When we think about feeling “pressured,” the immediate connotation is usually a negative one. Understandably so — if given a choice, many would opt not to feel pressure in any situation; it’s not an exceptionally comfortable emotion. Nonetheless, it can be helpful in all facets of life, especially regarding your career journey.
Historian Thomas Carlyle famously said, “no pressure, no diamonds,” indicating that coal cannot achieve its true potential of becoming a diamond without it. Similarly, the correct dose of pressure will help you achieve your goals when you know how to wield it and handle it in a healthy way that doesn’t detract from your overall well-being.
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1. Character over comfort
To an extent, it is a choice. You can go through life prioritizing short-term comfort and avoiding situations that bring a high level of pressure. Still, it probably won’t be a very fulfilling experience. It’s natural to prefer easy and comfortable situations — it’s only human. Unfortunately, you’ll have to endure and welcome the more challenging experiences to spur character development and growth.
Without the moments that push us, we stay stagnant, and forcing yourself to work through the discomfort does your future self an excellent service. Think back on an outstanding achievement — a widely-known, historical example or something personal that has happened in your own life. To the best of your knowledge, would that goal have been attained or that milestone reached without a level of discomfort and pressure?
When I think about the moments in my life where I’ve felt most proud of myself or come to the most rewarding outcome, not one of them was able to happen without hard work leading up to it. I’ve never regretted putting myself in a position under pressure, and I will continue to do so whenever the opportunity arises.
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2. Training the muscle
As with so many things, working through pressure gets easier with practice. It’s like a muscle or a skill — you have to train it to strengthen it. No one is walking into the weight room for the first time and squatting with 400 pounds, nor would it be recommended. Without training, you’re only going to hurt yourself.
There’s a reason Lionel Messi is consistently chosen to take penalty kicks; he’s taken so many before and has found a way to be comfortable and successful through what’s arguably the most pressure-inducing moment of the game. He’s been put in the situation before and risen to the challenge repeatedly in a way other players haven’t mastered yet.
If you can find a way to embrace the moments when it feels like the pressure is closing in, it will get easier the more often it happens. Continually putting yourself in an uncomfortable position will only serve you in the long run, particularly because as you progress and grow, so will the frequency of those moments. It’s a cliché, but a true one: with great reward comes great responsibility, and as you achieve more or attain success, you’ll need that strengthened muscle to deal with times of heightened pressure.
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3. Managing pressure
If you are someone who experiences a high level of pressure regularly, chances are that you’re also consistently trying to do better in most facets of life — the two tend to go hand-in-hand. Even when you lean into the positive side of it, you’ll still need to find a way of managing that pressure.
Different people have different strategies, but something I’ve found crucial is recognizing the adrenaline that comes with the feeling of pressure. On a physical level, the fear you might feel during those moments is not all that different from the feeling you get when you’re excited, like climbing the highest point of a rollercoaster. The trick is channeling that adrenaline towards the latter and using it to fuel excitement rather than fear. Think about what could go right rather than what could go wrong, or if that proves too difficult, let yourself think about what could go wrong and walk yourself through it anyway to feel more prepared.
One strategy could be tapping into a friend with complementary strengths. I could be asked to jump out of a plane tomorrow and not think twice about it, but if you asked me to strap on an oxygen tank and go scuba diving, the “yes” isn’t going to come to me as quickly. Having a friend who might be terrified of heights but feels at home in the water would be the perfect match because we can push each other and relieve some of the pressure the other might be feeling.
Inevitably, the best way to manage pressure is to become comfortable with the physical feelings it invokes, but these strategies can be of tremendous help before you get there.
If you’re having trouble reaching a true feeling of comfort, viewing pressure through the lens of privilege can be incredibly helpful. Billie Jean King wrote an entire book on the subject where she said, “Pressure is a privilege—it only comes to those who earn it.” The privilege and opportunity of feeling the pressure to compete and perform is not one that everybody experiences. That fact alone can, at times, make it easier to handle. When advancing feels difficult, know that it’s supposed to feel that way, but it doesn’t have to stop you from using every tool in your arsenal. If you can take command of the situations that cause that good pressure rather than shy away from it, you will ultimately find success in a way that feels even more rewarding.
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