A friend of mine wrote me tonight saying he’s thinking about going part-time at his job or quitting. Things have been stressful with shortened deadlines, long hours and turnover in the management.
Animals don’t hold onto stress. Humans do.
Imagine a watering hole. It’s 9:43am and the sun is beginning to head up into the sky somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa and the Zebras approach the watering hole. They’ve spent the night sleeping and before they face a day of foraging, they’ve decided to grab a refreshing drink. Don’t they look happy together?
photo credit: aftab.
Now this is where modern humans and animals divide. We like to think we are just so awesome with our large brains, hand tools requiring thumbs and language skills. Reality check; we’re suffering from severe, prolonged stress.
An article in the New York Times states a variety of illnesses can develop from ongoing stress:
Chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease
So, why are we stressing ourselves out? For a paycheck? For our families? For our career?
I was on this same hamster wheel with the rest of you for many years. With no end in sight, you just keep running. You no longer think about goals. You’re seemingly trapped in your current task. It swallows you up and you no longer remember why you got on the damn hamster wheel to begin with.
photo credit: sualk61
Especially in IT, you’re expected to put in long hours, respond to emergencies and keep your cell phone on for the wonderful late night text alerts that a server is no longer responding to a monitoring ping in the data center across town. There were days I would work from 8am to 10pm at night. Even early on working with technology, I would skip lunch. Why? Because everyone else was too.
Zebras and humans are herd animals.
photo credit: andrew_ross
There’s safety in numbers and you benefit by paying attention to those around you.
Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end. Humans are very peculiar in that we have these very powerful minds but cannot seem to tell the difference between primitive instincts and elevated awareness. We often justify irrational behaviors without consciously recognizing fear. Fear of change. Fear of losing control. Fear of differences between two similar things.
Because of this, we as humans will endure stressful situations that trigger our brain and limbic system to go into alert mode.
Here’s part of the email I sent to my friend which inspired this blog post:
Him: Seriously considering either resigning or going part time at my “regular” job to take advantage of some really nice opportunities.
Me: We as humans can only handle so much drama. We continue to endure stressful situations well past our health point indicators. Zebra’s don’t hang out long at a watering hole filled with lions.
That’s right. Zebras get the heck out of dodge if they see something resembling the picture below at their beloved watering hole. They pickup and find a new spot. They don’t hang around, complain to other Zebras about the lion showing up, call up more Zebras on the phone as backup or whip out their Zebra pocket knives to shank the lion (Totally loved that I used the word “shank” in a blog post!)
photo credit: alvez
The industrial era is a new thing in the last 200 years. We didn’t always travel to a building, sit in the same area day after day and turn on computers. People grew things: crops and animals. They made stuff: clothings, jewelry, weapons and items for the home. I don’t think IKEA would have been so popular then but…
Now we must wait in line for things, smell other people’s B.O. well past the politeness time of 12 seconds (made that up) and deal with stress that seems to stay with us from the time we wake up until we lay our heads down again. We’re popping pills to stay away, to go to sleep, to feel good. How come animals don’t need to take all these medications?
photo credit: fortes
I read this awesome book a few years ago, Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences (Amazon link) and it was the first time that someone explained to me how humans and animals were different in terms of how they deal with stress. Have you ever gone fishing and caught the same fish twice? Now you were probably thinking, “Man! That’s one dumb fish to get caught twice!” but think about it. The fish got caught, you let him go and he went back to being a fish again. He wasn’t down there in the water asking the other fish if anyone captured his disappearance on their fish iPhones. The fish simply shakes off the experience and goes back to what he was doing. End of story for the fish so when he sees your delicious fake worm show up again, he kinda doesn’t have a little, red warning light going off and BOOM! He’s been caught again.
photo credit: ~dgies
This consideration into how animals dealt with stressful situations caused me to explore and change my own reactions and tolerance. Today, people often wonder why I’m so friggin’ happy and joyus all the time; why I rarely seem to get upset and why I’m always accomplishing goals that move me forward in life. It’s because I don’t let myself end up in stressful situations. That’s emotionally and physically draining. I refuse to make time for drama, emotional vampires, brown nosers, and power hungry individuals. They’re playing a game no one can win because it’s the wrong game.
