The Worrier’s Guide to Success

The secret to high achievement? Imagining the potential lows.

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So you’re planning an event to promote your new startup. It’s a lot of work, but when the day arrives everything goes well. You exude confidence and impress potential investors.

But what those people don’t know is that leading up to the big day, you were a ball of nerves, mentally unraveling everything that could go wrong. What if no one shows up? What if it rains? What if the caterer flakes out? What if the microphone doesn’t work or the internet crashes at a crucial moment?

Dealing with that anxiety was awful. But the truth is, it helped prepare you. It’s the reason you reminded attendees of the event details a week out, arranged for that large tent, lined up a backup caterer, and hired an AV contractor to be on site.

On the big day, you appear to have thought of everything. (Because you did.) But rather than being seen as a worrier, you’re perceived as someone who’s self-assured and in control.

THE TRAIT: Worrier

Often “worrier” has a negative connotation. And because of that, many entrepreneurs may see themselves not as worriers but as strategizers or problem solvers, says Sharon Saline, Psy.D., psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew. Those are, after all, more positive labels.

But “if you unwind problem-solving,” Saline notes, “what it gets down to is ‘I have a concern, and I have to figure out how to solve it.’”

“Worriers have great imaginations,” says Saline. “They try to think of what could happen and brainstorm for all the different scenarios that could unfurl.”

That’s why good problem solvers often are good worriers. They anticipate (and prepare for) every possible negative outcome. And if something goes wrong, they learn from that experience so they can do better next time.

YOUR POWER: Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

From an evolutionary view, all feelings—even the negative ones—serve a purpose. (Charles Darwin would know, since he may have been a worrier too.)

“Fear gives you the juice to run away,” says Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., a psychology professor who studies worry at the University of California at Riverside. “Anger motivates you to retaliate or respond...When it comes to worry, it’s awfully good at reminding us to look ahead, to foresee potential problems so we can avoid them.” It brings would-be threats to our attention and motivates us to keep them at bay.

Graham Davey, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Sussex and author of The Anxiety Epidemic: The Causes of Our Modern-Day Anxieties, agrees. “We wouldn’t experience that emotion if it didn’t have benefits,” he says. It’s good to get a bit anxious, for example, before a job interview or a first date—it helps you to focus.

As a forward-thinking process, worry is linked with action: Those who worry about cancer, for example, are more likely to schedule preventive screenings, says Sweeny. If you’re concerned with car accidents, you’re more likely to wear a seatbelt.

For entrepreneurs, worry can be a powerful motivator for success, says venture capitalist Zach Aarons, co-founder of MetaProp NYC—but only if that worry is something you can actually do something about.

“Elon Musk worries fundamentally about humans going extinct,” says Aarons. “He’s gifted and lucky enough that he can actually change an issue that big. But for me it’s more like, am I missing out on a hot market right now? Am I getting into as many deals as I want? That’s what I should be worried about, because I can have a hand in it.”

Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW

Aarons recalls one startup that pivoted from selling software to using the software to sell appraisals. “They got worried at the exact right time,” he says. “If we had waited a little longer for things to turn around, it would have been a big mistake.” Aarons has also seen business owners who did not worry enough, for example, about their competitors. “They didn’t see risk coming,” he says.

“Some entrepreneurs are not worried—they’re excited,” Saline points out. “But many entrepreneurs can be pretty good worriers or have some worry in their thinking in order to come up with strategies.”

Of course, everyone worries to an extent. But some people are bigger worriers than others.

People who grow up with uncertainty—maybe their family can’t put food on the table, their parents argue, or they suffer abuse—may learn to think ahead so such traumas don’t happen to them again, says Davey.

In some cases, worrying can become pathological, but it can also yield high achievement. “Successful entrepreneurs may worry, but they see their worry working for them,” Davey says. “They are solving problems, they are getting on, they are being successful.” In fact, entrepreneurship is characterized by a number of factors that contribute to worry: uncertainty, risk, high stress, and long hours just to name a few.

Maybe that’s why anxiety is sometimes linked to high achievement. Historically, it has even been viewed as a status symbol. During the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, for example, anxiety was not seen as a mental health problem but as a sign of success. “It meant you must be very busy and have a lot of responsibilities,” Davey says.

In some ways, that hasn’t changed, says Davey. Many people brag about being a worrier or about being “a bit OCD” (shorthand for obsessive-compulsive disorder)—often in an effort to present themselves as fastidious workers.

“You can’t be ‘a bit OCD’ just as much as you can’t be a bit pregnant,” Davey says. “OCD is an incredibly distressing disorder that completely messes up your life.” So not quite the same thing as a good work ethic. In fact, when worry crosses over into pathology, it can be bad for your business and your health.

YOUR WEAKNESS: Toxic worrying

There are two kinds of worry, says Saline—productive and poisonous.

“Poisonous worry is the kind that drags you down,” Saline says. “There’s no point to it. It’s about things you cannot change or control.” That’s how realistic concerns can spiral into emotions (anxiety, panic) that are disproportionate with reality, Saline says.

The challenge for entrepreneurs is recognizing the difference.

Worried you won’t make your numbers this month? If you’ve done your best and there’s nothing more you can do, then it may be time to surrender that goal to the universe. At some point, worry stops being useful, Sweeny says. If you think of the worry process as an upside-down U, you can see there is a tipping point where worry becomes unmanageable. That’s when worry can actually thwart the very problem-solving process that it was meant to aid.

Anxiety eats away at your self-esteem, says Davey. His research shows that pathological worriers have poor problem-solving confidence, even though they have good problem-solving skills. That lack of confidence can hinder action, leading instead to avoidance and denial.

