Pressure is a Privilege

Most roles in business come with a certain amount of pressure. This is normally in the form of pressure to perform. This is the implied nature of the employment contract. They will give you money, and in return you will perform certain duties, jobs and tasks. Keep in mind that there are usually time constraints applied to these functions such as “it needs to be done by…”. Get used to it. In this instance, pressure is the requirement to perform or deliver on those functions associated with your professional position.

Stress however is a different story. No job comes with stress. It is not inherent to the employment contract. It is something else.

Let’s start (as usual) with a definition:

“Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. Even positive life changes such as a promotion, a mortgage, or the birth of a child produce stress.”


This is a crucial distinction between Pressure and Stress. As I said, pressure is the requirement placed upon you to perform those requirements and functions associated with your job. Stress is how you (and your body) respond to those pressures. As you might guess different people react to different situations and pressures differently.

I’ll illustrate with a typical sports analogy. I watch professional golfers and I am usually in awe of them. Their job is to hit the golf ball, as few times as possible while putting it into the specific hole. It is not just their abilities, but also the level of their performance, and the stage on which they perform this job. It is not uncommon to see them standing on the green, alone with the entire tournament riding on their ability to make a single putt. Make it and they win, miss it and perhaps someone else wins. Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of dollars ride on a single swing of any club.

Talk about pressure.

But that is what their job description entails. It is what they signed up for. Every stroke counts. At the end of the tournament you total them all up. Three hundred-yard drives and three-inch tap-in putts. They all count the same. The one with the lowest number wins. It is the most quantifiable of any job performance review. And they all want to be in the position where they control their own destiny with that one last swing of the putter and take home the trophy.

As a side note, there are no “participation trophies”. It’s quantitative as I said, in the extreme. You get what you earn.

Lee Trevino was a competitive professional golfer with his hey-day back in the 1970’s. He won twenty-nine professional tournaments during his career. He is famously quoted as saying “Putts get real difficult the day they hand out the money.” He also tells the story of how he personally learned to deal with that pressure.

He tells the story of standing over a putt and realizing that if he made it, he would win half a million dollars. And his hands started to shake. He stepped back and realized that if he missed the putt, he would still win a quarter of a million dollars. He then realized where he had come from and the heights that he had risen to, were a blessing. He had worked his way into the position where he got the opportunity to make a putt like this.

He also famously remarked that even if he missed the putt, winning a quarter of a million dollars was still pretty good, all things considered. I guess he made the putt since he never said in the story.

He put voice to what most golfers and people who work in general should feel. He was fortunate to be in the position to be under that type of pressure. He had worked hard for that opportunity.

However, this is not always the case in golf, or in business. There are many instances where professional golfers lose that innate ability to deal with the pressure. They begin to dread having to make “that putt”. In many of these instances this pressure manifests itself in the form of something called “the yips”.

“”Yips” is a term most often applied to a putting problem that afflicts some golfers. The term describes a nervous affliction in which the golfer putting cannot make short putts due to the inability to create a smooth putting stroke.”


It is symptomatic of a golfer who cannot, for whatever reason deal with the pressure of that situation. The pressure to perform has now become a stress.

It is when one begins to question their ability to perform and deal with the pressure associated with a situation that stress can occur. Just like some golfers who seem to thrive on the pressure of the big stage and the destiny defining putt, there are business people who also thrive under the pressure of the business opportunity. We all know them. The sales person trying to make the big sale before the end of the year, or the executive making the difficult decision on what to do next.

And there are those that for whatever reason, the job, the position, the situation, the boss, etc., who can struggle in those situations. Many times, it is not the job level or the responsibility. It is something else. The internal mechanism that handles the pressure of the role isn’t working.

The privilege of pressure in the role, the opportunity to get paid to do something they want to do, has become the curse of stress. It is usually associated with the fear of no longer being up to the task. All the training, preparation, and experience are sometimes not enough.

Pressure is something we all must live with, to one level or another. It can be as large as life altering events such as marriage, the birth of a child, or finding a new job, or as seemingly small as just staying in the appropriate lane on the road. Expectations and the pressure to perform and react accordingly accompany all of them.

I remember my parents telling me that driving was a privilege when I first got my driver’s license (a long, long time ago…). I also remember them telling me that if I didn’t perform appropriately on the road, I would not get to enjoy the privilege of driving for a while. After a while they realized that the loss of the driving privilege was a pressure they could apply to other activities and behaviors as well.

Like many other things in life, and on the job, it might not have seemed fair at the time, but it was the reality that had to be dealt with. Needless to say, I tried to modify my behavior (within reason of course, I still had to try and get away with some things) but by and large I did not find myself overly stressed associated with the added pressure associated with the privilege of driving. It was not an entitlement. It was indeed a privilege.

Pressure is always present. The pressure to perform. The pressure to get to work on time. The pressure to achieve. I have seen some managers who have elevated the application of pressure to their teams to a high art form.

I don’t think highly of this technique. And I really haven’t met any team member that has functioned in such an environment who thought highly of it either.

I think the key is to understand that pressure can be used as an internal motivator, as opposed to a stress generator. The new phrase to define this type of approach is “Lean Into It”, and it is defined:

“The act of embracing something, or a situation, by using it to empower yourself. To “lean into” something is to own it, to cast off disparagement. You move forward and deal with it with unhindered confidence, casting off concerns and cares.

Instead of letting a shortcoming hold you back, you find acceptance in the situation, perhaps even going as far as to pride yourself on it. “Leaning into it” may even imply doing more of the “thing” in question, or highlighting it, as a means to overpower it and have it no longer be deemed a weakness or unfortunate hangup.”

I understand that it is far easier to say than do, but I keep coming back to what Lee Trevino said about missing the big putt. He had worked hard to get to where he was, and that despite missing, he still did pretty good. The best hitters in baseball still miss twice as often as they hit. Out of the one hundred plus golfers competing, only one wins on any given week, and half don’t even get to play on the weekend (they miss the “cut”).

Almost everyone has worked and performed under some sort of pressure to get to where they currently are. Because of that they get to continue to have the privilege of continuing to feel that pressure. I guess the key to it is to not allow it to stress you, but rather use it to drive you. You have to learn how to embrace it, because it is probably never going to go away.