Lower Your Stress, Keep Your Edge

He sipped his coffee and looked out again at the lake.  It was a beautiful early morning at this Midwestern body of water.  A light fog rose from the water’s surface.  A duck’s call echoed along this former river channel.  Far off, we could hear a fisherman’s boat engine fire up as he tired of one spot and decided to move on to another.  It was the kind of morning that causes serenity to fill your lungs and slowly replace the smoke of the drive and press of modern life.  It was peaceful.  It was free.  But there was a tension on my friend’s face as a result of the subject I had raised in the middle of this peaceful morning.

“That really is the question, isn’t it?” he said when he finally spoke.  “That is the question I and my executive team grapple with at the end of the day.  We have brought in gurus and psychologists but they say the same things we have all always heard.  It seems like you can work on one side of that equation or the other, but achieving both sides feels… illusive.”

Then he asked the question that all of us who want to make a difference in this life ask: “How do we lower our stress and still keep our edge?”

And that really IS our question isn’t it – both sides of that question?  Down deep we think we might know the answer, but we are afraid we will not like it. We are afraid the answer is: “You can’t.” But we would be wrong.

Most of us have this quiet sense that we might be able to do something about our stress but if we did, it might also limit our ability to play our game at the highest level.  And we like the idea of accomplishing something in life, which is natural.  We all have those desires and so we do not do anything substantial about our stress.  We band aid it; we try to mute it.  But there is a part of us that secretly believes we live on it.  We were all designed to want to do something significant with our lives, to make a difference, to make a mark showing that it was important that we existed.  From birth forward, we have this drive to fix things or build things or make things better in our lives or for others and unless something in life pushes us off that course, we look for ways to accomplish.  We believe if we want to accomplish anything in life we have to care deeply and caring deeply brings stress.  We believe if we get rid of the stress, well, then we have to say goodbye to the edge that causes us to accomplish as well.  But, again, we would be wrong.

In the past, I have written in this blog some about the “how” to accomplish this and will unpack it here more in the coming months, so keep checking back.  But for now, here is the 30-second version.

How do we lower our stress and still keep our edge?  By focusing on consistency and excellence over targets and ambition.

Lower Stress

“What is the 30-second version?”

That is their question most of the time.  The questions begin, innocently, with “So what do you do?”  When I mention that part of what I do is speak to groups about stress reduction, that is when their eyes widen and they say, “Wow.  I certainly need that.”


And I know what is coming next – “What is the 30-second version of how to reduce my stress?”

So here is the 30-second version: Excellence and consistency over targets and ambition.

Need more?  It is how I kept my heart from exploding from stress while managing a financial business during the Great Recession while being a dad to eight kids who needed college and weddings.  Oh, and just to make it fun, we had just made a move my family did not want to make to a place where we knew no one.  As an added bonus, the individual who recruited me there (and made up a sizable percentage of the revenue of the new business) lied to me and left the firm.  Did I mention we were levered up in real estate that all went under water?  Or that we had two houses to also pay for?  The question I most often heard during that time was, “My God – how are you doing this with eight kids?!”

What I learned in that season is what helped me find peace in the middle of the turmoil.  The surprise result was that my performance results actually increased after becoming peaceful, after letting it all go.  I came to understand that the former led to the latter.

Here is the key: we had focused on consistently working toward excellence and had forgotten the targets and left ambition behind.  It had worked.  My stress was in the basement and performance had never been higher.  Excellence and consistency had triumphed over targets and ambition.  I have now seen it hundreds of times in the work and lives of others.  Quietly, unassumingly, there are countless individuals who outperform by simply focusing on consistently doing the activities each day that produce something of excellence.

And then they go home and sleep well at night.