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Stop Worrying So You Can Start Winning

Social Sciences

“You look worried again, Charlie. What is it this time?”

It took Charlie a moment to reorient himself from the inner world in which he’d been mentally wandering back to the outer world through which he was now walking. Emerging from the deep pit of his anxieties into the magnificent cathedral of the Grand Canyon took his breath away. The desert breeze played softly through his hair as the sun warmed his face, sending a tingle down his spine. Even after four days of hiking, Charlie was still overwhelmed by the vast splendor of this greatest of all places for spiritual awakening.

“Did you see the bighorn sheep looking down at us from the butte back half a mile or so? Or that pair of hawks circling the pinnacle across the river?”

Mitch Matsui had been one of Charlie’s best friends since their days at St. Johns. He was the class philosopher, and over the years Charlie had always consulted with him on important decisions. After school, Mitch had passed up many lucrative opportunities in the business world to stay on and teach at the college.

If his classmates had ever felt sorry for Mitch struggling to get by on a teacher’s salary, they didn’t anymore. His first book of poetry, Live Your Dreams Before They Come True, was an international bestseller, as were the sequels, and he now had more invitations for speaking engagements than he could possibly accept. Through all his success, Mitch remained the humble philosopher he’d always been. He didn’t even take credit for the book. “I was just lucky enough to be the official translator for the poetry of McZen,” he’d say, though no one really believed that McZen was anything other than a figment of Mitch’s imagination.

It had been Mitch’s idea to go hiking in the Grand Canyon. Charlie was struggling with whether to follow his dreams and go into business for himself or to give in to his fears and doubts and get a “real job.” Mitch suggested that a week in the desert would help him focus on his priorities.

“Well?” Like an alarm clock coming back to life after the snooze button had timed out, Mitch again dragged Charlie away from his inner thoughts. “What are you worrying about this time? What mental weight is so heavy that it’s keeping you from appreciating…” and here Mitch simply spread his arms as if to symbolically capture the grandeur that stretched out in every direction.

“Oh, nothing,” Charlie replied. “I was just thinking about how my being unemployed has affected my family.”

Mitch took several steps off the trail and picked up a chunk of granite that Charlie guessed weighed nearly a pound. He tossed it up and down a few times, as though weighing it, then said, “This seems to be about the right size for that worry.”

Mitch walked over to Charlie and unzipped the lower compartment of his backpack. “Oh man,” Charlie groaned, “I don’t need to carry another rock!”

“You certainly don’t,” Mitch agreed, “which makes me wonder why you go out of your way to pick them up.” Mitch put the rock in Charlie’s backpack, jamming it sideways into the small quarry that had been gradually accumulating over the past several days.

At the start of their trek, Charlie had agreed to go along with one of Mitch’s wild ideas. Every time he caught Charlie worrying, Mitch would pick up a stone and put it into his friend’s backpack. Carrying those rocks around would be a metaphor for the emotional weight of all of the worries with which Charlie had burdened himself. Now, Charlie regretted the decision. His shoulders ached under the burden of more than 20 rocks of various sizes, and each new stone seemed disproportionately heavier than previous rocks of the same size. While Mitch bounded across the trail as though his backpack was filled with helium balloons, Charlie felt like one of the pack mules they’d seen laboring down the trail on the first day.

Mitch zipped Charlie’s backpack shut and gave it a whack. “Let’s go, my friend,” he said. “A few more hours and we’ll stop for lunch. Then we’ll have a cairn ceremony.”

“A what?”

“It’s time to take some of the weight off your shoulders,” Mitch replied, “both physically and metaphorically. I’ll explain how it works at lunch.”

Mitch speeded on ahead, telling Charlie he had to make preparations for the ceremony. Before they parted, he extracted from Charlie a promise that any time he caught himself worrying, he himself would pick up another rock and add it to the collection in his pack. Motivated by this promise, for the next three hours Charlie kept his eyes on the scenery about him and his mind on each step in front of him. Paying attention to every step, he felt more light-footed; even his pack seemed to lose a little weight.

