“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
– Søren Kierkegaard
Anxiety. It’s not really a fun place to be, is it? The feelings of dread and fear of what might be, the heart palpitations, possibly even shaking or sweating profusely at times of heightened anxiety, the feeling of wanting to run away or curl up in a ball which it all goes away. It’s not the most empowering of states in which to be.
Or is it?
What actually is anxiety? OK, most of us know the symptoms, some of us perhaps know them a little too well. But what is behind it all? And is it necessarily all bad, or can we gain something useful from it?
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a state of anxiety occurs when we face what is a high level of challenge in an area in which we have a low level of skill. Which is a pretty good starting point in helping us to understand where it comes from. Think of something you can do well to the point of being able to do it without even consciously thinking about it. Perhaps driving a car or riding a bike or swimming, whatever it is that you personally are highly competent in. And imagine you found yourself in a situation where you had to do that exact task – for example, driving from London to Edinburgh and back to visit someone. Chances are you are going to feel fine about it, no problems, calmness; certainly no anxiety involved. However, suppose that you had only ever had a couple of elementary driving lessons and now you were faced with having to make that same journey on your own – now imagine how you might feel! I think it’s pretty certain that you would find yourself in a state of anxiety there! Fortunately nobody is asking you do any such thing so you can relax now safe in the knowledge that the most difficult challenge you face over the next few minutes will be reading and thinking about this article, perhaps whilst drinking a nice cup of tea…
So, if, as Csikszentmihalyi says, a state of anxiety is entered when we face a high level of challenge in an area in which we have a low level of skill, does this mean that anxiety is always a bad thing and that we should do what we can to avoid encountering anxiety at all costs?
Well certainly a learner driver would be well advised not to consider driving a 1,000 mile round trip on their own, that’s true. But anxiety can arise in a great many other situations and rather than being a source of strong dis-empowerment, it can be harnessed to drive us toward the eventual resolution of that very challenge.
Consider someone who has become unemployed and decides to set up their own business, as many people increasingly do in this day and age. Previously, all they had to do was turn up to their place of employment, do what they were told to do, collect their pay and then go home again. And if they were not sure of what it was they were supposed to be doing or how to do it, they could ask their manager for clarifications, further instruction or even for some training and advice. They had, in general, very little leeway in what they could or could not do (and this is true no matter how much of a free reign one has within the area covered by one’s job description and roles & responsibilities).
But once they become self-employed, they have nobody telling them what they can and can’t do! If they decide to work from home in nothing but a dressing gown, then they can go ahead and do just that. If they want to give the company a wacky crazy name and have opening hours to suit them, nobody will stop them. They have (within the boundaries of legalities) unlimited freedom in how to run their company and in what their company does and how it goes about it. There’s nobody to tell them what to do, nobody to tell them when they are doing things right nor when they are doing things wrong.
That’s a whole lot of freedom!
And that’s where anxiety can set in, because along with all this new-found freedom is the realisation that there’s no safety net either; along with the freedom to chose exactly which path to take, there’s nobody to suggest which path might be the better path or which might contain the nasty trap. All these choices but no experience of how to make the right choice and so many potential pitfalls… It’s no wonder one becomes very anxious, usually leading either to jumping for a decision (any decision) and hoping, to being unable to make any decision at all and doing nothing, or to running away screaming. None of which are a sound basis for good business growth.
But what of the person who, in that position, takes a step back and actually listens to the anxiety, recognises it as the helpful warning sign which it is, and listens to what their subconscious mind is telling them, and then acts upon it accordingly?
The person who realises that those feelings of anxiety, far from being a dis-empowering curse, are actually a very helpful and empowering state; for they draw one’s attention to areas which need to be addressed but for which one does not feel they have the relevant experience. At this point, one can run away, one can make random decisions, or one can actively choose to seek out the means of making the right decision.
The means of making those right decisions could be any of a number of approaches –
- doing some research;
- taking some relevant training;
- finding someone who has done it before and getting them to be a mentor (by which I mean an actual active mentor who works with them and shares some wisdom, rather than the sort of mentor which is actually an “I read Fred’s book, that makes him my mentor”) to help guide them through the maze;
- finding someone to partner with in that aspect of the business, either by employing them or outsourcing to them or having them a a formal business partner.
Which is the right approach will depend on many different factors, but whichever approach you adopt will give you a far better chance of success than running away or burying one’s head in the sand or making decisions at random.
The more we learn to embrace our anxiety and to listen to what it is telling us and to take the appropriate action to overcome our limitations, the more we will be successful in our endeavours.
No man is an island; those who recognise that anxiety is nothing more than the dizziness of freedom and who pay attention to the messages their unconscious is telling them and as a result build themselves the right team for the job might just find themselves to be part of an amazing continent, though!