Art, Business, Leadership

Why Worry Won’t Work

And how to help work past it

Why Worry Won't Work

I’m writing this the week before Election Day. This will be published November 4—a day after. Whether the exact outcome will be clear Wednesday when we send this out to the world, I can’t know. What I can say with certainty is that, although I know better, over the last week or so I’ve started to catch myself beginning to worry about the election. Intellectually, I know, there’s no point. I’ve already voted and there’s nothing I can do that’s going to impact the results. Worry won’t help. In fact, I long know from experience, it will likely make things worse. The best strategy is probably to do what the farmer friend of our longtime olive oil and vinegar supplier Albert Katz advocated years ago: “Sweat the things you can control and let go of what is not in your hands.”

Knowing that worrying is a waste is one thing; not doing it, though, is another thing altogether. Twenty years ago, I would have told you I was a “born worrier.” I’d been doing it regularly for as long as I could remember. Having learned a lot about life in general, and myself in particular, over the last thirty years though, I’d reframe that statement completely. Today I would say that I was raised by a well-meaning family who were really great at worrying, and who, unwittingly, taught me to do the same. If one could get a degree in it, my family—and I say this now with love—would all have had PhDs. And I’ve always been a pretty good student.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot from others over the years. As many of you know, I’ve been inspired many times over by Brenda Ueland’s insightful book, If You Want to Write. While the book is about writing, it also taught me a lot about worry. As in, how not to do it. Ueland shares, “I learned that you should feel when writing . . . like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ” It’s a wonderful way to approach writing. And life. Unfortunately, back when I was a kid most of the beads I’d been stringing were what folks in the Middle East would call “worry beads.” But writing, for me, works to push away the worry. In Nationalism and Culture, Rudolph Rocker theorizes that as nationalism rises, culture goes down. Or, conversely, as culture thrives, nationalism recedes. The same, I learned from Ueland, is true for worry and good writing. The more we worry, the worse our writing will be. By contrast, the more and better we write, the less our worry. Honestly, each week when I start on this enews I begin to worry it won’t work. “Everyone,” I hear myself in my head, “will hate it.” But I’ve learned from Brenda Ueland to keep on typing anyway. She’s right. Just keep writing. Later each week I get wonderful notes from people who read the pieces I put in.

Have you ever worried that you weren’t worried enough about something? It makes me smile to say it, but I know the feeling all too well. If you’re smiling or nodding right now, then I know you do too. I would never have been able to admit it years ago. Self-learning, I know now, is a life project. If we stick with the work, we will find some helpful insight and wisdom. I can’t say I’ve completely stopped worrying—the feeling still starts coming over me regularly. It’s just that I’ve learned how to short circuit the feeling before the worry short circuits me. The shift reminds of what I heard from Ram Dass when I heard him speak years ago at the Power Center on campus. He was then probably about the age I am now. He said something along the lines of, “I still have all the same problems I had when I was twenty. But back then they were like tidal waves that overwhelmed me. Now they’re just like little flies, buzzing past my head, that I can gently wave away with my hand.” Which is what I think about worry. I can feel it coming on. And mostly, now, I can just wave it gently away before it overwhelms me.

Maybe, I’ve been wondering this week, worry might be a bit like fog. It descends, often at inopportune moments, more often than not in the morning, or later, at the end of a long day, and makes it hard to see what’s right in front of us. If we swat at it, nothing happens other than wasting our own energy. If we pretend it’s not there, we’re likely to crash into something. But if we can wait a short bit, usually the fog will burn off and we can get back to moving forward, mindfully and meaningfully.

Worry is mostly anxiety about the future. At best, it’s a big waste of time. At worst, I know now, it’s downright destructive. As I wrote in Part 4, I’ve come to realize that worrying is essentially “negative visioning”—imagining a future (either in five minutes, five years, or in my current case, on Tuesday evening) that we fear, and tell ourselves over and over again what we don’t want. In the context of the belief cycle, our worrying may, ironically, make the future we say we don’t want more likely to happen. As Brené Brown writes, “We dress-rehearse tragedy.” And in the process, we increase the odds of tragic outcomes.

While worry is . . . worrisome, I would say that its opposite is not a care-free world or a happy-go-lucky life. Rather, it’s what we might describe as “healthy anxiety.” You could also call it “appropriate concern.” As Peter Koestenbaum writes:

Anxiety [of this sort] is how it feels to grow. . . . One becomes an adult by learning to move through anxiety, to stay with it and not avoid it. Leadership, therefore, means to face anxiety, not fear it, to make it your constant companion. . . . It can go in either destructive or constructive directions; you make the choice.

While worry is a waste, healthy anxiety keeps us on our toes, alert and prepared in the same way a grounded, veteran athlete still has a bit of butterflies for a big game. Once we’re at peace with our natural healthy anxiety and the inevitable uncertainty of life, we can stop worrying about it. Because as Alan Watts wrote, “One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious.”

