The Formula for Anxiety

The magnitude of anxiety seems to be equal to the delta between expectations and self-assessment.

That means there are two variables to work on to reduce anxiety. Expectations and assessment.

On the expectations front, sometimes it helps to step back and remind yourself that you owe nothing to anyone, status in the eyes of others is a distraction, and there are really only a few things that matter.

It’s good to have expectations that exceed current reality. The discomfort it creates is the necessary impetus for action and progress, without which life is really depressing. But expectations can’t be so far out of reach that they leave you hopeless.

Self assessment is a bit trickier. Trying to believe you are closer to your expectations is tough. The old positive thinking stuff doesn’t work very well. Just telling yourself you are good isn’t super effective if your subconscious doesn’t believe it. Your inner self needs evidence along with intention. One of the best ways to raise your self assessment is to pair positive thoughts with small tangible accomplishments. Just bite sized bits of progress along the dimension of who you want to be.

Reducing the gap between expectations and self assessment is the key to anxiety reduction.

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Bojangles vs. Bureaucracy

I swung into Bojangles this morning for a box of hot chicken and biscuits.

When I realized the meal I ordered didn’t come with quite enough for everyone, I went back to buy a few extra biscuits. The woman at the counter waved my credit card off and said, “I got you honey”, and added a few biscuits free of charge.

The error was mine, but she easily and gladly bore the cost and made sure I was happy.

I’m also dealing with the SC dept of revenue this week. Some clerical error has them believing that all of the 2017 revenue for Praxis was to me personally, and that I owe unpaid taxes on it. I can show them articles of incorporation, bank documents, and every other proof that it was company income which was taxed and reported already, but since some form two years ago had improperly been tied to me, they can’t just fix it. It’s still unclear whether the mistake was on me, them, or Intuit Quickbooks. But even though the rep there knows it’s not correct, she’s powerless. I can show her stuff but she can’t undo the paperwork. I could offer her money to fix it and she still couldn’t.

Unlike the Bojangles employee, the woman working for the bureaucracy has no agency. She has no ability to read the situation, adjust, and do the simple thing that gets the spirit of the law right despite errors in the letter.

This is what drives people to madness when dealing with bureaucracy. They aren’t dealing with humans or common sense or decency or logic.

Bojangles is better than the government. Why? Competition. Voluntary entry and exit. The need to win customer dollars instead of take them with armed agents.

That’s it. All the other stuff emerges out of that ugly fact.

Bojangles doesn’t throw you in a cage if you don’t buy their product. Government does.

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Kids Aren’t Stupid

A bunch of people are clamoring to ban vaping, ostensibly because young people are doing it and it’s bad for their health.

Young people aren’t stupid. They know it’s not good for their health. Neither are sugar, caffeine, alcohol, sitting around all day, or school. Driving a car dramatically increases chance of death or injury. They know all this too. And, just like all humans, they choose a level of risk they are comfortable with.

If you ban one form of risk, they’ll make it up with another. People tend toward their acceptable risk level. See the Peltzman Effect.

I tend to think kids do things like sneak off to smoke or vape or drink alcohol in part because they have so little freedom. They are force-fed through a prison-like school system their entire lives. Even using the bathroom freely is prohibited. So they look for ways to flex their freedom. When productive ways aren’t on the table – say skipping school to create YouTube videos – they go to the more dangerous or destructive stuff. In fact, the more self-proclaimed authorities tell them something is bad, the more attractive it becomes as a form of maintaining and expressing some small sliver of freedom and rebellion.

I’m particularly surprised by the concern over vaping. Kids mostly do it out in the open. Its negative effects seem fairly mild compared to most risky youth activities. When it’s banned, it gets pushed to the shadows, where other shadowy stuff is also going on. This is not a preferable situation if your concern is for kids well-being.

Kids aren’t stupid. Your busybody efforts to control them are.

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Straightforward Communication

The world is wild and zany these days.

Everyone is bombastic. The brands of public figures are extreme and do stuff that would once have seemed shocking. We’ve learned the rules of the internet and social platforms like Twitter and taken them near their logical ends.

When the three point line was introduced to the NBA, it took several decades for old talent and coaching to master the full implications of the rule change and take the game to its current state, the logical conclusion of spots on the court worth 50% more than others.

