When is worry good?

Last night I was in bed with Matthew, and I was reading The Week, which I totally love because it’s like a summary of every idea that has been posed by mainstream media for the last seven days. My only gripe is they should be quoting my blog. Especially for topics about women and work. And in fact, I am putting a link here to Editor-in-Chief William Falk, so  this post comes up in his google alerts and he mends his misguided ways.

I worry that I should not be worrying about this. Why can’t I just enjoy a magazine I like?

1. Worry you are not worrying about the right thing.
Matthew is reading What Should We Be Worried About. He says to me, “This is a really good book.”

I say, “Oh.”

I want him to shut up about his books because somehow between now and when I was single and reading a book every night, I have stopped finishing books. Even The Judgment of Paris, which has been touted as an art history page turner. I got tired of impressionists facing rejection year after year after year. Whatever. I know the end of the story.

So Matthew tells me about his book and I feel surly because I wish I could read whole books. But then I remember the John Gottmann book that I quote on this blog all the time, even though I didn’t read it, that says you need to say five good things to your spouse for every one bad thing you say.

I decide I want to save my criticism allowance for an emergency. I have so many criticisms. It’s exhausting to have to come up with so many nice things. But I see an opportunity. I say, “Why do you like the book?”

He says, “It’s people talking about what’s really important.”

“Like what?”

“Well. Maybe you’d like to read one?”

“Like what?”

“This one from Tor Norretranders about the end of lust.”

“We need to worry about the end of lust?”

“Yeah. Lust helps with natural selection and other basic human necessities.”

I don’t want to be in bed with a guy who is lamenting the end of lust. I want to finish my magazine.

I decide I will use my criticism: “Probably all men think it’s important to worry about the demise of lust, and all women think it’s important to worry about the demise of flexible work schedules.”


Then I say, “Thank you for sharing what you’re reading with me, though.”

Does this count as a noncommittal comment? If there were heaven and hell for spousal comments, this one would go in purgatory. So I decide I still have a criticism in my relationship savings account.

2. Use worries to solve problems.
The next morning I go straight to my email when I wake up, of course, because there’s no better slot machine than the email slot machine.

Now that I’m worrying about worrying, I know that the definition of a good email is one that helps me focus my worrying. I know this because Dr. Martin Rossman says that worry evolved as a function of our imagination (is there a tiger hiding in the savannah?) Some level of worry is good, if it helps us solve problems.

The other thing about worry: it’s sort of the opposite of depression, because depression is not caring. This might explain why people who worry more live longer. So I’m convinced that I just need to focus my worries and make sure I turn something into action.

3. Prioritize your worries. You can only do one at a time.
I come up with two really good emails.

The first good one is from Cassie. She sends me a review of the book Matthew’s reading. I’ll take a book review over the book any day.

Barbara Strauch, science editor of the New York Times, thinks the public doesn’t care enough about science. Brian Eno, activist musician, says we don’t care enough about politics. Noga Arikha, a historian, worries about our collective amnesia.

It all makes sense: these people are top in their field because they focus on one worry and they use the worry to solve a problem.

The second good email comes from Dmitry, our developer who lives in Ukraine. He says:

We’re safe, my city is far from Crimea but very close to Russia and that caused a lot of panic attacks yesterday. About 2000 russians came on buses and beat our protesters which were occupying city administration. Some protesters even were shot, but not to death. We had like 200-300 unarmed people there so this wasn’t even nearly a fair fight. Attackers had at least 2 guns and couple of light and gas grenades, after beating people they ruined entire first floor of the building. They meant to look like our angry anti-protesting citizens. Then they mostly all got drunk and move away to russia by the end of day.

Then he wrote that his son’s third tooth just came in.

What Dmitry really worries about is his son. Brian Eno has the luxury of worrying about not worrying about politics enough because people who are really worried about politics know that politics is about making sure your son is safe.

Norretranders worries about lust, but I want to know how does he manage to say five nice things to his wife for every bad thing he says?