At last, Charlie saw Mitch sitting by the side of a small stream. He could see that lunch was already prepared, and also that Mitch had cleared a small area on the ground. With a surge of gratitude, he dropped his heavy pack, retrieved his water bottle, doused his face and then his thirst. During lunch, neither man said much. Afteward, Mitch asked Charlie to bring all of the rocks out of his backpack and lay them out on the ground. “Look at all these worries,” Mitch exclaimed. “No wonder you always feel so weighed down!”

“It’s a lot easier to carry around the ones you can’t see,” Charlie replied.

“Is it really?” Mitch pushed one of Charlie’s rocks with his walking stick. “It seems to me that the mental rocks can be a lot heavier than the physical ones. They certainly take a greater toll, and can be a lot harder to leave behind.”

“I guess I’d have to agree with that,” Charlie responded. As he looked at the pile of rocks, he wished that it was as easy to empty his mind of worries as it had been to empty his backpack of rocks.

“How do you define worry?” Mitch asked.

“I really hadn’t thought about it,” Charlie replied. “I guess it’s thinking about bad things that might happen in the future.”

Mitch smiled and shook his head. “That’s probably what 99 out of 100 people would say, and it’s OK as far as it goes, but not nearly enough. If you want to beat the worry habit – and it is a habit, a really bad habit – the first step is to understand what worry really is, and what it does to you. Until you stop worrying, you can’t start winning.”

Mitch picked up one of Charlie’s rocks and gazed into it as though it were a crystal ball. “The more you dissipate your mental and emotional energy on worry, the less likely you are to see the opportunities you have for achieving your goals, and to find the courage and perseverance it takes to live your dreams. Actually, I have many definitions for worry. Some of them may surprise you. Like this one: Worry is a money repellent.”

“What do you mean, it’s a money repellent?” Charlie asked as he watched Mitch pick up one of the rocks he’d dumped out of his backpack and put it in the center of the small space he had cleared out.

“Just that,” replied Mitch. “If there’s something you really want to get done – more than that, it’s something you feel you must get done, you’ll find the money. Somehow, money arrives in just the right increments at just the right time.” Mitch picked up another of Charlie’s rocks and set it down next to the first one. “As soon as you start worrying about how you’re going to pay for the project, you’ve taken the first step to killing it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” retorted Charlie. “How can worrying about money drive money away?”

“I’ll tell you how. When you worry about money, you’re seeing the world as a place of scarcity. On the other hand, when you trust that the money you need will come when you need it, you’re seeing the world as a place of abundance. Money flows to people with an abundance mentality, and it flees from people with a scarcity mentality. In our entrepreneur’s club, we read the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Well, he didn’t call it Worry and Grow Rich for the good reason that you’re more likely to worry yourself into the poor house than you are to worry yourself into a mansion.”

Charlie shook his head in disagreement. “Then how come so many wealthy people still worry so much about money?”

Mitch picked up another rock and laid it in the clearing. “To have a great deal of money does not make one wealthy; to be wealthy is to not worry about money. McZen said that broke is a state of wallet; poverty is a state of mind.”

Mitch held an open hand out toward the rocks that had been dumped from Charlie’s backpack. “Many of these rocks, these worries, that you’ve been carrying around for the past four days are about money. Has all that worrying made you any wealthier?”

Charlie looked sheepishly at the rocks, then replied, “No, of course not. But every time I think about starting my own business, it worries me that I don’t have enough of a safety net.”

Mitch smiled and laid a rock on top of those that were already stacked in his little clearing. “You’d worry a lot less about having a safety net if you would appreciate how close to the ground your tightrope really is. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you fall off, if you start a business and it fails? Will they put you in debtors’ prison, or make you work as a galley slave to pay your debts off?”

“Of course not,” Charlie snorted. “They haven’t done those things for centuries.”

“So what is the absolute worst thing that can happen?” Mitch persisted.

“Well,” Charlie replied, “I’m sure declaring bankruptcy is no walk in the park!” Now Charlie picked up one of his rocks and added it to the pile Mitch had started.

“Certainly not,” said Mitch, “but it’s not the end of the world either. Pick up any issue of Success or Entrepreneur magazine, and you’ll read about somebody who has overcome bankruptcy and gone on to great success and wealth.”

“I know, Mitch, but after so many years of having a real job with a regular paycheck, the insecurity of entrepreneurship is disconcerting.”

