“Anxiety is Needless and Imaginary” – An Analysis of Seth Godin’s Philosophy on Anxiety

I finished “Linchpin” by Seth Godin this week, and wanted to share a passage which I’ve thought a lot about since first reading. 

Godin writes one of the most popular blogs on the internet and is a multi-time, New York Times best-selling author. So definitely a voice to respect and listen to. 

Linchpin is written in an unusual format – almost like hundreds of blog posts, one after the other, but with a consistent theme. Here’s the passage I’d like you to think about: 

Anxiety Is Practicing Failure in Advance

Anxiety is needless and imaginary. It’s fear about fear, fear that means nothing. 

The difference between fear and anxiety: Anxiety is diffuse and focuses on possibilities in an unknown future, not a real and present threat. The resistance is 100 percent about anxiety, because humans have developed other emotions and warnings to help us avoid actual threats. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an internal construct with no relation to the outside world. “Needless anxiety” is redundant, because anxiety is always needless. Anxiety doesn’t protect you from danger, but from doing great things. It keeps you awake at night and foretells a future that’s not going to happen. 

On the other hand, fear is about staying alive, avoiding snakes, feeding your family, and getting the right to play again tomorrow. Fear should be paid careful attention. There’s not a lot of genuine fear here in our world, so when it appears, it’s worth noting. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is dangerous paralysis. Anxiety is the exaggeration of the worst possible what-if, accompanied by self-talk that leads to the relentless minimization of the actual odds of success. 

Anxiety makes it impossible to do art, because it feeds the resistance, giving the lizard brain insane power over us. It’s impossible to be a linchpin if you agree to feed your anxiety. 

You’ll notice that throughout this book I’ve often used the word “fear” when I really meant anxiety. That’s because we do it all the time, confusing the two. A bad habit.

Lots to unpack…

“Anxiety is needless and imaginary.” There’s a lot of commentary around anxiety, especially among young people. Countless blogs and articles discuss how to deal with it. I’ve seen a lot of perspectives, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it described as “needless and imaginary”. 

I think Seth feels anxiety just like the rest of us, but I don’t think it stops him from doing great things. It’s an important point to consider that many of our anxieties only exist in our own heads. 

Often anxiety is imaginary. Countless times, I’ve lost sleep over totally hypothetical scenarios, which never came close to fruition. My mind is a master at coming up with hundreds of terrible outcomes when I give it free-reign to do so. 

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened” – Mark Twain. 

Meditation helps with this. As I said in “4 Practical Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Mental Health”, meditation allows you to become the chess player, rather than the chess piece. You have more control and autonomy over your thoughts, which prevents the negative thought spirals from getting out of control. 

The other element I loved from this passage was the conflation of fear and anxiety. They are not the same thing. We live in a remarkably safe world today, where our lives aren’t at risk of being cut short by a violent crime or war. We don’t have large predators to look out for like our ancestors did, and the chances of falling out a tree to our deaths are FAR lower than they used to be. 

In fact, we are now the biggest threat to our lives. Suicide and obesity are two leading causes of death in the Western World.

I think we’ve become so accustomed over time to have something to be scared of and worried about, that when we don’t, our minds create things to be anxious about or fearful of. It’s a survival mechanism that has served us well thus far, but may now be hindering rather than helping us to progress. 

But, as Seth says, fear is fundamentally important, and real fear should be listened to. I’ve been in some situations where I felt genuine fear, where my life was at risk, and thank God I had my lizard brain to protect me. Fear serves a vitally important role in our lives, when we need it. 

So I suppose it’s the distinction of when we should be genuinely fearful, and when we’re creating fear/anxiety, is what Seth is trying to get us to think about. 

Next time you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself: “Is this something I should be fearful of/anxious about, or is my brain just trying to protect me from a threat which doesn’t really exist?” 

Thanks for reading!

If you like my ideas, sign up for “The Patterson Post” below for my weekly newsletter, straight to your inbox. 

Much love, and please share your ideas in the comments, or feel free to dm me.

Ross 

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11 thoughts on ““Anxiety is Needless and Imaginary” – An Analysis of Seth Godin’s Philosophy on Anxiety

  1. There is something very trite and small minded about his version of anxiety. How simple it is to wrap things up in a nice little bow and present it to the world as if it’s the solution for everything. I think it shows a kind of arrogance, I kind of myopia, an incomplete thought. It sounds to me kind of like everything that intelligent people are fighting against, is kind of what he is promoting in his version of anxiety.

    But thanks for the light. 🤙🏾

    I’m not sure if New York Times bestseller’s means that we should listen to that person. Just like letters after peoples names does not necessarily mean that they are intelligent or have any wisdom to give us. 🙃

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    1. Hey,

      Thanks for your comment 🙏

      Would you expand a little bit on what you mean by “it sounds to me kind of like everything that intelligent people are fighting against”? That’s an interesting statement.

      And I totally agree that a NYT bestseller or “expert” or even PHD can mean nothing at all. But Seth Godin is very highly respected by people like Tim Ferriss and Malcolm Gladwell, which signals to me he has something important to say.