People master the incentive structures they’re in. But it takes time and sometimes generation shift.

Now that we’re fully exploiting the incentive structure of social media, we get what we’ve got.

Hot takes. Trolling. Subterfuge. Memes. Weird causes. Signaling. Outrage. Counter-outrage.

Every crazy sounding thing can be played as a subtle form of strategy, or a secret code for followers at the expense of noobs.

I don’t find this good or bad. But I do find it a bit boring.

What was novel and wild is now kind of tiring. Everyone sounds the same to me now. And they sound the same while not really saying anything. Or at least not anything interesting. They are shouting and flashing big neon lights but my senses are adapted to a noisy, bright environment.

It feels like a lot of pretend ideas, pretend concern, and scripted formats for communicating them for maximum punch. Which ends up having the reverse effect.

Maybe this is one of those “medium is the message” things, but I don’t think it likely. I think the message feels lost in the medium. I’m hungry for interesting messages, not just mastered mediums.

I’m not sure exactly what a less boring stream of discourse and idea would look like. I only know that I’m getting more bored by what’s considered controversial or provocative. Supposedly polarized people all sound the same to me.

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The Battle for Moderate Control Isn’t Worth It

I like to be in control.

I also don’t mind being totally out of control.

What’s torturous is having a little control but constantly battling with forces outside my control to maintain that sliver. Like sitting in traffic. I control the vehicle, but am at the mercy of other forces for most of the progress that can be made. I’d rather be on an open freeway with total control or in an airplane with none. In the former, I get to call the shots. The latter I get to totally free my mind and laugh at whatever fate brings.

Closer to home, I like total control over my workspace. I want minimal, neat, orderly, clean desk and space around me. Total control of my environs. But outside my workspace – in my garage, kitchen, living room, etc. – I have fully surrendered control to my kids. I used to try to maintain some semblance of order, but the battle for semi-control was endless, fruitless, and exhausting. I would get mad, but the living areas would never be fully ordered as I wished anyway. I was putting in 80% energy for 20% return. When I finally surrendered all expectation of minimalism and order in spaces outside my office where I have total control, my life got a lot better. I can relax and let it go.

There are a lot of things in life that fit in the category of very hard battles for very small slices of partial control. They’re not usually worth it. I try to let go and ride the tide, or find those areas where I can have complete control. Fighting for middle ground wears me out.

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Customer Service as a Way of Life

I’m sitting in a lab lobby waiting to get blood drawn. The receptionist is one of the rudest people I’ve ever overheard. Every time someone checks in, every word she says is edgy and nasty and she seems to have no tone except one that makes people feel like idiots.

It was like this last time I came here too. I don’t know what’s going on in her life or why this business allows her to keep her job, but it got me thinking about customer service. How is it learned?

I had several customer facing jobs when I was young, starting with door to door candy bar sales for little league and collecting payments from newspaper subscribers. I don’t remember being coached or taught but maybe I was. I do remember feeling nervous and awkward and reading people’s responses. I wanted to not make people unhappy, a tall order in door to door sales but easier when you’re 10. So I’d see what seemed to get the best responses and adjust. I wasn’t consciously systematic most of the time, just adjusting to the situation.

Over time, I learned lots of little things that worked every time. I got good at it. I practiced more running the concessions and pro shop at a small golf course then bagging groceries. Then I installed internet and phone systems at car dealerships and learned to deal with higher profile people in higher stress situations.

The apex of my customer service work was as a legislative assistant to a state representative. Most of the day was spent on the phone and email and physical mail between me (speaking in the voice of my boss half the time) and truly crazy, angry, or delusional people with an occasional nut job for balance. I turned it into a game and tried to find a way to make people happy while being disagreed with. I got good at it.

The ability to interact with lots of people and leave them feeling good after the interaction is really powerful. When I did fundraising for a non profit these skills with receptionist and assistants and gatekeepers worked magic on helping me get meetings.

I’m not sure why some people seem to learn customer service skills and some don’t. It really baffles me. I wish I could crack the code.

Oh, as an aside, say what you will about the U.S., but the customer service in this country is typically about ten times better than any other place I’ve been, save maybe heavily touristy places in Africa. Mises said under capitalism consumer kings rule. It feels so good to be made to feel like a king for merely existing. Vegas is probably the greatest example of this.

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