Mitch laughed softly. “Here’s something else McZen said: Someone with a job is never secure; someone with a calling is never unemployed.” Charlie remembered Cheryl having quoted that line, and her comment that it had forever changed her perspective on work.

Mitch picked up the granite one-pounder, which was the last rock he’d stuffed into Charlie’s backpack and again tossed it up and down in his hand, taking it’s measure. “In today’s world, no job will give you security; and no paycheck is big enough to relieve you of money worries. Try to think of a job that would give anyone permanent security,” Mitch challenged.

“Neurosurgeon,” Charlie replied with defiance.

“Yeah? You know what they call a neurosurgeon in Philadelphia today?” Charlie shrugged. “Hey, waiter!” Mitch yelled, pantomiming the act of summoning a waiter in a crowded restaurant. They both laughed, and Mitch continued, “I know a lot of doctors who are living from paycheck to paycheck. They make a lot, but they also spend a lot. They worry about managed care and medicare, about how they’re viewed and about being sued.” When Charlie rolled his eyes at the awkward rhyme, Mitch laughed and said, “What do you expect? I translate poetry for a living.”

Now Mitch became serious. “The only employment security in the world today is loving your work, and doing it with confidence and enthusiasm. If your work is a calling and not just a job, you’ll be as busy as you want to be.”

Mitch dropped the granite rock onto the growing pile. “Many people are trapped in what I call the Wu Ch’i paradox. Wu Ch’i lived during the Warring States period of Chinese history, nearly 2,500 years ago. He wrote that on the battlefield, those who are determined to die with glory will live, while those who merely hope to escape with their lives will die. It’s the same in the world of business. If your only goal is to retire with a big nest egg, you’ll never make it. On the other hand, if you have a passion for changing the world and you attack your cause like a true crusader, the nest egg will take care of itself.”

Mitch placed another stone on the pile. “A cairn is a pile of rocks that a traveler builds to show the way for those who come behind. If you keep your eyes open, Charlie, you’ll find that the world is full of cairns – guideposts that will assuage your anxiety and direct you down the path towards success. That’s what we’re doing on this trip. We’re building a set of guideposts that can help you avoid being paralyzed by your worries. For example, here’s a guidepost to help you stop worrying about money problems: Commit yourself to making the personal changes that are needed to help you increase your earning capacity, and to reduce your material desires until after those changes have been made. The essence of entrepreneurship is creating lasting economic value for yourself and others. No matter how much you get paid, as long as you’re working on a per hour basis you’ve only got a job or – how does Cheryl put it? You’ve got a J-O-B and might end up jilted, obsolete, and broke.”

Charlie propped his elbows up against his backpack and leaned back, savoring the warmth of the midday sun. “You know what would be the worst thing about bankruptcy? Even worst than losing your possessions?” Mitch cocked his head expectantly, so Charlie continued. “It would be the humiliation of it all. The way old friends would avoid you on the street, and the way all those people who told you to forget the entrepreneur thing and just get a real job would be gloating how they told you so. I could just imagine people telling their children to work harder in school so they don’t end up like poor old bankrupt Charlie McKeever!”

Mitch added another rock to the cairn. “You know, Charlie, you’d worry a lot less about what other people think of you if you’d appreciate how infrequently they think of you.” Charlie laughed, but didn’t seem very convinced. “Think about it,” Mitch continued, “of all the people you know, how many have crossed your mind in the past hour? In the past day or week?” Charlie laughed and shook his head. “And all those people that you haven’t been thinking of? They haven’t been thinking of you either. So why waste your time worrying about what you think they think of you when they’re not thinking of you at all.”

They sat in silence for several minutes before Mitch spoke again. “You have to manage your thinking, you can’t just let it flow spontaneously. Your conscious mind is like water. Left unattended, it naturally flows downhill, into the ruts and potholes of worry, fear, and depression, where it will stay until you do something to pump it back out. That is the natural tendency of ego. Only by your deliberate effort can you pipe your thinking out of the ruts and up to the mountaintops of equanimity, daring, and joy.”

