That self-assured girl I was at 22 knew everything. She was afraid, however, she’d be seen for the impostor she was. Set loose after post-college dreams of Ivy League grad schools were dashed, she lacked direction. She wanted love and marriage, because, that’s what you do when you’re grown up. She expected to have a stellar career since she went to a name-brand university where they created the aura of superiority. She had good health and an open road ahead. But she refused to stretch her wings to the fullest and coasted on the breezes cast in the wake of others.
If I could have spoken to her then I would have told her to not give in to fear. Fear of trying due to fear of failure or imperfection stalled her and clipped her wings.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
Failure. Fear keeps us from doing things that are out of our reach. We are a culture driven by success and aptitude. Nobody hails the second place winner. Ability and cunning outpace agreeability and geniality. Fear freezes our ambition and whispers, “Don’t go there. Don’t try that. You might fail.”
So what if we fail? I’m not of the “no pain, no gain” persuasion. I don’t advocate creating pain or difficulty. If we fail… the first time we do something…we leave room for improvement, for mastery of a technique. Skill builds itself through trial and error. Think of the musician practicing hour after hour. Think how baseball players practice hitting the ball over and over again. Think about learning to ride a bicycle. After all, who hasn’t fallen off the bike once or twice before getting the hang of this skill?
What are we afraid of? Who said “good enough” wasn’t good enough? We illogically fear not being totally adept at the first try of something new. We fear imperfection because of potential ridicule or being shown to be vulnerable. Perhaps, too, we fear competition. Not only do we need to be perfect, but we need to be perfect ahead of others. This sets us up for failure, something we fear above all. But that’s not all.
Our society demands perfection. I think some of this attitude comes from expectations created by the nascent machine age. Once upon a time craftsmanship was valued and individual variation was expected. Suddenly, mass production allowed conformity and constancy of product. “As good as store-bought” became the measuring stick for handmade items. Our expectations rose as machines could produce items better, faster and cheaper.
Our schools pit students against each other. We are taught to vie for the highest marks, to outshine our peers. If we do not achieve as well as the others in our group, we are “less than.” Nobody wants to be an underdog. Everyone wants to be first in the class. Harvard accepts the cream of the crop. Accolades go to perfect SAT scorers.
Analog, September 1995
Sports set teams or individuals against each other, too. You may assist your teammates, but the other team is the enemy, to be defeated. There can only be one winner. I read a science fiction story where three teams compete for victory at the same time, but the highest scores were awarded when two teams worked cooperatively!(1) What an alternate world scenario that was!
I would have told my 22-year old self that half the fun of the trip is getting there. It’s alright to travel into uncharted lands and test the waters of seas not yet sailed. If I had quit the first time I fell off my bicycle I would not have had the hours of enjoyment and freedom of travel that the bike afforded me. If I had thrown down my knitting needles at the first dropped stitch or wonky scarf I would have missed the satisfaction of wearing items I made by my own hand. If I never committed my thoughts to this blog I would be poorer for not even trying.
I’ve spent countless hours “in the zone” fixing a seam or painting, practicing a guitar piece, learning computer code. Flow (the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity) feels great! You can lose yourself in something for hours and come out refreshed as if time had not passed. A way of getting into flow is the natural repetition of practicing a skill, repeating what you don’t know—and it doesn’t require mastery, just attention.
On the other hand, fear quenches flow and its attendant happiness, putting doubt, timidity, and uncertainty to the forefront. “You can’t grow when fear binds ropes around your hands and heart,” I would have said to my younger self. “Stretch your wings and try everything once, twice, maybe a few times more. Taste the world and savor its sweetness and variety.”
Stepping out of our comfort zone can be terrifying. But as President Roosevelt said, it can be unreasoning and unjustified. For today, I shall dip my toe into the waters of uncertainty…and sail upon a new sea to destinations unknown.
(1) Touchdown, Touchdown, Rah Rah Rah! W.R. Thompson, Analog/Astounding Science Fiction, September 1995, pp. 12-64.