High-stress situations happen all the time in life and in business. Things crash and burn. Huge deals collapse. Partners quit. There are meetings where everything is on the line. That’s why we’ve asked nine battle-tested entrepreneurs to share their most useful techniques for turning stress into success.
How to use stress for success
1. Stay cool.
The Gulag Archipelago tells the story of Russians who were terrorized and oppressed by Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin. To paraphrase the author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, don’t worry about happiness because the good is never as good as you think and the bad never lasts as long as you think.
Approach life with an attitude of not feeling like everything is on the line—because it rarely is. We make things into a bigger deal than they need to be. Stay realistic: If the meeting doesn’t work out or the deal doesn’t close, it will pass. It’s never as bad as you think. And if the deal goes through, it will probably not be as amazing as you think. Very few things on a scale of one to 10 are ones (horrible, life-threatening) or 10s (our imagined utopian bliss). Stay calm. Great things come to people who can stay cool under pressure.
2. Embrace the strain of stress for success.
Stress can be good for you. Going through a stressful time can make you more resilient. I keep myself at a constant level of stress to ensure I’m challenging myself. If my stress level gets high, I get to the root cause of it, which helps. Stress imposed by other people can be frustrating, but it’s helpful to understand what stress they’re facing. Stress is often transferred. It’s also temporary. When I’m under stress, I like to keep in mind that it will pass.
3. Recognize your limits.
Nearly a decade ago, there was a screenwriter strike looming. I was finishing the script for Star Trek and simultaneously had to write Transformers 2. My writing partner and I had only three weeks to write Transformers 2 before the strike began. We realized it was impossible. Instead, we wrote the most detailed outline we could. During the strike, director Michael Bay prepared the movie from our outline. It wasn’t ideal, but sometimes the laws of physics constrain you. To quote Scotty from Star Trek, “You cannot change the laws of physics!” So, don’t kill yourself. Stress will do that for you. Know your limits and go to sleep at night knowing you have done your best.
— Roberto Orci, Hollywood super producer and screenwriter
4. Find the opportunity for success in your stress.
The Chinese word for crisis is wei-ji. It comprises two words: danger (wei) and opportunity (ji). Often, our tendency is to focus on the threat. I’ve conditioned myself to always search for blessing and opportunity in every crisis, even when I don’t initially see it. I immediately say to myself, “What a great opportunity.” Then I find out what the opportunity is.
This simple mindset technique has helped me close deals that were on the verge of falling apart, avoid costly lawsuits and find win-win solutions that were much better than originally imagined. Only when we believe high-stress situations are a gift are we able to seek and find that gift.
5. Focus on what you have.
A few years ago, I was approached by a large corporation seeking to acquire a stake in my company. It was a perfect strategic partner with a great name and big money. The term sheet was in place, but then things fell apart for reasons outside of my control. Losing a deal that had life-changing potential for both myself and my company at the very last minute was brutal. What helped manage the stress was focusing on the things I still had: a great brand, a fantastic team, top-notch clients and placement in a growing industry. It pushed me to continue innovating and come up with new ideas, which only strengthened our position and increased the company’s value.
—Yuli Ziv, immigrant founder and CEO of Heallist, author of three books including Millionaire Influencer: 50 Steps To Your Online Empire, influencer marketing pioneer and self-made entrepreneur
6. Get over yourself and turn stress into success.
A few years ago, my publishing team had some big problems on a major book project: lots of stress and wasted time, money and energy. As I grew more uncomfortable feeling the tension in the room, I suddenly blurted out, “Hey man, it’s just a f***ing book!” This had a disarming effect, to say the least. We all recalibrated on the spot, realizing that we must do the best possible job we can, given the circumstances and abilities of the contributors, and not worry about anything else. When you are overly wound up in the importance of your own world—especially as a leader—get over yourself and encourage others on your team to do the same.
7. Step back and find perspective.
Our most recent big stressful situation was a cash flow issue. We were growing so fast that cash flow couldn’t keep up with accounts payable (we were running out of money because we couldn’t buy inventory fast enough to keep up with sales). After a brief moment of panic, I stepped back and tried to look at it from the perspective of coaching one of my clients. I came up with some logical solutions, weighed the pros and cons and implemented a plan. We extended our terms with vendors and secured a line of credit from our main banking partner to resolve the cash flow issue. Detaching allowed me to take the emotion out of the situation and focus on a solution.
—Gary Nealon, president of Nealon Solutions; his company RTA Cabinet Store spent seven consecutive years on the Inc. 5000
8. Remember what truly matters.
When in a high-stress situation, I’ve learned to try to take a step back and evaluate whether, in the grand scheme of life, this is something worthy of getting all worked up about. For example, if one of our infrastructure providers goes down, remember that life will continue and customers will understand if you communicate openly and honestly about the situation.
I came to this realization after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the days following, it became so clear to me what really matters, and no matter how stressful business or entrepreneurship might be, it’s nothing compared to the health and safety of those you love. The takeaway is that no matter how important the situation might be, there is never a reason to let panic and anxiety set in. Stay focused on the important things and keep everything in perspective.
9. Stop being addicted to stress to find success.
Every client who walks through my door is in a crisis—his or her life and liberty are at risk. I care so much about my clients that I used to stress out with and for them. Being addicted to stress, however, takes mental energy away from focusing on creative, strategic and effective problem solving. Nowadays, I’m just as passionate, but take time every single day to meditate—it trains my mental, emotional and physical self to quickly regroup and refocus when stressful situations inevitably arise. Also, ask yourself, “Will this matter three years from now?”
—Nafisé Nina Hodjat, managing attorney of The SLS Firm
This article was published in April 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock