Problems are rarely as big as reactive stress suggests. Sometimes, it takes a serious wake-up call to remember that we make mountains out of molehills.
A few days before I started my PhD, I was anxious. I was about to embark on several years of challenging work. This was my shot to do some original scientific research. Standing on some lofty shoulders, the prospect of a PhD was both exciting and paralysing.
To prepare for the educational battle, I wanted to arm myself with some new clothes, sharp stationary, and a satisfactorily compartmentalised bag. School days: revisited. I dragged my fiancée (now my wife) into town for the shopping trip. Together, we set off on the bus from our home on the outskirts of the city into the bustling centre. My thoughts rained terror as I prepared for the start of my doctoral adventure.
After twelve minutes on the bus, my phone rang. As I squirmed in my seat to pull the phone from my pocket, I looked out the bus window. I could see an old red church, dressed in grey skies, its walls contrasted against yellow biblical carvings. We were half way through the journey into town. My phone kept ringing.
Phone finally in hand, I saw the call was coming from my mum. We had no planned visits coming up and no birthdays to plan, so it seemed strange. What did she need? I was stressed enough thinking about my imminent PhD work. I had no space in my head for anything else. I pressed the green icon to take the call and said hello.
My PhD stress suddenly faded. My narcissism vanished. In an instant, it no longer mattered. Through a broken hello, my mum was calling to tell me that my dad was dead.
When I hung up the phone, I whispered to my (then) fiancée what I had just learned. Whilst she suggested we get off the bus early and head back home, I thought we should stay the course into town, so we did. As we passed the red church, the bumps of the bus wheels pounding the road passed without record. I felt nothing. Numbness.
The now completely inconsequential anxiety I felt for starting my new job had drained away with the revelation in my mum’s phone call. My perspective on what was worth stressing about came crashing into crystalline perspective.
When my wife and I eventually made it home, new work attire acquired, we sat on our couch. The TV was on in the background whilst I answered the ripple of text messages arriving from my family and closest friends. The news of my father’s passing was out.
My earlier numbness subsided just enough for me to play back in my mind where my wife and I had been wandering. I thought about the stationary store, the hiking shop (where I picked up a new backpack lined with oddly satisfying compartments), and the coffee shops. I thought about the bus station, the cinema billboards, and then a little sandwich store. The last of those sights made me fall into my fiancée’s lap. There, then, I wept for my father. The little sandwich store, I remembered, was the last place I ever saw my father alive.
The stressful unknowns of starting my PhD had gone because the world had thrown me a thunderous uppercut of perspective that no mental armour could block.
A real-world reference, a point of perspective, can help anchor our expectations of what’s worth moaning about. Once I had taken the chance to mourn my father, to console my family, and say goodbye, I was eventually able to tell myself there was only one way to go: On.
Since then, for my PhD days and beyond, I’ve tried my utmost to measure every career-based stress against the same tough reference point. I refer to every challenge in the form of a question:
“OK, this is tough, this is challenging, but is it really worth stressing over?”
Starting a PhD, leading a team, writing a report before a deadline, all can be examples of maddening stress. But when all is said and done, the apparent pain points we carry are often privileged positions to be in. It is a privilege to earn a degree, to be a leader, to write. It’s an act of mindfulness to remember that there are always worse things that could happen to you, even when it seems like nothing is going your way. A global view on developing refreshed perspective is available in Hans Rosling’s Factfulness.
Mark Archibald Reid died never knowing his son’s struggles, failings, or later successes. My father did, however, provide a point of grounding perspective...and a mighty fine taste in heavy metal music.
What story from your own life could help provide a renewed perspective on stress?