On Fear

Dear fellow Hoyas,

Over two decades ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I was in my 20s at the time, and I would like to share with you how I have learned to deal with uncertainty.

Uncertainty as we all know produces fear.  A common reason for this fear is the tendency we have in the absence of certainty to imagine worst-possible scenarios.  For me, fear shows up in two ways.  One is concrete, and the other is general.  Concrete fear is helpful.  I recognize it because it moves me to act productively.  Over the years, it has motivated me to eat well and keep my doctors’ appointments.  More recently, fear has moved me to stay on top of the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to prepare my family for social distancing, and if necessary, sheltering in place.

General fear, on the other hand, feels more like I’m circling the drain.  It produces lots of spinning, but no helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) moves.  When I notice it, I know now to address it using one of the following approaches.

The first is to pay attention to my thoughts.  If I am imagining worst-case scenarios, for example, I try to remind myself of all the times I have worried and nothing bad has happened.  My great-uncle used to say that people are terribly one-sided.  We suffer in anticipation of bad outcomes, yet we rarely celebrate in anticipation of good ones, even when the odds are similar.

When questioning my fears doesn’t work, I shift to acceptance.  I experience feelings as having both a mental and a physical component.  When I am afraid, for example, I get a knot in my stomach.  If I stop what I am doing and focus all of my attention on the physical sensation (rather than the subject of my fear), the sensation passes.  Typically, it grows and then fades in less than a minute as long as I don’t try to interrupt or control it.

Lastly, when these strategies don’t work, I turn to distraction.  Centuries ago, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about our natural capacity for distraction.  We’re really good at it, and in times like these, we may as well use it to our benefit.  If you have work, then work.  If you’ve been putting off learning a hobby, use the extra time now to develop it.  If neither of these appeals to you, do something that feels more generative.  My distraction these days is to enjoy funny videos sent by my family in Spain.  They are finding ways to laugh and that is a salve.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we are all going through this together.  We don’t have to wonder why somebody is having a hard day, and instead of reacting, we can respond with understanding and care.

May you be well,

Yolanda Ruisánchez Gruendel (L’95)

Collecting No’s

Tonight’s homework: collecting no’s.

First, I must give credit where credit is due.  Joe Scafidi (B’95) casually mentioned the concept of “collecting no’s” when I ran into him an a Hoya networking event. I was immediately and enthusiastically intrigued. In fact, I think I might have scared him with how I reacted to this little exercise. It’s brilliant on so many levels.  It’s a short experiment in human nature and social behavior, but one that has daily implications.

The concept is this: ask people for things. See what they say.  And you’ll probably be surprised how often the answer is yes. Ask a stranger for an umbrella.  A professor for an extension on a deadline. Ask your boss to leave early.  Ask someone for career advice.  The only rules are you can’t ask the same person twice and each ask must be different.  What you typically learn is that very rarely is the answer no and that everything can be a negotiation.  The question is, how many asks do you need to make in order to get 10 no’s? Probably more than you think.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Just ask.  Someone once told me that FEAR stands for “False Expectations About Risk.” Many times we assume the answer is no before we even ask so we don’t even bother.
  • We all want to be liked. Human nature general seeks to please (or at least makes us feel like it’s socially unacceptable to say no).  This works in your favor when you are the one asking, but also provides lessons for those of us who can’t say no to the barrage of requests that abound daily.  The fact is, it’s often easier for people to say yes than to risk conflict and if the ask is in the future it’s easy to say yes in the present.
  • It’s all about the negotiation.  Things are rarely as black and white as “yes” and “no.” How do you get to the place of “yes” by understanding the needs and wants of the other party?  If you’re really negotiating there isn’t a “winner” or “loser,” you both walk away happy.
  • It’s all in how you ask. How can you ask in a way that makes it even tougher to say no?

And some implications:

  • The good news: When it comes to career networking and reaching out to acquaintances and strangers for advice, this is great news. People will probably say yes more often than they say no.  If there is a mutual connection (friend, alma mater, etc.) I would venture to guess that this increases the likelihood of yes.
  • The bad news: When it comes to our own time management and work/life balance this tendency toward yes works against us.  We over commit and wonder why we are stressed and exhausted.

Let us know how your “collecting no’s” goes!  Tweet us at #GUCollectNos