I was reminded of an incident today from almost two decades ago. We had just moved to Saudi Arabia and I had just started middle school. As it was the middle of the school year, I’d borrowed a notebook from a classmate to copy all the notes I’d missed onto mine in the evenings.
Everything worked fine the first evening. But, on the second, I found that his notebook was no longer in my bag (I’d taken it to school in case he needed it). After some frantic searching, I was sure it wasn’t in my bag or around the house. So, I confessed to my parents.
Another round of searching.
We were all worried now. I vividly remember that sleeping with my parents last night – reserved normally only for special occasions or, as I discovered that night, when we were all worried about something – and we stayed up for a while discussing this.
On reflection, I realized that we were all insecure as we were in a new country and were religious minorities in said country that was known for orthodox beliefs. Eventually, we realized there was nothing more that could be done and called it a night vowing to deal with whatever happened.
I don’t remember much of what followed the next morning. The only memory that followed was walking into class and walking over to this classmate trying to muster a few words about his notebook.
He, instead, gave me a nice smile and said – “Hey, I needed that notebook yesterday. You were not in class during lunch – so, I just took it out of your bag.”
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” | Michel de Montaigne
After writing a post on worry recently, a friend and I discussed it further. He shared that the one of the bigger lessons he’s taken away from his meditation practice is that worry is suffering twice – at minimum.
When we worry, we first suffer the worst case scenario that we can imagine -sometimes more than once depending on how long we dwell on it. If we then experience the worst case scenario, we suffer again.
Of course, there’s an additional catch. The worst case scenario rarely materializes. And, we tend to overestimate how badly it’ll actually affect us.
Don’t suffer twice. We have a choice.
Worry is focused on what we don’t control. If it weren’t, we’d presumably just go ahead and do something about it.
Now, any time wasted on what we don’t control takes away from focusing on what we actually do.
That, then, is why worry serves up a triple whammy. It messes with our minds and productivity, negatively impacts our health, and wastes our time.
There’s a lot of value to be gained by learning to deal with and, ideally, banish worry from our lives. And, the first step to doing so is understanding why its presence should not be tolerated.
The best strategy we have on our hands to remove stress and worry from our lives is to have a near ridiculous obsession with focusing on what we control.
While removing worry, stress, helplessness, insecurity, and the like is pretty wonderful, the circle of influence has another incredible feature. It expands proportional to the time we spend within it.
I wish there was a class on learning to deal with the unresolved. But, since there isn’t a good one that I know of, here’s what I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks.
The first step to dealing with the unresolved is accepting that there will always be something unresolved in our lives. We will always have to deal with the unknown, experience the fear of launching something new and walk into a game with trepidation knowing we are at a seemingly obvious disadvantage.
Sure, we can choose to worry. But, worry does nothing to solve the problem except make it seem worse.
Scott Peck beautifully pointed to the wisdom in accepting that life is difficult. As he eloquently put it, “once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
It works the same with dealing with the unresolved. We need to take the first step and accept that we will always have to deal with it.
There is no second step.
Our actions drive outcomes. In most cases, we don’t control outcomes. Our outcomes are generally controlled either by other people (boss, teacher, customer, peers) or by environmental factors (markets, context). At best, all we control is the process that leads to our actions.
And, yet, we are capable of spending a large proportion of our time on outcome-related activities (worrying about outcomes, then worrying about the results, then feeling upset or elated by the results). And, outcome-related activities have got to rank among the worst ways to spend our time because –
1. Spending time on outcomes is useless as they don’t generally change the outcome
2. They take away time from today’s processes and actions that will determine future outcomes
So, if you are caught up about something today, I’d recommend asking just one question – “Is this within my control?”
If the answer is yes, then it is in the action zone. Then, if it is aligned with your priorities, agonize over the process, front-load work, and give it your best shot.
If the answer is no, think about all the actions you could be spending your time on that would make tomorrow better. There generally are a few. If you can’t find any, call your mom. Or stare at the ceiling if you will.
Anything you choose to do will be better than worrying about an outcome you do not control.