Anxiety as an algorithm - leadership lessons for anxious times with Adam Goldstein

Profile picture for user Neil Raden By Neil Raden April 22, 2020
Can we draw algorithmic lessons from our immune response? How do leaders cope with anxiety? Does treating anxiety as an algorithm help us to shift behaviors? I explored these questions with startup executive Adam Goldstein.


If you've never spent any time learning about things like the immune system, you might imagine it as some sort of internal bleach or Lysol. Of course it's nothing like that.

The immune system recognizes (in a molecular way) antigens (the bad guys) as shapes on the surface of the virus or whatever. The antibodies have "receptors" that fit perfectly with the antigen. 

  1. Detect a bacterium or virus
  2. Determine whether it's dangerous
  3. If it's dangerous, attack it

The immune system, as it turns out, is something of an algorithm. But can our anxiety about working amidst a pandemic be an algorithm also? That's a hypothesis Adam Goldstein explored in a recent post, The Anxiety Algorithm. As the co-founder of Hipmunk, later sold to SAP Concur, Goldstein knows a thing or two about the anxieties of the startup life, and how to overcome them. I recently spoke with Goldstein to explore his thinking further.

Let's do a little science first. What is an antibody? We've been hearing a lot about that lately with the COVID-19 pandemic and the hope that those who recover may have antibodies in their plasma (the clear part of your blood) that can help those still suffering. Human beings with a functioning immune system can have as many as 1012 different antibody molecules-in molecular biology; this is called its preimmune antibody repertoire, it created antibodies for things it has yet to encounter. 

But where do those antibodies come from? In simple terms, antibodies are proteins. Where do proteins come from? No, not tofu, proteins are encoded by genes. That's almost all genes do. But there is a riddle here. The human genome has fewer than 50,000 genes. If each gene emits one unique protein, how can there be such an unfathomable number of antibodies? 

The Anxiety Algorithm - and lessons for leadership

This is where we come back to the Anxiety Algorithm. The immune system is continuously rearranging genetic material to form zillions of combinations before it ever sees a threat. According to Goldstein:

The way it does this is by shuffling up some chunks of DNA, building the resulting receptor out of proteins, and repeating.

It's the randomness of this process that Goldstein found as a way to understand his anxiety-thinking of this process as an algorithm, imaging every threat one at a time. In other words, think of anxiety as imaging all sorts of novel futures one at a time. In Goldstein's case, as the co-founder of a startup:

I would overreact to minor problems, ignore major ones, bristle at useful suggestions, lose sleep, and eat poorly. Other founders take excessive risks, burn out, alienate employees, or become addicted.

You may think that the anxiety of a tech startup is nothing like the immune system, but in an entertaining conversation, he pulled it together.  Let's use a robot as an example. Assuming we want a robot to survive threats that are not known:

Anticipating novel futures is just like what our immune system does. And that algorithm can serve as inspiration here:

  1. Take some little snippets of possible futures
  2. Shuffle them up at random
  3. Whatever results is a version of the future the robot might encounter someday
  4. Repeat the process over and over until the robot has imagined everything it can
  5. Now the robot has a space of possible futures it might encounter

We discussed the phenomenon that the most anxious people are usually the most creative. Perhaps it is a genetic characteristic - groups of people who have been in uncertain and dangerous situations and survived developed coping skills that translate into creativity. Goldstein sees a blessing and a curse here:

But the very imaginativeness that enables them to see new opportunities also reveals paths to failure that others don't notice. Seeing these futures can be a blessing (creativity) or a curse (anxiety).

Imagine those snippets of the future, and rearrange them like antibodies constantly so that you are prepared for anything that pops up. How does that help you? As a startup founder, Goldstein has this advice using the Anxiety Algorithm:


  • If you suffer from nightmares, one solution is to stop sleeping, but a better one is to recognize that nightmares aren't real life.
  • It's just as true for daydreaming. Anxiety commandeers our senses and emotions because that's how it prepares us for possible dangerous futures, not because those futures are real.

Decisiveness, routines, and relationships

  • Smart founders reduce the kinds of snippets that create anxious distractions.
  • This starts with being decisive. Some decisions are thought-intensive but nearly irrelevant to your startup's success.
  • It also helps to create routines that reduce the need to decide on minutiae. Steve Jobs famously had just one outfit.
  • As with most aspects of startups, it's not the obviously awful things that are the problem (you solve those because they demand attention). The problem is the mediocre things that never quite become crises, which generate endless snippets without demanding resolution.

My take

Whether you can model an anxiety algorithm on antibody diversity formation is up for grabs, if for no other reason that we probably don't fully understand that process anyway. Besides, given the recent publicity about the cytokine storm, where your immune system actually attacks you, there could be some unintended consequences. Adam admits that he sees things from an engineering point of view. Others see that as not an engineering problem at all, but rather a complex adaptive system. I'm going to ask Goldstein if he is going to create a CAS algorithm for anxiety - I'd like to see that.