Follow Me on Twitter

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Worry? Don't. Worry is Key to Success

For the stressed out and high-strung among my tens of readers, let me assure you that stress-related illness, a.k.a. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, is not a new phenomenon.

I've been pursuing my semi-random, anything-but-comprehensive tour of the success subset of self-help books for a few weeks now, using as my main criterion for reading whether I've heard of the author. I recently completed Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which many of these authors, as well as genuine live successful entrepreneurs that I actually know, have indicated as a resource and inspiration.

No, I am not about to tell you that Benjamin Franklin suffered from anxiety. Sorry. In fact, I'm not going to talk about his book anymore today.

But I've been digging around in the early modern success sub-genre, among people my dad, born in 1925, has heard of. Dale Carnegie and Napolean Hill are two. These people, writing in the 1930s, devoted much of their books to methods for overcoming, or quelling, or managing anxiety. Indeed, Mr. Dale Carnegie wrote a whole book on the topic, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. His book is full of sage advice that plenty of, well, sages, such as Buddha, or your father, or your therapist might provide. You know, suggestions like focusing on today, rather than worrying about the future; or practicing deep relaxation exercises before bed. Stuff you can pay over a hundred bucks an hour for (trust me, I know).

His book is also full of anecdotes about hard-working business people like John Rockefeller, who became so over-stressed he couldn't sleep and practically stopped eating, and was advised by his physician to give up his high-powered job immediately or risk dying. Whereupon he sought out some anxiety management techniques and lived another 25 years, becoming the philanthropist he's known as today.

So here's the catch. See, John Rockefeller chilled out later in life. After he'd amassed his fortune. Sure, he developed an ulcer and some mental exhaustion along the way; but while stressing himself out, he was also making himself and others in his company extremely wealthy.

Which brings me to my next point.

In an article on success in the International Herald Tribune (May 14-15, 2011),  Robert Frank, talks about research in behavioral economics that proves that worry is evolution's way of motivating us to succeed. So if you stress about your homework, you'll study harder, and get into a good college. If you stress about promotion at work, you'll work harder and be more likely to earn one. Of course, with all the other stress-jockeys worrying along with you, you might not get your first choice of college or earn that promotion right away. But it's likely that if you didn't stress about it ahead of time, just sat back under your cork tree like Ferdinand the Bull and smelled the flowers, you'd never even be considered for the prize.

And it's true. For example, yesterday, when I went into the basement and discovered water was pouring through a window near the sump pump, I was motivated by anxiety to rush outside to where the sump pump discharge pipe is. I was motivated by anxiety to realize that the ground underneath the discharge pipe was supersaturated and that I needed to get the water draining away from that area pronto. (The ankle deep water was a clue.) And motivated by anxiety, I grabbed a downspout from nearby, stuck it onto the discharge pipe, propped it on a piece of wood filched from the neighbor's pile, and wrapped a roll of duct tape around it. A few hundred trips up and down the basement stairs proved I'd stemmed the flow. Two hardware stores later, I had a proper discharge pipe extension, and water was turning a different part of my yard, well away from the house, into a wetland.


So if I hadn't been anxious about how the house was holding up after Irene, I might have learned much later and at much greater expense that in heavy weather my sump pump needs a discharge pipe extension.

Later on, I meditated with the husband to clear my head and relax. After all,  there's got to be a balance.

I mean, if we're evolutionarily adapted to channel anxiety, what are we supposed to do with all the excess?  If you suffer from extreme anxiety, does that indicate you're more highly evolved than someone who doesn't? Was it helpful to me that I shook uncontrollably for several minutes after experiencing that recent earthquake in Washington, DC? And while John D. Rockefeller nearly killed himself amassing his fortune, he's remembered today primarily for all the good he's done giving lots of his money away to help people when he learned how to relax. And all the books I've read, and the real live genuine entrepreneurs I've talked to, say helping people is the ultimate success.