Mitch was sitting cross-legged, using his packed-up sleeping bag as a cushion. “You’re in real danger when you let your ego start making decisions for you, Charlie. Your ego wants you to believe that you are the center of the universe, which is a pretty laughable concept when you look around at the magnificent sculptures in this canyon, which God has been working on for millions of years. How many people do you know who every day get up before they want to, rev themselves up with a pot of coffee, and then head off to a job they don’t like, but keep doing that job because they need the money and the status to please or impress other people?”

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, and focused on the psychedelic images that were swirling, red and orange, behind his eyelids as the sun refused to be shut out. Mitch had just described his own life for at least the past five years at LPI. “It’s funny, Mitch, but just about everyone I’ve talked to in the past month has come back to ego as if it were a big wall standing between you and your dreams.”

Mitch leaned forward and rummaged through the remaining rocks, finally picking up an ugly brown one, the biggest of the lot, and placed it atop the cairn. “Worry is the natural state of ego. When you worry about something, it makes you feel important – like if something bad happens to you the universe will somehow be a diminished place. Furthermore, ego is basically lazy; it’s a lot easier to worry about a problem than it is to do the work required to fix the problem, and ego would rather worry than work. Have you ever noticed how, no matter what it is you’re doing, it always seems like there’s something more urgent you should be doing?”

Charlie opened his eyes and smiled. “With the exception of this very moment, that’s been pretty much a chronic situation for my whole life.”

“Put another rock on the cairn, Charlie. That’s just another form of ego-based worry. Ego gains a sense of importance by having so many seemingly urgent things to do. By worrying about your problems all at once, it never has to get around to actually doing anything about them. Ego loves to be in that situation – all worry and no work.”

Charlie shook his head. “You talk about ego as if it’s some sort of alien body. But it’s an essential part of who I am, isn’t it? And isn’t it good to have a strong ego?”

“Of course,” replied Mitch. “Ego is just a word, a construct, to describe a deeper underlying reality. And that reality is often one of inner conflict – as when you try to decide between doing what you think you want to do and what you think other people expect you to do. Boiled down to its essence, it’s the age-old conflict between ego and soul.”

After skipping a rock across the little stream, Mitch screwed the top off his nalgene bottle and took a drink, then laid another of Charlie’s rocks on top of the cairn. “They are always in conflict, ego and soul. When you’re worried and agitated, ego is in control. When you’re at peace and feeling a sense of faith, you know soul is at the wheel.” Mitch had picked up another rock and was tossing it back and forth between his two hands as he spoke. “Ego seeks security; soul seeks adventure. Ego wants things; soul wants experiences. Ego wants friends; soul wants to be a friend. Ego is a hanging on; soul is a letting go. Ego is anxiety; soul is faith.”

Mitch scooped up the remaining rocks from Charlie’s backpack, and laid them at his feet. “Here’s another definition: Worry is an abuse of your imagination. Instead of using your imagination to dream up a beautiful future, you use it to manufacture nightmares – imaging awful things that you don’t want to have happen. Worry is also a wet blanket that suffocates intuition. When you worry, you lose access to your natural-born intuitive intelligence. And worry is the stepchild of anxiety.”

Clenching both hands into fists, Mitch placed one against each temple and made a grinding motion. “Anxiety is an emotional vice. It is the mortal foe of creative thought and decisive action. When you’re full of anxiety, two bad things happen to shut down imagination and intuitive intelligence. First, your perceptions of reality are distorted, as if you are looking at the world, and yourself, through a funhouse mirror. When you’re full of anxiety, problems always seem bigger and more intractable than they really are, and your own resources and strengths seem a lot smaller and more insignificant than they really are.

“The second bad thing that happens is that you simply do not see options that would be available to you if, rather than being filled with worry and anxiety, you were full of faith and confidence. There is always something to worry about, and worry is a natural human condition. The challenge is to replace worrying about problems with thinking about solutions; to replace worrying about future dangers with thinking about how to prevent them. The challenge is to change the subject; to stop worrying about how hard life is, and instead to focus on what you must do to effectively meet the challenges.”