I’ve left jobs and quit friends because they were mini Jerry Springer shows. This all started in 2006 and I’ve never regretted my decisions because I wake up everyday so happy to be in the present moment, in my present situation with my present mindset, health and opportunities that I wouldn’t trade that for a crappy friendship no matter how many names the person dropped or how long we had been friends. When shoes get a hole, you can keep wearing them or get a new pair.
photo credit: Jamie McHale (mypanda)
This is only about people who stink of stress. They most likely are so deeply embedded in their routines of stress inducing behavior that feedback from you will not make a difference. Sort of like Cypher in the Matrix who wanted to go back and eat imaginary steak. I don’t judge people based on who their family is, where they went to school, how much they make or who they know. I simply see if I can feel a good vibe, enjoy talking with them and see if they like to help others. People who spend a lot of time analyzing, judging, blaming and criticizing others should be avoided at all costs.
From the same article, it appears that a few scientists decided it would be neat to see if they could create stressed out rats that became irrational and dull (can you say 70 hour work weeks for 2 years with no vacation? Ahhhh!)
Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleaguesdescribed experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.
Moreover, the rats’ behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.
In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”
Mmm, does that rat sound like a coworker of yours who was once bright and bubbly but now comes to work looking sickly, avoiding eye contact and eating lunch at their desk? There’s a great book out there called, “Who Moved The Cheese” and it discusses human behavior of repeating things that don’t work in hopes of getting a different outcome. This also the short description of insanity.
The truth is, Dr. Sapolsky said, “we’re lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms aren’t working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe it’s time to try something new.”
photo credit: SpAvAAi
So before you decide to run off with the crowd because they seem to of had the crap scared out of them, think again and asses the situation for yourself.
Coincidentally, this article I’ve cited from the New York Times mentions that there is an actual book on Zebras and stress called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping (Amazon link). Shameless plug that I also added it to my Amazon Wishlist too!
So if we’re freaking out while animals remain calm, why don’t we just change?
This isn’t new. We humans have been forcing ourselves to face ongoing stress for thousands of years:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD – 180 AD)
The book about Waking The Tiger is a great read and a whole new set of responses to stressful situations went into my playbook. I had no idea I was sitting there, a few feet away from a lion with big, shiny, white teeth and had no idea I needed to RUN!
photo credit: guiguibu91
So back to my friend. He’s a programmer. He’s smart and since he picked up yoga and stopped watching TV, his tolerance for BS is much lower. Here was our final exchange after I brought Zebras into the picture:
Him: Aha, so forget the part time at the current watering hole and just quit outright?
Me: I’m just saying….Zebras wouldn’t hang around part time to get eaten part time
Him: You do realize that’s simply awesome right?
Update: Talking with my friend late Friday morning after this post when up and he said the following about his workplace: “This company has a culture that crushes your spirit and kills innovation”
I want to give a shout out to Kate Goff (@Ksplarks) for influencing this blog post to use animals as human metephors. I bumped into Kate in my email when she reached out about my blog post on moving to San Francisco. She and her husband Dave were considering moving out here too and offered to buy me coffee. This was late April. I visited Kate’s blog Splarks and was surprised to find strange and interesting stories about small, furry mammals that had extended personal lives like the squirrel named Dorcas who became a baby’s momma before seeking to destroy Mother Nature. Then there was the Satanic Marsupial Uprising…don’t ask me, just read it yourself. I was intrigued that a hedgehog could suffer from narcolepsy. Well, at least on Kate’s blog she could. So today’s post was inspired by Kate and I have to say, I had fun assigning human feelings to Zebras and fish! It was an excellent creative exercise because I didn’t feel the restrains of assigning “realistic” behaviours and attitudes to the animals.
I was also talking with the extremely awesome Denise Jacobs (@DeniseJacobs) last night on the phone. Seems she’s being flown out to San Francisco last minute to present at the Voices That Matter: Web Design conference. She has just published a book web design book, CSS Detective Guide: Tricks for solving tough CSS mysteries (Amazon link), and will be speaking on said subject. She just returned from speaking at The Future of Web Design conference in London.
So, think outside the box. If you you were a Zebra, what would you do?
Are you sick of where you work as a human? What are you going to do to change it?