According to Frank, "the anxiety we feel about whether we will succeed is evolution's way of motivating us." Which means I'm on the right track. Right?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Getting in the Flow

There's a difference between appearing successful and feeling successful, and it's the feeling part I'm after. Of course the appearing part matters -- I do have various material goals. The main characteristic I'm seeking, however, is a feeling. Maybe it could also be called self-worth, or self-esteem, or self-confidence. I call it success.

Appearing successful, after all, is relative. Indeed, one of my friends described my life as "the classic success story," i.e., a lovely house in the suburbs; good marriage; good kids. What more could anyone need to feel successful? That's what I'm trying to find out. I could point out that what I paid for my house in upstate NY, wouldn't buy even a studio apartment in Manhattan. I might consider my friend H, who has a lawyer husband, doesn't need to work outside the home, and has a gorgeous apartment that is the entire eleventh floor of a prewar building on the Upper West Side, plus a home in the Hamptons, to be successful.

We all know plenty of stories, though, of people who have all the trappings of material, worldly success on the outside, but who are secretly tens of thousands of dollars in debt, secretly paralyzed by terrible marriages, secretly suffering with difficult children, etc, etc.

A corollary is the person, like my friend R, who has excelled on the worldly success level, but announces that she never feels totally satisfied with herself. She stands on her tiptoes, raises her hand way above her head, and says, "I always expect this of myself," then lowers her hand to chin level, "and I always feel I end up like this."  Or the Pulitzer Prize winning writer I know, who can't help feeling bothered when a book of his doesn't get reviewed in the New York Times.

So it's the feeling of success I'm searching for. My sister, a psychoanalyst, describes feeling successful as being in a state of flow. I've come across the term, defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (No, I can't pronounce it -- but my sister can.) In brief, flow is a state of immersed, energetic focus on a task. The work must be intrinsically rewarding, and balance between being challenging, but not too challenging.  In flow, a person is emotionally and intellectually engaged, working hard, but not aware of time passing. In short, we like to exert effort, but rewarded effort, and when the exertion produces results, we feel successful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Success and the Secular Girl

According to Norman Vincent Peale, to be successful, I have to be Christian. 

So that sucks.

In his introduction, Peale asserts, "This book teaches applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system...."

Do I need to go on? Well, I think I do, because his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, is one of those books we’ve all heard of, even if we haven't read it. Published after Dale Carnegie’s seminal tracts and before the 1960s and 1970s EST-y feel good type books like I’m Okay, You’re Okay and Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, it contains a lot of stuff that has filtered into the contemporary consciousness. 

If reading it wasn’t like continually running into a wall, it might be more helpful. Some of the stuff he writes, minus the overt religiousity, is right at home in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy session. There are exercises for “emptying the mind” of worry, and instructions in replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. There are visualizations of desired outcomes that any elite athlete might use to rev up for the next big event.

But then there’s a lot about turning over your anxieties to God, to putting yourself in God’s hands, and to remove any doubt about this god, there are specific Bible quotations from the New Testament to use as daily affirmations. Sure, the Psalms are mentioned, especially the 23rd Psalm; but I’m not sure anyone remembers that the Psalms were part of the Tanakh, or Holy Scriptures, the Bible of Jews, as even this secular Jew knows. The term “Old Testament” trips easily enough from my fingers, and would have been a lot less wordy  than the previous description; but is it perverse to remind my tens of readers that to refer to the literature that a particular religion other than Christianity regards as its spiritual foundation in this way is to reinforce the Christian-centric nature of our world? 

Reading Norman Vincent Peale felt a bit like attending Cathedral services at my Episcopal prep school. Whenever I came across a tidbit that rang true, I was quickly thereafter reminded that it really didn’t apply to me, the Godless infidel. 

It’s okay. My parents paid for my schooling, and they didn’t have to. I got an excellent education at my Episcopal prep school, and I don’t resent it at all. It’s important to understand the bias of the society, even in its most well-intentioned. Ecumenical means welcoming to all religions, as long as they’re subsets of Christainity or can be placed within that context. This is the way the world works in our neck of the woods. We poor godless folks can expect at best some pity from the Dominionists trying to overthrow our government and turn it into a theocracy. At worst? Well, I’ve learned a few tricks from Norman Vincent Peale.

I'm positive.