Mitch put the last rock on top of the cairn and brushed the dust from his hands. “That’s quite a respectable little pile we’ve built here, isn’t it? When we start walking again, we’ll leave all of these rocks behind. Maybe they’ll help someone else find the path to equanimity. And maybe, as we walk off, you can leave behind the worries that each one of those rocks represents. You move a lot faster when you travel light!”

“I wish it was that simple,” Charlie replied, staring at the pile of rocks.

“It is that simple,” Mitch said. “Simple, but not easy.” Mitch leaned forward and uncurled his legs, propping his forearms on his knees to lean in Charlie’s direction. “How long have you been down here in the Grand Canyon?”

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. “Same as you, Mitch. About four days.”

“No, Charlie, up until now most of the time we’ve been walking, your mind has been somewhere else.” Mitch laughed and pointed at Charlie. “You’ve been having an extended out-of-body experience! Your body is down here in the Grand Canyon. But your mind is who-knows-where doing who-knows-what. I’ve been down here for four days, but I doubt that you’ve really been here more than about four hours. Am I right?”

Charlie smiled and shook his head. “Guilty as charged.”

“That’s the secret to overcoming worry, Charlie. Keep your mind and your body in the same time zone. Almost all emotional pain is caused by time travel—either guilt, regret and anger from the past or fear and anxiety about the future. When you keep your attention anchored in the present, you can start to break the worry habit. That’s why McZen said to live your dreams before they come true—just in case you never wake up. The images you run through your mind today will profoundly influence the outcomes you get in the future. If you spend a lot of time worrying that your kid will turn into a juvenile delinquent, the worry itself can cause you to act in ways that actually bring it about. On the other hand, if you have faith that your children will turn out fine, even as they go through adolescent rough spots, chances are that’s what will end up happening.”

The two men packed their gear and resumed their trek, leaving behind the cairn piled with Charlie’s worry stones. For several hours, the silence was interrupted only by the crunching of their boots on the rock path and the occasional squawk of a raven. At length Mitch said, “I said that breaking the worry habit was simple but not easy. We’ve covered the simple part – to keep your attention in the present and stop being so concerned about pleasing and impressing other people. If you’d like, I can share with you some of the practical action steps that have helped me break out of the worry habit.”

“I’d like that a lot,” Charlie replied.

“As I said, it’s simple but not easy. You have to discipline yourself. And the first step is to take care of your physical body. Descartes was wrong when he said that mind and body are totally separate; what happens in one profoundly influences the performance of the other. Besides being tired and sore, how have you felt the past few days – I mean emotionally?”

Charlie took a breath and stretched his shoulders back. “Remarkably great!”

“Part of the reason,” said Mitch, “is that you’re taking care of your body’s four essential needs. First is simply to get enough sleep. When you cheat yourself on sleep, your mind is much more prone to worry and anxiety attacks. Out here on the trail, there’s nothing to do after the sun goes down – no TV, no refrigerator, no evening newspaper. So we talk for a while, then go to sleep, at an hour probably much earlier than you’re used to. Am I right?”

“Yep, and you know what? I really haven’t missed those late night TV shows – not even the news. Especially not the news.”

“The second thing you’ve been doing,” Mitch went on, “is getting proper nutrition. You scowled at me when I gave you a baggie full of pills for each day of the trip, but taking that daily dosage of vitamins and minerals has given you greater physical energy, which in turn builds your emotional fortitude.”

“And you know what?” Charlie asked. “Taking those pills really isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.”

“Especially if you take them with water,” Mitch laughed, “and that’s something else that’s very important. Ironically, I’ll bet that out here in the desert environment of the Grand Canyon you’re better hydrated than you are back at home. That’s because we’re paying attention to our water needs, and not filling up on all those caffeinated drinks that get you dehydrated even as they seem to quench your thirst. So the third thing to keep doing when you get back is drinking plenty of water during the day. The fourth thing you’re doing, quite obviously, is getting exercise – probably a lot more than you’re used to getting.”

“Now there’s the understatement of the trip,” laughed Charlie, “although it feels a lot better now that I’m not carrying half the rocks in this canyon in my pack!”

“If you read all the books on how to overcome depression and anxiety,” Mitch continued, “one of the common themes will be to get physical exercise. This is important for two reasons. First, the exercise itself is a safe release for the stress that can create physical and emotional problems. Second, when your body is strong, you’re better able to cope with the daily demands that can seem so stressful.”

