Chess piece with a crown

How to win at life - even when you have anxiety

Bill Walsh is one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history. He took the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl and won it. Then he did it again. And again.

His secret? The West Coast offence. A system that involved throwing the ball a short distance very quickly, before the defence had the chance to react.

You might think that this was Walsh's grand plan. But it wasn't. The only reason he developed this system was before he started with a quarterback that could not accurately throw the ball all the way down the field.

Because of the limitation Walsh had, he had to find a different way to win. Because of his, he created an unstoppable force in American football.

What can we learn from this, and how is it relevant to anxiety?

How to beat Anthony Joshua

If you are 170cm tall and weight 60kg, you have to admit that you are never going to beat Anthony Joshua in the boxing ring. He is going to batter you. He is almost two metres tall and weighs over 90kg.

Anthony Joshua
Anthony Joshua shows off his gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics.

You might be able to beat in a game of scarecrow, though, right? He is not going to be nimbly sliding between people's legs anytime soon. Turning your weaknesses into strengths allows you to get the upper hand.

If you have anxiety, there are some predictable feelings you will run into. You may over-think everything, worry that you will fail at everything you try and never be as good as other people.

These feelings do not sound like an advantage. However, if we do a little digging, we may be able to find some.

Greatness comes from surprising places

My singing teacher tried to teach me Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. There was one problem: I could not get my voice low enough for the final line of the chorus.

Cohen had a legendary bass voice. It's not just that you hear him sing: you can feel it through the vibrations. My range is much higher. I have to move the key up when I sing Avril Lavigne.

Leonard Cohen performing his long "Hallelujah" live.

Try as we might, we could not get my voice low enough for the final line. We tried all sorts of exercises, but nothing worked. In desperation, my teacher decided we should try an octave jump. This is where you jump up 12 notes in one go: moving from say C to the C is a higher octave. She had been working with one of her other students in this for weeks. I managed it on the first attempt.

It sounds awesome. But think about what happened here: we would never have discovered this if I had been able to do it the correct way in the first place. It was the need to find another way that produced a better result.

What challenges can we expect?

As anxiety sufferers, there are some predictable challenges we Wil have to face. That does not mean we can never improve. But it does mean they are unlikely to be one of our strengths.

Purpose & vision: some entrepreneurs set a vision for themselves and never question it again. Not so for us. We find ourselves constantly asking if we have made the right decision. We rarely feel that we have a destiny and regularly doubt ourselves.

Worrying: making a decision and sticking with it is tough when you have anxiety. We find ourselves constantly reconsidering, stressing and going over the facts in case we have missed anything.

Decision making: I have previously written about how emotion affects our decision-making abilities. If your anxiety only appears at certain times, that is no problem. However, for most of us, there is always a nagging feeling. That means our decision making is, on some level, affected by our anxiety.

Networking: you know those people who can walk into a room, talk to everyone and come away with a hundred new friends? You hate them too, right? I'm jealous. For those of us who feel uncomfortable in social situations and worry about what others think of us, networking is going to be a hard topic.

Risk-taking: there is one word for business people who put everything they have on the line: crazy! They are the insane people. The chances are that we are not going to be comfortable with that level of risk.

Turning weakness into strength

At first, these might all seem like disadvantages. However, in many scenarios, they can be advantages.

Take risk-taking, for example. It might seem like successful people take huge risks and are rewarded for doing so. But we never heard about all the people who took a huge risk and failed.

Equally, look at vision. Having a vision is important. However, as Eric Reis stressed in The Lean Startup, it is important to know when to pivot on an idea that is not working.

So, weaknesses can be strengths, too. But even if they do prevent us from succeeded in a typical way, is there a different way we can find to win?

How to find a different way

Remember that Bill Walsh did not develop the West Coast offence because he thought it would be better. He did it because he was forced to find a way to overcome his disadvantages.

How can we apply this to the challenges that anxiety raises?

We are forced to ask ourselves "is there a better Way?" Let's look at decision making. We could ask other people and listen to what they have to say. All the evidence suggests that diverse range of opinions improves decision making.

Or, how about using data to make a decision? Marketing and medicine are two subjects that used to be done on gut feeling. Then, someone came along and realised that if we used evidence to make decisions, we would get far better results.

Both of these approaches produce superior results to just making it up as you go along. However, you may only think of doing it this way if you were worried about your decision making and asking yourself if you can do it better.

We cannot predict the exact challenges we will face, or the solutions we will find to them. However, we can adopt the attitude that we will try to find a different way.

But will it work?

More often than we might expect. Remember that anxiety is a memory disorder: it gives us a negative bias of our experience. It fails to remember the times we were successful and prioritises the stories about how we failed. This is not an accurate representation of the world.


As anxiety sufferers, we will face challenges that other people do not. When we do, there are two options for how we respond to it. We can give up, or we can ask ourselves "is there a different way to do this?"

When we ask ourselves this question, we force ourselves to be creative. We have to think outside the box. Sometimes, when we go through this process, we come up with something that is even better than the old way.

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Published 27 November 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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