How to keep a cool head when you feel overwhelmed

In November 1942, American and British armies invaded French North Africa under the name of Operation Torch. They landed tens of thousands of troops in what are now Morocco and Algeria, and in the following months they drove east to Tunisia to engage two German armies.

Unfortunately, most American and British commanders in Torch and the subsequent operations in northern Africa were terribly experienced. For many of them, it would be the first time they saw combat.

When the fighting began, some commanders panicked. They found that, in the words of author Rick Atkinson, “battle is incessant noise, confusion, danger, and misery”.

These panicking commanders gave confusing or contradictory orders. They refused to believe intelligence of impending attacks. They sent their troops ahead without scouting, only to run into German traps. They took up positions that were virtually impossible to defend.

Many of these commanders were sacked. Others died because of their stubbornness, foolishness, or ineptitude.

But some majors, colonels, and generals learned from their mistakes. They realized that they had erred and they kept their heads cool. They reflected on how they could improve, on what they could do now to make things a little less bad.

When these commanders found themselves in charge of parts of subsequent Allied invasions, such as those in Sicily in July 1943 and in Normandy in June 1944, they did much better.

Most of us do not make life-and-death decisions every day, but we can still learn from the successful Allied commanders of World War II.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself in an overwhelming situation. It could be that you’ve started a new job, that you’re learning to salsa dance, or that it’s your first time organizing a huge event. There is just too much going on for you to pay attention to.

In situations like these, you’ll function much better when you keep your head cool. So how do you do that?

The key is to accept your temporary incompetence.

If you care about doing things well, this can be frustrating. If you value competence—it’s one of my top values—then it might be painful to watch yourself struggle.

But most things are hard the first few times you do them. And you can’t become good at something without practice.

So when you’re in that phase where you’re overwhelmed and everything feels incredibly difficult, don’t be harsh on yourself. Don’t give up.

Instead, accept your temporary incompetence and trust that you will improve. That will help you keep a cool head, allowing you not only to function better, but also to feel better.

Yours,

— Peter

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