I’ve watched every Marvel movie with my family. As we’ve worked our way through (the current) 40, we’ve each gravitated toward our favorite character. For my son Asher, it’s the lovable, fallible Thor. For my daughter Juniper, it’s the comedic Iron Man. And my husband Scott and I both favor the underdog Ant-Man. (I mean, it’s Paul Rudd, people.)
But, when we look at these high-achieving characters—and their characteristics that we grow to love—not one of them credits their success to anxiety. Yet, according to author Morra Aarons-Mele, perhaps they should.
In her recent book, The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower, Aarons-Mele invites us to make friends with our anxiety and embrace the strengths that being anxious can bring. “When you understand your anxiety and learn to leverage it, you develop a leadership superpower,” she writes. “It may not feel like it now, but anxiety can enhance your leadership, ambition, creativity, empathy, communication, and vision. When you’re attuned to your emotions and what they’re trying to tell you, you become a conscious and thoughtful leader.”
Looking for a real-life role model that made a difference? Aarons-Mele suggests we turn to the 16th US president: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln makes friends with his anxiety
When Harvard Business Review agreed to sponsor Aarons-Mele’s 2018 podcast, Anxious Achiever, she had already been consulting and writing about leadership for years. She thought she had all the brain crushes she needed until she interviewed Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn, who shared stories of Lincoln.
“Lincoln is the perfect example of the anxious achiever,” Aarons-Mele says. “He is one of our greatest leaders, and he was clinically depressed. He had a lot of anxiety and was frequently suicidal. Lincoln talked about his anxiety and built a team around him that supported him.”
In Lincoln’s Melancholy, author Joshua Wolf Shenk paints a similar picture. In his mid-40s, Lincoln’s attempts to befriend his anxiety was starting to prove fruitful. “The suffering he had endured lent him clarity, discipline, and faith in hard times—perhaps especially in hard times,” writes Shenk. His sense of purpose helped him befriend his emotions while also building a team around him that stood in the gaps.
While two sentences may summarize it, it’s not a simple lift. “I’m not saying that it’s easy and that everyone at work is going to come to work and say, I’ve been really depressed lately,” Aarons-Mele says. “But I like to push people and think, what if we did? What if we did ask for what we need?”
Anxiety’s 4 superpowers
While Lincoln leaned into his anxieties, it wasn’t a panacea. “This doesn’t mean his suffering went away. In fact, as his life became richer and more satisfying, his melancholy exerted a stronger pull,” writes Shenk. “He now responded to that pull by tying it to his newly defined sense of purpose. From a place of trouble, he looked for meaning. He looked at imperfection and sought redemption.”
Aarons-Mele got to a similar place herself. “The truth is, I’ve never been able to become anxiety-free, no matter how many treatment modalities I’ve tried (and I’ve tried almost all of them),” she writes. “For me, anxiety is both a gift and a curse. It’s certainly my companion in life.”
In hopes that it resonates the same with us, she offers four superpowers that can come from making friends with your anxiety.
1) Anxious achievers are great at forward planning.
Often our anxiety is about what’s coming next in life. When that feeling is channeled well, Aarons-Mele suggests, we can become natural planners.
2) They are attuned and empathetic.
Many with anxiety are in tune with personal and group dynamics, which can help consider what groups and individuals both need. Perhaps you’ll even help another anxious achiever.
3) They work hard and prepare.
If you’re already thinking about what comes next, you might as well plan for it. Aarons-Mele suggests we direct our anxiety to a specific task and nail the detail needed. “You won’t miss deadlines, and you’ll rock the final product,” she says.
4) They ask for help and build infrastructure.
“Whether it’s surrounding yourself with a team you trust, structuring your days to incorporate wellness and recovery, or creating personal and professional boundaries, leading with anxiety requires creating infrastructure,” says Aarons-Mele.
Find people to stand in the gap
I was born with abnormally high confidence (despite repeated evidence of my imperfections) and have long felt that I could solve big problems without a cape. But on topics or situations that I’m less confident about, Aarons-Mele suggests we find people to stand in the gap.
Negotiating salary and triggered by money talks? “If you know that money is very triggering for you, seek out the person on your team who’s really objective and cool about money,” she advises. Or your old boss was toxic, and now you’re triggered by phrases they used? “You might carry those patterns into your current job—always on alert,” Aarons-Mele suggests. Seek out a peer to ensure you understand their input—and your direction—correctly.
The struggle of anxiety is real in Aarons-Mele’s life, as it is in mine. But we can befriend our emotions and learn to channel them into superpowers that make a difference, even if we aren’t ready to rock tights and a cape.