It’s so easy to me to worry about the big ideas. I’m fascinated by politics and and history. I can watch my son’s documentary of the Universe all day long. Did you know that there are ten sextillion moons in the universe? A lot of them have water. So that’s where we are most likely to find other life.

Small concerns, on the other hand, are difficult for me. I wish I got to write a chapter in What Should We Be Worried About. I would say, “Worry about taking time to notice the people right next to us. And care about them. This has been proven to be the key to happiness, but it’s so boring and so difficult.”

In the Harvard Business Review I was shocked to see that what women want from work is social respect and what men want from work is complex challenges. But it shouldn’t have shocked me because we’re all the same: We want something from work that we can’t get from close relationships. So often it seems that there is a smart, efficient rewards system set up for work, coupled with a general disdain for people who want to shun larger, complex systems—work, politics, science—so they can focus on personal relationships – marriage kids, family.

That dichotomy is what we should worry about.



50 replies
  1. rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel.
    rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel. says:

    GAWD I love The Week. I try to tell everyone how good The Week is. My husband, my kid and I all fight over it on Saturdays. I give away magazine subscriptions to it for Christmas because I am so afraid something will happen to it e.g. it will shut down like other print publications.

  2. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    You are so good at writing posts that have us right there with you. That is a good tip, 5 good things for every criticism. You have to be self-aware to do that and I could learn a lot from you and my spouse who has suddenly (because I got some coaching from you) corrected her corrective ways.

    Suddenly, my life is full of love and respect and I had to ask her what was different because I couldn’t figure out why I just wanted to be around her all of a sudden.

    She said “It’s because you wouldn’t let that incident go, then you called Penelope???!!!” That’s when I knew I had to stop being a corrective manager in my relationship.

    So thanks Penelope for how much you contribute to my life. If only I could figure out a way to stop worrying about every aspect of my business at 2:00 or 4:00 am each morning and actually sleep through the night, that would be awesome!!
    Great post as usual!

  3. Redlefty
    Redlefty says:

    I worry that you are “saving up” your criticisms of your husband as if they are the valued currency, while the compliments are the necessary commodity which sometimes you trade reluctantly.

    Maybe Gottman would say that’s a good start, working from external behavior metrics to eventually impact internal attitudes. But hopefully the attitudes come and our currency conversion ratios flip, making the compliments both valuable and abundant.

    Which of course never happens with actual non-emotional currency, but no analogy’s perfect. I’m not worried about it.

  4. Female Techie
    Female Techie says:

    “In the Harvard Business Review I was shocked to see that what women want from work is social respect and what men want from work is complex challenges. ”

    How interesting! One more proof that I not only have a Myers Briggs that’s more common among men, but I actually think about one, because I’ve just changes jobs from one where I have a lot of social respect to one that will allow me to work in complex technology challenges (which I love to tackle).

    Great post as usual, Penelope.

  5. Laura
    Laura says:

    Thanks for the post Penelope. Your blog always makes me look at life so differently. (Now I worry that I waste too much time worrying about lame things, hmm.)

    I hope Dmitry and his family are safe, and happy. Thanks for sharing a bit of his life with us.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, well. What I really meant was “that’s stupid.” Which is against the rules per Gottman. I think saying “what you care about is stupid” falls in the category of name calling. And name calling is bad because it’s infantile and unnecessary and only serves to hurt the person.

      Of course it’s different, calling a book stupid and calling a person stupid. And now I’m thinking there’s a spectrum of stupid ways to use the word stupid.

      So I guess it’s really that Matthew gets tired of my oppositional disposition. He realizes, after hearing me do 10,000 media interviews, that I can take the opposite side of anything. Sometimes I don’t even consider what I believe, I just show the reporter the opposite view of what they are writing about. It’s a tic or something. Sometimes good for the media, sometimes annoying. Same with a spouse, sometimes interesting sometimes grating.


  6. Suemi
    Suemi says:

    “… because there’s no better slot machine like the email slot machine.” So true on so many levels!