They walked on in silence for a while longer, when Mitch stopped and pulled the topographical map out of his pack. “I’m about to demonstrate something else that’s important to controlling your worry, and that is to train your doubt. It’s advice from the great German poet Rilke: doubt can be paralyzing, but you can train it by forcing it to ask good questions. For example, right now I’m looking at what appears to be a trail that will take us south, back up to the top of the rim. Is it Grandview Trail? If it is, then we need to turn here. If it’s not, and we turn here anyway thinking that it is, we could end up in a lot of trouble. So what do we do?”

“Mitch, you’re the guide. Please don’t tell me you’re lost!”

“McZen says that if you don’t have a question, you don’t have a clue; if you’re not searching, you must be lost.”

“Listen, Mitch, right now I couldn’t care less what McZen says. Are we lost?”

“Charlie, your doubt is pushing you toward a panic attack. When you panic, you make bad decisions. You waste vital energy. Train your doubt, and start right now. First, how much water do we have – how long will it last us in a worst case?”

“We just filled the camelback,” Charlie replied, “so we could probably go for several days if we’re careful.”

“Excellent! You’ve just trained your doubt. Instead of creating visions of two desiccated skeletons on the trail, your doubt now knows that we have enough water to make it back to the stream if we need to, and in a worst case we could refill our water containers there and hike back to the trail we came down in the first place. Take a look at the topo map here and tell me if you can approximate where we are, since you know where we started this morning.”

Charlie scrutinized the map and made an educated guess as to their current location. “Not bad,” Mitch responded, “certainly close enough for government work.” Mitch pointed to a spot on the map and said, “This is the trailhead we need to locate to get up on Horseshoe Mesa, which is our stop for tonight. Look around and tell me if you see a structure that has this distinctive shape.”

Charlie pointed to a large structure off to the right. “Very good, Charlie, that’s terrific!”

“You mean I got it right?”

“No, actually you didn’t. But you did point to something that looks a bit like Horseshoe Mesa. Look closer, though. It’s not high enough – you see how Horseshoe Mesa towers above the surrounding terrain on the map here, but what you just pointed to is actually lower than the surrounding structures? How about that?” he continued, pointing to a plateau that was much more distant than what Charlie had been looking at.

Charlie shook his head. “Now I’m really confused.”

“That’s good,” Mitch replied. “Now you can start to learn. You see, two minutes ago you were panicked. One minute ago you thought you knew the answer. Now you’re willing to ask questions. You’re learning to train your doubt.” Mitch showed Charlie how to read the map correctly, and to feel confident when they had located the trail that would lead them out of the canyon. If nothing else, Charlie thought, this trip would give him a whole new appreciation for poets.

“There are three more things that can help you deal more effectively with worry,” Mitch said. “The first is to follow the old advice to prepare for the worst, but expect the best. That’s really what we’ve done on this journey. We are carrying all sorts of first aid supplies that we don’t expect to use, but which could prove life-saving in certain circumstances. We don’t let the fear of being bitten by a snake or breaking an ankle prevent us from enjoying the trip, but know that if it were to happen we have taken all possible steps to deal with it.

“The second is to reprogram your negative and pessimistic thinking patterns. When we get back, I’d like to give you the name of a woman who does hyper-hypnosis. It’s an incredibly intense experience that can help you eradicate negative thought patterns and get out of emotional ruts.

“And the last thing is from another of McZen’s poems. It says when you’re afraid of the future you should concentrate on what you must do right now today, and when you’re afraid of what’s happening today, you should keep your vision on the future. It’s a variation on McZen’s Be Today, See Tomorrow paradox. The secret of happiness is to keep your attention in the present, but the key to success is to keep your vision in the future. How can you do them both at once? I don’t know what the answer is for you, but I do know that to be both happy and successful, that’s exactly what you must do.”

That night, their last in the canyon on this trip, the two men lay out under the stars. There was no moon, and Charlie couldn’t remember ever having seen a more beautiful sky. He’d always believed that whenever he saw a shooting star, it portended good things. That night, the sky seemed to be alive with them. Charlie fell asleep with a smile.

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