A non-specific response.

I recently read a comment on a blog of a semi-prominent writer and startup personality. The quote went something like “People ask why I would leave being a CEO to start a brand new startup. If they knew what being a CEO was like, they’d probably ask how I did it for so long!”

This kind of sentiment… bothers me. I have no idea that person’s situation, but the idea that there’s a difference in the types of stress a CEO would feel as opposed to a run-and-gun startup founder is a little suspect.

There’s intense, mind crushing stress in whatever you’re doing. If you’re in a low paying, dead-end job, and you rate your stress level as a 9/10, you’re probably experiencing the same biochemical stress response as a CEO that rates their stress level as a 9/10. Stress is no different inside the mind, doesn’t matter if it’s a $10 decision or a $10,000,000 decision. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that stakes somehow change the brain’s capacity for stress - they don’t.

In the 1930’s, Hans Selye, a Austrian endocrinologist, defined psychological and chemical stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. What he discovered is that there is no good or bad stress - it’s a non-specific response. The body reacts physically to the stressors regardless of the intellectual meaning our higher functioning brains apply. A “gallon of stress chemicals” affects every person in the exact same way. And while it’s easy to dismiss the stress of a millionaire over the stress of someone making 45k with 2 kids, their physiological emotional experiences are exactly the same.

These types of stresses grow to the size of your mind, regardless. So as I talk to people about my dreams of working in the highest echelons of technology and companies that delight people, I get flack for how “stressful” it would be to work at the Apples, Amazons, Netflixs, etc. How “stressful” San Francisco or New York or London would be. My retort is: you don’t think that there’s just as much stress here, there or anywhere else? Everyone can choose to carry a load of any size, and I feel the same amount of stress now as I did as a broke 20 year old, as a fledgling 25 year old, and now as a comparatively (to then) successful 30-something.

It’s not different. Stressing out about the isolation of northern Utah is no different physiologically than stressing out about the congestion of central San Francisco or New York. The mind has a finite spectrum of stress. It’s not specific. It just depends on where you want it to originate from; a place of disappointment and longing, or a place of drive and determination. Your brain doesn’t care.

So if I have to choose, I’d rather have my spirit crushed through the stress and demands of achievement and determination, and not by the stress and demands of feeling overwhelmed or trapped. Don’t be seduced by the idea that a life of comfort seeking and reducing the demands placed upon you creates any less stress or heartache than the opposite we fear.


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