John Brennan used to have one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
Brennan was the director of the CIA until January 2017; he worked with Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
In an episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” Brennan spoke with Business Insider US Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell. Brennan said he had to get used to stress.
“Frequently, when I was at CIA, I’d get a call in the middle of the night and the phone was next to my bed — 2, 3 o’clock in the morning or so,” he said. After getting the information, he’d go straight back to sleep.
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One thing that helped him cope in these and other high-stakes situations, Brennan said, was a lesson from his father. Here’s Brennan:
“[My father] saw a lot of the criticisms that were out there and he said, ‘John, as long as you are able to look yourself in the mirror and say to yourself, ‘You made the right decision, the best decision you could make based on the information that you had, and you felt that you made the decision for the right reasons in terms of you weren’t doing it for yourself — you’re doing it because it was what’s best for this country and the American people.’ That’s all you have to worry about.”
Now, Brennan asks himself every morning: “Am I human? Yes. Do I make mistakes? Yes. But do I feel as though I’m making the decisions for the right reasons and I’m not doing it to promote myself or to protect myself? Yeah.'”
Brennan’s coping strategy sounds a lot like self-compassion, which scientists say is key to success. Two of the key components of self-compassion, according to the psychologist Kristin Neff, are engaging in a positive internal dialogue and understanding that everyone — not just you — makes mistakes. Brennan appears to do both.
It’s a technique anyone can use, whether you’re charged with keeping government secrets or starting an entry-level office job. It can be tempting to demand perfection from yourself, especially if you are charged with keeping government secrets. But the idea isn’t to be perfect — it’s to know that you’re giving your job all you’ve got.
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