Agility vs. Anxiety

Lessons from a fellow human trying to make it in today’s workforce.

Learn, invent, evolve, turn on a dime, re-invent yourself, repeat. It might sound like a familiar process, whether you already live it, or are striving to become the person that everyone wants to hire these days. This continually shifting reality of what it means to be a valuable team member is far from what humans are naturally drawn to. We gravitate toward the familiar and the secure — we’d rather build stronger and stronger bonds with what we know than take on something new.

We gravitate toward the familiar and the secure — we’d rather build stronger and stronger bonds with what we know than take on something new.

What happens to the human body when the most valued skill is the ability to always shift, despite our instincts to settle? Here’s my account of what that uncomfortable process feels like, what it took for me to come to terms with it, and what happened once I did.

“Pfff. School isn’t real”

I don’t know about you, but I f* miss school. I miss neatly sectioned periods of time where I know what’s expected of me, what success looks like, and gym class. I miss course outlines that tell me exactly what’s up, and textbooks that contain all the knowledge I need for the next semester.

School, for me, was a validation dispenser. When I left and set sail for the rest-of-my-life, I was confident. Heck, how could I not be with my honours degree and resume filled with extracurriculars and recommendation letters? I had milked all the privilege and opportunities that my parents bestowed on me, had very limited exposure to homophobia, admission to a master’s program and the promise of financial support if it meant I was working toward something meaningful.

I’m that coddled over-achiever that school was made for.

Luckily, I have an Achilles’ heel. It’s that, even as a 12-year-old kid, no matter how well I put my shit together, no matter how cushy and well-decorated my day-to-day is, my anxiety tells me to kill myself every now and then.

It’s a pretty terrifying experience each time. I’ve learned to reach out to the few people that I know care about me in their lives. Sometimes it lasts a couple hours, days or on and off for months. Anxiety is a complicated thing to confront, but I’m lucky to have it because it has brought me lessons from life itself about what it should feel like to make it out in the real world.

“Do what you love!”

There’s a whole lot of photos out there on Instagram of people living beautiful lives. People professionally baking healthy donuts, travelling in a van with their dog, having fashionable babies and climbing mountains. It’s a constant game of comparison in our hyper-connected world and we’re feeling more far apart than ever. Anxiety (as you’ve probably already heard by now) is an epidemic.

People professionally baking healthy donuts, travelling in a van with their dog, having fashionable babies and climbing mountains.

Not long ago, while struggling to pass through a panic attack, I dragged myself onto the metro. As I looked around me at the others on the car, something special happened. I left my body like on the Magic School Bus and peeked inside the consciousness of these other humans. I saw the stories of how they got out of bed today to do their things too, how they might not be having a great time either, how they’re doing their best.

That was the first time I felt unconditional compassion. As a result, I tapped into feeling that compassion for myself and, standing there, eyes burning from previous hours of tears, I connected with an unforgettable sense of belonging and freedom.

Comparing yourself to the framed and filtered images endlessly streaming on screen is a toxic thing to do to your sense of integrity. It not only stimulates an anxious chatter of admiration/jealousy, it robs you from a state of true boredom that, until only recently, was much more common in humans. You used to have to deal with lows in stimulation, with silence aside from the voice inside your head. Today, by scrolling to your heart’s (dis)content, you don’t talk to your own soul anymore or listen to what it might already be shouting at you.

There’s a good reason why the top regret of the dying is the failure to have lived a life true to yourself. But, this brings me to my next lesson.

“Life’s a bitch”

As much as I’m always worried that I’m not doing what makes me happy, I never learned to let life suck sometimes. So, whenever it did, because I’m no longer in my full-time academic utopia where I know how to succeed, my anxious brain turns on and screams, “IF THIS IS LIFE THEN DON’T DO IT ANYMORE.”

As someone who never really experienced being stuck doing something — like both working and studying full-time or dealing with homophobic people in my family — I lack survivor qualities. Failure is something I take too personally, and I don’t cope well with the unknown.

Failure is something I take too personally, and I don’t cope well with the unknown.

In school, success and time are measurable and there is always the dependable summer break. At work, success is not only measured by your deliverables, it’s measured by the impact you’re having on your team and the excitement you feel when you wake up in the morning in general. Time is parsed out into quarters, but you’re never really done achieving. It’s a matter of perpetually taking on responsibilities that you haven’t mastered and evolving alongside them. To master agility, you must master the cycle of feeling insecure, panicking and questioning your value, but then prove to yourself that you’ll do what it takes to get the job done.

Two years of the most frequent and dark panic attacks I’ve ever lived through have finally taught me the one lesson to rule them all (for now): I’ll never defeat my anxiety because it is an essential step in the learning process. Rather, I’ll expect it and document each time I challenge the fear and conquer a goal, so that, when I’m back in that dark place, betrayed by my own consciousness, I have tangible proof that it was worth sticking around when this happened last time.

That’s what agility means to me — the ability to immerse myself in my fears and get comfortable with them. It’s the opposite of anxiety, of fight or flight, it’s to continue, to resist. The reward for repeatedly undergoing such a gruelling and unnatural process? Incredible personal growth, humility and compassion equally for others as for myself. In my opinion, given these particular benefits of dealing with agility, the current generation of workers has the potential to be connected to each other on a human-to-human level. We’ll be united in our day-to-day uncertainty, and that, to me, could be the beginning of our freedom.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.