Wellbeing / Stress management

How to manage stress better: Be the egg, not the potato

Stress and challenges are part and parcel of the solo life. While we can’t control the challenges themselves, we can learn how to manage stress better.

11 August 2015 by

Five years ago I had a complete breakdown. Several years of relentless stress from running my business had triggered extreme anxiety, which in turn triggered depression. The end result? I found myself in a very bad place.

It took a really long time to emerge from that bad place and by the time I did, I knew the equation was:

Stress = Anxiety = Depression

I never wanted to return there so I avoided stress like it was the plague.

My husband, who had taken over running the business, also knew the equation. So he began to protect me. Narky emails from unhappy clients? Worries about whether there was enough income coming into the business? Staff issues? For the past few years he’s kept them all to himself.

And I’ve been supremely grateful.

But recently, the Universe, as it’s wont to do, has been sending me a message. At least, that’s my interpretation of the fact that I’ve come across this quote in three places in two weeks:

Now, yes, like all quotes it’s a bit pithy and you can take it a few ways. But for me, I feel this quote is sending me the message that it’s time to put my big-girl-pants on. Time to stop running from challenging situations. Time to start sharing the stress load with my husband again.

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I’m far more resilient now than I was five years ago and that’s not just because I’m in a better place mentally, it’s because I now know these five things about how to manage stress better:

"The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It’s about what you’re made of, not the circumstances. "

1. Only the controllables can be controlled

In the early years of my business I’d gotten in the habit of thinking if I was really organised and able to anticipate what people needed before they even needed it, then I could effectively control stressful situations out of my life. Ha! All this line of thinking did was ensure when a stressful situation arose, I’d get angry at myself for not having anticipated that thing could happen.

Yes. I know! Even I can see that’s ridiculous now I’ve written it down!

Now I know that no matter how organised we are, shit can, and will happen. But the good thing about life is …

2. We can always deal with the ‘now’

A few years ago someone told me I had to read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now because it would be life changing. And they were right. Whenever I find myself leaning towards the foetal position these days, I return to a single line from that book: “You can always cope with the now.”

Tolle is right. My (and your!) strike rate for dealing with the ‘now’ is 100%. We don’t have to like dealing with the ‘now’. We just need to know that we can and will.

3. Stress isn’t necessarily ‘bad’

A few years ago I saw this TED Talk from Kelly McGonigal where she showed how stress is actually only as bad for us as we think it is. This was a big revelation for me because, (the stress = anxiety = depression equation aside), I’d always believed stress was physiologically bad too and it justified my avoidance of it. But McGonigal urges us to look at stress differently; to instead interpret the physiological reaction as an indication that our body is energised and ready to meet the new challenge head on.

4. Running a business is a privilege

Comparisons can be odious, but sometimes they can also be a nice reality check. I’m privileged to live in a country where a woman has the freedom and tools to start her own business. I’m also privileged to:

  • Live in a country where the barriers to starting and running your own business are negligible;
  • Have a business that is nearly nine years old given how many businesses fail in their first year;
  • Have a business that’s surmounted many challenges and has been able to evolve in a world that is becoming increasingly digital.

But mostly I’m privileged because, despite the stress, my business ticks some really key lifestyle boxes for me and my family.

5. Surmounting challenges equals growth

Every challenge I’ve faced down since first starting my business nine years ago has led to learning and growth that I’ve been able to put to good use. These days I make better decisions. I’ve learned to spot the difference between an ‘opportunity’ and a giant time suck. I’ve become a better problem solver and communicator. In short, all those challenges have made me a better person!

So back to the potato and the egg.

It’s clear to see that I’m much better equipped to deal with the challenges of both business and life these days. And it’s clear to see that, in recent times, I’ve been taking the potato option more out of habit than necessity when presented with a ‘boiling water’ scenario.

So it’s time for that to change. It’s time to put that hard-earned, newly acquired mental-strength to the test.

From this point forward, if I find myself in a bit of hot water, I’m going to choose to be the egg.

How do you respond to stressful situations currently? Could you learn how to manage stress better? Are you in a position to choose to take the challenge head on rather than curling up in the foetal position?

Kelly Exeter

is the Editor of Flying Solo and owner of Swish Design. She’s also an author and her most recent book 20 Simple Shortcuts to Small Business Success was written with fellow soloists and small business owners in mind. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.


  • An EXCELLENT article. Pulls one back into the reality of why you start your own business-to ENJOY time, have more control over your world, and your good point about only worrying about controlling what you can is spot on. We all need a reminder like this, thank you!

  • Simply HR

    Thank you Kelly. I was just sitting here ‘stressing out’ over various issues relating to the business and questioning whether it was all worth it – and then your article popped up. It was a timely shot in the arm for me. Appreciate it. Andrew

  • Today I feel more like a scrambled egg, but I think this article is fab. I’ve had my big girl undies on for a while now and they feel great (obviously I clean them regularly).

    I think one of the big aspects of running a business that is underrated is self confidence. It takes bucket loads to get through the working week. Especially as a soloist. Great article.

    • Scrambled egg! Ha ha I know that feeling! And I agree – confidence is huge when it comes to pushing through those boiling water scenarios. Thank you Kate

  • Fantastic article! Very well put.

    Stress, in my view, is our bodies telling us that something is out of alignment with ourselves as a whole in our environments.

