When I was growing up, we’d sometimes head off to a local lake during the summer. There were several floats out in the water to play on and the farthest one out had a rickety ladder with a narrow board attached to it about ten feet in the air. We’d all dare each other to climb the ladder, walk across the plank where we’d stand with our toes grasping on to the very edge and look the looong way down into the murky water. I’d stand there a while, just staring into the unknown. A couple of times I turned around and went back down the ladder. Then I’d go back up again. My nerves ran high. I tell myself that other kids had already done it, it was just jumping into the water. I’d even done it before and liked it. It would take all the courage I had to leap.
I’d remind myself, “the first jump is the worst.” And it was. That first jump took so much effort, so much to break through the anxiety and jump anyway. Eventually I’d leap and on my way down I’d question, “what was I thinking?” That is, until I hit the water where I suddenly realized I was having fun. I’d surface with a big smile on my face, swim back to the float, and climb that ladder again. And again. And again. Each jump happened a little faster, with less anxiety and more confidence.
Steven Pressfield wrote a fantastic book called The War of Art. In it, he describes the constant battle with “The Resistance.” The Resistance is the block, usually anxiety, we feel when we try to do something creative, something that requires a risk, no matter how small. It’s that urge to clean the house instead of working on your thesis. It’s the reason you call a friend and have coffee for three hours instead of hammering out the business plan for your new endeavour. It’s why you surf the web for four hours (all on the name of research) instead of writing the next chapter of your novel. Our anxiety builds because The Resistance plays on our fear of the unknown. We don’t know if we’ll graduate or if people will fund our Kickstarter or if that novel will get published. There are no promises, just creative risks.
So what’s the solution? The only useful one I’ve ever found is knowing that The Resistance is always present. It’s not out to get you, you won’t feel better if you listen to its siren call and if you’re waiting to feel less anxious before you start, well, you are going to be waiting a very long time. As trite as it sounds, to quote another famous book on creative anxiety, you’ve got to “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.”
Really, that’s it, unfortunately. I can’t give you any magic powers or fancy answers or 12 steps to getting rid of your anxiety once and for all. We don’t expect gravity to just disappear when we try to shoot a basketball into the net. We just throw as hard as we need to overcome it. And sometimes we come up short. So we throw the ball the again.
In the movie “Joe Vs. The Volcano,” Meg Ryan turns to Tom Hanks as he wonders what’s in store for them as they get ready to jump into an active volcano:
“Joe, nobody knows anything. We’ll take this leap and we’ll see. We’ll jump and we’ll see. That’s life.”
The only solution is to jump over and over again. It gets easier each time. Really.
We don’t know anything- maybe your novel will become a NY Times best seller, or maybe it will sit in a drawer with the rest of the novels you write for the next 20 years. Maybe your new business is the beginning of your new empire – or maybe you’ll be closing the doors in six months because you couldn’t get any foot traffic through the door. But if you never jump, you’ll never know.
Last summer I took my daughters back to that lake I used to swim in as a kid myself. My not-so-big six-year old set her sights on that farthest float and the platform the moment we got there. After swimming out to it together, I watched her climb the ladder. A teen stopped his friend from climbing right behind her. “She’s gonna come back down,” he said to his friend. She took one last glance at me and with a look down and a deep breath, she jumped. I saw the panic as her feet left the board but it was too late to change her decision. She splashed into the water and as she surfaced and paddled her way back to the float, she could barely contain her euphoria as I pulled her up. “I wanna go again Mom,” she said. “I was really scared but it was totally worth it.” Atta girl.