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “#2. Use worries to solve problems.” – I think is the best. And good summary at the end of section – “So I’m convinced that I just need to focus my worries and make sure I turn something into action.” – because when I start to worry I know I’m procrastinating on doing something. So I identify it, focus on it, and get it done. I don’t like to worry because it’s a time and energy suck and I don’t think it’s good for my health. So I’m thinking worry is a motivator for me.

  8. lalka
    lalka says:

    Dear Dmitriy: Your current situation makes me realize how lame/trivial my own worries are.

    I hope you & your neighbors (& the Ukrainian soldiers being held captive in Crimea) stay out of harm’s way.

    I hope a peaceful resolution can be found quickly ….

  9. Matt
    Matt says:

    It is interesting how motivated people are when their back is against the wall. Worry can be a good thing as it makes people take action . Sometimes it takes something to happen to make something happen.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes! Per orders from Melissa who said, “Leave your eyebrows alone!!!”

      And it seems totally right to have a discussion about eyebrows on a post about what is good to worry about.


      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I have seriously tried to figure out the difference between a cheap eyebrow job and an expensive one (as per your blog posts). But I can’t find anything. I think it all has to do with the eyebrow.
        I have really good eyebrows but can’t find a shaper extraordinaire.
        I think that if I fix this problem I would open good doors for me because good eyebrows are like expensive clothes. It just signals to people (sometimes without them knowing) that you’re part of their ecosystem. And if you’re not, you just fooled everyone into letting them invite you to their world with all the opportunities.

  10. Brian Jones
    Brian Jones says:

    thanks for this post a very good read and brings home some issues, sometimes life gets away with us and we spend most of our times worrying , rather then actually thinking of a solution and solving our problems..

    Thanks Again

  11. Peter, the primciple
    Peter, the primciple says:

    It seems like achieving the end of lust actually frees you up to worry about more important things, like what’s the optimal number of times per day to criticize your spouse. Although I’m not sure which one come first.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Life with lust is easy. Because decisions are driven by whether or not you’re upping your chances of getting laid. So you may save a mean comment because you know it’ll ruin your chances. And vice versa of course. Then, if you really are trying to have good relationships but there’s no lust (read: fuel to propel you forward), it’s a lot like business. And sometimes you just want to tell the person f-off and come back when they have something of value to offer.

      That’s my personal opinion. But then again I’m only 26 and my vision may be skewed because of my experience.

      • Thorfinnss
        Thorfinnss says:

        The end of lust happens to us all at a certain age. This is a good thing. Especially for an aspie man. The hormonal compulsion to rut can be dismissed with contempt and substituted with intimacy.
        Your (much) earlier blog on Sex could use an update from the (aspie) man’s POV BTW. Along with all the rituals needed to successfully get laid, there are also the mechanics and performance dogma that need to be satisfied while completing the gruesome imperative. I thankfully replace this with a cuddle and a glass of wine.

  12. karelys
    karelys says:

    I am back because I have now gathered my thoughts somewhat.

    My theory is that the higher up the pyramid of self actualization you go, the most basic human needs are not as pressing. Lust is one of them. But it’s not separated from hunger and need for safety/shelter and fellowship. I don’t think lust is dying, but it’s definitely not as pressing for those trapped in the hamster wheel of “getting ahead” because so much effort is going everywhere that people are too tired. Also, we don’t eat anymore just for hunger (at least some of us). The higher up the pyramid the more food changes in meaning and usefulness. Everything is intertwined.
    When you are at the basis of the pyramid food is for hunger, and work is to provide food and shelter for your loved ones. You don’t care whether or not the work is fulfilling. There are more pressing needs. Hunger, lust, fear. They seem to move everything forward.

  13. dcline
    dcline says:

    “Worry about taking time to notice the people right next to us. And care about them. This has been proven to be the key to happiness, but it’s so boring and so difficult.”

    You should put this on a t-shirt and sell it.

  14. Scott Asai
    Scott Asai says:

    This reminds me of the concept of complacency. When you’re content, that’s when most likely you’re blinded or able to get knocked off your high horse when least expected. Stay hungry and create a urgency in life!

