[Draft Four] Anxiety is (not) a superpower
And thoughts on the need to fix the process.
All week long I felt an undercurrent of anxiety – like a background hum that wouldn’t go quiet. I am well familiar with this feeling and when it gets this way it’s a sign I’m overwhelmed, or that the things going on in my life are loudly competing for attention, like people stampeding towards a door, even though they can only pass through one by one.
A lot of it comes from the work I’m doing on an apartment. (One of my least favorite things to do). It’s been stripped down to brick, two weeks of drilling and hammering that produced a small truck worth of construction waste. One of my neighbors – kinder than she had to be – informed me that the construction crew pierced through the wall of her living room, and through the ceiling of her bathroom.
I know it’ll get fixed, I know it’ll pass, but, in real time, I often find myself flinching at every ping of my phone: what now? A photo of a newly damaged wall, my dad falling on the ice and puncturing a vertebra, a journalist I recently worked with telling me her editors might kill her story, and so on. Can it ever be good news, I think, which of course I would, as anxiety is great at shaping the world as a source of continuous danger and worry (when it’s also not that).
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts a couple of days ago – The Anxious Achiever – in which a product manager at Pinterest that was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder at 40 was talking about the relief of the label, but also the difficulties of accepting the lingo. She doesn’t like the “anxiety is my superpower” Instagram-ready label, and one reason she found her way late to a diagnosis is because she didn’t associate her restlessness and hyperactivity with “worry”, but with “fixing”.
She always wanted to fix things, fix situations, fix people, fix workplaces, fix herself.
I relate to that: anxiousness is an army of loud “what ifs” roaring outside your door. For some, it’s “what if things go bad/if I get hurt/if something happens to my loved ones”. For others, and I’m often on this team, it comes with the (false) idea of being able to find a way into control if you just try hard enough or long enough.
This has been a struggle for decades. I don’t consider myself brave, or I accepted the idea of a form of bravery that is more Aristotelian: the middle ground between recklessness and cowardice, a place from which I can build mechanisms and use tools to get me to do the things I’m scared of. A place of control.
Along the years I have given up on the idea that one can control the outcome. I also accepted this is why many people thought I was either wildly ambitious or downright delusional when I came up with ideas that seemed impossible: bringing Pulitzer winners to Romania, selling out the National Theater in Bucharest for a live journalism show, and others. Yet, I worried less about the outcome, rarely asked myself if it would really happen. But I did worry about the process because my default – at least over the past 10-15 years – has been: the more you can control and improve (yes, fix) the process, the more likely the outcome will come to pass. (And it does.)
Coming back to this week, this is what got me ruminating: can we do something to the process, so less walls crumble? Can I create a working order that will make my colleagues on the jury I’m in read all the assigned pieces on deadline, so that all entrants get a fair shake? Can I talk differently to my students so more of them take larger strides towards giving their final papers shape?
I know the answer: it’s both yes, and no.
Yes, I can. But doing it won’t mean it’ll happen.
One of the most important pieces of leadership advice I ever came across – as an editor, but also a manager – was “stop fixing, start coaching”. This meant more asking questions, and less delivering advice, and I’m getting better. (A journalist in Moldova said last week to a colleague as we were all talking: “He listens so well, that you find your own answers”). I’m happy when it works, but I would lie if I told you I wasn’t heavily invested in the outcome. I know I have even less control (it’s your life, your process), but now that we talked it about it, and we see a way this could become a reality, you’ll go through with it, right?
Often, that doesn’t happen. The construction crew broke through the neighbor’s wall on Monday. We talked about what spots to avoid, how thin the walls and ceilings were, what the prefered way to proceed was. On Friday, we were back where we started: a piece of debris broke off and crashed through a glass shelf in my neighbor’s bathroom. She was still kind about it, although this time she did warn me: I hope shattering my sink is not what comes next.
I can’t control the crew’s process, or what others say or do, as unsettled as that makes me. Which also means I can’t control the process by which my city is run, or my country is run. I struggle with this. Rationally, I know this is the case. Emotionally, it’s a drain. (It’s why I dread consulting gigs.)
