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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?


  1. Yay! I must be on my way to being a billionaire! I'll meet you at the bank, right?

  2. Or you could be so stressed, for example about whether or not you're writing is any good or if anyone will ever want to publish it, that you paralyze yourself with fear and spend the next 5 hours with writer's block over a note you want to leave for the cleaning lady.

    Hi from the blogger group campaign.

  3. So I read this feeling a little smug that, having been quit by my day job in late '09, I no longer have the stress level yet still have the drive to accomplish things. Then I drilled down and discovered that everyday worries ARE at the root of my motivation.

    I push myself to sew late into the night because, in truth, I worry that I'll never get my etsy shop off the ground if I don't hit that magic number of 50 items by summer's end. I'd been telling myself I sew for the sheer pleasure of creation! Falsehood.

    I troll blogs, leave comments, check stats, and keep a notebook for blog content ideas because I worry that my blog, my only claim to relevance post-career, will fade into oblivion if I don't. Granted, the worry isn't as urgent because I'm not driven to publish a book. I jealously guard the privilege of writing for pleasure, not pay. But still. I worry about becoming irrelevant.

    So you definitely have something there, Hope. Maybe now I'll quit trying to be a Zen evangelist and let the worrywarts lead me to success.

  4. Interesting post! I'm a fellow campaigner in the beginning bloggers group stopping by to say hi and become a new follower.

  5. Yes, worry, but dont' worry about worrying. What could be more Zen than that?

  6. Fellow campaigner stopping by to say hello!

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