You wake up just as stessed as when you went to sleep three hours ago. After hitting “snooze” twice, you stumble out of bed in a daze, frantically search the minibar for the last Rockstar Energy Drink and finish the entire 16 ounces before the shower has even warmed up. You start to get dressed, only to realize you forgot to pack a white blouse. So you grab the only other shirt you brought, the stained one you wore yesterday, which doesn’t match the suit you packed for today’s meeting. You grab your jacket hoping no one will notice the mismatched ensemble, and as you make a beeline for the complimentary coffee in the hotel lobby you decide buttoning up might help hide the stain and wrinkles. You dread interacting with the hotel staff or the attendees who will be arriving in just two hours. It’s not that you aren’t interested or caring, but you have a million details on your mind and playing nice isn’t on the morning agenda.
If this sounds familiar, you may be suffering from stress. And while stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life, too much stress is unhealthy. Negative stress symptoms often appear as a nagging headache, frequent sleepless nights or decreased productivity. In fact, stress can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings and your behavior. (It’s not like you to avoid people!) Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them.
Kids as Role Models
Enter the “unlearning” guru, Craig Zablocki. Described as a compelling combination of Robin Williams and Wayne Dyer, Zablocki is a nationally renowned motivational and keynote speaker and self-professed goofball. Over the past 20 years, he has shared his potent message of reducing stress through more joy with everyone from police officers to Fortune 500 CEOs and, yes, even exhausted meeting planners. His message is simple: “When looking to decrease stress and add more joy to our lives, we have to look no further than children as our teachers,” he says. “When we approach life with the authenticity and gusto of a healthy young child, when everything is an opportunity for creativity and fun, our stress is reduced and our passion for life increases.”
Zablocki’s concepts are based on his belief that as adults we become self-conscious, develop fears and try to control everything and everybody—all to our own detriment. His philosophy is rooted in personal experience.
One early morning while Zablocki was watching a friend’s son, Michael, play soccer, Michael suddenly stopped while the rest of the boys continued chasing the ball around the field. Swinging his arms wildly and grinning from ear to ear, he exclaimed loudly, “I love this game!” When is the last time you walked into your office on a Monday morning, waved your hands and exclaimed, “I love being a meeting planner!”?
So what allowed Michael to express that spontaneous joy? He was totally immersed in the moment, loving what he was doing and didn’t care what people thought of him—too often the complete opposite of what adults do. If you think you’ve got too much serious work to accomplish and no time for fun, think again.
“Children come from a place of basic happiness, and they approach life from that place of pure joy. It’s their natural state of being. In fact, it is an adult’s natural state of being as well; we’ve just gotten good at covering it up,” Zablocki says. “Children don’t resist fun because it’s not the right time or place or because people may be watching.” Studies show children average 300 laughs per day while adults average just seven.
Zablocki remembers a plane ride that drives this point home perfectly. Traveling with his son, Charles (age four at the time), they began to experience turbulence. The plane was really shaking. What were most of the adults doing? They were death-gripping the armrests, gritting teeth, tightening up and just plain freaking out. As a 4-year-old, what was Charles doing? Squealing “wheeeee,” arms in the air in obvious delight. Charles didn’t feel the fear often associated with turbulence; for him it was like a roller-coaster ride. “And, why not?” asks Zablocki. “Turbulence doesn’t cause stress. Our reaction to it causes stress (or not). The situation was completely out of our control. The only thing we could control was our attitude toward it, and Charles was doing what came naturally to him—living completely in the moment and finding its joy.”
With Charles’ hands held high, fully in the moment, Zablocki and a few other passengers found his son’s enthusiasm contagious and joined in. “In that moment, my unquestioned belief that turbulence causes stress was fractured. Charles showed me that there was another option.”
Stressing out doesn’t help much. Approximately 45% of everything we worry about is in the past. Another 45% simply won’t happen. Only 10% of what we’re worried about is real. And guess what? Only three out of 10 worries are something we can do anything about. So, in a nutshell, that means that of the 100 things you are worried about, only three are things you have control over. Zablocki suggests that we focus on those three things and let the rest go.
Like much of what we stress out about, turbulence during a flight is completely out of our control. The only person in charge is the pilot. Gritting our teeth and gripping the seat does nothing to help the plane fly safely; it only adds to our stress level. (Incidentally, increasing stress also helps to increase our chances of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.)
“The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that the turbulence of life causes our stress. Not true. It’s our resistance to the turbulence that actually causes our stress. So one key to reducing stress is to accept what is happening. First, ask yourself if you can do anything about it. If yes, then do something; if no, then accept it 100%. What you resist, persists,” Zablocki points out.
“Kids take themselves less seriously and as a result they find joy in just about everything,” he adds. “There are not many self-help books for young children because they don’t need them. Kids are all about being present. They don’t question if holding their hands up in the air will make them look silly—they just do it.”
