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Fear, and why you have to ignore it sometimes

Fear of Falling

Fri Oct 2 17:10:00 2009

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At the social on wednesday, somebody was talking about going to conferences and, well, just talking to people, and that their significant other was amazed they could just walk up to people and start a conversation. Which, yeah, ok, my experience is that at conferences there are two sorts of people - the people wandering up to anybody who looks interesting and starting a conversation, and the people who have no clue how you could possibly do that because it's scary as all hell.

What I thought was interesting was that the guy was saying he'd changed categories; used to be scared of it, now quite enjoys it - though he still twitches a bit from time to time.

Which reminds me of a story.

I am scared witless of heights. Not the "oh no it's high" thing, give me a guard rail and I'll lean out over it to see the ground. But if there isn't one I get the awesome irrational fear that I'm going to up and leap off whatever it is and ... splat.

So, you know it's silly. You know it's not helping. You know there's no real reason for it. But you can't quite take that leap (or in my case, convince yourself you aren't going to take a leap :).

I just lived with this fact for years, but it always got on my nerves, and then one day I started working in a 5 story office with a nice view from the roof. So I started eating lunch up there, sat on the side of the roof, facing inwards, and got a lovely crick in my neck from turning round to watch the view.

And I thought, "this is just silly". So I started eating lunch with my legs dangling over the edge so I could see the view properly. Although I ate lunch with one hand, since the other was firmly gripping the other side of what I was sitting on so I could convince myself I wasn't about to launch my body out into the void. After a few weeks I realised that it wasn't bothering me that much any more and I could actually buy food that needed both hands to eat.

Now, pretty much, this is how the guy I was talking to got from A to B as well. He made himself start talking to people - as cog says in his introduction to YAPC talks, there's not a perl hacker born who's going to be upset if you say "hey, who are you, can I grab you a drink?" at a conference.

I reckon this probably applies to contributing to stuff as well - I got a non-sensible initiation when I sent my first patch off and the reply was "don't care about this anymore, want co-maint?" but it was still a weird thing to be saying to one of the people who wrote the modules I used every day "hey, I think I've done this better than you, check it out!".

I think ... I think the point I'm trying to make it that getting over that hump and finding a way to try, to ignore what you know if fundamentally an irrational fear, is the most important first step. Because after that it gets easier every time.

Even now, the twitch is still there at the back of my head - so a few months back when I was waiting to meet a girl, I thought about sitting on a wall but there was a drop onto train tracks the other side and my brain went twitch and I went "ah". And it became a matter of principle. She thought I looked pretty silly sat on the wall given it wasn't actually very comfortable but I was there for twenty minutes and by the end the twitch had gone away again.

So maybe we can never get rid of these things, but we can ignore them and get on with doing cool things. I've seen a lot of nice views since I taught myself out of that, and from a better angle than I did before.

If you want another story though, I'm not exactly shy but there was a time when I had no idea how to start a conversation with a pretty girl (you in the back, yes I probably have no idea how to have a successful conversation even now but that's not my point, shoo) and a good friend of mine decided to fix it. By wandering round at clubs with me and striking up conversations with girls, and then disappearing mid-conversation so I had no choice but to carry it on. It probably helped they were stuck talking to me by the same set of social rules, of course, but eventually I got to the point of not being scared of the process even if not exactly competent yet.

Extrinsic or intrinsic, something has to force you past that first hump, that first attempt. Finding a way to make it easier - a roof wall where you can hang on in my case - can help a lot when you're trying to do it for yourself. Finding somebody to fait accompli you also works, but is harder - when I and a group of the usual crowd wander to find a different pub at a conference I usually try and take a few people we've never met before along with us because that sort of mixing pot is a great way to come across new ideas.

It's always worth getting past that hump - making a first attempt at something. And if you look at it as the victory being making an attempt at all, you can crash and burn as badly as you like and it doesn't matter. In fact, that's sometimes a good thing - it sets you a nice low standard to beat on your next attempt (my first conference talk was like that, I kept myself cheerful through the next few by thinking "at least I didn't screw it up as badly as the first time"). The essential thing is to squash the annoying irrational part of your mind going "Are you sure? Are you really sure?!" and just ignore it until later.

I think what I'm trying to say is that there's things we're all irrationally afraid of, and things we're all nervous as hell about because we genuinely don't know what's going to happen. But if you don't get past your fear of falling, you'll never find out what's on the other side. Sometimes the answer is "nothing you care about". But sometimes it's a lovely view across rolling farmland, or a chance to give back to the community you're a part of, and sometimes it's even an interesting conversation with a pretty girl.

And all these things are worthwhile. Be a shame to miss them because you never even tried.

-- mst, out