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  • Writer's pictureMatt Higgins

Can Your Anxiety Take You To New Heights?

My friends chide me as the most paranoid risk-taker they know. What can I say, before I burn the boats, I embrace my inner catastrophizer and imagine every improbable thing that might go wrong and what I would do to mitigate it. I take game theory to the tenth degree. But then I go! Sometimes my anxiety helps me, but sometimes it absolutely doesn’t. On the eve of a big moment, my endless preparation can border on paralysis and become completely unproductive. My body rebels, putting my success at risk simply because my brain won’t shut off and let me get rest. It’s a legacy of childhood trauma, a fight-or-flight response, a constant need to be at high alert—to scan the horizon for danger.


In Burn The Boats, I detail how the greatest entrepreneurs and creators operate best at what I call a state of “optimal level of anxiety”. Complacency can often masquerade as comfort. Feeling a sense of urgency can encourage more decisive choices (not to be confused with erratic decision-making), and we can avoid the analysis paralysis that plagues even the most confident leaders.


The goal is to find that optimal level of anxiety—enough to keep us hungry, motivated, and effective, but not so much as to paralyze us or tip us over into burnout or disaster. Chapter 4, Optimize Your Anxiety Burn the Boats


Here are my top four tips for getting through paralyzing anxiety and entering into this optimal state of anxiety that can be the fuel to unlocking your life’s potential:


1. FIND A STUDY TO REASSURE YOU

Data is power. If I can find a study to show that I’m actually doing something right, in whatever I’m trying to pursue, then that knowledge can be enough to move me past my doubts. I have no better example than when I ran a marathon in Paris. I had been up literally all night long. Finally around 4AM I pivoted to mitigation - “how am I going to run a marathon jet lagged and with no sleep?” So I did what I always do and scoured the Internet to find a study that approximates this situation.

I found a compelling piece of research that mental performance is absolutely impacted by a lack of sleep. The study detailed that time to exhaustion was decreased by sleep deprivation, but muscle strength and electromechanical responses was not affected. In fact, physical performance can withstand 30 to 72 hours of being awake, without significant drop-off.

Bingo—I was reassured, and all was once again good in my head. I ran the race and improved my time by 10 minutes over my speed when I ran the New York City Marathon.

Will there always be data to reassure you, in any situation? Of course not. But with 8 billion people in the world, someone, somewhere, has gone through what you are going through right now. Find that study, or find that person, and save yourself the trouble of repeating their mistakes. Inform your decisions and overcome your worry with facts.


2. MEDITATE DAILY

I have found that most of the wildly successful CEOs I know practice transcendental meditation. From Ray Dalio to Bill Gates to Arianna Huffington, there is no shortage of successful people who rely on this tool to relax their minds. Meditation has been shown to boost resilience, emotional intelligence, creativity, relationships, and focus—and I’m going to be another voice telling you that it should be a key tool in your anxiety toolkit. I believe really strongly in this, and think it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.

I’d be lying if I said I’m perfect about meditating every day, but I do make an effort as much as possible, and hold myself accountable, because self-care is incredibly important. Books like Atomic Habits by James Clear makes habit-creation approachable and easy, but the true root of why we don’t make healthy habits is that we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve it. We punish ourselves in stressful situations. In times of crisis, we abandon sleep schedules, we forget about healthy meals, and we can self-sabotage the habits and goals that make us operate at our best.


3. PICK THE RIGHT PERSON TO JOIN YOU IN THE FOXHOLE

I make it a point to meet someone’s partner in the course of doing my due diligence on an investment, because you can often tell so much right away. How’s the relationship—is it a source of strength or a source of conflict? If I see signals of contempt such as undercutting jabs or subtle eye rolls, I know there’s trouble coming.

What we need to look for is one sensibility, one voice, one unified passion. And if someone has picked the right life partner, frankly it tells me a lot about how they choose their business partners and employees, too. Great people can identify that same quality in others. On the other hand, when I hear someone say about their partner, “They ground me,” I think of planes stuck on a runway and ask myself, Why is this a good thing? Planes are meant to fly, and so are you.


Anxiety can often come from those closest to you. The nagging partner who brings you down can start to feel like a dull ache or a constant thorn in your side. The deprecating boss that reminds you of your shortcomings can create a baseline of anxiety that you have a hard time pinpointing because of how frequently it occurs. Be mindful of the people you surround yourself with. Are they creating a latent layer of anxiety that is harming your long-term wellbeing?


4. EXPOSE YOUR ACHILLES HEEL— AND ASK FOR HELP TO FIX IT

It’s the simplest strategy, but the one we don’t always think to pursue, worried that others will judge us or penalize us for admitting our weaknesses. My friend Mike Tannenbaum is now a highly praised football commentator on ESPN.

But it wasn’t easy.


Mike’s anxiety about creating and maintaining that success fueled his rise, but also manifested in extreme intensity. Mike would get a rabid look in his eyes when the pressure was on, only to end up targeting anyone and anything that rubbed him the wrong way.


I admired the depth of Mike’s commitment, but I also knew that this fiery intensity, his greatest asset, might one day sabotage his career. Our greatest asset can also become our fatal albatross. Eventually, I had to intervene. I told Mike that his anxiety was presenting in a way that was jeopardizing his success, and perhaps even his job.


A couple of months after we talked, I walked into Mike’s office and there was a massive fish tank built into the wall. The lights were dimmed and he had ’80s music playing softly from a boom box. He had learned coping mechanisms and put them into practice. For Mike, a change in his office environment worked wonders, and relaxed him enough that he wouldn’t be consumed by his rage.


These tips can work no matter your organization. They can keep you on the right path after you’ve set out on your journey. Most of us can’t avoid dark emotions—however, if they can drive us to work harder and smarter than everyone around us, we’ve just used the fear to put ourselves in an unmatched position to succeed.


LIGHTING THE MATCH

Each week, I’ll be sharing some of the amazing messages I’ve received from fellow Boat Burners who have decided to stop hesitating and go all in on their life’s true purpose. To be featured on Lighting the Match, DM me on Instagram or LinkedIn!

As a fellow cancer survivor, the part of Burn The Boats detailing your cancer journey hit me the most. Recently, I’ve been trying to keep two businesses going when I knew I needed to just focus on one. To burn the boats on a business that was comfortable, but not growing, felt scary. But, once you burn those boats, there’s no going back! [Burn The Boats] has forever changed my outlook on life. I can feel that the universe led me to this.
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