Superpowers, Stress, Ben Franklin’s Nails

“I’m not stressed beyond the stress induced by telling you how stressed I am.” – House

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The Boy took this selfie.  Not sure what he was upset about.  Maybe it was the stock market? 

I think too much.  I know, I know, it hurts.  The Mrs. tells me I should just relax and not think so much.  But perhaps my superpower is that I think about the future, so to not think about the future would be like Superman® not flying or Aquaman™ not . . . talking to fish, or whatever it is that he does.

To me, the future is a set of probabilities, branching at intervals.  And what I can do is imagine branches from decisions in the past reaching into the future, starting at the single, solid limb of now, and moving forward, getting smaller, as larger probabilities stay thicker, but smaller possibilities branch out into tiny limbs.

The tiny limbs are real, though, and they represent things that can happen based upon both the choices made today as well as some element of chance (either random or not).

As we’ve discussed in the past, Taleb taught us that all probabilities and all risks aren’t equal (LINK).  And Seneca said it’s always easier for things to come crashing down than to hold them together (LINK).

 

But we are active in creating our future.  I can place myself (mentally) in that future to understand what that situation looks like.  I can imagine a future where I cooked a cherry pie.  I can then map it out and see what I can do now to make a better then.  Like buy whipped cream for the top.  And I can imagine a future where we’ve all forgotten about Warrant:

Is it wrong that sometimes I sing the lyrics “She’s a hairy guy?”  I swear this isn’t about Jenner.

My Superpower is a little like chess, but with more showering than the last chess tournament I was in.  Also, the variables are not as well-known as chess, but in most cases I’ve done really well with at work and at life with this ability, though I cannot yet hover or make adamantium claws spring out from my knuckles, which would be even better superpowers than fish-talking.

But when we finally get to a decision point, most of the time it’s like coming home to a place I’d already been on my imaginary branch so I’m generally not surprised.

One advantage to this power is that I look at the risks around me on a regular basis and try to figure out ways around them, measures that mitigate them, or better yet, insurance that I can get that allows someone else to take the risk (insurance is not always an Allstate® product, sometimes it’s a contract where somebody else owns a risk, which can often be gotten for asking).

Of the things I do at work (besides being snarky and obscure), this is probably the best one.  Way better than my coffee consumption skill, though I’ve been told that’s legendary.

And frankly, I like the pressure when the ball is in my hand and I have the ability to think, to perform and to achieve.  I like the odds on me performing well, because I think like this:

 Diz ſagent uns die wîſen, ein nagel behalt ein îſen, ein îſen ein ros, ein ros ein man, ein man ein burc, der ſtrîten kan.

-Freidank (Which is a dude’s name.) via Wikipedia

I know, a knee-slapper, right?

The English version of that is:

The wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a man, a man a castle, that can fight. – Now a translated Freidank, still via Wikipedia

And, know that Freidank lived in 1230 A.D., long before Ben Franklin collected a version in his book “The Way to Wealth” that most of us are more familiar with:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

Thinking this way is stressful, but not the bad kind of stress, but rather the excitement, the exhilaration of having a real problem, a meaningful problem to be solved.  Are there exciting challenges?  Sure!  Are there horrible, frustrating setbacks?  Also, sure.  But when everything comes together and we light up the cigars to celebrate, it more than makes up for anything “stressful” along the way.

A Stanford® professor (LINK) has been doing research and agrees.  “Good” stress is . . . not bad for you, and, in fact, may help you perform at your peak.  It’s a challenge.

That same article noted that stress was bad mainly if you thought it was bad.  If you thought it was okay, exciting, just a challenge?  It tended to not have the bad long-term consequences we associated with stress: the heart attacks, the stress hormones, the late night peanut butter and tuna sandwiches, etc.

But for me, the downside of this thinking was still this thinking.

I can see bad things.

My job (in many cases) has been literally looking at the worst case and pulling back from there.  I once looked at tornado frequency in the Midwest, and made a half-hearted attempt to quantify the likelihood of civil war changing our government (this was only for about six months of my career, but it was an interesting six months).  Since that was my job and I got paid to do it, it tended to bleed over into home life, so I thought about worst case scenarios even when I was off the clock, and related them to myself and my family.  The upside?  The last time we needed duct tape, paracord, a socket set, and a knife on a family trip (this really happened) we had it in the emergency kit in the trunk.  I only wish I had packed the goatskin – we could have used that.

So I think.  It used to be worst at night when I was ready to go to sleep.  The possibilities would branch out and I would end up going down decision/probability trees (of my own personal life) and, being night and all, often end up in some dark places.  I’d start with, say, needing to pay the mortgage, and then end up penniless and panhandling to pay for new shingles after a storm that never happened.  Yeah.  Silly.  Now I play the radio so other people think and I can listen – it distracts me so I don’t end up on paranoid rabbit trails.

The downside of this is that thinking down chains of causation, I used to build up a big amount of worry in a hurry about personal stuff.  It’s not that I’m scared of the future, it’s that the future can be so uncertain – understanding that a risk exists doesn’t tell you very much about the risk.  For that, experience and mathematics are key, but we’ll have that on a Monday post some week.

One thing leads to another, and I ended up with?  Stress.

Not the good kind.  I’d worry about aspects of my future that were difficult to control.  Research indicates that the key to removal of stress in life is having control.  In psychological speak, believing that most outcomes depend on things that you can do and control is called an “internal locus of control” and is just a fancy way to show that you like having the ball in your hands on a 4th and five with 30 seconds left on the clock.  You believe you control your own outcomes.

So I turned parts of that into challenges.  I challenged myself to have enough money so that I didn’t have to worry about next week’s mortgage, or even next year’s mortgage.  I took my money stress and put it in my hands, and thankfully had the opportunities to make sufficient money that I’m not scared about tomorrow.  I did my best to take what was a (bad) stress and turn it into a good pressure to achieve.

Tough times along the way?  Yeah.  But way more wins than losses.

I think that’s why it’s exhilarating to quit a job – it’s the ultimate demonstration of control when you can move to a situation where you think you’ll be happier.

I think that (in part) is what Jordan Peterson means (LINK) when he says “clean your room” – take control of some facet of your own life so that you feel you’re able to fix your own situation before you burn out.

I’ve switched from being fixated at looking down long dark halls and now I see the light coming in from the side rooms.  And I like to think that I take some time to play there – because on a long enough timeline, all of our mortality rates are 1.0.

And I’m committed to taking control and ownership of my issues.  Like Mark Twain said, “Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe.”  And, as I noted on an earlier post, that’s at least part of what keeps me writing.  I’m taking control, taking the garbage out, and making sure I have enough nails.

Somebody might need that horse after all.  Better yet?

Let’s saddle up Ben.

For heaven’s sake, if you’re really stressed out, go see a doctor, not an Internet humorist!

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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