How To Inoculate Yourself from Program Stress [TED Talk Review]

We love TED Talks. There are so many great ones, but who has time to keep up with them all? That’s why, every so often, I want to share a TED learning that might be useful to our customers.

In his talk What I Learned From Going Blind in Space,1 astronaut Chris Hadfield described…well, that. He was outside the spaceship when it happened, attached to so-called ‘safety’ only by a tether and the voice of Command in his ear. He told about the training he’d been through that allowed him to stay calm.

Turns out, that training is somewhat reproducible and fairly simple (but not easy!) for non-astronauts like you and me who want to learn to move beyond our stress responses and fears to accomplish something great.

Hopefully, you’ll never be faced with going blind at all, let alone in space, but you will and do have fears and feel stress in many areas of your life, not the least of which is your program. To make his case, Colonel Hadfield described the tiny risk spiders present in the world and references a fear that most of us have: walking into a spider web. It’s actually funny to see someone walk into one (even one with no spider) because of how instantly and insanely we they begin to react, despite the almost zero amount of actual danger they’re in.

What are Your Spider Webs?

Let’s talk about this in the arena of your job as a kids’ activity director or organizer. Colonel Hadfield states that feeling stress is a sign that something you care about is at stake. 

For camp and class directors, that could mean your bottom line and/or livelihood, your organization’s reputation, your staff, your facility, and the families and children you serve. There are so many layers and levels to care about. Which one looms largest for you? Which is your spider web?

Often it’s something smallish — a bank error, an angry parent, technical difficulties — that elicit a spider web experience in us, but Hadfield encourages us to explore what it is we care about that’s at stake. Staying actively engaged through these experiences, especially over time, helps us begin to understand and control our stress response. It helps us learn what we can control and what we can’t.

Pro Tip: Control your operational stress with camp and class management software.

To not just manage but overcome our stress responses, Hadfield says we need to purposely, proactively and repeatedly put ourselves in the position to do the things we typically avoid like the plague. If it’s spider webs, you need to walk through spider webs until you are no longer afraid of them.

Stress Inoculation

What Hadfield is describing is called stress inoculation.

60% of what we fear never comes to pass and 90% turns out to be insignificant.2 But what is the price we pay for those fears? Stress is harmful to our bodies, our relationships, and our productivity, and fear holds us back from who we could become and all we could achieve.

But he’s not talking about piling on more of the everyday, wear-and-tear kind of stress we all endure that’s harming us, not making us better. He’s talking about conditioning ourselves to intentionally endure a specific stress until it no longer stresses us.

Example: Jim Brogan, retired basketball player turned motivational speaker and trainer, uses a technique wherein he has his clients read out loud in a busy mall until they are no longer afraid to do so. Though it may take dozens of times, they report incredible gains from such an experience, not the least of which is mastery over their fear of public speaking.

While we can’t prescribe the spider web you need to walk through repeatedly, you’ll know you’ve overcome your fear when your stress response is no longer “I can’t do this” (perceived threat), but “I’m ready for this” (perceived challenge.)

Can you imagine getting there with all the stressors you feel in running your business?

Proactive vs. Situational/Reactive

Life will, of course, provide many situations to which you will react. Kids will misbehave or get hurt. Parents will complain and leave your organization. The economy will continue to fluctuate. Challenges will come.

Over time, you may become better at handling your stress responses. You may develop a mind like water, one that reacts appropriately and quickly returns to its previous state. But nothing will get you there faster than stress inoculation – walking purposely into that spider web until it no longer freaks you out.

Then you will know on a gut level the difference in fear and danger.

What’s your spider web? What challenges have you resisted taking on to grow your business? (P.S. We’re here to help with those!)


1TEDTalk: What I Learned From Going Blind in Space

2National Institute of Mental Health: Fear/Phobia Statistics