Note: Day 6 of the #Trust30 initiative.
A scared little boy
A little over a year ago, my dad related to me a story from my first minutes of life that somehow led him to believe, from that point forward, that I was doomed to be scared of the universe.
His suspicions were bolstered when, from the age of 3 to 8 or 9, I would get epic and frequent night terrors. For the unfamiliar, night terrors are like super-nightmares that are indistinguishable from reality, sort of a sleeping panic attack.
I remember them vividly, to this day: I would wake up, and my parents’ room would be gone. Not locked, but a blank wall where a door had been. I would run away from home, in the middle of the night, in search of my parents in the midst of these semi-waking nightmares. Sometimes I would be brought back home by caring neighbors, sometimes by police.
Needless to say, I do worry that my son will develop night terrors (it’s genetic) and it’ll be my turn to be the panicked parent.
A scared grown-up
My dad, while mistaken, shared this “insight” on the origins of my fear (after 30 years!) as a sort of intervention. I was literally worrying myself sick about my job, my new child, Peak Oil, credit cards, taxes, and whole bunch of other stuff that was out of my control. I trudged from day to day in constant, abject terror, and I can’t overstate how hellish it is to live a terrified life.
Thinking that this fear was inborn, my dad tried to counsel me as if I had a wildly abnormal illness that must be cured.
What a load of crap.
You know The Fear? The feeling that if you lose The Job, or fail The Test, miss The Payment, blow The Interview, or don’t impress The Date, that you’ll die? That feeling that the consequences are so dire that you literally refuse to imagine them?
Yeah, that’s The Fear. It’s totally normal. And it’s a good thing.
Why good? Because eventually you will fail. You will blow the interview. Hell, I don’t really trust your perspective unless you’ve lost a job or two. And those unimaginable consequences? You’re going to live them. In fact, The Fear is likely to be a contributing factor in you losing your job, or the girl, or the opportunity. That’s the way it worked for me, anyway.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. These unimaginable things will come true, and they cannot kill you.
You know what I’m going to die from? Statistically, I mean? In-N-Out Burger. But I lie in bed fantasizing about a Double-Double Animal Style, rather than trembling in fear of it. How do I get this so backward?
In fact, I was so blind that the only way for me to learn to embrace The Fear was to suffer the exact worst-case scenarios I’d avoided even imagining and come out the other side. I don’t think everyone has to learn the hard way, but I sure did.
Gratitude for The Fear
If you have The Fear, be glad, because it means you’re smart enough to know what could go wrong. It also means that once you realize that stuff will probably go wrong no matter what you do, you can make wise decisions.
There may be several smart decisions you can make: It’s smart not to try out for a sports team, ask a girl out on a date, apply for a job, or start a company. That way you never get rejected, break your heart, or publicly fail.
The wise decision is to understand these potential consequences and go for it anyway. Because you also know that rejection, heartbreak, and failure are not only survivable, but also provide you with the silver medal of additional insight.
I believe you don’t lose The Fear, but you learn to shake hands with it, grit your teeth, and move forward.
And Not-As-Smart People? They don’t get to have The Fear. They can charge through life, seizing every opportunity and generally winning through persistence, while the smart people fret their lives away.
To bring this back to my personal commitment, I’ve been really questioning whether the things I am charged with fixing at work are even reparable. If I can fix them, I get to keep the lessons I learn and be an expert at solving this specific kind of problem.
But the problems are so big and scary that I wouldn’t really blame myself for walking away and taking a simpler path, which I’d honestly given some consideration. (I may outline this problem specifically soon, but I’ll not open that can of worms just yet.)
The fact is, I haven’t given it a fair shot yet. I don’t know whether I’ll succeed or fail, but I refuse to walk away from this challenge out of a fear of failure.
Lastly: One surefire way to break the “fear of failure” habit that most programmers already know: fail first. I have a set of measurements I’m going to set up that fail from the start, then slowly start whittling at them until they pass, and then re-evaluate. I’ll write about red-green-refactor for business process & life soon, after I’ve had a chance to run this experiment.