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Why Feeling Anxious Is Good for Your Career

Right now, there are people in this industry who feel about as settled as someone who has been continuously downing triple Caffè Americanos and is sitting in one of the rooms the people from the TV show “Most Haunted” would visit.

Right now, there are people in this industry who feel about as settled as someone who has been continuously downing triple Caffè Americanos and is sitting in one of the rooms the people from the TV show “Most Haunted” would visit. To say they are anxious would be to understate things. But how many of those people are in this state of hyperjitteriness specifically because they’ve been insufficiently anxious? Perhaps more than you might imagine.

As Robert H. Rosen writes in Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success (Portfolio; 247 pp.; $24.95), “anxiety is a fact of life.” Despite that, people try to avoid it or allow themselves to be overwhelmed by it. Why? He explains, “I believe the problem lies with our faulty thinking. It goes something like this: Change and uncertainty make me anxious. Anxiety is bad, a sign of weakness. Therefore, I have to avoid change and uncertainty. I have to do whatever I can to avoid anxiety.” But because of that, people don’t develop in the manner that is beneficial. That’s right: beneficial. Not to be anxious to the level of being overwhelmed. But a state that Rosen calls “just enough anxiety.” The consequences of not being in that state can have bad effects on one’s career, as well as on the careers of those who are associated with them.

According to Rosen, “Leaders without just enough anxiety put their companies at risk. If they have too little anxiety, they run away from uncertainty and change, eventually becoming complacent and losing out to the competition. Their lack of anxiety gives people a false sense of security and fails to inspire continuous innovation. If they have too much anxiety, they are unable to manage change and uncertainly and soon become frozen in fear. Their excessive anxiety breeds chaos and confusion, lowers productivity, and destroys morale.” Could it be said, for example, that some people in the auto industry could have used a bit more anxiety vis-à-vis oil supplies? Might a certain level of anxiety led to alternatives that could be deployed in a manner that would be a little bit less frenetic than some of the closings and layoffs that have been announced lately?

Essentially, the just-enough state is one in which there is the current state of affairs (a.k.a., reality) and a place where one wants to get. Note well: wants to get. There is a gap in between. That gap makes one anxious. That’s just how it is. But by recognizing and understanding this—which is the point of the book—a person is able to move beyond that gap to where she or he wants to be. That’s how progress is created.

One interesting aspect of the book is that it opens with a profile of Ford CEO Alan Mulally, whom Rosen cites as an example of a man who understands the importance of “just enough anxiety.” Presumably since the interview with Mulally was conducted and the book was written, the amount of anxiety that Mulally is facing is perhaps more than enough.