  15. Completely clueless
    Completely clueless says:

    Reality check time:

    Do you know who Brian Eno is? He looked like Buffalo Bob (silence of the Lambs) on his first album (i.e. Kind of hard to take seriously after you see that album cover). He did his own ambient work then started producing acts like U2. I like his work but to call him ‘top of his field’ is like calling David Bowie the top of his field. He’s in, perhaps, the most subjective field there is- a ‘top’ doesn’t really apply. Let’s sit that aside for now, though.

    I am not going to pretend I understand the dynamic of your marital relationship. I only get snapshots here, who knows what things are really like. But as a male, and a non-chauvinistic, pro-female, mom raised male, I’m mortified by how you treat your spouse. It sounds like he’s a whipping boy for all the angst you have against other powerful males whom you’ve suffered under or simply envied. It reminds me of when men abuse women in porn, taking out their aggression toward the people in front of them who are then simply victims for the crimes they feel have been committed against them by a faceless mass called ‘women’. You mention you’d rather blog than have sex with him. Ouch.

    And then, i recently read about your miscarriage and your tweet on it. What I find amazing is how you believe the harsh criticisms had something to do with your position as a woman in the workforce, so much as your cold, even odd belief that the next business meeting is more important than the loss of a life. I know you didn’t want that particular life, and I have no problem with that so much as this belief you carry that life is all a preparation for the next ‘important’ meeting. Here’s a hint: there are no important meetings- they’re all a waste of time!

    And your research. I sometimes think you miss the point of it and only use it to support your existing belief. Many people do this, so it’s not the end of the world, but it feels like it’s the only validity you have for your positions.

    And the event/name dropping. You were in NYC when the towers fell. Now you’re practically in the middle of the Ukraine because you continue to remind us you know someone there- even when you don’t have to. NYC is pretty crowded- there are taxi drivers who were near the twin towers who likely think ‘meh’ about it. This name dropping trait just feels like a show of inadequacy.

    And your financial thinking is off the rails. Just off. You’re not making sacrifices when your taking trips all over heavens acres but won’t put siding on your house. That’s just… imbalance.

    And blaming it on Aspergers… That’s a crutch and an excuse for your bad behavior.

    You are too old to be so imbalanced. You don’t need to prove your worth at this age. If you love your family, give them love and don’t drag them through this online circus show. You ARE an abusive spouse. Seriously, what you’re doing IS textbook abuse. You’re one more eccentricity from a reality show about a crazy business woman- is that what you want? As for advice, anyone who might take it from you at this point is just… needy. Contrarian views sometimes make sense but what you’ve got going on is just entertainment supported by misread ideas from big name but poor idea sources.

    I know this sounds harsh and the last place to say this is here, but all these sycophants aren’t going to spell it out. I’m not saying this to hurt. I do hope you find balance.

    • Eden Sidney Foster
      Eden Sidney Foster says:

      It’s Buffalo Bill.

      If I recall correctly, Penelope and family were deemed too normal for a reality show after they shot a pilot.

    • Career Bliss
      Career Bliss says:

      That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think. Valid points on the ‘blog over sex’ comment, the miscarriage comment, and the ‘siding’ comment. But you have no idea what her background is, what she’s been through, what genes were handed down. So you’re tone is off base. Also, I’d be curious to hear if her husband feels like a whipping boy. I doubt it.

  16. Keith Williams
    Keith Williams says:

    I worry that there’s a hierarchy of worrying and that I’m worrying about the wrong level. For example, perhaps they look something like this:

    Early level: am I pursuing the right thing?

    Medium level: am I pursuing it in the right way?

    High level: why don’t other people care?

    I’d like to think I’m in the middle, but what if I should be lower or higher?

