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James Altucher: Six simple ways to stay calm in difficult situations

From James Altucher:

One out of two people in the U.S. will consider suicide this year.

Someone asked me for a reference on that, but I am not a walking Wikipedia.

It’s like when my daughter told me that “on average, eight spiders crawl in your mouth while you sleep during any given year.” Where does she get that? She had no idea. Maybe she watched my mouth while I slept for a year.

So I can’t really speak for most people. I will speak for myself. I’m generally a calm person, but the other day I was very nervous.

I was invited to hear Rand Paul speak at a small, informal meeting. About a dozen well-known venture capitalists, investors, and CEOs were there.

I knew about half the people, and at least one of the people had publicly trashed me nine months before, even though he had never met me.

We were supposed to have some questions for Rand Paul but I had zero questions. There’s basically no issue I feel strongly enough about to ask, and I have no interest in politics…

We also were supposed to have a one-line bio ready. I have no one-line bio, nor do I aspire to have one.

So why go?

I thought it would be an interesting experience and it would take me ever-so-slightly outside of my comfort zone.

I like to stretch my boundaries at least once a day. For example, if you try to touch your toes each day, you get closer and closer each day until you can touch your toes, thus improving your flexibility.

But I was nervous. Nervous about Rand Paul… Nervous about the people I was intimidated by… Nervous to meet the guy who trashed me… Nervous that I didn’t have any questions or bios or anything interesting to say at all. I thought everyone would regret that I was invited.

The reality is: we’re all mammals in the jungle. All mammals feel nervous and stressed, and that triggers “survival” responses, even if no real threats exist.

For instance, if you are in the jungle by yourself at night and you hear a strange rustling in the bushes, the correct impulse might be to get really nervous and run as fast as possible, EVEN IF there is nothing in the bushes.

So don’t judge yourself for your nervousness. It’s OK.

But here is what I do to get myself less nervous and more calm.

As an aside, calm is better than “happy.”

“Happiness” is related to something external to you that gives you a temporary boost of either oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, or dopamine. These are all neurochemicals that trigger happiness in the brain. They are both addictive and metabolized very quickly. Which means you need more and more to sustain happiness.

Hence, your instinct to become calm is a better instinct than the 21st century constant self-help desire to be happy all the time.

What I do to get calm:


Instead of saying “I’m nervous,” I say “I’m feeling nervous,” or even better, “I’m noticing I’m feeling nervous.”

“Distancing” requires practice. The good thing is: there are plenty of opportunities all day long to practice distancing.

Pretty soon, you realize your consciousness and your nervousness are two completely different things. That means you don’t have to fight your nervousness, and it also means your nervousness doesn’t define you.

So you appear calm even if internally you notice you are feeling nervous. Because you are calm in those moments.


Before a talk, I often get nervous. In fact, it’s out of the ordinary for me to NOT get nervous. BUT, I don’t like to be too scared.

So right before I go on stage, I “separate” myself.” There’s me, then there’s “mini-me.” Mini-me is the nervous parts of me. He’s usually smaller, a little younger, a little uglier (hard to believe), and sort of sniveling.

I comfort him. I say hello to him. He’s the nervous me. He will follow me onto the stage. But he’s not me.

I don’t know why or how this happens, but when I’m walking up onto the stage, followed by my imaginary mini-me, I feel an enormous surge of energy and happiness. Maybe it’s like a runner’s high once I’ve separated myself from mini-me. I don’t know.

But it works.


Here’s what I know from statistics (and this is why statistics is like a fun children’s game, but also not something to be taken too seriously)…

I’ve been alive for about 15,000 days, give or take. I have not died on any of those days. So I can make the deduction that I’m probably never going to die. Or, at least, not soon.

But I’ve seen a lot of other people die. Dying seems rampant. An epidemic. Everyone seems to die.

Everyone I meet I assume is going to die tomorrow. If I meet you, and I think you’re going to die tomorrow, I’m less worried about what you think of me. You’re basically a dead man walking.

But I will treat you with compassion. The imaginary angel of death is right beside your shoulder and you can’t even see her. My poor baby. I will not reveal her secret, but I will treat you as someone deserving of the highest memorial.


Let’s say I’m giving a talk. Or let’s take the other day as an example, when I was invited to this meeting.

I was very nervous. But once I noticed I was nervous (see “Distancing” above), I was able to stop myself and say, “I’m really grateful I was invited to this.” Better to be invited than not (this is true in most cases… though I wouldn’t want to be invited to Auschwitz).

We are herd animals. Better to be invited to participate in the herd than to be left on the edges of the herd where the predators can catch us.

So nervousness is often a signal that gratitude is called for.

Let’s say you are late for a meeting because of traffic. You can be nervous… Or you can be grateful. Grateful that you live in a city that is crowded, because everyone else wants to be here for the plentiful opportunities.

Nervousness can ALWAYS be turned into gratitude. Nervous on a first date? Grateful that you might meet the one you love.


Go into a bookstore. There are 10,000 books on the shelves. Most will never be read by anyone.

Most of those books took years to write. Took a lifetime to write. And yet they are basically useless.

The average book is read by less than 100 people. And the average book is only read 10% of the way through. Good luck being heard at the party.


Some things are scary. If the police show up at your door, that’s scary. If the IRS sends you a letter, that’s scary.

If the doctor says, “I have some bad news,” that’s scary.

But even then, you want to separate out your nervousness from your true, calm self, so you can make the best decisions.

You want to be healthy, so that a stressful situation doesn’t make you sick. You want to be around people who love and support you, so they can help you. You want to be good at coming up with ideas on how to handle scary situations.

It’s ok to be nervous. That’s the first arrow. The first arrow can wound you.

But being nervous about being nervous is the second arrow. The second arrow can kill you.

And eight spiders in your mouth during the course of a year is disgusting. The only spiders I want in my mouth come from beneath the sea and are served on a plate with lots of butter. They’re called lobsters.

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