    A lot of that stress is borne from guilt in my experience. Nearly all my life I was told by my parents I’d work in an city office, keep stupid hours and be told what to do 90% of the time. Now? Now I work in my own home office, keep my own hours and direct myself. Stress in my first few months was overcoming that guilt – that the universe’s big boot would trample me because I wasn’t fulfilling my “destiny” (as crappy as it was.) It’s a process of mindfulness (borrowed from Mr. Tolle too!) to keep on top of it. It always will.

  • We all feel at times that we have to cope and we can’t show weakness or stress., but unfortunately it is part of our lives and we just need to learn our own individual ways of dealing with it. Thank you for sharing.

  • I really enjoyed this article Kelly, thanks for being you.

  • jomare’s

    was about to enter into a scary but exciting thing to do. something told me to read your article first and then do the other email. i’m sooooooo glad I did. you’ve really made clear for me so much of what I was afraid of or what others have put to me about the negative’s of running a business. so thank you for balancing it out. I want to print out your article and keep it in my business dream journal so I can read it any time i’m feeling all the fears and confusions of it all. was very impactful. as they would say in landmark – you ‘moved, touched and inspired me by sharing your story’ thank you for the kind pep talk and motivation to go ahead with my new thing and see how much ability and potential I have with this and hey some fun too. 🙂 thanks Kelly, you rock!

  • This resonated with me so much. Thank you Kelly for sharing!

  • Jamie Press

    Fantastic read, Kelly. Love the analogy!

  • I agree with the others here who say your article is a timely read – and thank you! I’m in a bit of a slump myself at the moment. Just plodding along, I feel. Finding it hard to muster the energy or enthusiasm I need. I’m still giving my best to my clients, but I feel there’s little left over for me. I’m prone to anxiety anyway, so I don’t always handle stress too well. Oh, I get through it, but not with the fierce attitude I used to have. And as Kate Toon suggests, self-confidence can take some mustering at times!! But speaking of signs from the universe, I had a curious dream 2 nights ago: I go to hospital for a heart-lung transplant, but as the surgeon is poking and prodding around my open chest, he realises my heart and lungs are perfectly healthy. “I can’t remove these!” He says. “These are perfectly fine organs! She just needs to USE them!” (I’ve fallen off the exercise wagon so that’s my psyche saying “get the hell back on, woman!”). Exercise = stress reduction, yes? 🙂

    Thanks again for the great article!

    • Gosh exercise has definitely been a massive saviour for me in past years (and I am sure it will continue to be in coming years!). And your dream!! So interesting – what a message!

  • I love articles that ask more questions than they answer, and this one does. Thanks Kelly. May I say making room in our lives for confusion, distress and challenge, and accepting stress and crises, needs, in my humble opinion, to be embraced as opposed to the traditional western way of avoidance and silence. In my generation and family the men ran small businesses, and most likely suffered in silence (as was the accepted operation for the male). With more women in small business it is now acceptable, listen to, and heard, to say this is hard, stressful, and lets talk about the realities. Stress makes us grow and that is mostly a beneficial thing.

  • coach01

    This is a great analogy- I used it when talking to my school girl rowers yesterday before they went out to race.I started my talk with: Girls today we are going to talk about cooking- that got their attention- and then asked the question – what happens when you boil potatoes and what happens when you boil eggs. There was lots of group discussion and much laughter but they got it. The rowing course is the boiling water and they choose whether they row their race as an egg or a potato or they have bits where they are definitely eggs with a section of potato. This also correlates to the work results we record when they are training in the gym. A comment was also made- but eggs crack if the conditions are right- correct- they can’t be too cold before you put them into the boiling water but they won’t if you warm them up. This translated to being prepared and identifying technique faults that break the rhythm of a boat. But what about Humpty Dumpty- he was repaired – they decided that this related to their coaches and parent support. The girls raced well and produced the best results for their school this season. Now I am stumped- how do I top that next week? Thank you Kelly.

  • Ahhhh, Flying Solo! You’re always there, knowing just what I need to hear to get back on track. Thanks so much for a great article Kelly and the signpost to some follow-up reading 🙂

  • As always, great post Kelly 🙂

    Daily meditation practice is my #1 habit in my ‘self-care toolkit’. I believe meditation is the key to being centred, aware, present and able to cope with the stressors of life in biz. Especially when you wear the ‘supermum-to-two-kids’ cape!

    Regular yoga practice is #2 habit!

    I also set intentions daily after my meditation, and journal.
    Gratitude and Letting go is another great habit to have. No point dwelling on stuff, there will always be challenges in life – but it’s how you overcome the obstacles that makes the difference.

    Much gratitude.

    • John Harmer

      I’m onboard here too. I have been using meditation for 50 years now.It always works. But may I add that meditation aalways works much better when you know and apply your core values to your situation and meditation. This way you have a yardstick to measure whether or not you are heading in your right direction.

  • Marion Passon

    There is a little story that talks about a grandmother talking to her gran- daughter.
    Whiles the grand-daughter talked about all her challenges at work and at life, the grand mother went ahead boiling water and cooking an egg, a potato and some coffee beans .
    Then she pointed out, that all tree items had the same environment ( hot water). the potato got soft, the egg got hard, but the coffee beans changed into something delicious and changed the entire environment.
    So the moral to the story? Be like coffee !

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