  17. Jack3
    Jack3 says:

    I was a school teacher when I married my wife who was in her 2nd year of medical school. We had children in the 4th year of medical school and the 2nd year of residency. I did everything from take the kids to school (daycare), clean the house, do the laundry, pack the lunches, pay the bills, made sure that the days ran smooth. I did this for 5 years. When she finished residency we moved back to where we were from. (2009). She decided she didn’t want me to work anymore so that she could focus on he career. I was nervous about that, because I had always gone to work. I thought being a stay at home dad would not be that bad since now I don’t have to report somewhere. Her parents were not very happy with our arrangement but it was our life. 2011 we bought a small walnut orchard thinking it would help me be a man again. It was fun because I have always enjoyed hard work. I was made sure she was first as I provided for kids making sure everybody was where they needed to be. I was also remodeling the home making updates as they were needed. We bought new vehicles, trailers, boats having fun with the money she was bringing home. We were not hurting financially. Our orchard was making money but not enough because we had planted more acreage and they were in baby trees. In four years the baby trees would of doubled our income. We were flying. 2014. Valentine day. I had prepared for the last couple of days for our family to go to the desert for family time. My wife came home 30 minutes early. I was excited because we we’re suppose to meet some friends down the road for the trip. She said she didn’t want to go anymore and this isn’t working. I said what is not working. She said our marriage. It had been ten years of me dedicating my life to her, to the children to everything we built as a family. She said I want a divorce, we spend money like water when we are together. She said she hated me. Time will tell. Nobody has filed for divorce yet. But she emptied our accounts in half. I had to move out of the house because she said I had to pay the mortgage. I have no employment. I have been mr. Mom. Her mother has now taken my role has shuffling the kids to practice when I don’t have the kids. I moved out with the kids to a small house and trying to survive. She said once we are in two house holds she will go to marriage counseling and after a couple of times I can join her. She does not talk to me only by text. Usually they are mean but with kid issues I get a ok as I inform her where the kids need to be. I am so hurt. I don’t know what to do, she has broken my heart. I am a Christian who talks to his pastor once a day. Especially during I this time of need. I have met a lot of other people who have been in these shoes. Except I am dad not mom. She called me her piggybank. I have applied for a couple of jobs that have opened up teacher position. I gave everything to this person, my heart on my sleeve. She decided she did not respect me anymore. When I see her, her eyes are so pissed at me. We are not legally separated but separated by her choice. What to do, I have never posted on line before, help.

  18. Isabella
    Isabella says:

    I find by using the following technique it really helps me put my worry-wort emotion in check.

    Technique: By smiling it releases stress, worry and tension that has built up throughout my worry-wort day.

    It’s so simple and yet so effective. It is hard to feel bad when you smile. Sometimes I have to fake the smile but it still works. :)

  19. Top10Zen
    Top10Zen says:

    Thanks for the great post! It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over because there’s nothing you can do about them, and why worry about things you do control? The activity of worrying keeps you immobilized.

  20. George Mason
    George Mason says:

    Huh, the first one is really meta, but an important point nonetheless.
    Because I’ve always had a huge tendency to overthink things and find myself in endless loops of worrying, I decided to cut it short but setting a certain amount of time every week that is especially intended for worries. I also have a list of things to worry vs things not to worry about, and I’ve found that worrying all the time stresses me so much that can’t even go about my day properly.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  21. Alan
    Alan says:

    Another long-time The Week fan here. And I love you too, Penelope. And I am SO glad that I don’t have to put up with you.

  22. mechull
    mechull says:

    Huh, the first one is really meta, but an important point nonetheless.
    Because I’ve always had a huge tendency to overthink things and find myself in endless loops of worrying, I decided to cut it short but setting a certain amount of time every week that is especially intended for worries.

  23. Dan Munro
    Dan Munro says:

    I agree with the strategy you’ve shared here, except for using the word “worry”. This triggers an anxiety connotation for most people – future-tripping as I call it.
    I would use “challenge” or “obstacle” – something less fear-based. Your principles are solid though.

  24. Haden_A!
    Haden_A! says:

    That is such a *girl thing*and I think we men are a bit dumb to understand something like this. I would say that if a person is not worried about right things then he is probably being careless. Be a problem solver and If you cannot be then at least be worried about it. It is always wonderful reading anything in this blog.. Madam with what ease you write, flawless it becomes :)

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