that motivates me to work harder so that one day, hopefully in the near future, I will get to a point where I won’t feel this way again.

I’m not working for the money. Not directly at least.

I’m working for what the money can buy me. No, that’s no happiness. I accept that. There are too many miserable wealthy people in the world to refute that claim. What money provides you with are choices.

What is it that stresses us all out the most?

Not having any choices in life. That is in essence the core of the freedom everybody seeks.

If you have a job where you are told what to do and given no autonomy, you hate it (even if you don’t admit it to yourself) but you can’t quit because you have bills to pay and a family with 2.5 kids and a pet sloth to support. Your choices are taken away.

When you are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Your choices are taken away.

When you are in a controlling relationship and can’t be yourself. Your choices are taken away.

So, like the great comeback that occurs to us 3 days after you already lost an argument, I now know what I should say when people ask me, “What drives you?”

The answer is simple. I don’t want to feel powerless and stressed. I don’t want to feel… scared.

I actually find that when everything is going well and I am not scared of anything, I become a pretty useless human being. Unless you call beating Cyberpunk 2099 for the 5th time because the new minor patch came out and I want to see the difference being productive, in which case I am a productivity machine!

I am scared and that is what drives me.

And you know what? I’m fine with that.

We’re all human after all and over millions of years we have evolved to act because we are scared. If a wolf starts chasing us in the woods, we run before we know what we are doing – and probably faster than we have ever run before – because we are scared. If you have an exam coming up tomorrow and you have not studied, you stay up all night and cram to pass it – because you are scared.

It’s okay to be scared.

We all are.

The difference is how you use it.

I use it to grind.

I grind because I am scared…

… and I know I’ll get to a place I don’t have to be anymore as long as I keep at it.

3 QUESTIONS TO PONDER

– What choices are you afraid of being taken away?

– What are you willing to do to keep your choices open or gain more choices in life?

– If a tree falls in an underwater forest, does it make a splashing sound?

Share your answers in the comments below.

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