Reaction to Stress

Fred Smith recounts a personal story to illustrate the power of good reflexes.

By Fred Smith

It was 3:00 on Friday afternoon when the office phone rang. Mary Alice, in near hysterical tones, kept repeating "the car is in the kitchen, the car is in the kitchen." She had stopped momentarily at the edge of the driveway and then mistakenly hit the accelerator, not the brake, sending her through the garage, into the breakfast room totalling an entire wall of cabinetry. She managed to climb out the car window, over the rubble and make it to the phone where she was now crying in disbelief, "the car is in the kitchen." No businessman ever blocks out time to rescue errant cars from the breakfast room, but here we were. On my hasty drive home I thought of lifetime disciplines that I had turned into reflexes. The automatic emotional organization kicked in and by the time I got home I was ready to take action. Here are the three that have helped me enormously throughout my adult life.

(1) "Don't panic." When any emergency hits, I reflexively respond with "don't panic." I learned this from watching automobile race drivers. One told me that when the drive is the riskiest, the eyes are the widest. No professional driver closes their eyes in a crisis. The visual effect of seeing my wife's car - with the motor still running — dominating the breakfast room was a shock. The sheer magnitude of the devastation was enough to shake you, but I didn't panic.

(2) "Sit loose to things." Oswald Chambers gave me that useful advice. I believe in having things, working for things, wanting things, even accumulating things, but if they go, they should not take us with them. We are always more than what we own. If money can replace it, it's not too vital. I laughingly tell our three children that their inheritance was in the cut glass collection that was housed in the breakfast room cabinet. We now have a box for each child filled with shards of the lifetime collection and a bottle of glue. Chambers' second half of that admonition is "but hold tight to people." Mary Alice was unhurt and her value was infinitely more than any material possessions.

(3) "Don't beat the feathers." Bax Ball, former vice president of marketing at Mobil, gave me this thought: "Fred, at night when you can't sleep, it simply means you've got too much energy, so get up and use the energy to do something useful." For years I've done that, and many is the night at 1:00, 2:00, or even 3:00, I'll be up in the study working away for an hour or two just dissipating the energy rather than using it to beat the feathers.

With a car in the breakfast room you can imagine I had just that little extra shot of adrenaline that kept me up studying stress. But it also gave me a chance to review my reflexes and evaluate their effectiveness. I didn't panic, I certainly sat loose to things and I was not beating the feathers. Think through your disciplines and see how you can build a set of reflexes that will help you in high stress situations.