Would It Help? The 3 Words to Deal With Anxiety
PublishedApril 24, 2021
A newsletter by Sequoia India MD GV Ravishankar that explores a diverse range of ideas on scaling companies, personal grwoth, and leading teams.
As a way of achieving high performance through better decisions and answers, the team at Sequoia India tries hard to not have any “intellectual hierarchy” when it comes to where ideas and opinions can come from. What’s more, the person closest to the facts is typically the young analyst who has made more calls to people in the market than the senior people on the team. Scott Eck, author of the book “The Status Solution: Five Simple Steps to Total Workforce Transformation”, argues that a leader who lifts the status of an individual in their team, lifts the status of the entire team and of the organization. He goes on to argue that rapid growth is possible only when all parties involved are operating on an equal, high-status basis. Personally, I have learnt that by giving importance to the voices of the younger people, organisations can benefit from fresh thinking, innovative ideas (that challenge status quo) and unbiased views.
I recently heard a great example of this on a podcast where the host recalled an anecdote Scott once shared at a conference. In the early days of the space shuttle development at NASA, they could not figure out how to get the weight of the booster rockets down to the limit needed for the shuttle to take off. They had tried everything. They had taken all the unnecessary pieces off, to the point of “We really should have this, but okay, we’ll get rid of it so we can get the weight down.” There was this one scientist, a sociable guy, who talked to the gate guard every day on the way in and the way out. He’d wish him a good day, and would be friendly and conversational. One day, the guard said to him, “You look troubled.” And he said “Yeah, we’ve tried everything, but we can’t get those booster rockets to a point where they’re light enough for take-off.” The guard just stands there, looking at the booster rockets, and asks, “Why do you have to paint it?” And he’s like “Oh my God – that’s it. We don’t have to paint it.” And sure enough, that’s how they got the weight down – by removing the paint. It was the gate guard who helped launch the shuttle.
What are some status-agnostic ways you encourage good ideas in your organization?
Would it help?
Am not a big fan of movies – in fact, I routinely doze off during our family movie time and that remains a long standing complaint from my wife. But once in a while I watch something that speaks to me, moves me and stays with me. Steven Spielberg’s Bridges of Spies, a movie based on real life events during the cold war in the 1960s, was one such movie.
Tom Hanks plays the character of an American Lawyer (James Donovan) defending Mark Rylance, who delivers a powerful performance as a stoic Russian spy (Rudolf Abel) facing grave consequences after his capture. Despite the difficult circumstances and the likely death penalty that he faces, Rudolf remains calm and composed which prompts James to ask him, several times, why he isn’t worried. Rudolf always has the same response “Would it help?”. There is something very profound about those three words and that’s what got me thinking about my approach to dealing with anxiety.
I am anxious as a person and I think it is a gift from my genes. One of my siblings is so anxious that we make fun of her saying “she even worries that there is nothing to worry about!”. Some level of anxiety is good for all of us – just ahead of the exams, the day before an important meeting, etc – it helps us remain alert and prepare well. But there are times when anxiety starts to hurt – the mind becomes filled with the worry that things may go wrong and this creates negative energy, clouds our judgement and makes us defensive, forces us to play safe and erodes our ability to dream big. It’s hard to navigate the path to greatness by playing safe and defensive. This is a problem – the anxious ones may do alright but will struggle to do great if they stay in the negative energy zone. In early 2017 when facing a difficult situation, I learnt several lessons on how to overcome anxiety and since then my life seems to have gotten better. Whether it is causation or correlation, life automatically gets better when we learn to worry less and focus on the positives!
Would it help?
The brilliance of these three words lies in the fact that it shows us the mirror when it comes to anxiety. Just worrying or being scared is unlikely to solve anything. So why then should we allow our mind to be a slave of the fears and the concerns of things going wrong. Rudolf Abel, with a simple childlike curiosity, asks James Donavan how worrying might help him deal with the situation in hand. There is a big lesson in this for all of us. Instead of worrying and losing sleep over something, we need to find a way to ‘deal with it’. Here are some lessons I have learnt which helped me both contextualize and deal with anxiety and a framework that I now try to use to find a way forward.
- Understanding probability: Most anxiety is about some future event not working in our favour. It could be about losing a business deal, not making it to a meeting or flight on time, losing a key employee or even forgetting your spouse’s birthday. In fact for the anxious person, there are many things that seem likely to go wrong. First thing for us to realize is that life is about probabilities and that means there is only a certain likelihood that something could go wrong – but by focusing on what could go wrong, our anxious brain exaggerates the probability of failure. One good piece of advice I got was to use a journal to document what I felt anxious about. This not only helps get some of our concerns off our minds, but it also serves as a tool to help us understand the actual probability of things going wrong. More than 90% of the time, we find that our concerns did not play out and we were wasting precious brain capacity stuck in the anxiety loop.
- Gaining perspective: We are usually anxious about an important meeting coming up or an exam we are taking. When I was an anxious Junior Associate at McKinsey, I often worried about big presentations to our clients. My then Engagement Manager gave me a piece of advice which till date has served me really well. He said “Think of how important the next 45 mins are likely to be in your career of 45 years”. By contextualizing those 45 mins in a long life and career ahead, he helped me see how I was fretting over a relatively small blip in a much longer timeline. I use this hack every time I feel nervous about a so called big meeting or presentation.
