Your New Normal and the Futility of Stress

entrepreneurship zen general

I had a very powerful business experience about 4 years ago that taught me a lesson that I didn’t fully understand until recently.

I was the sole owner of a company that received a Letter of Intent from a publicly traded company to be acquired for around $1 million, all before I was even 30 years old. Sure sounds sexy, right? Well, the catch was that we were not profitable at that time and of course the time between receiving a Letter of Intent and actually signing all the contracts, getting a check in the bank, and considering the acquisition a done deal can be anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

So we waited. Doing our best to not be too unprofitable and not incur too many legal expenses, but thrilled at the prospect of an acquisition that would instantly remove all the stress. I remember every day trying to act to the outside world like things were fine, but inside I felt incredibly stressed. Each day was a new opportunity to obsess just a little bit more about when the acquisition would finally close.

And then finally it did. Except that it didn’t go through, it fell through.

And here’s the weirdest most crazy part about it all. I was enormously relieved.

Huh? After months of freaking out, how could I possibly feel relief? I realized that even though I had a new set of problems to deal with — how to pay the legal expenses, what the new strategy should be, where to go from here, etc. — I was at least free of the uncertainty of whether “acqisition falls through” would be my new situation, my new normal, so to speak.

And that’s what this post is all about.

We human beings — particularly Americans — tend to stress. A lot. That stress is often related to having too much to do, not meeting all our goals, or otherwise somehow falling short of what’s expected of us.

I was speaking to someone from Southeast Asia once and asked him what surprised him most about America. He said that he was puzzled by the term “stress management.” “I thought you manage things that are precious to you, like your family, your health, or your money. Why would you manage stress?”

It’s a good question! Why don’t we call it “stress elimination” instead of “we know you can’t get rid of it, but here’s how you can make it better.” Is stress just an unvoidable part of life, or a socially accepted particular type of craziness?

I originally got into entrepreneurship because I’ve always been excited about creating something with technology and I didn’t want to be limited by anything other than myself. Each entrepreneur and business person I’ve met has their own motivators for getting into business, but almost all of them deal with non-trivial levels of stress.

I see stress as having two key components: (1) the intense desire to achieve a particular outcome, and (2) fear that you will not achieve that outcome.

But here’s the crazy part. Once you actually experience the outcome you’re so afraid of, then you at least don’t have to worry about whether it will happen anymore. If you get a bad grade, or fail to achieve your business outcome, the whole feeling of stress goes away, doesn’t it? Then you just deal with whatever new normal you’re now at. You went from being in the world of “I might get a bad grade on this test and I’m freaking out” to the world of “I did get a bad grade on that test; now what do I do?”

If you go back to the definition of stress — (1) an intense desire to achieve something coupled with (2) the fear you might not achieve it — it makes sense that stress goes away after you’ve reached the outcome one way or the other. You no longer fear what’s already here, and you’ve now focused your intense desiring on something else.

So, in this light, doesn’t stress seem just kind of silly? We get so worked up and in such a state over such intense fear that something might happen, and even when our very worst experience does actually happen, somehow we just find a way to deal with it and get on with life.

The converse is also true. The things we fantasize about and convince ourselves will truly once and for all make us happy always come with a shelf life. Material possessions particularly apply here.

I remember when I was 28 I bought a brand new BMW 328i with stick shift and I felt like the most awesome person ever. I still drive that same car today, some 5.5 years later. The car itself is just as well-made today as it was then, but the novelty factor has completely worn off. It’s a great car, and I love driving it, but at the end of the day, it’s just a car, and I don’t think about it much. Although I do feel thankful I get to drive it.

Apparently, this phenomenon exists at all levels. My BMW is the equivalent of a full-fledged jetsetter lifestyle in some cases. The external stimulus doesn’t matter; the result seems to be the same. See for yourself.

Just about the only item I’ve purchased that makes me happy on an ongoing basis is my Macbook Retina Pro, the greatest laptop ever made, and the greatest purchase I’ve ever made. It continues to perform so well that I have eternal gratitude for its exceptional design, speed, beauty, and all-around character. And since I use it every day, I appreciate it every day.

Anyway, my point is that we spend not just some of our time but MOST of our time freaking out or fantasizing about future eventualities that may come to pass. But we seem not to spend enough time just living in the present moment appreciating what we do have.

People even sometimes go out of their way to defend this position!

So I propose that you do away with stress. And the key is just to accept that whatever new situation you find yourself in will very quickly become your new normal anyway.

If you achieve your wildest business dreams — closing the big deal, getting a promotion, earning a raise, having a successful company exit — there will be an intense thrill for a little bit…and then it dies off into your new normal, and you will soon turn your attention to something else.

And likewise, if you suffer any number of horrible business fates — you lose the big deal, you lose your job, you publicly fail — there will be a sting for a little bit…and then it dies off into your new normal, and you will soon turn your attention to something else.

Our society tells us that it’s common practice to set goals and be stressed about achieving them, but in fact the better way to be is to accept that, whatever happens, you’ll just hit your new normal, which you will quickly adjust to anyway.

And that, in turn, means that there’s no big pot of gold at the end of whatever particular rainbow you’re aiming for right now. Because once you get there, you’ll find another pot of gold that you want to go after.

The notion of “unlimited desire” in human beings is not a failing, though. It’s wondrous and marvelous. Within the confines of our finite bodies lies a phenomenon that is infinite. No matter what we desire, once we get it, we will want the next thing. And the cycle will endlessly repeat itself.

So to summarize, embrace the miracle of infinite desire that exists within you, recognize that whatever you are stressing about and aiming for — whether you achieve it or not — will be your new normal in the near future, and that because there’s no greener grass on any other pastures, learn to appreciate how satisfying the grass right under your feet is.


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