In the fall of 2019, I enrolled in Babson Graduate School of Business to pursue a Master’s degree in Management. As part of the curriculum, students were required to travel abroad during their winter breaks for a two-week educational excursion learning about how economic, anthropological, and culture differences impact entrepreneurial business practices around the globe. Since the cohort of my graduate classmates was nearly 90% international, Babson caveated this requirement with the statement that one must have very limited prior knowledge, exposure, or understanding of the region where they intended to travel. That is, a student from Thailand could not attend the Hong Kong, China program since they are already familiar with cultural norms and behaviors in that area of the world.
After the computer lottery system performed its task, I was selected to travel to Santiago, Chile with a group of 20 other students and a professor. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decided to book my flights to accommodate a week of personal travel before and after the mandatory program dates since they were being fully reimbursed by Babson. I wasn’t sure when I would get another opportunity to immerse myself in such a foreign environment and push the boundaries of my comfort zones, so I jumped at the chance.
Prior to leaving, the professor leading the trip hosted a few general information sessions about the history of Chile, current events in the area, and what the flow of events during our two weeks there would look like. He concluded the last session with a slight hesitation that drastic changes might be on the horizon due to the present level of upheaval and chaos on display within the greater Santiago region.
From November of 2019 through March of 2020, Santiago, Chile experienced widespread riots and protests that were leaving parts of the city in sheer ruins. Police, trying to quell the demonstrations, were often times shooting rubber bullets at constituents, leaving some permanently blind and disabled. Tear gas and fires would smoke up the streets 24/7, and all the shops had their windows boarded up. It was definitely not the environment a loving mother would volunteer to send her child off to. I was still eager to go but I thought to myself, “What am I going to be walking into”; “Can I handle this?”
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I booked my Airbnb, spent some time on Duolingo learning Spanish (especially practicing how to say “dónde está el baño”), and looked for adventurist activities to embark on to get the most out of my experience in South America. I signed myself up for a tour through the Andes Mountains, booked a rental car to drive out to the coastal city of Valparaiso, and made notes of historical monuments and locations I intended to see.
Then the day came, December 29th, 2019, when I boarded my plane at Logan Airport to make the nine-hour journey down to São Paulo, Brazil, to get a connecting flight over to Santiago. After some initial confusion on the flight time and gate number in the Brazilian airport, I was able to track down the location of my connecting plane and grab a red-eye at Starbucks to break the drowsiness from the previous overnight flight.
As the plane descended into Central Valley, the butterflies in my stomach slowly began to come alive. I was going to be walking into a world of unknowns, with no immediate help available. The “what if” thoughts crept in, and the anxiousness subdued any hunger or thirst my body had. The hippocampus portion of my brain was reminding me of that night in Paris, activating more autonomic nervous system arousals. It was not to the panic attack levels of before, yet I was uncomfortable to say the least.
But since that night in Paris, I studied the stress response, I engaged with materials that helped frame my mindset in times of stress, and I exposed myself to situations that encouraged me to apply those findings. Below are some of the thoughts that went through my head as I set foot in Santiago, Chile.
“This was your choice, take ownership of it, and grow from it.”
“If you turn back, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?”
Don’t live with the “What if,” embrace the stress with “So what”
“You have been here before, only this time, you have experience on your side.”
“Anxiousness is just your body’s way of telling you it is ready for the challenge.”
“Fear doesn’t stop death, it stops life—go out there and do some living.”
“Stay in your Three Foot World.”
Tool to Highlight: Three Foot World
It is natural to have stress, to be fearful, to be afraid, to have doubt. It’s a product of being a human being. We are hardwired to engage with our environments, react to stimuli, and make decisions.
In Stoic philosophy, individuals are taught to distinguish between two stages of our response to an event (stressor). The first is the initial impressions that are imposed involuntarily on our minds. Examples being hearing a terrifying sound, feeling a building start to shake, or seeing a source of danger emerge. There is an emotional reflex taking place in our bodies that temporarily bypasses our sense of reason. One could say these are the core foundations to our “fight or flight” response.
