Air traffic controllers are considered to have among the most inherently stressful jobs. In this article the Christian Science Monitor ranks air traffic controller jobs as the fourth most stressful occupation.
Flying last week, an air traffic controller was seated next to me. She was flying home after a three-day shift at the busy Washington, D.C., air traffic control center.
Noticing how relaxed she was I commented, “I always read that air traffic controller jobs are so stressful, yet you seem so relaxed.”
Her response was profound, “It’s only stressful if you don’t like your job.”
She explained the many things that she loves about her job. She loves the teamwork as a plane moves in or out of her sector and into the sector of another air traffic controller. She loves being known as a reliable voice that pilots trust.
What about mistakes? She explained that it is important to reflect on and learn from mistakes, but as important, she does not hold onto thoughts about a mistake. Those thoughts have to be dropped so that her focus can return to the task at hand. I added that what she was describing about mistakes is exactly what a good athlete does or, for that matter, anybody interested in getting better at anything.
She explained that she can quickly tell if a candidate for an air traffic controller job is going to be good at it and enjoy it. She can tell by their mindset about the job.
On the Christian Science Monitor’s list, the number one most stressful occupation is inner-city high school teacher. In a post earlier this year “What Does That Have To Do With It?” I wrote:
In the movie Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank plays a newbie English teacher assigned a classroom of troubled students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.
The movie is based on the real life experiences of Erin Gruwell. Initially, Erin could not even keep control of her classroom. Gruwell, through pedagogical techniques such as journaling but most importantly her own belief in the capacity of her students to learn, transforms her class.
Of course, some teachers and administrators are in opposition. In one scene, Erin confronts a colleague:
Erin: “You can’t teach them. You don’t even like them.”
Colleague: “What does that have to do with it?”
You can’t teach effectively if you don’t like your students. You can’t be a good air traffic controller if you don’t like your job. Stress is not inherent in anything. The stress comes from how we think about the thing we are doing. Are we in the moment, delighting in a job well done, or are we mentally complaining about our circumstances and refusing to be present in the moment?
The more we think a job is stressful the more we look for the “stressful” aspects of the job. The more we notice the stressful aspects of the job the more stress we feel. Not because the stressful aspects of the job are shaping our experience of reality but because of the connection we have made in our minds. When we are in what we believe to be stressful circumstances, we clench against the moment and, naturally, we feel stress.
All of this can be generalized. Some parents of normal, bright, and well-behaved children find parenting stressful; while parents of special needs children will often tell you about the rewards of parenting. Clearly what is going on is all in the minds of the parents and not in their circumstances. Each parent chooses to notice certain things and chooses to make, or not make, a mental connection between the event and stress.
The more we make a habit of connecting certain events with stress, the more it seems that stress is in the circumstances rather than in our mind.
Most people have dysfunctional, habitual ways of dealing with stressful feelings. When we are in the midst of our stressful feelings our habitual response seems like a good idea. The way out is to realize that when we are feeling upset, our thoughts and feelings are completely unreliable guides to behavior. This is easier said than done, because we when we are upset we think we understand why we are upset and what to do about it. We believe that the cause of stress is in the world rather than in our mind. Here is a useful rule of thumb: We are always wrong.