Dale Carnegie said one fundamental mistake can increase your anxiety

Since it was first published in 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has remained one of the most popular books in the self-help category.

One of Carnegie’s less well-known works is “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” published 12 years later. The book grew out of his experiences teaching adult education courses at the YMCA in New York City, and in it, Carnegie shares anecdotes from his students who succeeded in beating fear and anxiety.

In the book’s first chapter, Carnegie talks about a major mistake he’s observed everyone making, which contributes to their anxiety. “One of the most tragic things I know about human nature,” he writes, “is that all of us tend to put off living.”

In other words, we’re often consumed with worrying about what we’ve already done wrong in the past and what might go wrong in the future, even if there’s little we can do to change either set of experiences.

Instead, Carnegie advocates living in what he calls “day-tight compartments” that don’t allow past or future concerns to seep in. Think of it as a life philosophy based on mindfulness, before the term was popularised in the Western lexicon.

“We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon — instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our window today,” Carnegie writes, picking up on an existential phenomenon that’s as, if not more, true today. No matter how old we get, we’re always caught up in the details of days that have yet to transpire, making it virtually impossible to pay attention to or appreciate our current circumstances.

Carnegie quotes the writer Stephen Leacock: “The big child says, ‘When I am a big boy.’ But what is that? The big boy says, ‘When I grow up.’ And then, grown up, he says, ‘When I get married.’ But to be married, what is that after all? The thought changes to ‘When I’m able to retire.’ And then, when retirement comes, he looks back over the landscape traversed; a cold wind seems to sweep over it; somehow he has missed it all, and it is gone.”

Carnegie also includes an example of how living for the day literally helped save one man’s life.

After opening his own business, Edward Evans experienced a series of disasters: He lent money to a friend and the friend went bankrupt. The bank where he held all his money collapsed and he went $US16,000 into debt.

Evans fell ill and a doctor told him he had just two weeks to live. “No use now to struggle or worry,” Evans remembered thinking. Finally, he was able to sleep, eat, and even go back to work.

Restored to health, a few years later, he was president of the Evans Products Company, which produced equipment for loading and shipping automobiles.

Regardless of whether you believe that heeding Carnegie’s advice is enough to make medical maladies disappear, the point here seems to be that we often create what we fear. By spending time and energy fretting over our actual and potential mistakes, we may effectively doom ourselves to a lifetime of misery.

Of course, Carnegie’s hardly arguing that “shut[ting] the iron doors on the past and the future” is easy.

But you can certainly learn to catch yourself whenever you start obsessing over events that have long since passed or have yet to transpire. Eventually, whenever that happens, you’ll be able to redirect your attention to some aspect of the current circumstances before, all too soon, they slip away.

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