The Diamond Secret: Preventing Pressure from Becoming Stress

Jana Davidson teaches seventh-grade science. Every day, she observes students entering her classroom stressed out. Many of them feel overwhelmed. Anxiety has become quite common thanks to the pressures of social media and a pandemic.

When I asked Ms. Davidson how she helps her students manage their stress, she told me she assumed the best way was to take the pressure to excel off of them. They have so many stressors in their lives already, why add to them by pressuring them to perform better?

It makes sense, until you see the research.

The Benefit of Pressure

All of us can let stress get us down. But there is a difference between stress and pressure. Dane Jensen is the author of The Power of Pressure. He says that stress can be harmful, but pressure is not part of the problem. It’s actually the solution. We’ve all heard the analogy of a coal mine. Coal is one of man’s earliest sources of energy. A lump of coal can stay in the mine and remain a lump, or it can be extracted and burned to generate heat. The carbon can also be transformed into a diamond with the right amount of pressure. The difference is fourfold: the carbon inside the lump, the intense heat, the pressure against it, and how long it endures under pressure. It’s the element of carbon that is transformed into a diamond, not the coal itself. It’s all about what’s inside. This is true about humans as well.

Remember, pressure isn’t the problem, it is the solution. The key is knowing how to manage that pressure we feel. All pressurized experiences include three elements.

  1. Importance— The stakes feel high because the outcome is valuable to you.
  2. Uncertainty— There is no guarantee of this outcome, and it could go either way.
  3. Volume— There is an intensity and amount of input coming at you that you must process to succeed.

Pressure will either lead to stress or success. The secret to succeeding involves two decisions on our part. If we choose well, we will actually benefit from pressure and see it create a diamond. The two secrets?

  • What you see.
  • What you do.

What Do You See?

Successful people see the pressure as a push forward. People who buckle under pressure only see the stress it causes them and give up before doing something about it. They see the negative, not the positive. Eighty-two percent of adolescents report they have experienced at least one trauma. For millions, it was the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauma works like pressure. Millions of people grew more anxious as a result, but millions of others saw it as an opportunity to do something different. The interruption became an introduction to new opportunities. Like a lump of coal, they leveraged the pressure to transform them into stronger, resilient diamonds.

Pressure can feel like a push or a shove. It doesn’t feel good to be shoved in a crowd. It feels intrusive and violating. But what if we could see that we can be pushed forward not just pushed down? Imagine you’re in line to enter an amusement park and someone bumps into you and pushes you down. The input feels negative, but what if when you got back up, you realized you were pushed closer to the entrance of the park? You’re actually in a better place. When life kicks you, let it kick you forward. We must focus on the outcome, not the input.

It all depends on how we perceive the situation. Is it a push forward or a push downward?

What Will You Do?

While they may feel the same, stress and pressure are not the same. The difference is the ability and responsibility you possess to do something. Stress usually happens when we begin to feel overwhelmed or afraid. Our emotions can paralyze us. We might be active, but our activity is all about worry and anxiety. Inside, we feel helpless to do something to beat it.

An example of stress is yelling at the TV when your favorite team is playing. No matter what you do, it doesn’t help or hinder. Pressure is when you’re playing in that game. Your performance makes a difference in the outcome. It’s all about your ability and responsibility. The pressure can actually bring out the best in us because outcomes are within our influence. I believe pressure is the only way to call out what’s inside of us. We all need the right amount of it to perform at our best. We leverage the pressure in our favor by taking positive action.

It all depends on the power we believe we possess to do something about the situation.

Getting the Most Out of Pressure

This begs the question: How do we do this? How do we leverage pressure to cultivate that diamond inside? How do we help our students? Below are some steps to take.

  1. Embrace a realistic view of what’s really at stake—no more and no less.
    Don’t create trouble by making mountains out of molehills. Be realistic about the stakes.
  2. Focus on what you can control and not on what you cannot.
    If something’s out of your control, trust the process. If it’s controllable, take responsibility.
  3. Eliminate sources of stress that distract you from what’s important.
    Get rid of anything that clouds your focus or prevents you from concentrating on your goal.
  4. Determine one step you can take toward your goal.
    In choosing one step toward a goal, the pressure can shove you in the right direction.
  5. Envision the positive outcomes that could come from this pressure.
    Close your eyes and see the results you desire; imagine the pressure working for you.
  6. Discuss stories of people who’ve experienced Post-Traumatic Growth.
    Trauma doesn’t have to produce PTSD. Growth (PTG) occurs when we process a trauma’s benefits.

Louis Braille was a kid who grew up in France in the 19th century. When he was three, he was playing in his dad’s workshop and accidentally poked his eye out with an awl, which is a sharp cobbler’s tool. When the eye got infected, Louis soon went blind in both eyes. He later went to a school for the blind but found its system for reading difficult to use. At age 15, Louis actually invented a new language for people who couldn’t see. It is named after him, and blind people still use it today. Do you know the most interesting part of the story? Louis actually used an awl, the very tool that blinded him, to create his new system of reading. You might say he used the pressure he experienced to enable him to do something positive about it.

Remember, most human beings need pressure to perform at their best. Our job is to ensure that pressure pushes them in the right direction. There’s a diamond inside of all of us.

Tim Elmore is the founder of Growing Leaders, a non-profit that partners with schools to resource them with tools for leadership development and Social and Emotional Learning. The Diamond Secret is inspired by one of the new Habitudes® images in Growing Leaders’ S.E.L. curriculum. Find it at


  1. Even as an (almost) teacher, I find myself misinterpreting pressure and high expectations as stress and overwhelmingness. I really like this article because it educates teachers on how to accommodate for the feelings that our students might be undergoing. I really like the ammusment park analogy that was given because we need to remind our students that the good is coming, and that we want what is best for them. This article is increasingly important as issues with depression and anxiety continue to arise.