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What Every Leader Ought to Know About Stress – On an Index Card

Resilience Front

Resilience Back


I’ve never seen as much stress as I am seeing right now in the work place. Most people are putting on a good front but when you scratch the surface you find an ocean of suffering right below the surface.

The latest front cover of Atlantic Magazine talks about how US college students are the most anxious and stressed of any generation.

There are lot of people offering solutions but most (according to the research) start with exactly the wrong premise – how to get rid of all those stressful events. That doesn’t work. The index card above summarizes what I’ve learned about stress and resilience and this is how I learned it.

At the age of 25 while playing professional rugby in Japan I got stomach cancer. The surgeons found and removed three large tumors from my abdomen. My response to the situation was not shock, but denial. I went back to Japan picked up my life again and pretended nothing had happened. One year later after my MRI scan my doctor told me that the tumors had returned, this time in my liver. Now there was no denial. My mind started to go crazy, “Why did this happen to me?”, “What if I only have 6 months to live?”, “Why didn’t I make better use of my life?”

During this period I read a newspaper article about a British academic, Dr. Derek Roger, who was visiting my hometown. He had dedicated his like to studying why it was that some people go through difficult situations and are overwhelmed while others go through the same event and cope. I wanted to meet him and find out what he knew so I wrote to him. He agreed to meet and over coffee he taught me a lesson that has stuck with me ever since:

What causes stress is not the event, but the Rumination about the event.

Cancer for me was the event and it was unavoidable. But what was optional was the endless rumination about ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. Over the next several years I started to apply the steps that Derek taught me to reduce my rumination. At first it was hard, my situation had a lot of uncertainty and the stakes were high. But over time, bit by bit, my rumination decreased and my ability to handle my situation increased.

When I originally took the resilience survey I scored 10/10 on rumination (the highest level of stress). When I take the survey now I score 0/10. What is most interesting about this for me is that my situation hasn’t actually changed. The difference now is that I never spent a minute of my day ruminating about them or most anything else. I have come to see that stress and rumination are a complete waste of time.

Derek became a mentor of mine after our meeting and I started to teach the methods I learned from him to others who needed these tools. I’ve now taught the tools to 1,000’s of leaders in workplaces around the world and the response is nearly always the same:

1. I wish someone had taught me these at the start of my career.
2. I wish my direct reports, wife/ husband, children could learn about these tools.

For these reasons (and others) I am creating a series of free resources that people can use to learn about the tools and share them with those close to them. Here are four:

1. Resilience Index Card – This gives you a quick summary of what really causes stress. It is great if you want to share the ideas with someone else before following up with them for a more in-depth discussion. Email me if you want a printable copy
2. Video summary This 10 min video goes a little deeper into the model and is good to share with people who learn better from watching than reading.
3. Wake Up whitepaper This is the whitepaper I wrote to explain why stress is so common in our organizations now and what each individual can do to avoid it.
4. Our Book – This is the book that Derek and I are writing. It will be available in early 2016.

Please feel free to download, use and share all of the resources in any ways that you think would be useful to yourself and others.

Nick Petrie