Dealing with the Pressure Cooker

When I feel the tension in my body…when my brain can’t focus on the here and now…when my gut tightens up and my nervous tics kick in…that is when I know that the stress has returned. I certainly had those feelings and more during my 22+ years at Microsoft – and as I recount in my book Xbox Revisited – the tension and pressure led me to resign from Microsoft right in the middle of the Xbox project I was leading. While I ultimately stayed at the company for another 9 years and led the team as the Chief Xbox Officer, the anguish and toll from that pressure was real and ever-present. I will never forget my first dinner out with my wife when I finally left Microsoft in 2010 – there was a feeling of release, an incredibly relaxed freedom that opened my eyes to everything I’d been dealing with over those many years.

Of course, it is rare to be able to “check out” to deal with extreme pressure – certainly while I took a bit of a break, I’m now busy again with some of the same tensions back in my life. Stress can come from any number of angles: work-life balance issues, a difficult boss, a project with unrealistic timelines, a strain in family relationships, exam anxiety, and more elemental issues like unemployment, hunger, or homelessness. Many times, there are no tell-tale signs that someone is under pressure – it is a challenge that burns inside of us independent of how we act on the outside. And it is an equal-opportunity employer that looks beyond socio-economic class, status, role, gender, race, and any number of other parameters. Dealing with stress is part of the human condition.

I believe that trying to eliminate pressure from our lives is a fool’s errand that leads to great effort with limited results. The more important question is, if stress won’t go away, how can we deal with it? I have certainly struggled with this issue myself through many ups and downs – frequently unsuccessfully – and I’ve watched friends, colleagues, leaders, and followers wrestle with the same set of issues. What lessons can we learn?

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