Pressure is a Privilege

As I flipped through Fast Company’s February Issue, I was struck by a quote I stumbled upon three-quarters of the way through the magazine:

“pressure is a privilege.”

The phrase appeared during a group interview that included perspectives from the likes of tennis super star Serena Williams and Nike CEO Mark Parker. In the midst of the conversation, Williams said:

“It’s a privilege to be in that situation where you actually have pressure on your shoulders, as opposed to not having that pressure.”

This got me thinking. Pressure is polarizing. Many people don’t like it. They are afraid of it.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin explains that fearless does not mean “without fear.” Rather, it means “unafraid of things that one should not be afraid of.” This conception of fear offers an enlightening way to view pressure.

Throughout my career as an athlete and strategy consultant I have seen colleagues view pressure as negative, but my experience stands for the opposite. Many high performers harness pressure. It is a source of their best work.

Jocko Willink, a decorated Navy Seal, thrives under pressure. I was first introduced to Willink through The Tim Ferriss Show. Ferris conducted a fascinating interview that highlighted Willink’s military experience, routines, and leadership style. One overarching theme that Willink seemed to revert back to is that he relishes pressure. It helped him lead and fight in some of the most difficult battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. These situations are captured neatly in his book Extreme Ownership.

Willink now has his own podcast. In a recent episode, he detailed a conversation with a young commando about the honor of serving for the United States against its enemies — the privilege of combat. Having worked with retired military officials, I know many who share this sentiment. These men and women enter the highest of pressure situations imaginable, yet they view it as a privilege.

A quick Google search of the quote “pressure is a privilege” leads you to another legendary tennis player, Billy Jean King. Aside from the inherent pressure of being one of the top athletes in the world, King was the face of a movement. She championed sexual equality as a mainstream issue, and ultimately became one of the most influential women’s rights activists in recent history. I assume pressure was paramount when she stepped on the court in “the Battle of the Sexes” against male opponent Bobby Riggs. With pressure as a motivator, she prevailed.

There are many examples of people throughout history who harnessed pressure towards greatness. Do you think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. felt pressure during the civil rights movement? What about Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he sat in jail? Surely Harvey Milk faced pressure as he fought on the front lines for gay rights? It seems the idea of pressure being a privilege is not a new.

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday discusses stories of people throughout history overcoming obstacles on the road to prominence. The book is rooted in principles of Stoic Philosophy, which promotes equilibrium. There is no good or bad, there just is. This feeling allows Stoics to view obstacles objectively and even find opportunity in them. Though obstacles clearly differ from pressure, my experience is that obstacles and pressure are associated. Holiday’s book draws the conclusion that we should harness obstacles as motivation. I think the same is true for pressure.

In the end, many high performers thrive under pressure. The question is why? I believe it involves finding true meaning behind one’s actions. In Linchpin, Seth Godin refers to this type of meaningful work as “art.” He attributes not practicing art to “the resistance”, or the lizard brain creating fear of failure. The resistance manifest in a variety of forms; pressure is one of them. Godin believes scenarios where the resistance is strongest are most important to pursue. Much like what Serena Williams said, a lack of pressure means stagnation and boredom. Not feeling pressure is letting the resistance win. I believe it is important to pursue opportunities that cause us to endure the most pressure. These are the ones that excite us, rivet us, and spur our inner intensity. It leads us to our best.

I am guilty of letting pressure overwhelm me at times. There are instances where I do everything I can to avoid it. Most of the time, my pressure is created by the high expectations I have for myself. But, high expectations are good. They push me towards meaningful work, to art.

Doing meaningful work is a privilege.

Next time a feeling of pressure arises, think about the resistance. Ask yourself if the source of the pressure is meaningful? If it is not, let it go and search for something more meaningful. If it is, consider it a privilege and savor the intensity it brings.

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