Skip to content

The Anxiety Formula

3 min

Better Questions is supported by readers like you. If you get value from my writing, consider becoming a supporting member. Exclusive content, weekly deep-dives, free beta access to future courses, and more. Thanks.


Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness.

This formulation comes to us from Dan Nicholson by way of Chip Conley, and it's been a useful one.

Anxiety can feel free-floating, amorphous, everywhere, and nowhere all at once.

Since it can be all-pervasive it's hard to know what to do about it. It seems to seep out of our pores. It gets in the rug.

Conley's formula opens up a way of addressing these uncomfortable feelings.

If anxiety is a function of uncertainty ("what's going to happen?") and powerlessness ("I won't be able to handle it")...

...confidence is a matter of certainty ("I'm sure I'll be fine") and power ("...and I can fix things if not.")

How do we increase our certainty and power?

Increasing Certainty

Certainty comes from removing volatility. Volatility emerges from variability and dependency (i.e., random fluctuations in one part of a system impact how the other parts perform).

From the post Three Demons:

Without variability, the world would be predictable. What happened yesterday would happen today.
Without dependency, the world would be mostly predictable. We'd have a range of possibilities to choose from, but events would be isolated, and change would be localized.
With both variability and dependency, all bets are off. Reality emerges from the interplay between the two.
Even the simplest possible arrangements lead to complex results.

Though 100% certainty is never possible, we can gain a great deal of certainty by reducing the number of dependencies we carry.

Can you create a system in which fewer things need to go right for you to be successful?

Can you create a lifestyle in which you need fewer things for you to be happy?

The less that needs to go right, the more likely you are to end up with a positive result.

Increasing Power

Power is a measure of your ability to successfully affect the world around you.

If you can change the world in line with your goals, you have power. If you can't, you don't.

The wellspring of all forms of worldly power is power over the self.

If you can change yourself in line with your goals, you have power. If you can't, you don't.

To increase your power, find the places in your life where your actions do not align with your intentions.

Find the areas in which you rationalize, excuse, and explain away your shortcomings.

Then, stop.

Stop rationalizing, stop excusing, stop explaining.

Either accept your failures forever or fix them - for good.

Fix one thing at a time. Don't rush - don't race to the finish line. Choose your destination and take one small step towards it, consistently, proving to yourself all along the way that you can.

Once you've done this, take things up a notch. Make things a tiny bit harder, a tiny bit more difficult.

Execute consistently, proving to yourself all along the way that you can.

Then do it again.

And again.

And again.

As your power over yourself grows, so will your power over the world.

Your ability to affect change.

Your resilience to criticism.

Your confidence in your abilities.

Your knowledge of your deepest self.

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness.

If you remove your dependencies, shield yourself from volatility and increase certainty...

If you remove your weaknesses, prove your strength, and increase power...

...You will naturally find your anxieties drifting away.

No one can take this certainty from you, because it emerges from within; it requires nothing other than what you already possess.

That's where certainty comes from.




BQ Reader Harrison shared this excellent piece on the impact of the ultrasound on our ethics of personhood.

Do we gain access to a particular sort of being that previously lay hidden from us, when we look at an ultrasound of a foetus? That is, is the foetus “delivered” already in the image of it, brought into the human realm in a way that makes it at least difficult to send it back afterwards to the realm of the merely pre-human? Or, rather, do we “see through” the ultrasound in the sense of “seeing right through” it, past the being some people take it to disclose, and into our own future lives, the continuation of our autobiographies, with or without it?

Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.