One spring day, a medical student cracked open a book and thumbed through 21 words that altered his thinking and changed the trajectory of his life forever.
At the time, he was worried sick about passing his exams… where he should live… how to start up a practice… and how he was going to survive. He was miserable even though his future was blooming with colorful possibilities. His worrying blocked them all out.
Until he stumbled on this particular book. And then it shifted his mindset on worrying forever. In fact, it worked so well that his confidence soared and so did his accomplishments (such as cementing his status as one of the top-notch physicians of all-time… being knighted by the King of England… and becoming one of the four “Founding Fathers” of John Hopkins School of Medicine)
This med student was Sir William Osler, and that spring day he read the following words from author Thomas Carlyle which liberated him from the worries that tormented him day in and day out.
“Our main business is not to see what lies dimly
at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”
Why was this so profound?
Because most of his worries were off in the future. So they couldn’t torment him when he focused on the present moment. And his past couldn’t haunt him either. He simply focused on “steering his ship” each day, which allowed him to breeze through challenges and eventually cover serious ground.
Plus, he was in far greater control of his future. Because instead of wasting time and energy worrying about his future, he rolled up his sleeves and got busy actually doing something about his future. And it clicked in his mind that the only way to influence the future was by taking care of today.
But all this starts by pulling yourself back into the present moment.
And there’s a trick to doing this.
For one, be patient with yourself.
When you find your mind drifting off into the worries of the future, don’t reprimand yourself. Just give yourself a gentle nudge to refocus on the present.
It’s somewhat like meditation. If you’ve ever done traditional meditation where you focus solely on your breathing - you know it’s easy as cherry pie for your mind to wander. But each time you catch yourself wandering and bring your focus back to your breathing - it’s strengthening your ability to focus. Do this enough and it becomes second nature.
(The difference is that with meditation your focus is inward, here you want to focus outward.)
There are a lot of ways to pull yourself into the present moment so you stop worries from taking over your day. About 4 years ago, I came across an interesting method from an old school business author, who used it to help entrepreneurs with anxiety about their business, but it works very well for non-business anxiety as well. Chapter 15 of Primal Panic goes into way more depth on this.
Take Sir William’s quote and live in the present more.
Then pour everything you’ve got into today.
On June 7th 2004, reporter Dan Harris hopped on Good Morning America to share the latest news – when out of nowhere panic swept over him.
He started off on the right foot but then it hit him. A wave of terror flooded through his body from his shoulders into his face. His heart pounded away and his palms got sweaty. And then he realized:
You’re on national television. This is happening now. Right now.
Everyone is seeing this, dude.
Do something. Do something.
But he couldn’t.
And that day over 5 million people watching at home witnessed his panic attack. This earth-shaking event spiraled into a personal journey searching for why Dan’s anxiety had taken control over his life, which eventually leads him into the world of meditation.
In his book, 10% Happier, he shares a story which brought to light one of the mental habits that kept him anxious for years:
He was in final hours of a meditation retreat, and the speaker told the audience not to give much thought about what they have to do when the event is over. These are simply thoughts and it’s a waste of time to worry about such things.
This advice didn’t sit well with Dan so he fires back:
“How can you advise us not to worry about the
things we have to do when we reenter the world?
If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem.
They are not just irrelevant thoughts”
The speaker replies,
“Fair enough. But when you find yourself running
through your trip to the airport for the seventeeth time,
perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful’?”
‘Is it useful?’ is one of dozens of questions that reins in swirling thoughts and gently regrounds you. Sure – deploying them during a full-blown panic attack probably won’t help. But when you deploy these empowering questions, you can catch anxious thoughts early, before they grow into Godzilla and destroy the city. If you leaf through page 41 of Primal Panic you’ll see 8 other ways to do so as well.
What are your daily questions?
What questions reground you? Or make you feel at your absolute best?
What questions make you feel uncertain and stressed?
Bring them into the sunlight. I’ll warn you this won’t be easy. You’ll have to listen closely because many are so habitual that you hardly notice them.
But this is a well worth it.
In 1982, scientists pulled a shipwreck from the sea and swarmed the ancient “body guards” onboard.
But these were no ordinary body guards. These were English Longbowmen, some of the most feared warriors of all time. They had the power to smoke a target 500 years away, which required 150-200 pounds of pulling power (triple the resistance of an average bow). This meant these warriors spent most of their life just building enough strength to use the longbow.
However, this brutal training took a serious toll on their body.
In fact, researchers can easily identify longbowmen by their “buff skeletons” and one bulky arm (usually 48% larger). Plus, many showed overuse injuries in the shoulder and lower back.
So their super-human strength came at a major cost.
Reminds me of a quote a friend once hit me with, “It’s as if our greatest weakness is our greatest strength.” It was true for the English Longbowmen. And it’s true for most people too. Often what we call a weakness is really a strength.
(And this is sometimes why we hold onto it).
For example, let’s say worrying is your achilles heel. And in many ways it hurts you…
…But at the same time, worrying may actually serve you. It may allow you to anticipate future consequences and take action ahead of time.
Or maybe your downfall is perfection. And maybe at times it paralyzes you and stresses the heck out of you…
… But at the same time, chances are, perfection also serves you in some ways. For many people, it pushes them to kick their performance into high gear.
So then the question becomes:
Has your strength turned into a weakness?
Has it turned into one “bulky arm” like our friends the Longbowmen?
If so, restore balance to the opposite side.
Take perfectionism for instance:
One way to restore balance is to drop your standard a couple notches to the ‘good enough’ line. Not the ‘slop line’. Good enough. (If you give a task another day… another week… another month… it’s always going to be better). Work until you hit that line, then ship it off. In Chapter 17 of Primal Panic Solutions I share five additional ways to restore balance to perfection and become more productive in the process.
But first off, figure out what your “weakness” does for you… how does it serve you… what does it give you…
You may think, it does nothing for me!
But you might be surprised.
Let this one sit on the back burner and see what comes to you.