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What this once-in-a-century storm can teach us about giving up control…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You're stressing about the wrong things.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? The United States may not be an independent country today had a once-in-a-century storm not driven out the British.

What happened? It’s 1814 and America and Great Britain are at war—again. This time, America was 2 years into the “War of 1812” which you can learn more about through this explainer video.

⁠The British make their way to Washington, D.C. and set everything on fire—including Congress and the White House. 38 years after America’s separation from British rule, it seemed like the U.S. was going to become a British colony again.

Then, a once-in-a-century hurricane rips through Washington and scares the entire British army away. ⁠To this day, the story is called “the storm that saved Washington.”

So, the next time you find yourself making a plan… only to have something totally outside of your control rip your entire plan apart, remember the British—who planned for everything except for a hurricane.

The White House in flames. Painting by Tom Freeman via the White House Historical Association.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You’re stressing about the wrong things.

Even though the “hurricane that saved Washington” came and went 210 years ago, the career lesson remains: It’s important to plan, but it’s also important to let go.

Stressing? Try this:

(1) Ask yourself: “What am I stressed out about right now?”

  • I.e., “I’m stressed about how people will react to my upcoming presentation.”

(2) Then, ask yourself: “What aspects of my stress are outside of my control… and what aspects of my stress are inside of my control?”

  • I.e., “What’s outside of my control? Whether people like my presentation style. What is within my control? Whether people approve of my ideas—which I can control by ‘socializing’ my ideas (running my ideas by people and getting their buy-in, one-on-one, ahead of time).”

(3) Focus your time and energy on what’s in your control!

  • I.e., “Time to book some one-on-ones to make sure that nothing I share next week will be a surprise!”

Focus on what you can control and, with time, you’ll have a clearer mind, a more productive day, and a happier life.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was applying to business school, I found myself agonizing over my less-than-perfect GPA and GMAT score. And when I finally submitted my application, I found myself refreshing my email every few minutes in hopes of hearing back.

In retrospect, I should have just let it go: By the time I was writing my essays, my GPA and GMAT score were no longer within my control—so it was time to focus on writing. By the time I had submitted my application, nothing was in my control anymore—so it was time to focus on my “plan B” if I didn’t get in. I tried my best and that was all I could ask for.

Stress correctly!


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