      I appreciate you reading my work.

      Ross

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      1. 🤙🏾 I just mean. He may have done a lot of thinking about what anxiety could be, but his concept of it appears to me to reflect that he has little experience with it. And thus lack, as expressed from an ‘authority’, could work to perpetuate the anxiety itself, for it comes off as a strong judgement. For some, yes, His simple solution will work. And that’s good.

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  2. … his concept of it makes it sound like “all you have to do is think differently about things”. This is a highly questionable approach to anxiety, even as it is popular.

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    1. …. As though One just needs to conceptualize things properly and then anxiety will disappear. For some people that deal with just regular daily anxiety and maybe make too much of it, sure, thinking about things differently can be helpful.

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      1. In a certain sense, But I am not sure those terms are accurate either.

        It depends what we are talking about. Lol

        It depends on the person, not on platitudes that general human beings into arbitrary categories.

        I got to be careful because I’m gonna fall down the rabbit hole here.

        Psychological categories are based on what many people called “soft science“. It is more like a religion then it really reflects how people actually are. It’s kind of like a mass hysteria in a way.

        Innoway, yes, we could say that there’s a difference between regular anxiety and clinical anxiety. But, it is very plausible and very common that we can have a series of people who are experiencing “regular” anxiety that this guys very simple idea about what anxiety is and how to solve it woud not fit.

        It would only fit to those people who think in that particular way. But most people do not think about things in this kind of introspective way, so they get lazy, and so here’s a person telling them how they’re supposed to think, and they try to believe it, but their regular anxiety isn’t fixed because that’s not how anxiety actually works. What it is.

        Psychology is filled with loaded interpretations and loaded ways of approaching, viewing, and summarizing what peoples experiences are. There is a reason why anxiety is so prevalent nowadays, and it isn’t just because people are thinking incorrectly. This has nothing to do with “regular” anxiety and clinical anxiety. Those distinctions are arbitrary, and I would say, really serve this kind of “religious” propagation of psychology that’s been in effect for the past 170 some years. People that were interested in the mind wanted the idea of mind to a chord with the empirical physical sciences. But we found out at least over the past 50 to 70 years that this is not really the case.

        Ok. 😆. Sorry. I probably have 20 papers to publish just on the topic alone.

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      2. I had a read through some of your writing and found it very interesting indeed. You’ve got a great perspective on the mind.

        I suppose I’m in a privileged position of never having had to deal with severe anxiety, and most of the anxiety I feel can be suppressed through reasoning (like Godin advocates), meditating, or a workout.

        But I have friends who have far more serious anxiety issues, which, as you say, can’t just be reasoned away. And for these people, I agree Seth Godin’s philosophy may seem trite and maybe small-minded.

        It’s such a complex and subjective issue, which is why I think it’s so important to share ideas around.

        I especially liked one of your blog posts advocating just sitting back and counting 20 breaths at some point in your day. The profound effect this can have on your state of being is difficult to over-state.

        Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’ve learned something.

        Ross

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      3. I am way too philosophical for my own good about mental health. Lol. But honestly, I think mental health is exactly where we need to be philosophical. I’ve only been involved with mental health short amount of time, but it’s been a densely informational and experiential time.

        The idea of psychology and psychiatry and science is so dominant, but from where I’m standing, it doesn’t really help the way that it supposed it should be able to. Medicines, yes. They are helpful but they don’t solve a majority of the problems. And yet they’re presented as if they will solve the problem. And many approaches to psychology itself based in empirical approach is, which is to say cognitive approaches, again don’t fully addressed the problem.
        Yes they can address small problems ; like, one of my posts I compare physical health and mental health. Yes, one could say that there is a peak performance ideal of physical health that we can’t really deny. We want my heart to function the best it can and so I can go to the fitness Place and eat well and reduce stress and things like that. Empirical science works really well in that sense.

        But mental health doesn’t work the same way. We have to chop the human being into pieces if we are going to say that cognitive approaches are the effective and only valid way that we can approach things, as if any other approach is like “weird science” or superstition or something like that, I don’t know what we’d call it.

        For example, with mental health, things like these little conceptual tidbits, yes they’re good, but they tend to promote an ideal of mental health like physical health so far is I might want to eat well and go to the gym. But with mental health you do those things, as an analogy, and you’re still stuck with the problem. And so the person with the problem starts stinking even further that some thing is really screwed up with them because these things that are supposed to help them aren’t really working. So then they start to pretend, they start to tell them selves lies in the hopes of a sort of “fake it till you make it”. Approach.

        I guess my issue is what we promote implicitly for the sake of my own ideas about what should be the case, that is, as opposed to seeing what’s actually happening and addressing things from that standpoint.

        Because people just don’t know. Anyways I could go on and on. Thanks for your engagement.

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      4. … also though, I haven’t read that guys book or anything and I don’t know anything about them. So I’m totally going off of a biased view about what he’s promoting 🥺

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