I got a warning from city hall recently that they’ll fine our building if we don’t deal with its esthetics. (I run the condo association). I’m guessing it’s the spraypainted tags on the façade and the occasional crack they want fixed. But it’s written in bureaucratic passive-aggressive jargon. It’s certainly not an invitation to work together; it’s a threat. It’s not the city hall pitching me a better process through which we can flourish in a more beautiful city (I’m assuming that’s the intention); it’s a warning.
Processes are expectations made explicit, says a note pinned on a corkboard above my desk. (Or “clear is kind”, as Brené Brown puts it). But we hardly do this. Moreover, and this is a regional quirk, we distrust process. I know why: we have an ingrained distrust of others telling us how to do things, because that’s our collective memory of communism. And we are also socialized to believe getting by means finding ways around the rules. (Or else you’ll be screwed).
It made sense once, but it often doesn’t make sense now. A checklist can save lives in hospitals. Clarity can help students do better. A citizen-centered way of talking can increase trust. A transparent and predictable workflow can make a newsroom more creative. (You wouldn’t believe how widely spread the ideas of “chaos as creative fuel” and “sarcasm as workplace culture” in media are, even though evidence of their casualties is everywhere).
I still believe processes can help, and they’re always a work in progress, always something that can be improved upon. Yet I keep struggling with the anxiety that comes from not being able to implement them, or from failing to convince others of their benefit. But that’s for me to learn to deal with, knowing full well that being kind to myself remains an open project.
In the meantime, I do what I can to turn off the hum.
I read, I run, I listen to people smarter than myself. One of them is Adam Moss, now in his sixties, I guess, who remade The New York Times Magazine, and later ran New York magazine for 15 years. He recently talked with the podcast Print is Dead about the joy of magazine-making (the magazine should feel like a person, created by a group: „without grounding out its idiosyncrasies, and individual quirks, and individual pieces of expression. But it also has to function as a whole, as a single thing”.)
And there’s this exchange that stayed with me, because the idea of finding a way to keep going, keep doing (a lot), while somehow being less anxious, is attractive.
Interviewer: When you left New York [magazine], you were quoted, I think, many times as saying, “I’m doing it because I worked full throttle for 40 years.” How are you doing at backing off “full throttle?”
Adam Moss: I need to do things but I don’t need to do them with the intensity that I used to do them. Or with the worry. So I’m probably as full throttle in terms of my day-to-day working metabolism. But it doesn’t come with the anxiety that used to, it doesn’t come with the worry.
So in that sense, I did, I think, succeed at not being full throttle. I don’t want to be idle. Idleness just to me is not pleasant at all. Some people really like it. For me it’s not, but I do want to be less anxious, and I think I’ve mostly succeeded at that.
Another trick anxiety plays is making one question themselves. Creatively and intellectually, that’s sometimes helpful if you can make sure it doesn’t stop you from doing. In this piece, Leslie Jamison questions the ubiquity of the “imposter syndrome” – which we all have and talk about to the point that it has become humble bragging about our doubts. But what if that wasn’t its initial point, and what if it often obscures real systemic problems of access and discrimination?
One more vote for The Anxious Achiever podcast; here’s one of my favorite episodes, on how anxiety is a habit.
When we talk about working better with others and changing a culture to one of kindness, we often hit a wall of “what’s with all this softness? Get with the program, or get out”. Well, it’s more complicated. Here’s some research of why being respectful is (also) good for business.
One reason for this week’s anxiety was that I didn’t find time to plan or write this letter (I wrote this morning, and finished 5 minutes before sending). Procrastination is real, but it’s also not laziness. At best, it’s thoughts marinating. Most often, it’s a mechanism of coping with bad moods.
The most uplifting thing I heard this past week is this interview with the legendary producer Rick Rubin. It’s about creativity, extreme noise and extreme quiet, where ideas come from, but also about discipline as freedom. Here’s what he says:
We live in a society of looking for shortcuts. It’s the same — it’s like there are no shortcuts. The synopsis isn’t the article. The headline isn’t the story. We miss all of the nuance and all of the depth when we’re just living on the surface with the bare amount of information, thinking we know what’s going on.
And that’s where the discipline comes in. The discipline is the commitment. The discipline is the thing that allows us to get to where we want to go. And we think of discipline as something that gets in the way. And it’s the exact opposite. It allows our dreams to come true.
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