The key is learning to manage your anxiety, Davey says: “Your worrying will still do its job; you’ll still come up with solutions.”

Anxiety may seem like a modern-day problem—according to Davey, one in five people suffer high anxiety all the time, and one in four will have a severe anxiety problem in their lifetime—but in fact it’s likely been around since ancient times.

The difference: These days, we’re more aware of our worrying. Ironically, that awareness itself has become another source of our anxiety.

“I think what’s happening nowadays,” Davey says, “is people are more aware when they’re anxious, and they’re more distressed by their anxiety. And of course now we know where help is, and we know where to go. So we log this data.”

When worry is mixed with high anxiety it can manifest as an anxiety disorder—OCD, panic attacks, or phobias.


These disorders often develop during a period of stress in a person’s life, often due to increased work responsibilities, Davey says. So entrepreneurs, faced with increasingly complicated and numerous challenges, may be at risk.

The refrain of the toxic worrier: “What if?” “If you start asking ‘what if’ questions, 85 percent of those scenarios are never likely to happen,” says Davey. “So 85 percent of the problems you’re creating are a waste of time.” (As French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once put it, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”)

Ironically, this can have a reinforcing effect: If you worry about something that never happens, you may believe your worrying is what stopped it.

Davey recalls a colleague who used to joke, “Every morning, I wake up worried I’ll be trampled by elephants. But it hasn’t happened yet, so my worry must be working.”  

Some people resort to compulsive behavior in an effort to rein in their anxieties. Anyone who’s ever checked his email every few minutes can relate to that.

“I have students in my seminar groups who, if their phone goes off, they just get up and leave the room,” Davey says. “Not only is that rude, but it’s a compulsion.”

“Technology comes up a lot when I talk about this,” says Sweeny, who recalls the time her parents were nearly hit by hurricane. “A few years ago, I could maybe check the weather channel once in a while. But now I can check the weather app on my phone anytime. That doesn’t help.”

Compulsions can be helpful or harmful. Checking your email when you’re anxious, for example, can help you acquire a greater sense of certainty, Davey says. But if you’re doing it at inappropriate times—say, when spending time with your partner or with friends—that’s not good.

“The manifest difference between productive and unproductive worry,” Sweeny says, “is whether it turns off once its job is done.”

“There’s something to learning how to say, ‘Thanks, worry, your job is done,’ and then turning it off,” she says. Of course, that’s not always easy, but it can be done.

THE PIVOT: Turn poisonous worry into productive worry

Replace “what if?” with “then what?”: This helps slow your thinking and calm you down, so you can pull out of that endless worry loop, Saline says.

So if you’re worried about making your numbers this month, your internal dialogue might go something like this: What if I don’t make my numbers this month? Then what? I’ll disappoint my investors. Then what? They’ll still know how hard I tried.

Keep asking “then what?” until you’ve reached the end of the line. Then ask, “Can I live with that?”

Something about proceeding along that sequence undoes the poisonous quality of your thinking, Saline says. That’s when you can switch to a more productive strategy, focusing on the things you can control and letting go of the things you can’t control.

Identify the problem: Worrying is a problem-solving process, says Davey, so treat it like one. Identifying the problem is step one. “Make sure you can verbalize it,” Davey says. Literally say it out loud! “If you let it get diffuse, it becomes much more difficult to handle.” From there, you can define your goal, brainstorm and think about implementation.

Set aside time to worry: Go somewhere slightly uncomfortable, set a timer, and go ahead and worry. Bring a notepad and pen so you can jot down your thoughts (that’s what you do when problem-solving, right?). If you actively elicit your worry, it will be less likely to sneak up on you at inopportune times, Davey says.

Manage your mood: We tend to worry when we’re in a bad mood, says Davey, when we’re anxious, depressed, sad, tired, in pain, or hungover. “Worry is an open-ended thing,” Davey says. “In the end, there are no definite answers. So what you do is you say to yourself ‘Have I met my goal with my worrying?’ There’s no answer to that, so people will default to their mood. A positive mood says ‘Yes, you have done it all!’ A negative mood says ‘No, you haven’t done it all. So keep going.’” That’s how worry bouts happen.

Managing your mood can help. Upbeat music may do the trick. (One study identified Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as the most uplifting song of all time.) Exercise and laughter are also good options—Davey recommends keeping a good comedy sketch handy.

Give worry a job to do: “I sometimes think of worry as a dog,” Sweeny says. “If you pen that dog up in an apartment, it’s going to destroy everything. But if you give it an outlet, it’ll be a happy dog and not destroy your apartment.” Use your worry as motivation to double-check the details and make sure there’s nothing more you can do to prevent a bad outcome.

Play Tetris: If nothing else can be done, find a distraction that fully absorbs your attention, Sweeny says. Tetris is a good option, one of her studies found. Make sure the activity is sufficiently absorbing (reading and binge-watching are not usually enough). If you can find something that’s productive, even better!

Recall a happy memory: Aarons, the venture capitalist, is extremely risk tolerant. (In his business, he has to be.) But he wasn’t always that way. “I was the kid in nursery school who would flip out if my babysitter was a few minutes late to pick me up, because I worried that she got hit by a car,” he says. Those kinds of thoughts still pop up now and then, but over the years he’s become adept at managing his worry. His trick: Whenever his anxiety gets triggered, he forces himself to think of a happy memory. “Think about that time you crushed something,” he says. “Recall how it felt when you closed your fund, or helped this entrepreneur, or rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.” That stops his worry from snowballing.

Accept some uncertainty: You can never be 100 percent certain, Davey says. There’s always a chance something unexpected will crop up tomorrow. Learn to accept that, and you’ll have an easier time managing your worry.

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