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Why a Little Levity is Essential Under Pressure

Seven years ago in a TED-like presentation at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Eric Tsytsylin said working adults are “in the midst of a laughter drought.” I wonder how Tsytsylin would describe our laughter drought today. We’re under a siege of serious issues that require our full attention these days, but how long is it sustainable without a little relief from our dehydration?

Research from Wharton, MIT, and London Business School concludes that, “Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

I recall only one other time in my career when we experienced a similar laughter drought. We were in the midst of the economic downturn in 2009-2010 and I was about a year into my leadership role as CEO of Prologis. We were still on the ropes but our stock value was slowly improving. As things started to look better for us, we decided it was time to bring all of the leaders from our offices in Europe, Asia and the Americas together for a weekend in Colorado. It would be a great opportunity to connect about our respective efforts while giving our fatigued team the moral support of one another in person.

I chose to take the team on a hike that would lead us to one of the huts overseen by the 10th Mountain Division Association in Colorado. Some of these historical huts were built as early as the 1940s and those that followed dot the map between Vail and Crested Butte in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Areas. Skiers, cyclists, and hikers flock to these renovated huts for a rustic getaway. I envisioned an authentic Colorado weekend for this hard-working group and looked forward to our time together away from the constant pressure at the office.

Having worked up an appetite from our hike to the hut, we devoured dinner and made time to talk shop. Then we relaxed and played cards. As the night wore on, a colleague and I decided to retire early but not before playing a prank on the rest of the group. We crept upstairs, quickly hid everyone’s clothes, and pretended to sleep. Later everyone else made their bleary-eyed way to the second floor and felt their way around unfamiliar surroundings.

As they discovered their clothing was gone, it was all my colleague and I could do not to shake with laughter under our covers. Before the others could think of some leverage to get their clothes back, our chief investment officer who was at the end of his short fuse, grabbed a fire extinguisher, pointed it at my partner-in-crime, and threatened him with expletives. 

By this time, we were about to burst out laughing but fought to keep our eyes closed and our breathing calm so we didn’t blow our plan. Our CIO was done waiting. He pulled the pin and opened up the entire contents of the canister on my colleague.

Pressurized carbon dioxide exploded all over the room.

Human nature requires a balance of emotions for us to sustain any effort over the long haul.

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If you’ve ever used a fire extinguisher in a confined space, you know it propels the chemicals with such force that you find yourself gasping for air because the oxygen levels are reduced so quickly. Seconds later, we all were coughing and scrambling down the stairs, straining to catch our breath. Once we regained our composure and collapsed into chairs on the first floor, we looked around at each other and started to laugh at how ridiculous it all was, grown men covered in ghostly white powder and a second floor that looked like a complete whiteout.

That story became folklore for our leadership team. You could say we were just like that fire extinguisher—under incredible pressure. Pulling the pin on that canister was an impulse—just like our prank—that got us all laughing and bonding in the end. That laughter provided many moments of relief that would serve us well in the upcoming months when one of us reminded the other and we had a chuckle about it. The whole team went on to do great things for the company—and I like to think our ability to laugh together had a good deal to do with that. Granted, humor is subjective, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt it. Human nature requires a balance of emotions for us to sustain any effort over the long haul. Our adventure over that weekend created the bond we would lean on for years to come. As we make our way forward in the near future, I hope you find your own opportunities for laughter even if you’re stuck with a cleaning bill to pay for it.

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