To Soar with the Eagles

Last month I visited with the Masters students of International Space University. Each year the university, based in Strasbourg, France, offers a one-year graduate studies program to about 40 international students – young professionals who wish to learn more about the space program and who aspire to push back frontiers.

This year’s students have completed their core curriculum and are now starting work on their Team Projects – intense, hands-on collaborative research projects designed to draw upon their new knowledge and skills.

I spoke during one of my lectures about work-related stress. I introduced the Masters students to a concept known as the ‘Yerkes-Dodson Law’. The Law (graphically depicted below) asserts that our performance peaks when we feel at least some physiological, mental and emotional arousal. I encouraged each of the students to find their ‘sweet spot’ of optimal arousal and performance.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law – how anxiety affects performance. Source Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson.

I discovered in the past that I perform best and my achievements are most meaningful when I am uncomfortable. This is what I mean by ‘functioning out of my comfort zone’ … executing at the limits of my capabilities. Similarly, I found that the best decisions that I made in life pushed me to be my best and sometimes left me feeling uncertain and anxious.

But there is a limit. Yes, performance increases with stress, but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance is impaired. I melt down.

Knowing that their Team Project work will likely be taxing, I advised the ISU students to monitor their personal stress. They can do this by:

  • paying attention to their level of alertness
  • taking note of their mood (i.e. if they’re not having fun, then they’re doing something wrong)
  • assessing their stamina
  • listening to their bodies (frequent illnesses indicate that something is out of control)

I passed on some strategies to manage their stress. For instance, three elements should be consistently part of their daily schedule:

  • enough sleep
  • daily exercise
  • a balanced diet (with plenty of fruit and vegetables; no junk food)

This is basic self-care. Beyond these needs, some of us also need to schedule:

  • time to reflect, pray or journal
  • time with family and friends

as a means to recharge.

Once these foundational blocks are established in our personal calendars, the other responsibilities and tasks can then be added. A career aspiration to soar with the eagles is unrealistic if we don’t pay attention to the basics of self-management.

The best astronauts find a healthy balance of work, play and rest – to maintain self-control, confidence and even temperament; and to maintain the physiological and psychological reserves to deal with crises as they inevitably arise during the course of every space mission.

My crewmate Nicole Stott used some of her off-time during spaceflight to paint watercolours. Courtesy NASA.

Greg Chamitoff played chess during his down time with the mission control team on the ground. Courtesy NASA.

I have long admired ISU students for their work ethic. I hope the tips that I passed on will help them to work hard and play hard in the coming months.

Work-related stress is not limited to university students. It is a daunting challenge throughout society. I listened with interest to last Friday’s episode of The Current on CBC radio. One of the program segments was on the topic of burnout in young professionals.  The segment was inspired by a BuzzFeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation which has gone viral.

A recent issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites high workload, burnout and depression in medical residents. Articling lawyers face similar challenges.

Stress and burnout are complex problems and their solutions are not easy. Those of us who oversee young leaders can do our part by ensuring reasonable workloads. We should share resources and coping skills that work for us, and be exemplars in the management of our daily schedules. Monitoring and control of stress are essential 21st century skills.

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