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Why being a little terrified is good for you

A stress-free life isn’t always good for you.

Why being a little terrified is good for you
[Photo: Sergei Ginak/iStock]

When my son was five, I strapped him to my waist and ran down the beach in Bali until a parasail lifted us into the sky. It was exhilarating.

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Since then, I’ve pushed myself to ski off mountains (with a parachute), raft class-five rapids, and rappel off a 65-story building. The adrenaline rush relaxes me. It allows me to focus only on the present. I’ve adopted the same attitude at work, throwing myself into potentially anxious (periodically mildly dangerous) situations. It keeps me alert and, hopefully, a touch more interesting and informed. I’ve come to believe that being a little terrified is good for you.

Why you need some stress in your life

You might try to live a stress-free life where you know what’s coming next and can plan accordingly. But the negative impacts of this are insidious. You didn’t sign up for the coding course when your company offered it because no one you knew was taking the class. You opted out of the entrepreneurs’ support group because you prefer playing video games with your brothers online. You didn’t take the time to get to know the new hires who have now been promoted over you. You’ve stagnated while everyone is moving on.

In an increasingly ambiguous and accelerated world, those who jump into the unknown and are willing to experiment, embarrass themselves, and start again are the ones who will reap some of the biggest rewards. Being slightly on edge kicks your system into gear.

Have you ever noticed that you perform better when you are just a little bit nervous? Did you ever do better at an athletic event after making eye contact with your biggest opponent? Did you ever score higher on an exam when there was a lot of pressure to get a good result? In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that maximal performance occurs when our stress levels are slightly higher than usual. This is called optimal stress, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Being somewhat uncomfortable can push us to achieve goals we never thought we could.

The positive impact of discomfort

I once visited a community on the South African township of Alexandra with a group of pension fund professionals. Until that moment, the group assessed the potential of private equity investments based on spreadsheets and PowerPoints. Previous trips to Johannesburg had kept them sequestered in air-conditioned conference rooms. We were about to put a face on the emerging market.

“What do we say?” they inquired, as we entered the neighborhood, which was packed with people socializing and conducting commerce on narrow, poorly maintained streets. We learned about the residents’ lives and buying habits and how they sourced water and electricity. We started with “hello,” knelt beside the kids, and with their permission, snapped digital photos and showed them their images. We took selfies together because even though they didn’t have running water, most of them had a phone. We exchanged stories about how we make choices. And then we compared how we use our devices, how we charge them, pay for them, and protect them. We showed pictures of our families and exchanged stories of how we make choices.

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We had frank discussions with local women about safety when they observed that I’d unconsciously turned my engagement ring around so that the stone wouldn’t show. They speculated as to the dangers I might experience after dark. We learned about the many public services that never reached this community. On the way back to the hotel, my travel companions were proud of themselves for pushing past their trepidation, enduring a few stares, and most importantly, getting a glimpse into someone else’s life. They also realized how oversimplified their previous financial analyses had been. They’d relied on secondary (and tertiary) sources to make impactful decisions without understanding the full context. The chance to connect personally to the community members influenced not only the amount they were willing to invest in infrastructure building—it also shaped the questions they ask to ensure that their funds reach the people they want to reach.

You don’t have to travel to a different country. If you eat the same lunch every day, hang out with the same group of friends, and want things to be perfect and in their place at all times, you might need a push. But you can start small. You could try saying “yes” to three things you usually say “no” to, and then say “no” to three things you typically say “yes” to. Drive a different route to work or turn your desk at an alternate angle. Pick up a magazine devoted to an interest that you never explored. Sit in a new place. Try a day offline (I know, that probably sounds impossible). Don’t judge yourself for being apprehensive—we don’t need to stretch ourselves all the time. But we do all need to so every once in a while.


This article is adapted from Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work by Dr. Melanie A. Katzman. It is reprinted by permission from McGraw-Hill.

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