This is a free preview of a subscribers-only post.
Content warning: stress, and anxiety.
In fourth grade my teacher referred to me in a report card as a “nutty professor.” The verdict from the elementary academy was clear: Head in the clouds. Needs to slow down a little bit and pay attention to where he is. Smart enough to know better.
Specifically, this had to do with math. We were learning times tables and long division and I was prone to making silly mistakes on tests. I spent a lot of time trying to get that grade up. My dad took particular interest in helping me through my times tables. (A business owner, he’d always struggled with “any number that didn’t have a dollar sign in front of it.”) We drilled endlessly with makeshift flashcards written on the backs of his bright blue business cards.
To shed my nutty professor-ness and improve my math grade, I developed a strategy: worry. If I knew a test was coming up, I would deliberately think about all of the bad things that would happen if I didn’t do well on it. I’d imagine getting the grade, and how my parents would react to it. I’d imagine what it would mean about my future, or what it would mean about the kind of person I was.
And I’d start to feel afraid. I would feel my heart pumping and my hands getting sweaty. For me, fear meant adrenaline, which I could channel into studying harder for longer.
Once the test had been taken, I would convince myself that I had failed. I would tell all my friends how badly I’d messed it up. I’d imagine what it would be like to get the test back with an F on it. I’d imagine what that would mean if I did, in fact, fail. And when I got the test back I’d usually be relieved that I didn’t do nearly as bad as I thought.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the story of how worrying helped me become the youngest professor of mathematics in history. I still made stupid mistakes. I just made them less frequently. I began to believe that worry is good—and the more I made myself worry, the better I’d be.
I made myself worry so much that it ceased to become deliberate. After a while, I just automatically worried about tests, homework assignments, and big projects. And even though it was painful, it served the purpose I’d set out for.
And it seems to do the same for others. Here’s Bill Walsh, 3x Super Bowl-winning coach of the 49ers on what it takes to be the best in football:
“How do you know if you’re doing the job? If you’re up at 3am talking into a tape recorder and writing notes on paper, have a knot in your stomach, rash on your skin, losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor and feel everything might turn out wrong, you’re probably doing the job.”
The message is pretty clear: if you’re not doing well, maybe you’re not worried enough. And maybe if you worry more, you’ll do better.
But will you? Is it possible—and wise—to worry well?
What is worrying?
Here’s my operational definition of worrying:
Want to read the rest of this article and access all of Superorganizers?
When you do you'll get:
- 50+ productivity interviews with some of the smartest people on the planet
- Regular essays from me on topics like this
- The 11+ newsletters and shows inside of Every—including content from other productivity writers like Tiago Forte, and Nat Eliason
Become part of Every and support our writer collective today!