Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

10 Comments

Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

10 responses to “Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

  1. Beautiful. What I wouldn’t give to have had this speech at my own graduation. It’s taken a few years to realize that my gut is equally untrustworthy and, well, gutless. Thanks for your words.

  2. Great read! I think I find myself in a pendulum, swinging between baboon type one and baboon type two. This probably happened as a way to cope with long term stress. It was a survival thing, learning to chill out, knowing that I cannot do anything about the lion, but I can do other things in the trees while he’s down there. I don’t know, but now and then the bill comes due, overdue and I think, damn I’m getting too old for this. But I’ve changed the course of my life more than once, and though I am far from wealthy, I have a rich life. Currently I’m in the midst of working on the next stretch toward doing “awesome stuff,” as you say. Good advice that I will pass along.

  3. This is a great post – I love it, so funny and so true. It was worth reading just for the imagery of nonchalant baboons standing around complaining about the younger generation, or smoking cigarettes and polishing apples. Thank you.

  4. there are some life lessons that cannot be taught. only learned. it is difficult (i.e. stressful) for me to watch my son ignore my platitudes, knowing ahead of time he will ignore them and have to suffer the stress of learning. lol last night he threatened to “move out when i’m 18” (3 months away) because he had no appropriate target for his anger that the toilet overflowed and NO ONE else was to blame. he would have to clean it up. sigh… really? the overflowing toilet made you so angry with your younger sister’s attitude that you demand she be nicer or else? … because it was HER toilet you flushed and overflowed? sigh… these are the life lessons that must be self-learned, with difficulty. maybe that is the purpose of life.

  5. I always wondered how it was you came to live in Denmark.

    For the record, I’m the berry-eating lazy baboon and I’ve been giving that advice “Listen to your gut!” for years, without ever thinking that it might not work for everyone.

  6. Fred

    Somebody could have been nice to me and given me that advice at that age, but they didn’t. The level of stress the author feels is the kind I’d like to feel, a whole lot easier on the nerves.

    I do agree on the awesomeness bit and I’m working towards it now. If I was to give advice to anyone, and I’m not really the person to listen to, I would say, to anyone of any age who has fears about what it is they might encounter: do it. Don’t fret about the bad stuff that could happen. If you know something positive that you want to achieve in life: do it. Do it now. Do not, emphatically not, wait ‘for the right moment’. It will never come. Make it happen. Every time I live by that rule the results are massively better than what I’d hoped for.

    Go for it and don’t be afraid you might not get there.

  7. Well, some things you need to read at a specific point in your life. And I would say that this is one of those, except that if I look back, there’ actually quite a few moments where this would have been applicable. So, because I don’t want anybody to miss out, I’ll be sharing this to as many people as I can so everybody profits from the advice.

    I’m at a decision-making crossroads right now, and am looking for one of these “awesome stuff” gigs. But maybe I’ll look harder now. I have friends spread out all over the world and I like learning languages, so I should be taking advantage of that.

    Anyways, that was a GREAT post, I hope to be reading one of your books someday…

  8. OMG, I think I’m that first baboon… Should I meditate, do Pilates? Go to Denmark?
    Great writing by the way. Enjoyed this read.

  9. Seriously BRILLIANT description of stress and anxiety. Love everything about this post. Props.

  10. Pingback: Letting stress win: a commencement speech | Mirabilis.ca

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