I write this first story with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty as my companions on this new journey. “Mutual friends” that we all have met. There they stand, just outside the borders of my circle of comfort, patiently waiting for me step out and explore.
They were there when my parents left me in the UK for the first time to attend university. They were there when I got behind the wheel the first time to learn how to drive. They are there whenever I’m done cooking a new dish for the first time and just about to serve my guest. Almost as if they too, were part of the dinner party.
We curse them. Blame them for all the reasons why we have failed and the scars they left us. “I was afraid to fall, so I did not learn” you tell yourself as you sit to one side while watching your friends ski together and having fun. “There was too much to learn and I didn’t know how or where to start”. Those words echoing in your mind as you continue to slave away at a job you hate, too afraid to lose the little bit of security you’ve managed to scrape together.
Imagine the number of unrealized dreams and potential locked away simply because we are afraid to start. Terrifying isn’t it?
The fear, defined
Why is this so?
Why does trying something out for the very first time sometimes cause us such emotional trauma? My first guess would be our fear of failure. Failure often brings with it shame, and we hate the feeling it brings. Shame cracks the delicate stained glass portrait of our “self” that our ego has so painstakingly created. We might also feel inadequate after a failure, thinking that the people around us might see us as “lesser”. That thought doesn’t sit well with our ego. Another crack in the glass.
But I think we can boil down our fear of failure to a more precise definition.
Specifically, the fear of getting it right the first time.
This was a profound revelation to me. Up until recently, I hadn’t thought about fear in different stages and this definition nails it on the head. Here’s my reasoning.
We now live in a society where there are eyes everywhere. Cameras, smartphones, and the internet have formed a massive link where everyone can see everything. Knowing that, the reward of being capture on camera accomplishing great things is immense, we want to be seen as that cool and awesome person who nailed it. But by the same token, the risk of your failure being captured is even higher. We don’t want to be that person who is laughed for an epic fail captured on video. At least, it feels that way.
So, to avoid any flubs or stumbles at the start and having our failure broadcast to the world, we convince ourselves that we need to know as much as possible so we can make the decision that will give us an excellent start. Seems reasonable right? I thought so too.
What might end up happening is we create an information loop that looks like this: “I need more information so I can know how to have the best start.” This then loops into it self with: “I want the best start because I don’t want people to see me fail the first time” which then recycles itself with “I don’t wan to fail the first time so people might see me as stupid.” The loop then starts again.
Eventually, this loop might manifest into more a malignant form. If you are an over-thinker (like me), it can very easily spiral out of control as you begin to create more reasons for information gathering instead of actually starting the task. If there wasn’t a problem before, over-thinkers have a very unique ability to make sure that a problem, however minute or insignificant, will be there to bother them and bring them unnecessary anxiety. Overwhelmed with information and questions, you simply decide to never start and lose interest.
If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, overthinking makes us question whether we should start with our left or right foot (when it doesn’t matter). This is then followed by a salvo of “what ifs…” which creates more mental burden. This problem of over-thinking actually created a fear of driving for me — I had convinced myself that I was either going to drive off a bridge or wind up in a ditch (I’m happy to report that I’m driving fine now and I have not yet driven off a bridge or ended up in a ditch).
No matter what you might read or tell yourself, those feelings of dread might resurface just as you are about to embark on something new. For some, those feelings might be an inevitability. Perhaps instead of swelling up with fear or being overwhelmed with uncertainty at the start, we acknowledge those feelings as a necessity and work to move beyond its reach. Here’s why.
I’d like to think our self-esteem and confidence is very much like a muscle. Muscles need to be exercised and pushed to their limit if you them to grow. Similarly, if you want to have stronger confidence in trying or starting something new, use those feelings of fear as an opportunity to “exercise” your confidence.
Do this long enough and starting new things becomes easy — almost a reflex even. You can still be terrified and afraid before you do, but now you’ll just see it as part of the process. As Mark Twain puts it:
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.”
I think that quote sums up what I’m trying to say quite nicely. We can’t grow if we’re comfortable, as growth is a necessarily uncomfortable thing to experience. Be afraid and do it anyway.
How do you overcome the fear of getting it right the first time?
- On your own
Realize that most of the people on this planet don’t know you and frankly don’t care whether or not you fail or succeed. They have their own set of problems to deal with. Even those close to you might be a lot less interested in your failures than you think. This is both a very sobering and liberating fact that can help push you to start. You are doing this for you and you alone.
- Baby Steps
Trying to take in lots of information at the beginning thinking it might help you is probably going to end up overwhelming you instead. It’s important to remember that at the start, no one (including yourself) expects you to be an expert. If this means taking a little more time to get the hang of it, then so be it! As long as you are moving forward that’s all that matters.
(To get over my fear of driving, I started by driving around my neighborhood for about 15 minutes. Once I was comfortable, I branched out a little and drove around my area. Before long, I was fine going on the road and traveling around. Start small!)
While working at it on your own is fine, often we could use the help from others that have been there and done that. Having someone else give you feedback can help to widen your understanding on how you are doing and where you can improve which also adds a little motivation since you know how to do better next time.
This one can’t be said enough, especially if you want to master what you are starting. Repetition creates reinforcement. We’ve been taught that quality is always better than quantity. This applies to material goods but not so much when it comes to cultivating habits. An expert runner doesn’t spend most of her time reading about best running practices and how to run efficiently. She spends most of her hours running, fine tuning her skills with knowledge as she goes. Armchair mastery is no mastery.
- Push a little
Create a habit of challenging yourself to reach just a little out of your current capability. Just barely managed to a 5k in 45 minutes? Let’s try for 42 minutes next time. Just made your first butter cake? Great! Let’s add on an icing to the next one and see if you can make that work. Adding a smaller goal on top of what you can already do helps build momentum as you progress, and spices up your practice without taking away from it.
I think it’s important to sometimes stop the grind just for a moment and look at how far you’ve come, even if you aren’t progressing as fast as you’d like. You could think to yourself: “Gosh, no so long ago I couldn’t even imagine (starting activity). Now here I am (practicing activity as naturally as breathing). Reflecting can help realign goals and reignite passion when you’ve had your head down in practice for too long.
Ultimately, when it comes to starting something new, there is a universal truth: either you took the steps to make it happen or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, you either don’t care (in which case you weren’t really interested anyway) or you regret not going for it. Between fear and regret, fear simply exists in the moment and vanishes in the next. Regret on the other hand, weighs a lot more and for a lot longer.
Here’s a motivating, yet slightly morbid example: 10 years from now you’re lying in bed, scrolling on your phone or reading a book when you realize the air around you has gone still. There is no sound around you. You look around the room to find that the clock has stopped working. Time has stopped. You hear a voice manifest and you look to the foot of your bed. There a figure shrouded in black rags stands. You can’t make out a face because there is none — it is a skull that is loosely hidden behind those rags. In one skeletal hand the figure holds an old pocket watch, in the other a large scythe supported by its shoulder. The Reaper has decided to pay you a visit and all that it means.
You breathe in deeply and let out a long sigh. Facing the Reaper, you ask if it’s really time. It nods. Then it speaks, without its jaw moving and in a surprisingly comforting and understanding voice, asking a simple question: “Regrets?” You take a moment to think back these last 10 years. You look the Reaper in the eye socket and with a sly smile plastered on you respond “None whatsoever”. If a skull could smile, it would have as the gentle voice replied “Borrowed time well spent. A life well lived”. Everything then fades to black.
What will you say in those final moments?