Ask a group of 4-year-olds how many of them can paint a picture and all of them raise a hand. Ask a group of adults how many of them can paint a picture and you’re lucky to get a few hands out of hundreds. This is because we become self-conscious. Instead of focusing on the thrill of painting and getting caught up in the experience, we instead become fearful, judgmental and our own worst critics. “What a silly place to live in,” Zablocki notes.
He believes that as we grow older we move from the all-consuming playfulness of childhood and begin putting our energy toward trying to be cool and fitting in. This pattern follows us through high school and into our workplace. “We lose sight of purpose, fun and spontaneity,” says Zablocki. “If we can start to unlearn this restrictive conditioning, then we’re on to something.”
That’s why children, whom Zablocki sees as authentic, are at the core of his message to adults. He encourages his audience members to realize that getting back to our authentic self is as simple as unlearning the barriers that we’ve built up over the years—barriers such as fear, worry, anger and spending too much time trying to look good and avoiding looking bad.
The Answer Isn’t Always Complicated
It turns out that this is pretty simple stuff. If we stop looking at life from a stressed-out adult perspective and start looking at it from a kid’s point of view, we have a better chance to experience joy. “When we live authentically like children do, with acceptance and joy,” Zablocki says, “we are able to reduce stress and add more joy in our work lives.”
Take it from veteran meeting planner Joan Tezak, executive director, Colorado Society of Association Executives. Tezak plans approximately 14 meetings a year with up to 150 attendees at each event. She believes that “it’s OK to laugh and accept the glitches and bumps in the road. We are not machines and life is not perfect. It’s about [giving] it our all in the time we have together.”
Zablocki couldn’t agree more. Meeting planners, he points out, have demanding jobs. “You oversee multiple operations at one time, face numerous deadlines and orchestrate the activities of multiple groups of people. Work hours are substantial and irregular, with very long days leading up to a meeting or convention and during it. You are often overworked and underappreciated. It’s no wonder that you’re feeling stressed out. But having a better attitude and taking yourself less seriously might be what makes all the difference.”
Once, at a conference with 800 community leaders gathered to discuss the serious issues related to methamphetamine, Zablocki asked a woman from the audience to come on stage and help with the presentation. This particular woman (who represents most typical adults) refused, saying, “I will not be embarrassed.” So he asked her, “How much energy does it take living your life trying not to be embarrassed?” Good question. She soon saw that the energy she expended to “not be embarrassed” was five times greater than the energy that she gave to help combat that terrible drug.
The key, he says, is to do a reversal. If the amount of energy the woman was spending on not being embarrassed was instead directed to the cause, two things would happen: She would have less stress and there would be more passion and creativity devoted to the cause. So it’s a win-win.
Zablocki believes we should all get used to being embarrassed. In fact, he suggests we make a point of doing something embarrassing each day. Within a couple of weeks, he says, we will all see that being embarrassed is something that doesn’t really matter.
“When our personality, aka ego, trumps our purpose, that’s often the exact moment when we lose our playful approach to our work—and when fun, spontaneity and creativity go out the door,” he says.
It’s no coincidence that the most profound takeaway from many of Zablocki’s speeches is this: When kids are playing with Legos (drumroll, please), they’re playing with Legos. That’s it.
In contrast, when we sit down with a pile of Legos we’re thinking, “I’m no good at this. Look at their Legos. I should be doing something else. Maybe I need a four-year training program in Legos. What if it doesn’t turn out right? What if nobody likes it? Heck, I should’ve stuck to Lincoln Logs—anything but just playing with Legos.”
“All our energy goes into the what-ifs, worries and fears, and that causes stress. Same thing with our jobs,” Zablocki says.
For seasoned meeting planner David Law, the director of student activities at Regis University in Denver, Zablocki’s message resonated immediately. “It’s about momentarily stepping back from challenging circumstances, not getting sucked into someone else’s stress, and being able to move from within yourself instead of reacting to what others do,” he says. “As a result, when a disaster happens and you’re standing in the middle of chaos, you are able to be more focused and intentional about things. If you can find a bit of wry humor in the circumstances, it’s going to allow you to snap out of the paralysis that comes with your fight-or-flight instinct and get to work.”
The ultimate goal is to put more joy in our lives so the rest—reducing stress, feeling better and being more productive—will follow naturally. “Joy is a deep feeling of satisfaction and contentment,” Zablocki says. “And the three biggest barriers to joy are fear, anger and worry.” The antidote to fear is positive action. The antidote to anger is forgiveness—of ourselves and others. The antidote to worry is perhaps the simplest of all. “Just ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m worried about within my control?’ If it’s not,” Zablocki says, “let it go.”