- Facing our fears: When stuck in the anxiety loop, I have realized it is sometimes better to mentally walk down the path we fear the most. For example, if you are worried about losing your job, it is not a bad idea to walk down the path and go all the way till the event and a bit after to know what really lies ahead. If you are worried about having a tough chat with a colleague, play it out and see what the worst outcome can be. I have personally done this in a few situations and the takeaway has always been that the worst we are worried about is also not as damaging as we fear it to be. By walking down all the way to the edge, we get to see what lies ahead more clearly instead of fearing the unknown. Once we know the worst case, we can start planning for how we will deal with that and this also reduces our anxiety.
- Acceptance: For those that are a bit more spiritual, thinking about any undesired outcome as something that was in our best interest in the longer term is also a way to contextualize our anxiety and accepting it versus worrying consistently. Several elders in my family find peace in thinking this way and are able to move on and look forward.
“Once we know the worst case, we can start planning for how we will deal with that and this also reduces our anxiety.”
Dealing with Anxiety – a simple framework
When it comes to anxiety I usually think of the Controllable-Actionable framework shown below as a way to find my response to ‘deal with it’. While this is fairly self-explanatory, we will see how to apply it through some examples.
- Yes-Yes quadrant: Situations like a health issue or forgetting the spouse’s birthday or anxiety about a tough conversation are all examples of where the outcome is usually controllable and you can action it as an individual. This is the simplest situation where we get rid of the anxiety by acting on what needs to be done or addressing the problem in hand. Closing the loop releases energy and helps focus on the future with a more positive mindset.
- No-No quadrant: Situations like your exam results (post the exam), university admittance, outcome of an India-Pakistan cricket match are examples where we can neither action anything nor can we influence the outcome. If you have already written your exams, you can neither act nor influence the outcome anymore. In such a situation the “would it help?” question makes it clear that there is no point being anxious. Instead if you say “** it” and move forward, you can channelize your energies towards the future.
- No-Yes quadrant: Situations like anxiety of missing a flight, fear of flunking an exam (before taking it), becoming diabetic (due to family history), etc are those where the outcome is not controllable but you can still action something. And much of it is in the form of preparation – working harder, showing up at the airport earlier or keeping yourself fit and being careful with your diet – these are preventive or preparative things one can do instead of being anxious of things going wrong.
- Yes-No quadrant: There maybe situations where the outcome can be controlled but not just by your actions –e.g. climate change or elections or being rescued from an island when marooned. In such situations, the best advice I have heard is from Bear Grylls who says NGU – Never Give up. If you can still remain optimistic, keep doing your bit and hope for a good outcome, you give yourself a chance to be surprised positively. Victor Frankl talks about how the survivors from Auschwitz were those who never lost hope and had something to look forward to.
Whether you use a framework like this or not, I encourage you to think about the truth that there is no upside to being in the anxiety loop – you either act and get out of it to release energy or get to a “** it” mindset where you give yourself a chance to move from defensive and cautious thinking to doing the right thing to increase your odds of success in your endeavours. It is not like I am not anxious anymore in my life but when I find myself worrying I now ask – “Would it help?”
“…give yourself a chance to move from defensive and cautious thinking to doing the right thing to increase your odds of success in your endeavours.”
Here are three articles I read over the last few weeks that I found super impactful.
NFTs: The First 5000 Beeples is the story of the two immigrants who shook the art world a few weeks ago. When Metakovan and Twobadour bought Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a piece of digital art which to an untrained eye like mine seems like just another collage of pictures, the world sat up and took notice. This is an interesting story of their journey in the world of Crypto leading up to their interest in NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens).
There Are Two Kinds of Happy People, by Arthur C Brooks, is an interesting piece in the Atlantic that argues that we can all work towards a balance between wanting a pleasant life and a virtuous one. He summarizes and distils the thinking of Greek philosophers, Epicurus and Epictetus, into two approaches to finding happiness: “If it is scary or painful, work to avoid it” and, “Grow a spine and do your duty”. The article provides three ideas to create a good blend of hedonia and eudaimonia to have a balanced happy life!
CRISPR-based gene therapy dampens pain in mice, is an article that appeared in Nature, and discusses a new way to target pain that leads to the possibility of an opioid-free way to deal with chronic pain. This super exciting work is being carried out by bioengineer Ana Moreno and her colleagues at the University of California, San Diego. Their studies have suggested that a sodium channel called Nav1.7 could play a central part in chronic pain and by stopping the Nav1.7 gene from being expressed using CRISPR, they believe they can stop pain signals travelling to the brain.
If you have time for a longer read, here are three books I’d like to recommend.
Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon, by Colin Bryar & Bill Carr
Recommended by one of the founders we’ve partnered with, who is a Jeff Bezos & Amazon fan! This book is an insider view of Amazon and why it is such a formidable company. I enjoyed learning several of their leadership principles and detailed insights on how they apply these. It is a must-read if you are looking to scale your company and want to learn from one of the best in the business!
How to fight the hydra, by Josh Kaufman
This is one of my favourites for the year – published in 2018 and written in story form, this book hits all the right chords and is packed with wisdom. It promises to help us “Face Your Fears, Pursue Your Ambitions, and Become the Hero You Are Destined to Be”, and does a pretty good job of it. Bonus points for this being a short read! Highly recommend this one.
Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, by Beth Kempton
If you are wondering how I picked a book like this to read, I blame serendipity! This is a book I got at a charity dinner for a NGO I support. And this coincided with my own reflections on Annica (impermanence) as I was watching the trees in my community blossom and then go bald in a couple of weeks. This turned out to be an eye-opening read for me, both on the concept of synchronicity as well as the insights I gained on Japanese culture.