But as humans, our intellect and capacity for thought allows us to project these worries beyond their original forms. The second stage of the response is when we add voluntary judgements of “assent” to the automatic impressions in stage one. This can be the catastrophizing of the initial event (thinking worst case scenario), or ruminating on all the rabbit holes that initial worry can travel down (everything else that might go wrong now). But it can also be the space in which we take a step back from the initial thought/feeling and withhold judgement from it.
I first came across the phrase “Three Foot World” in an autobiography of a former Navy SEAL recounting his experience in a training iteration during his time in the teams. He was elaborating on the lead climbing training he was partaking in during the buildup to a deployment. Being fearful of heights, it was not the training environment he wanted to be in. Regardless of how scared he was or the lack of fear other individuals showed when it came to climbing up a 100 foot wall of granite, he still had to execute the training requirement to qualify himself for deployment.
For those unfamiliar with lead climbing, its a form of rock climbing that involves scaling the face of a rock by manually hammering in your secure hold to attach your rope to as you ascend. It is unassisted, and high risk, but a necessary technique to use when climbing previously unexplored terrain.
This Navy SEAL was explaining how he was a few stories in the air on the cliff face and running out of gear to get him to the summit. His movements started getting jittery, he was slow, and was not making any progress towards his goal. He said one of the guides there to support the training, free climbed up (no ropes at all) next to him and said “Just stay in your Three Foot World. Control what you can control. Looking down at the base of the rock won’t help you, looking all the way at the top of the rock won’t help you, it’ll only heighten your underlying panic. Take it one step at a time and focus on what you have the immediate power to do.” The guide then proceeded to free climb his way to the top, leaving the former SEAL to evaluate how to use tools in his immediate arsenal to execute the training.
That analogy stuck with me and helped to conceptualize the notion that it is easy to extrapolate your stress into these mountains of obstacles to climb. You can overwhelm yourself with the distance you have yet to go, instead of acknowledging how far you have already come. You won’t reach the summit of that mountain if you don’t first start by putting one foot in front of another. Keep it simple. Instead of contemplating how failing the training would disqualify him from deployment, or make him look incompetent in the eyes of his peers, this SEAL removed himself from the initial stress of being alone on the cliff face and relied on his sound judgement to determine a corrective coarse of action.
“Staying positive does not mean that things will turn out okay. Rather it is knowing that you will be okay no matter how things turn out.”
As noted above, anxiety and stress aren’t inherently bad for us. It’s how we respond to it that leads us into turmoil or growth. If something has already happened, worrying or ruminating about it will not reverse that event. The only option one has is deciding how they wish to respond. A good trick is to think, how would someone that you admire deal with that event or news. Most likely, you admire them because of the calm and courageous ways in which they navigate obstacles in their life. They probably don’t throw up their hands, run through the dictionary of dirty words, or play the victim card. That individual’s calculated approaches to dealing with events in their life exemplifies courage and wisdom. Keep that in mind the next time life throws you a curveball that requires your attention, and see if after passing through stage one of the response process, you can formulate a plan of action or inaction in stage two that empowers you as opposed to letting your mind ruminate on the negative potentials.
Idea to Embrace: Equanimity
I first was introduced to the term Equanimity in one of the guided meditations on the Waking Up app I spoke about in the first article. It’s defined as having mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. It has application potential ranging from excruciating physical pain to mental anxieties. The definition of a difficult situation is highly ambiguous, and subject to personal opinions and tolerance levels, but everyone has a struggles in their life.
The concept of having Equanimity was reinforced as I read excerpts of an ancient Stoic philosopher by the name of Epicurus, who spent time reflecting on the notions of pain and illness in his Principal Doctrines. There he said, “Pain is always bearable because it is either acute or chronic but never both.” That is, a little pain should not be disruptive since its minor, and a great pain is not long lasting. Therefore, you can cope with pain in either scenario because if it is severe, you know it won’t last forever, and if it is minor, you know you’ve dealt with worse pain before so it’s tolerable.
