Note to Self: Be Aware
Every Friday on his way home from work, alone with his thoughts on Silicon Valley’s Highway 101, Matt would replay the week’s frustrations over in his mind. He wasn’t even consciously aware of what he was doing; it just sort of happened. And every Friday evening like clockwork, he would get a migraine.
For the longest time, Matt couldn’t figure out why in the world he was getting these monstrous headaches after the stressful workweek was over. But he eventually figured out that he was worrying at the worst possible time – when he could do nothing about it. Not exactly the best way to deal with stress.
Once he became aware that there were problems at work he wasn’t dealing with and started to change that, the migraines magically stopped.
That is, until Matt started having Friday night conference calls with his company’s Asian headquarters. For weeks, he tried to hammer out a huge deal, but his company’s attorneys were being difficult – picking apart every clause of a 20-page agreement. It was incredibly frustrating, but nothing a couple of glasses of wine couldn’t cure.
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Sure enough, the following morning, the migraines returned. That went on for a couple of weeks until, once again, the light bulb went off in Matt’s head. Just another issue he wasn’t dealing with as he should.
While the story does provide a classic example of how not to manage stress, it actually highlights a far bigger issue: self-awareness. Self-awareness – or lack thereof – affects your relationships, career, success, and happiness. And while you might think you know yourself pretty well, when it comes to what really matters, chances are you don’t.
Back in the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau felt the need to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. He wanted to gain perspective and get to the heart of what life on this planet was really all about.
So he lived a simple life, alone in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, for two years, two months, and two days. Then he penned Walden, wherein, among all sorts of brilliant insights on the human condition, he wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Even then, in a far simpler time, it took an extreme level of solitude and introspection for Thoreau to understand himself and, in so doing, uncover a great secret of the human mind: its ability to burry critical feelings deep beneath layers of thoughts, distractions and other day-to-day noise of modern life.
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And the more we distract ourselves with 24x7 communication and information, the more time we spend with our heads buried in a display – texting, tweeting, posting, linking, liking, playing, updating, viewing and listening – the harder it is to be aware of what’s really going on under the threshold of our conscious minds.
I’m sure you know the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. If Thoreau were alive today, he would immediately see the problem with the prayer – that it assumes awareness of these things. And therein lies the rub.
The truth is, as long as your deepest feelings – the things you so desperately want and fear – remain buried in your subconscious, the harder your mind has to work to deal with everything you’re not willing to come to terms with. And that sort of denial results in undue stress and anxiety, not to mention bad life and business decisions you’ll ultimately come to regret.
That’s why self-awareness is so important. Surprisingly enough, the way to become more self-aware hasn’t changed in centuries. It’s remarkably simple to understand, although it is far more difficult for some to accomplish than others.
When you’re troubled, stressed, anxious, or having trouble with a tough problem or decision, just sit quietly and look inward. Be open to your thoughts and feelings. Let them go where they will. Don’t judge them, just listen and learn. If there is an answer, that’s where you’ll find it.
As for Matt, the sooner he begins to deal with issues in real time instead of worrying about them after the fact, the sooner his stress – and migraines – will subside and his life will get a lot easier. But that’s something he’s going to have to do on his own. Quietly.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.