Worry About What’s Real

There’s a lovely little post on Kiki L’Italien’s Acronym Soup blog, in which she advises people to “stop extrapolating” and live in the moment in order to be more productive. “You can’t ‘do’ when you are always and forever dwelling on one detail or planning too far ahead,” she writes.

I have a corollary to Kiki’s rule — one I’ve tried to live by for years (with varying degrees of success): “Only worry about what’s real.”
Here’s a true story: Once upon a time, a good friend called me to tell me he was thinking about switching jobs. He had spent his college years doing grassroots environmental organizing, and was really good at it and very well-respected. But he had taken a completely unrelated job when he graduated from college. After a couple of years in corporate America, an old mentor had called and offered him full-time work running a non-profit environmental group. He didn’t know what to do.

His voice filled with excitement, my friend told me what a great job this would be and how much he would love it. But at the same time, he was in a bit of a panic.

“I don’t know if I can do it anymore,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I did anything like this. I don’t even know if I can speak in public anymore.” He said he had gone to a public hearing or City Council meeting the night before, just to make himself stand up in front of a crowd and speak, and he thought the results were disastrous.

“What should I do?” he asked. “Should I take this job? What if I make a mess of it?”

I told him he was worrying about the wrong thing. “You know you’re going to take this job,” I said. “You’ve already made that decision. That’s not what you’re really trying to figure out. What you really want to know is how to make sure you do a good job. So if you want to worry, start focusing on the real issue and figure out what you can do about it, rather than wasting all this energy fretting about the wisdom of a decision you’ve already made.”

I could hear his audible sigh of relief. “Wow! You’re right. I have made up my mind!” he said. We went on to talk at some length about the things he could do to ensure that when he did start this new job, he would be able to do it well.

If you find yourself starting to get paralyzed by fear or worry, take a step back and make sure your energy is well-spent. Worry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be productive. But you have to direct it and focus it. Don’t let yourself get bogged down worrying about something you can’t control or a decision you’ve already made. Think instead about the real challenge you’re facing, and focus on what you can do to improve your situation.

Worry about what’s real. And then make a plan.

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