I’ve just finished reading a rather marvelous new book, The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023). It’s written by a woman named Morra Aarons-Mele, who wrote the book while going through a mental health crisis generated by her own high-anxiety state. “I was stuck in a nightmare loop of thought traps,” she writes about the low point. “Every thought I had was scary… My mind lived in catastrophe.”
Anxiety seems to be everywhere these days. The rise in remote working, for example, has left many people disconnected from real human contact in the workplace—leaving them too much time to live in their heads and fall into the trap of mercilessly second-guessing themselves. Conversely, of course, others find the in-person workplace an intensely anxiety-provoking place. Even the smallest interaction can give rise to painful post-match analysis; even the most innoucuous comment from a colleague can get parsed for negative implication.
So many aspects of working life are fraught with anxiety. It should be enough that one is getting up and putting in a day’s productive labour. But in a rapidly changing economy few get to enjoy the feeling that their futures are professionally or financially future-proofed. And even for those who are financially secure, the spectres of unfulfilled vocational potential, imposter syndrome or personal inauthenticity are never quite banished.
One of the great points Aarons-Mele makes in The Anxious Achiever is that anxiety is, almost by definition, the price one pays for ambition.
Why might this be?
Well, think about what these two modes—anxiety and ambition—have in common: a pronounced future orientation. Neither allows you to rest easy in the givens of the here and now. Both make your brain shift its focus relentlessly to what may lie ahead. This has the result that a psychological state of restlessness is generated on an ongoing basis.
It seems to me that this commonality between anxiety and ambition gives us a valuable insight into the source of and, in many cases, solution to our anxiety.
What if you were to take your work-related anxiety and reframe it as a symptom of your blocked ambition?
I once had a client who came to me chronically stressed and anxious about his academic career. He didn’t yet have tenure as a Humanities lecturer, and all his thoughts were fixated on this issue. He would obsesssively think through the moves on the chess board that would need to happen for him to attain tenure. Or more accurately: he thought obsessively about the fact that most of the moves on the chess board were beyond his control. Yes, he could do all the right things (publishing papers, etc.), but in the end he knew that a full permanent appointment would ultimately come down to a combination of luck and politics. Yuk.
We spent quite some time exploring the ins and outs of the thing. But then, pretty unexpectedly, the breakthrough came. I asked him, ‘What do you feel when you look at the tenured academics around you?’ ‘Oh,’ he smiled, ‘A mixture of envy and… well, contempt.’ Without missing a beat, he launched into a spontaneous critique of what he saw as the dismally hollow life of a full-time lecturer in today’s academic landscape.
It turned out that the poor fellow had been driving himself crazy with anxiety over a goal that was actually incompatible with his real ambition: for a meaning-filled life of intellectual activity and creativity.
Another way of saying the same thing: the intensity of his anxiety over tenure was actually an alienated expression of his frustrated ambition for something very different to the life of a tenured academic.
To say the same thing a third way: his biggest fear was of actually ARRIVING at the destination he had made the be all and the end all.
With some careful analysis of his true drivers, we identified a new vocational path that would be more in line with his talents and values. He now looks back at the anxiety he went through with great gratitude: it was his ambition in alienated form, telling him something different to what he thought it was telling him. It wasn’t saying, ‘Do more to become an insider here’. It was saying, ‘Get the hell out’.
Now your situation may be very different. But—and here’s the point—if you are experiencing an uncomfortable level of anxiety, try to uncover the positive ambition whose blockage may be giving rise to the anxiety in the first place. Take even the most basic case of anxiety-provoking work: you don’t enjoy working your stressful job. The ambition behind this is simple: ‘I want to do a job I enjoy.’ Whatever your anxiety, you need to turn the coin over to find the positive desire that is on the flip side.
Think about it.
[Image credit: Christian Erfurt]