Stress as a Catalyst for Creativity

Donald Knuth, Stravinsky, and a Rabbi walk into a bar!

Ben Fathi
8 min readJan 5, 2023
Source: The Yoda of Silicon Valley (New York Times)

“Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to deliver humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.” — John Gray. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

A few years ago, when I was CTO of VMware, I had the privilege of hosting several industry luminaries at events called The Distinguished Speaker Series, where the guest speakers would give a talk on a subject of their own choosing and then participate in a Q&A session.

I remember Ken Thompson talking about building the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs and how his supervisors told him not to waste time on it! He talked about his work on the Go programming language and its evolution at Google. He also talked about his passion for cryptography as he displayed an original Enigma machine from World War II.

James Gosling talked about the birth of Java before giving a fascinating lecture about his current work on autonomous watercraft used for forecasting weather patterns. I remember feeling jealous about the fact that he gets to swim in the warm waters off Hawaii to do his work every day while I get to sit in a dark conference room to do mine.

But the one speaker that has stayed with me the longest is Donald Knuth, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, and author of the classic four volume The Art of Computer Programming, a book that is still studied with awe more than fifty years after its publication. Let me repeat that to make sure it sinks in: a computer science book still being studied half a century after it was first published: before the Internet, the iPhone, broadband, Facebook, and Google. Before Microsoft. Before UNIX.

I know many CEOs and CTOs who proudly display their autographed copies of his books in their offices. Fifty years in computer science is about the same, roughly speaking, as a thousand years in normal human years. How many other thousand-year-old books do you know that are still taught in colleges and referenced as an authoritative source on scientific concerns?

Professor Knuth is also the author of TeX, a typesetting program that is still used today, forty years later, in scientific circles for publishing research papers. We are talking about a piece of software that pre-dates not just PDF, Microsoft Office, and Apple, but all WYSIWYG editors!

Dr. Knuth will even still send you a check if you find a bug in his code from all those years ago. Every once in a blue moon, some lucky bastard finds himself in possession of a check for $2.56 (“the number of pennies in a hexadecimal dollar”), an admission by the master that you’ve found a bug in his code. He doesn’t have to write many checks because very few bugs have ever been found in his code. Forty years after the fact. How many other programmers can say the same?

On this particular visit, Dr. Knuth gave a fascinating talk about what he calls “intentional programming” but what struck me most was his response to a question I posed before the speech. I asked him when he had been most productive in his entire career. Here’s what he had to say:

“If I think back about my own life and I ask what was the period when I did my most creative work, had the best ideas, and somehow things worked out to be wins… I have to say, it was the time when I was under the most stress. I had two babies… two years old, three years old… and I was having trouble with ulcers and I was on all kinds of committees and there were all kinds of things happening… I was supposed to give lectures for the ACM and I hardly had any time to research, but somehow, during those years, I had the most creative ideas I’ve ever come up with.

So, the answer is, of course, to torture you guys. [laughter]

When did Stravinsky write his best music? He was living in a garret in Paris and starving. Well, that’s not really sustainable but there is something about being under pressure that forces you to do the things you really have to do, that you’re called to do. That’s when you do your best work — when you’re responding to this calling.

I’ve met people from Eastern Europe and they did their best work before the fall of communism because they had something to rebel against. Unfortunately, that seems to be the answer but I have to leave it to you managers to figure out how to make it sustainable.”

The comments resonated with me partly because I was doing two jobs at the time. I had recently switched jobs from managing a very large engineering team to being CTO of the company but ended up performing both jobs simultaneously for almost a year while we searched for a replacement for my former role. I remember it as one of the most stressful, but also one of the most productive, periods of my career. The more they piled on my plate, it seemed, the harder I worked. Failure was not an option.

I was also reminded of a video I’d seen of an interview with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski where he talked about a similar topic in a very different setting:

“Lobsters are a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand. How can the lobster grow? As the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining. And the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Eventually, that shell becomes uncomfortable as it grows again. Back under the rocks… the lobster repeats this numerous times. The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable.

Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. Because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, he goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine. Never casts off his shell. So, I think, what we have to realize is that times of stress are also times of growth. And if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

Stress is a great stimulator for creativity when applied in reasonable quantities. Of course, too much stress opens the door to destructive psychological and physical traumas but I do believe that a certain amount of tension, a certain amount of stress, a certain amount of pain, is required not just for productivity but also for creativity.

There is even a growing body of research out there that shows a historical basis for this thesis. Just compare the number of successful civilizations that have thrived in the relatively harsh climates of Europe and America to the number that languished in the tropics. The harder you have to struggle, it seems, the more you thrive.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I guess I can argue that stress is the father of creativity. You could even say a certain amount of stress is, well, healthy. Unfortunately, too much stress also has a severely debilitating effect on us physically and mentally.

If you don’t believe me, just take a few months off from work to see the difference with your own eyes. I was lucky enough to take six months off from work soon after hearing that lecture by Donald Knuth. Absolutely nothing changed in my life other than the fact that I didn’t go to work every day.

The time normally spent at work was replaced by many hours of biking up and down the local mountains as well as time spent with friends and family. The reduced stress — not having to worry about a thousand things at work — and increased physical activity were amazingly rejuvenating. I quickly lost thirty pounds in weight, shaved forty minutes off my best time on a favorite three hour bike route, and slept like a rock at night. Most importantly, I felt twenty years younger.

As soon as I went back to work, my exercise routine was cut back to two days a week and was replaced by the usual stress associated with a demanding high tech job. I gained back fifteen pounds within a couple of months, slowed way down on my bike route, and was happy if I could get four hours of sleep a night while I tossed and turned, thinking about problems at work.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the luxury of taking six months off from work. In fact, the few days a year that we do take off for vacation are often spent checking work email, jumping on critical conference calls at odd hours, and getting even more stressed about projects that are falling behind. We’re rewarded for taking on ever more responsibility and stress at work and we rarely slow down to recognize the negative impact that has on our lives and our health.

Those who thrive in the competitive work environment are the ones who can withstand ever increasing levels of stress. These are also the same people who skimp on their own health and family, working ever longer hours and taking on ever more responsibilities. More success, more work. More work, more stress. More stress, less time. Less time, less rest, less exercise, less family, less friends. Less rest, more work. It’s a vicious cycle.

Let’s face it. Europeans have a much better system when it comes to vacations. Everybody gets to go away for the month of August. No one in the office means no urgent meetings and no urgent emails that need your attention. Of course, you need a skeleton crew to run operations and keep the place going but the idea of having everyone take vacation at the same time seems so much more healthy and, well, civilized.

When I published this blog post last week, a friend responded privately with the following anecdote from John Cage (Silence, page 6). I found it so apropos that I decided to add it here:

A young man in Japan arranged his circumstances so that he was able to travel to a distant island to study Zen with a certain Master for a three year period. At the end of the three years, feeling no sense of accomplishment he presented himself to the Master and said, “You’ve been there three three years. Why don’t you stay here three months more? The student agreed, but at the end of three months he still felt he had made no advance.

When he told the Master again that he was leaving, the Master said, “Look now, you’ve been there three years and three months… Stay three days longer.” the student did, but with no success. When he told the Master that absolutely nothing had happened, the Master said, “You’ve been here three years, three months, and three weeks. Stay three more days, and if at the end of that time, you have not received enlightenment, commit suicide.

Towards the end of the second day, the student was enlightened.

Apparently, stress causes not just productivity and creativity but enlightenment as well!

Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thank you.



Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.