Change is an inevitable part of life – like death and taxes. It’s also inevitable at work and in your career.
I’ll be moving to Alaska in a couple of months so there’s a bit of juggling both planning and decision-making, sprinkled with touch of stress. Did I say a ‘touch’ of stress? I might be understating that…
Planning and decision making require pure intellectual brain-power which unfortunately is not always something we can access through sheer will. If we’re not at our best physically and emotionally, planning and making decisions can be exhausting. Are you sleeping well? How’s your diet and hydration? Drinking much alcohol? What’s your stress level? Answers to question like those will help us understand how we can sometimes be our own worst enemy by sabotaging the brain’s ability to optimize its executive functioning.
I recently listened to a presentation by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of the book “Brain Rules”, among many others. He said, “The more out of control you feel about a given stressor, the more likely you are to begin to experience the type of stress that can hurt you intellectually”. For me, the most important takeaway from this sentence is that your ability to perform intellectually is really more about how you perceive yourself in relation to the stressor, not how you perceive the stressor.
After college, I hadn’t been in the workforce long before encountering a very dysfunctional work environment. My dad gave me some advice that I have followed ever since and incorporated into many areas of life. When the situation is untenable, you can “change them”, “change yourself”, or “change the circumstances”. Hopefully we’re all aware that no one can change anyone else; not only is it not your responsibility, but it’s pretty much impossible. We can coach, support, guide, help and uphold boundaries, but that’s about it. The other two options are where we should concentrate our efforts. You can change circumstances simply by leaving. You can also change circumstances by changing your attitude: choosing to bring positive energy to a meeting or choosing to be curious instead of defensive during a tough conversation. But sometimes changing yourself doesn’t always change the circumstances; most often, it only impacts you.
I feel like humans have a strong subconscious tendency to attempt to control things external to themselves in order to decrease stress. We default to trying to change others or circumstances. At our worst, we waste time blaming someone else as if it’s their job to fix things (and it may be, but we can’t force them to). So, what happens when we get painfully honest about the situation and realize that neither of these is an option? We’re left with “change yourself”. If I can’t control the stressor, I can develop a strategy or plan to control myself – how I perceive the stressor (“this is horrible!” vs. “this is HARD but can be broken into manageable tasks”) or my perception of myself (“I can’t handle this” vs. “this might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I know I can do it”). Keep in mind that your perception of yourself has an inverse relationship to your perception of the stressor. The more you believe in your ability to handle it, the less intimidating the stressor will be.
Let’s go back to Dr. Medina’s statement.
Feeling “out of control” indicates a primary focus on the stressor and/or your desire to change it. It’s a highly emotional state that hinders problem-solving (remember fight-or-flight?). Intellect nearly goes off-line. But if the only thing we truly have control over is ourselves, then consider focusing inward and asking some tough questions. Do I really think I’m incapable? How strong am I? Did I forget the strategies I’ve learned? (You CAN eat an entire elephant….one bite at a time). Humans are the only mammal capable of metacognition, meaning we can think about and reflect on how we think. When we focus inward, get honest and curious, and enhance our perceptions of our abilities (or even believe firmly that we can learn anything we need to learn to solve this!) we’re engaging our neocortex which is a part of the brain that when activated, reflexively calms the emotional centers of the brain. Voila! Your intellectual capabilities are enhanced and problem solving comes more easily.
When facing dramatic change at work or in your personal life, if you focus on the uncertainties that accompany change, it is very likely to feel overwhelming. Instead, keep a tight focus on what you know you’re capable of and what you’re willing to grapple with, in order to stay in-line with your goals and values, and you’ll find yourself managing better than you’d have thought you could.