There are worse problems in life, I know, than worrying a lot. I’ve come a long way in working to minimize worry’s unhelpful impact. But as I write this week, I’ve felt that old unwanted tension of worry starting to work itself—destructively and dangerously—back into my head. Fortunately, I know now how to stop it. What follows is a list of 14 ways that I’ve learned to push the worry, for the most part, out of the way:

  • Be in the present moment – Since worrying is mostly an unhelpful fixation on what might go wrong, one of the best ways to stop is to reground in the present. Because as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, “Only this actual moment is life.” I’ve come to imagine worrying like walking down the street dropping dollar bills in the wind, then being mad that we have no money when we get where we’re going. Aside from everything else, it’s bad for business. Kate Ludeman and Gay Hendricks sum it up well in The Corporate Mystic: “Every minute you spend thinking about the way it used to be or the way it ought to be is a minute you haven’t been thinking about the way you could make it be.”
  • Practice mindful deep breathing – A few deep slow breaths help bring me back to the present moment. The “SBA” technique I wrote about in Part 4 (page 135)—”Stop, Breathe, and Appreciate”—works well. The “Three and Out” idea (page 129), is great too. As Ram Dass wrote, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
  • Move – Moving my body, more often than not, can calm my brain. A good run, stretching, or a slow walk can all work wonders in pushing the worry away. For you, it might be yoga or biking. Fresh air alone can work wonders. As Rasheed Ogunlaru says, “Step outside for a while—calm your mind. It is better to hug a tree than to bang your head against a wall continually.”
  • Journal – Journaling each morning helps me bring myself back to better awareness. While it may not start out that way right off, I can usually use the work of journaling to, as Brenda Ueland suggests, “string beads with joy.” When the worry comes up strong, writing about the worry—versus repeatedly writing about how worried I am—almost always helps.
  • Remember to appreciate the beauty — I’ve come to believe that beauty and worry can’t coexist very well in our consciousness. When we take in the beauty, worry will be forced out. It could be nature, art, music, poetry, sculpture, or just a simple smile. It might certainly be something wonderful we’re eating or drinking. As Henry Miller wrote, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
  • Write a vision – When my anxiety is rising, sitting down to write a vision will quickly get me focused on what I want, rather than what I’ve been worrying about. When I start feeling really nervous about how it will go, I’ve written a vision for a talk I’m about to give—sometimes an hour before I give it. It always helps.
  • Reread the vision you already wrote – When I start to sink into worrying, I often remind myself of the vision to which we (or I ) have already long-since committed. It nearly always reminds me why I was so fired up in the first place, helps me remember where we’re going, and why it’s a good idea to go there. In the process worry will almost always fade away.
  • Make yourself vulnerable – Letting someone you trust gently in on how hard a time you’re having can really help. Sticking to “I-statements” and away from blame is a good way to go. The talking can be with a good friend, a therapist, a co-worker, or your significant other. Be careful to keep the drama down and avoid dumping. The idea is to access what’s underneath the anxiety. As Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
  • Remember Natural Law #9 – Don’t worry if you can’t remember it—the 9th Natural Law on the list is that “Success means we get better problems.” The simple act of reframing into this format, reminds me that many of the issues I’ve started to worry about are often of my own, mindfully intentional, making. Working on good problems beats bad problems any day. As Paul Hawken writes in Growing a Business: “Good problems energize. Bad problems enervate.” It’s frequently our own good work that’s created the “problem” we now have at hand. At which point, I would do well to switch to celebrating success, stop the worrying, and start working.
  • Talk things through with the right people – These would be positive people who can stay grounded, and listen without getting sucked into our impending insanity. Sometimes distance helps—folks who are further from the fog can often see more clearly than we can from up close. This speaks to the power of picking up the phone and is part of why I like it so much.
  • Steer clear of the negatives – Don’t immerse yourself in listening to the news (I remind myself regularly right now). That’s what got my worry levels up in the first place the other day. Stay in touch, by all means, but don’t OD on news sources that gain success by selling drama. Same goes for unproductive social media. They are addictive. Patrick Robertson, who works in politics professionally, recommended at the Independent Restaurant Coalition meeting the other morning that we’d be best to turn off the news altogether until after the election is over. And one thing I’ve learned about Patrick over the last eight months, is that he knows what he’s talking about.
  • Stay curious – When the worry starts to rise I work to get myself into the mindset that there’s magic around every corner. I just don’t know yet what it is. It’s as Hector Garcia, who writes lovingly about Japanese culture says, “Magical coincidences are about attention to moments, not luck.”
  • Stay grateful – Even on the bad days, the reality of how many great people and wonderful things are around me all the time, can help me reground and get back to reality. Because as Brené Brown says: “The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain. . . . Instead, catastrophizing, as I call it, squanders the one thing we all want more of in life.” Joy. What should we do? Brown says, “Focus on gratitude, not fear.”
  • Take constructive action – Writer Edward Abbey said, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He’s right. Worry without action drags us down. By contrast, a couple of action steps taken to get us moving in the right direction can really help. Even a single, small, movement in the right direction can feel better and help the future we want to actually happen.

In a way, I realize, this essay is just what Abbey is advocating. I probably wrote this piece as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s. As I alluded above, the writing works to reduce the worrying. I still don’t know what Tuesday will bring, but I’m a bit calmer, and it’s a beautiful morning out. My friend, author and expert in human energy, Anese Cavanaugh, summed it all up very succinctly: “Worrying is pointless; a waste of energy. Breathe, come back to the present moment, do all you can (if even the littlest things) to help things go right in this moment, and save that energy for the right things we can address.”

Thanks for reading. Have a great week. See you on the other side.

For more about living in the moment, steering clear of worry and staying centered, see “Mindfulness Matters” in Part 3.