The last few worry posts have centered on mental attitude, and how we face what we can’t control is perhaps the biggest strain on our positive outlook.

There are often times when circumstances weigh us down. We can see no way beyond them. These are the sorts of challenges that make people want to sermonize about having lemons and making lemonade. We’ve heard it all before, and it’s exhausting.

Carnegie uses the example of Al Smith, whom I already love after reading Robert Caro’s description of his life and character.

…I often tell these students the story of a man I knew who had never finished even grade school. He was brought up in blighting poverty. When his father died, his father’s friends had to chip in to pay for the coffin in which he was buried. After his father’s death, his mother worked in an umbrella factory ten hours a day and then brought piecework home and worked until eleven o’clock at night.

The boy brought up in these circumstances went in for amateur dramatics put on by a club in his church. He got such a thrill out of acting that he decided to take up public speaking. This led him into politics. By the time he reached thirty, he was elected to the New York State legislature. But he was woefully unprepared for such a responsibility. In fact, he told me that frankly he didn’t know what it was all about. He studied the long, complicated bills that he was supposed to vote on—but, as far as he was concerned, those bills might as well have been written in the language of the Choctaw Indians. He was worried and bewildered when he was made a member of the committee on forests before he had ever set foot in a forest. He was worried and bewildered when he was made a member of the State Banking Commission before he had ever had a bank account. He himself told me that he was so discouraged that he would have resigned from the legislature if he hadn’t been ashamed to admit defeat to his mother. In despair, he decided to study sixteen hours a day and turn his lemon of ignorance into a lemonade of knowledge. By doing that, he transformed himself from a local politician into a national figure and made himself so outstanding that The New York Times called him “the best-loved citizen of New York.”1

As Al Smith labored tirelessly even to keep up, he gained a basic understanding of the nature of bill writing. As he worked the same way year after year, this basic understanding became an unrivaled expertise in lawmaking. His mighty fight to even be average, established a habit that made him great.

If we look at our challenges as an external enemy to battle, rather than cursing our luck, we can fight through to success. If we let circumstances set our expectations, we will meet them.

This post is one part in a series on worry. Feel free to dip in anywhere or start at the beginning.

  1. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, pp. 154-5. ↩︎