The quote “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” has relevance here. It allows us to reflect on the hardship we have overcome to date, and instill a sense of pride that we are indeed still standing. Approaching difficult situations or physical sensations with Equanimity doesn’t make it go away, rather it changes your relationship with it such that it doesn’t spiral into something more than it actually is.
“On Pain: if it is unbearable, it carries us off, if it persists, it can be endured.”
Equanimity allows you to face your battles with a calm, collected mind which maximizes your capacity to execute on tasks and concepts within your Three Foot World. Complaining and chattering about problems will only make them worse, and it reflects poorly on individual character. Again, how would someone you admire handle pain. Would they yell out in anguish, say something is unbearable, or hyperbolize the situation they are in to get sympathy? I’m guessing all those answers are no.
Pain and struggle are obscure abstractions. And they are complicated due to the conscious/cognitive relationships we have have with them. Pain, agitation, or discomfort bring about anxiety because we fear it will continue. We are worried about the possibility that it lingers/comes back. We are afraid of the next moment.
But you have already born the sensation, you can’t take that back. And without you even noticing, you have dealt with it. Giving it more negative energy only causes an “assent” of feeling that doesn’t objectively move the needle for you in a productive direction. Epictetus says, “The fear of pain does more harm than pain itself.”
Remember, pain doesn’t reside purely in the physical realm of sensations. The stress and anxieties we face mentally can be managed with Equanimity as well. Thoughts come and go. As troubling as something might be, your attention to it will eventually scatter to other areas of focus. That is important to highlight, as it is easy to assume in the moment that whatever is giving you trouble will last forever. It dominates your immediate attention. But time is undefeated in so many categories that we must respect its power. Broken hearts heal, jealousy subsides, compulsions wither.
Mental stress doesn’t necessarily require a physical reaction to combat it. Equanimity promotes the benefits of inaction. Being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Allowing yourself the space to reflect on the true source of your struggle, and understanding how you wish to proceed is invaluable. It can’t be rushed, and must be viewed objectively.
As the inevitable next hardship falls into your lap, look back at all you’ve overcome to be where you are now, and appreciate your formidable ability to endure all that life has thrown at you.
Chilean Trip Round Up:
My month of travel in South America gave me so many memories that I’ll cherish forever. The two hour drive from Santiago out to Valparaiso is one of the most beautiful and fascinating scenes I’ve witnessed. It also reminded me I should probably research the local emergency contact numbers in the event that I need them in a pinch. As I drove my little white Prius out to the coast, I could have estimated at least 50 cars pulled over on the side of the road with mechanical/maintenance issues. We take for granted in metropolitan areas within the U.S. how quickly AAA or police can be on scene to be of service, but I’m not sure if the Chilean entities had the same reputation. Definitely counted my blessings when I turned the car back in unscathed.
I was able to cover over 30 miles on foot the first two days I was there, getting a general sense of direction and locational awareness for when my classmates arrived. I met a wonderful tour guide on my trip into the Andes that I still keep in touch with to this day. She was invaluable in giving me local insights, restaurants to dine at, and exquisite pastry shops to try in order to get for the full Chilean experience.
After the educational portion of the trip, I traveled down to Patagonia with friends to see the great Perito Moreno Glaciers and the granite peaks of Torres del Paine National Park. It was refreshing to experience some of the travel with others, and it helps mitigate some stress knowing you’re all in it together. When our connecting flights got canceled in a small airport in the middle of the mountains, we all sat in a circle and played cards for hours reflecting on how crazy it was that we were on the other side of the world in Olin Hall at Babson just a few weeks prior.
Remind yourself how much you’ve overcome so far in your life, and know that you have the ability to choose your response to future stimuli, which makes you a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Resources for Further Discovery:
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
Great stuff Mitch. I especially love "fear doesn't prevent death, it prevents life." So true.