Learning from Centuries of Stress, Power and Control

This post originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Time Management for iPad Magazine.

book-the-48-laws-of-power1In his excellent book, The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene presents an awe-inspiring collection of stories, taken from all corners of the globe and from all centuries – from history, scripture and folklore, that focus on power relationships between people. As he illustrates, power exists everywhere that two people interact. It fills the space between them, in terms of their respective abilities and influence on a situation. Consequently the awareness of one’s power in any given situation, either having power or lacking it, and the interaction that such an awareness has when it rubs up against the desire to effect change that is beneficial to oneself, becomes a source of stress.

Stress, after all, in both the physical and emotional worlds, is basically the tension exerted on an object by a force. Most people think of stress in the negative sense, since it occurs when “what is happening” does not equal “what should be happening,” in other words, a desire is exerted upon a situation but the results are not satisfactory. This negative stress is more properly called distress. Positive stress exists as well, of course. Its proper name is eustress. Positive eustress is sometimes just accepted as happiness, contentment or excitement. Great examples of this might be the exhilaration of downhill skiing, or watching a thrilling movie. Laughter, too, is a great, and very healthy positive stress.

But most people are aware only of negative stress, although they might not be aware of just how much damage it does to the human body and mind. Numerous clinical studies have suggested that stress is at the root of most major illnesses, due the impact on the immune and chemical systems of the body that instinctive defensiveness causes. Stress releases hormones that put people on guard, or make them fearful or resentful. Sleep is affected. Clear thought is affected too, as age-old reflexes revert to the fight-or-flight state that rejects intellectual thought, halts digestion and increases blood pressure, all in the name of facilitating a hasty escape.

In short, stress kills. It kills creativity, it kills opportunity, and eventually it kills people.

This is why Robert Greene’s book is so effective as a stress-management manual. Most self-help books provide recipes and regimens to follow: prescriptions for good health. But not all adults are good at following orders or techniques for more than a day or so. If they do not fit into an individual’s personality type, many good ideas stay forever locked on the outside of a person’s being.

But The 48 Laws of Power tells stories, and most people are very good at listening to stories. We learned it as children, and it remains a welcome medium for learning, as all major religions will attest. The stories in Greene’s book reveal the magic that happens when people allow stress to pass them by, replacing it with calm and clear thinking. The book does this not by telling the reader what to do, but instead telling the reader what others did.

For example, the story of a Chinese military general who was suspected of disloyalty to his emperor. He was given the ultimatum of creating ten thousand arrows by sunrise or being executed. Instead of hurriedly carving one arrow at a time, he sent a contingent of his soldiers downstream on a raft covered in hay and tethered by a long rope. The raft floated close to an enemy encampment in the dead of night, at which point the soldiers on the raft made a great deal of noise, prompting the camp’s guards to fire arrows towards the source of the disturbance. These arrows embedded themselves harmlessly in the raft’s hay bales. After some time, the raft was pulled back upstream and the arrows, ten thousand of them, were extracted, and presented to the emperor.

These types of stories demonstrate the significant gains that can be made by taking time to step back and think things through before either acting or merely reacting. Grace under pressure, leadership, confidence, charisma, clear decision-making – all of these admirable traits come from not allowing the heat and stress of the moment to overcome one’s higher thinking powers.

This is why the 80/20 rule is so important in managing time, tasks, and most importantly, stress. This rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, has many uses, an illustration of something small impacting something much larger. In the context of time management, this refers to taking the time to plan; to anticipate the future and its possible permutations, and to influence them in your favour.

The antidote to the sense of negative stress is the sense of control. Knowing and feeling that you are in control of a situation changes you physically and chemically. Stress hormones such as cortisol are called off. Blood and oxygen are redirected to the thinking areas of the brain. Blood vessels dilate and circulation improves. Vocal tone deepens (for men and women alike), and most importantly, thoughts, ideas and concerns can be prioritized.

It is well-known that panic is contagious, but so is calm. A person who takes the time to de-stress a situation does everyone a favour. People will flock to, and follow, the calm, confident leader who knows the way. They will do the tasks required, with confidence and faith.

This principle need not apply only to large-scale emergencies; a text message will do. Many tasks and relationships are damaged because people feel compelled to answer their text messages, emails or phone-calls the moment they arrive. This is stress dominating the moment. There is a fear that by not answering, the sender/caller will be offended. This “answering stress” is the medium of the immediate. It was designed originally to help keep humans alive in environments where large creatures dwelled, but now asserts itself in the false urgency of a caller’s expectations.

By contrast, the person who applies a small amount of their time to influence the future, by informing callers and clients as to when, where and how they will return calls, such as “always within two hours,” manages the expectations of the callers and as such controls the stress levels of all involved, including themselves.

Negative stress kills. But control, derived from planning according to the 80/20 rule, turns every situation into something that can be anticipated, handled, and transformed into a win.