Most people are not relaxed. One out of two people in the US will consider suicide this year.
But I can’t really speak for most people. I will speak for myself. I’m generally a calm person, but the other day I was very nervous.
I was invited to hear Rand Paul speak at a small informal meeting. Various well-known venture capitalists, investors, and CEOs were there. About a dozen. I knew about half the people and at least one had publicly trashed me at some point in the past few years—even though we had never met before.
We were supposed to have some questions for Rand Paul, but I had zero questions. There’s basically no issue I felt that strongly about, and I have no interest in politics.
We were also supposed to have a one-line bio ready. I have no one-line bio, nor do I aspire to have one.
So why go? I thought it would be an interesting experience and it would take me ever so slightly outside of my comfort zone. I like to do that at least once a day. Stretch the boundaries—kind of like if you try to touch your toes each day. You get closer and closer until you can touch your toes, thus improving your flexibility.
But I was nervous. Nervous about Rand Paul. Nervous about the people I was intimidated by. Nervous to meet the guy who trashed me. Nervous that I didn’t have any questions or a bio or anything interesting to say at all. I thought everyone would regret that I was invited.
This was three days ago. I worried, despite the fact that I have spent every day for at least the past five years working on my ability to remain calm in the face of stressful situations.
The reality is: we’re all mammals in the jungle. And mammals feel nervous and stressed—often for survival reasons—even if no good reason exists. If you were in the jungle by yourself at night and heard a strange rustling in the bushes, the correct impulse might be to get nervous and run as fast as possible—even if there is nothing in the bushes.
So don’t judge yourself for your nervousness. It’s ok.
Here’s what I do to get myself less nervous and more calm:
Instead of saying “I’m nervous,” I say “I’m feeling nervous” or even better, “I’m noticing I’m feeling nervous.”
Distancing requires practice. The good thing is: there are plenty of opportunities to practice distancing.
Pretty soon, you realize your consciousness and your nervousness are two completely different things. This means that you don’t have to fight your nervousness, and it also means your nervousness doesn’t define you. This way, you can appear—and be—calm even if internally you notice you are feeling nervous.
Before a talk I often get nervous. In fact, I’ll get nervous if I don’t get nervous, because I want to have stress hormones fully activating my brain.
That said, I don’t like to be too scared. So right before I go on stage I mentally “separate” myself. There’s me, and then there’s “mini-me.” Mini-me is the nervous part of me. He’s usually smaller, a little younger, a little uglier (hard to believe), and sort of sniveling.
I comfort him. I say hello to him. He’s the nervous me. He will follow me onto the stage, but he’s not me.
I don’t know why or how this happens, but when I’m walking up onto the stage, followed by mini-me, I feel an enormous surge of energy and happiness. Maybe it’s like a runner’s high once I’ve separated myself from mini-me. I don’t know.
But it works.
3. Live life like everyone else is going to die
Here’s what I know from statistics:
I’ve been alive for about 15,000 days, give or take. On none of those days have I died. So I can make the deduction that I’m probably never going to die. Or, at least, who knows?
But I’ve seen a lot of other people die. Dying seems rampant. An epidemic. Everyone seems to die.
For everyone I meet, I assume they’re going to die tomorrow. If I meet you, and I think you’re going to die tomorrow, I’m less worried about what you think of me. You’re basically a dead man walking.
But I will treat you with compassion. The angel of death is right beside you, and you can’t even see her. I will treat you as someone deserving the greatest memorial.
Let’s go back to the example of when I was invited to this meeting.
I was very nervous. But once I noticed I was nervous (see “Distancing” above), I was able to stop myself and say, “I’m really grateful I was invited to this.” Better to be invited than not. Better to be invited to speak at an event than not. Better to be invited to meet people who can help you or who you can help than not.
We are herd animals, and it’s better to be invited to participate in the herd than to be left on the edges where predators can catch us.
This is all to say that nervousness is often a signal that gratitude is called for.
Let’s say you are late for a meeting because of traffic. Now you are nervous. Or you can be grateful. Grateful that you live in a city that is crowded because everyone else wants to be here because of the plentiful opportunities.
Nervousness can always be turned into gratitude. Nervous on a first date? Be grateful that you might meet the love of your life.
5. Nothing matters
Go into a bookstore. There are 10,000 books on the shelves. Most will never be read by anyone.
Most of those books took years to write. Took a lifetime to write. And yet they are basically useless.
And, even worse, in a few hundred million years it’s a definite fact that even the most outstanding of legacies and ideas will be nothing more than dust on the outer fringes of the dreams of the universe.
The best result in life is that you expand your comfort zone and learn something. This gives you a small chance to have a slightly greater legacy.
Some things are scary. If the police show up at your door, that’s scary. If the IRS sends you a letter, that’s scary.
If the doctor says, “I have some bad news,” that’s scary.
But even then, you want to separate out your nervousness from your true, calm self so you can make the best decisions.
You want to be healthy so that a stressful situation doesn’t make you sick. You want to be around people who love and support you so they can help you. You want to be good at coming up with ideas on how to handle scary situations.
It’s ok to be nervous. That’s the first arrow. The first arrow can wound you.
But being nervous about being nervous is the second arrow. The second arrow can kill you.
Live with us for another day. Another hour. Another second. Nothing is so important the nervousness can’t be postponed for one more second.