Saturday, 7 July 2012

Fear is not the mind-killer...

One week from today, I’m travelling to Chicago for the SLA Conference 2012 and I’m afraid (1). Fellow ECCAer, Ruth Jenkins, has written about some of the preparation involved and the accompanying fear-causing things. We share several firsts: first big US conference, first solo flight, first trip to the USA – as Sam says, “it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” For me, there’s also the following fears: I’m afraid I’ve received more ‘survival’ tips (2) than I can possibly remember; I’m afraid I can’t make a good impression on all the people I meet; I’m afraid of going to more conference sessions than I can absorb or of missing important sessions; I’m afraid of writing a travelogue that won’t do justice to the experience (3); I’m afraid of squandering this opportunity; I’m terrified of accepting an award at an early stage in my career and thus setting myself up for diminishing returns, ignominy, and eventual failure. 

And it feels fantastic. This is a real, sharp, crystalline, genuine fear of the unknown, of risk and of danger, and it’s the first time I’ve felt the like in years. 

McCormick Place: largest conference centre in the United States. Terrifying. From Flickr user: RauchWerks.

As I’ve grown up and become the person I want to be, I’ve stopped feeling the fear that used to be such a defining part of my personality. Through college and university, I was filled with this sharp fear and tremendous amounts of anxiety. About life, about the city I lived in, about the future, about coursework and exams, and particularly about social situations. The world was a huge and terrifying place, venturing out of my house was dangerous, telling people how I really felt would leave me exposed and vulnerable, and interacting with people socially would lead to embarrassment and degradation. I was nervous, I was shy, and I was introverted to the point of semi-solipsism. 

But life turned and I changed. I came to own the fear and subsumed the social anxiety as a part of my personality turning a genuine fear into a fashionable affectation. A certain nervous energy became part of the Zach Braff-ian ‘anxious nerd’ archetype that I adopted as a chrysalis until my real personality was developed enough to exert itself. I accepted the fear, acknowledged it, and in doing so turned my social anxiety into a defining characteristic. 

Now I’ve grown to a point where I no longer feel the fear as sharply or as often as I used to. As I’ve ventured out into the world and accumulated experiences, I’ve discovered that there is little to fear about life. Now I can give a presentation to a group of people (4) and feel entirely confident about doing so. I can go to the pub with a group of people I’ve only talked to on Twitter – virtual strangers – and feel genuinely excited about it. I can talk to my superiors at work, tell them how I’m feeling, and, to some extent, make demands without feeling anxious or scared of what they’ll say. I’m doing pretty well in my career and I’ve realised that at a certain point an excessive lack of self-confidence becomes irrational: I’ve done enough and achieved enough that some confidence is rationally justified. 

I think the reason why people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid. And that the reasons … 

That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. That is my personal opinion. 
David Foster Wallace quoted in David Lipsky (2010), Although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with David Foster Wallace

But as the fear has receded, I’ve learned that this kind of fear – this genuine fear of the unknown that I feel as I sit here today – is good. That’s why I’m excited to feel it with regards to the Chicago adventure. Because whenever I’ve felt this intense fear before, it’s changed everything for the better. Take for example the time I gave up a place at law school on a whim and applied to library school because it “felt right”. Take the time I gave up a secure, nice-enough, permanent job at an Army college to take a 6-month temporary contract at a university. These big changes – these big gambles – terrified me. But I did them anyway. And in both cases, they made life better than it was before. Fear is good. 

Do one thing every day that scares you. 
Mary Schmich (5) 

It’s the fear that helps us grow. By embracing it and moved beyond it, we become more willing and able to meet equivalently scary situations in the future. Getting past each fear represents levelling up until you’ve passed enough to not regularly feel fear. Until one day you wake up and discover that you’re not terrified all the time. I know that being afraid of going to Chicago is a good thing because by feeling afraid and doing it anyway, I will become more prepared for the road that continues to stretch ahead. 

(1) Apologies. This is a very personal post (hence the plague of personal pronouns) which may not be applicable to anyone other than myself and therefore fails as a piece of writing. However – justification – feedback I’ve received suggests that my personal blog posts – those conducting painful self-examinations – tend to be enjoyed and looked on favourably. So whatever… 

(2) Including tips about tips ie. the bizarre tipping culture of the United States.  

(3) I want to write a travelogue and journal of the ‘conference experience’ in the style of David Foster Wallace’s seminal essay on his cruise ship holiday. I’ve bought a new notepad for this very purpose. But he was a genius and I’m, well… not, so I fear I’m setting myself too high a standard. 

(4) As I did last Saturday: a presentation on E-resources for Dummies at the first event of the Manchester New Library Professionals Network

(5) Or Baz Luhrmann or Kurt Vonnegut or Eleanor Roosevelt. Whoever wrote it, I heard it in Wear Sunscreen.


Sarah Wolfenden said...

Fear can help unless it's crippling - sounds like you've got over that bit. To be honest, some of the scariest things that can happen are events that you never saw coming and as you can't change these there's no point worrying. Easier said than done but only worry about things which you can alter. Saying that, I'm terrified!

mmp said...

hope it's going really well!

Ned Potter said...

Me again - I'm ALL about commenting on your blog today... Just wanted to say, omg that tipping thing is scary, I think I've undertipped every time I've been in America and actually insulted people who've provided excellent service; how do Americans ever afford to DO anything at all, ever?

And: I'm SO glad that you've used the whole 'things have gone well so I'll be more confident' thing, as I get (very uncharitably) really frustrated with people for whom confidence is completely abstract and not related to how they're doing! So many info pros (and non-librarians too, of course) consistently do good things but don't seem to be able to call on the evidence of previous successes when assessing any given situation. This is, of course, the opposite side of the coin to the complacent arrogant people who are confident despite the fact they repeatedly mess-up. :)

I love a bit of evidence-based confidence. Otherwise positive experiences (and even negative ones) seem like a bit of a waste.