In praise of the worry gene

By | April 7, 2014

I’ve lately come to appreciate what people at Atomic Object call the “worry gene”, especially in the people I work with. Pushing the genetic metaphor a bit, the worry gene encodes for proteins which, in turn, cause behaviors and actions that directly improve the outcomes and results of projects. Having a strong worry gene is a really great attribute for working at a consultancy.

Some people interpret the phrase “worry gene” in a negative light. I think this stems from the assumption that worrying is bad and unproductive. What this interpretation misses is the critical part of what we mean by the phrase. It’s not the worry, but the actions taken, that matter. If you had a faulty copy of the worry gene, and your cells didn’t create the proteins that resulted in positive action, then I guess that would be bad. But that’s not a properly expressing worry gene. I like to work with people who pay attention and turn their worry into positive, productive action.

What kind of positive actions come from a properly expressing worry gene? Here are some I’ve noticed:

  • being generally aware and mindful
  • anticipating possible problems
  • seeing opportunities
  • seeing the big picture
  • taking smart precautions
  • thinking from other people’s perspective
  • having a backup plan for when things don’t go as you expect
  • following the Boy Scout motto (“be prepared”)
  • stepping back often enough to minimize waste and make necessary course corrections
  • not getting lost in the trees, or off in the weeds
  • anticipating, not just reacting
  • identifying and questioning assumptions
  • engaging challenges early, even when it’s going to be hard

When you work closely with a group of people who all have the worry gene, you feel like peers. The burden of our complex projects, and the responsibility we bear to our clients is equally shared. You operate as a high-functioning team and enjoy the incredible satisfaction and esprit de corps that brings.

When you work closely with people who don’t have the worry gene, you feel more like a parent. You carry a burden and bear the project responsibility solo, rather than sharing it. It’s easy to become resentful.

The worry gene’s value is not limited to just the project lead or manager; it is useful for every role people serve on projects. For example, test-driven development is a software development practice that represents positive action caused by the worry gene. When you write tests, you anticipate what might go wrong and think about the future. Human-centered design is an approach that requires you to be empathetic, see the big picture, anticipate what might happen, and remain mindful—all actions or behaviors caused by a healthy worry gene. The worry gene isn’t just about project management.

People with healthy worry genes are mindful of the present and anticipate the future. That makes for happy teams, successful projects, and great products.

Carl Erickson (83 Posts)

Carl is the CEO and cofounder of Atomic Object, a software product development company with offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Learn more about Carl.



Dave Meeekhof on April 8, 2014 at 9:18 am.

Ronald Reagan used the “Programmers Prime Directive”: “Trust, but Verify”.

Carl Erickson on April 8, 2014 at 9:56 am.

Ha, never thought about his famous saying wrt testing and responsible development, but it certainly fits, Dave.