The irony does not escape me that as I write the title to this blog, I am sitting looking at this view.
To anyone who even vaguely likes beaches, Bubbles Dive Resort and Turtle Conservancy is paradise. Warm water, beautiful remote resort, only accessible by boat, two tropical reefs 100m offshore, turtles nesting, friendly staff and cold beers. In addition, it’s not like we have rushed here for a quick break, from our massively stressful jobs. As you know, we are on a year’s sabbatical. Odds are the next stops in Thailand and Vietnam won’t be as idyllic but it’s equally unlikely to not involve a beach, diving, warm water and cold beers at some stage. So, it begs the question, why think about stress, let alone write about it? Surely that’s not a factor in the Bungeysontour2018? As they say, ad nauseum, in Oz, there should be “no worries mate...”
The answer is that, surprisingly, the last 6 months has been a fascinating lesson in stress. It has caused me to look inward as to the causes and types of stress that I experience and question everything that I previously thought and assumed about stress. As someone who started my first job, in a suit and tie, at 19, work and chasing, a proverbial buck, has been a constant in my adult life. I have had my share of ups and downs and bosses who fit the label “doos” (international readers - phone an SA friend or Google ‘Ernie Els hook-shot’, to learn more on the uniquely South African descriptor) BTW, in case he reads this, current boss excluded JThat said, I have also had the privilege of generally working with great people and really enjoying what I do. So, mostly, getting up in the morning and going to work hasn’t been a hardship.
Nevertheless, in the same way that Hollywood and popular fiction defines our narrative around love. I believe that it also does a lot to define our relationship with our work. In the same way that the expressions, "falling in love" and "fell out of love" absolve the heartbreaker or adulterer from responsibility, the Calvinistic, middle-class outlook on earning a living, portrayed in so many movies and novels is that of a confrontation and dislike with what we do for a living. It's cool to hate work. It's a four-letter word, isn't it? At best there is a sense of reservation that, “we have to do something to put food on the table.” The truth is that these narratives colour, how we view our relationships and our careers.
“What’s your point?” I hear you ask. The point is that for many reasons, I have always assumed a causality between my business pursuits and the majority of my stress. Of course, there are discreet moments like illness or a death in the family that are specifically stressful but aside of these, work and the pursuit of the elusive wealth and success have always seemed to be the major, and the constant reason for tiredness, sore shoulders, and bags under the eyes. I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge the role of ego here. As the breadwinner, the majority of the time, stress is also the manifestation of the effort the household hunter has gone to, to put “food on the table.” Like the proverbial tree falling in the wood, without it, was there evidence of enough effort made?
One of the main aims of this sabbatical was to have a year where commerciality was not top of mind. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to test what life was like when I wasn’t chasing that buck. For this reason, we budgeted carefully and made sure the expenses were covered with some latitude. Next year may be a Salticrax year in the Bungey house but for now, we are good. Despite this, 5 months in, all I can say is that it's not all as I thought, or assumed. My first observation is that a certain amount of stress seems to be innate. It’s almost as though our systems need a certain amount of anxiety to get up in the morning and drive them forward. Initially, I tried to discount this. My first excuse was that after a few years of building businesses and living on aeroplanes, I needed a couple of months to degas. Then as time wore on, I said things like,” granted, the business of traveling like we are has an element of stress around the logistics and planning.” But the truth is that the monkeys inside my head just kept on shouting and the volume didn’t seem to decrease. What’s that about?
A few more months into the trip have allowed for lots of meditation and reflection time. The volume has started to recede. It is, in part due to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable (the topic for another blog) but contrary to my assumptions it's mostly the discipline of teaching the brain to quiet down. I have come to the conclusion that what I have come to call "positive-stress" that drives the get-up and go urge, is innate. The brain will look for things to worry about and create must-do's regardless of how inane or trivial. It needs to prioritise and feel important. It will try and fit a certain amount of stress into your life regardless of what one is doing. I am now starting to understand how my mother and mother-in-law, in their respective retirements seem to suffer from acute executive stress!
That said, I am by no means saying that all work stress can be explained by this innate, positive stress. What I am saying, though, is that I am surprised at how much of what I previously attributed to work stress, is innate. There is an acute stress related to deadlines, delivery and the ‘fill or kill’ mentality of my work which is directly related to pressures on the job. It’s the adrenaline-stress. The funny thing is that living without it, I realize that it is not all bad, either. It’s exciting, the rush of striving for things and achieving them is what excites me. The downside of this sort of stress, i.e. failure, is never that pleasant but the thrill of the chase can’t be had without the fear of failure. They are two sides of the same coin. You cannot understand good art without seeing art you don’t like! To be honest, I am secretly missing the thrill of the hunt and follow my colleague’s fortunes with eager interest.
So the next logical question, if there're positive-stresses, is there negative stress? My definitive answer is yes. There are pressures that arise from the rat race that one feels more acutely and that gnaw away at who you are. For me, these tend to be the issues relating to people. I hate firing people. I am always acutely aware of what it means for their families and eco-systems. I also tend to get really irked by devious and underhanded behaviour, particularly from those I have helped or I regard as allies. Politicking and lobbying leave me cold, and just feel completely unnecessary. I am often to be heard saying, “If we put as much energy into selling and building our business as we do in power mongering and politicking, we would be the most successful business on the planet!” Yet, whilst I understand my naive wish for everyone to behave nicely and rationally (at least within the same camp), as a keen student of history, I am constantly reminded that humans will almost always default to self-interest and gather as much power as possible in the process. There are very few examples in business or politics of people, “doing the right things, for the right reasons.” In short, I only have myself to blame for being constantly disappointed by people’s actions. The romantic in me wants a different outcome. The cynic knows better. Regardless, managing people and politics is the part of work I miss the least!
As I finish writing this blog and we prepare to leave paradise, a minor packing dispute ensues. It’s irrelevant but my sub-conscious wants to label it a crisis. Everyone defaults silently to their routines. The guise is different but every time we move on, tensions rise slightly. We remind ourselves that one has to be comfortable being uncomfortable. At least this is not a red-eye. Travel stress is alive and well but it's also the positive stress that gets us to new places and allows us to see and experience new things. The default is where we are comfortable and what we know. The key is to keep perspective....beer, please....