We’re our own worst enemy. Don’t ask me why; I haven’t a clue. Maybe it’s just an insidious and unfortunate consequence of the human condition; who knows? All I know is the problems we confront in business, at work, even at home, are never as stressful as the ones we create for ourselves.
Not only that, but we’re forever coming up with new and creative ways of stressing ourselves out. That’s because we’re even better at denial and rationalization than we are at shooting ourselves in the foot. I should know. I’ve shot myself in the foot so many times I’m surprised I have any feet left at all.
Just think about it for a minute. How many times have you fought with your wife, only to realize she was right all along and you were being a big jerk or a know-it-all? Happens to me all the time. It’s the same thing at work. Here are some examples of how we create our own work-related stress:
Do you push yourself too hard, tell yourself you’ve got to do something, then beat yourself up when your ridiculously lofty expectations don’t work out as you’d hoped? Guess how much stress and anxiety that creates? Loads.
Does that coworker really have it in for you or is she just reacting to the way you treat her? We all love to bitch and moan about our managers, peers, and employees, but here’s the thing. There’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s you. Have you ever considered that?
Are you really overworked and never have enough time to get things done? Maybe your deadlines are self-imposed. Maybe you’re neurotic, a self-important whack-a-doodle who whines and complains to get attention.
Is your boss a micromanaging dictator or are you a pain in the butt who never listens and hates being told what to do? Besides, if you don’t like your boss, you can always pick up and quit. It’s a free country.
And my personal favorite: you’re underpaid, underappreciated, and nobody ever listens to you. Maybe that’s because you’re an entitled, self-centered, self-branded narcissist who thinks everything in the world revolves around his oversized head.
Look, I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is that we all go through stuff like that to some extent. I’ve seen and done all those things myself, and then some. And look at me. I’ve done okay for a neurotic mess.
So trust me when I tell you that nobody, and I mean nobody, ever wants to believe they’re the problem. The mirror is the last place we look for solutions to stress and anxiety when, in reality, it should be the first place we look. Ironic, isn’t it?
Which brings me to what I think is the biggest cause of self-imposed, work-related stress, bar none. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: more people cause more trouble for themselves by opening their big fat mouths than any other way.
It’s uncanny how good we are at getting ourselves into trouble: spouting off when we shouldn’t or putting things in writing that will almost certainly come back to haunt us. We should know better. But do we?
Not only that, but it makes no difference how high up the corporate ladder you climb. All that means is that, someday, if you somehow manage to reach a lofty position of power and authority, you may even get to self-destruct and look like a complete dope in public.
In fact, with today’s 24x7 news cycle and train-wreck happy audience, when your time comes to do something incredibly dumb, you can bet that the media will be there with big bold headlines waiting just for you – above the fold.
Again, I should know. I may be behind the scenes now, but there was a time when I was very much in the public eye, at least in technology business circles. One day, at a very big Las Vegas trade show, I got a little too full of myself and said something I shouldn’t have to a reporter about my most important partner, a little company named Microsoft. Maybe you’ve heard of them.
Anyway, it got a CEO named Bill Gates pretty pissed off, which created a huge headache for one of his lieutenants who also happened to be my main guy up there in Redmond. When the dust settled, that guy gave me a little bit of advice. He said, “Steve, when it comes to the press, all I ever think about these days is how what I’m about to say can get me into trouble.”
He was right about that. And I’ve since learned three rules that help me stay on the right side of trouble at work:
Rule 1. Reread everything at least once before you hit the send button. If you wouldn’t want it plastered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, then delete it. And, if it’s in any way controversial or inflammatory, sleep on it. In most cases, you’ll end up not sending it. Go figure.
Rule 2. When you’ve got an issue with someone, anyone, first look in the mirror, take a long walk, sit quietly and meditate, do whatever it is you do to gain some perspective. And remember: Every jerk is somebody’s husband or best friend. Also, we’re all jerks sometimes.
Rule 3. Keep your big mouth shut. It never hurts to be quiet and listen. Besides, you might actually learn something. Knowledge is power. And talk isn’t cheap. In fact, it can be very, very expensive. I should know. Now you do, too.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.