April 10th, 2012

Scared

I popped up from the ground and ran. I was bleeding. A lot. My face was a mess, mashed into god knows what. But I couldn’t think about that. I was only half a block from my house, so I ran. I just ran.

Behind me lay my bike, left behind in an awkward angle, its front wheel released from the frame and its front fork jammed into the grass. The reflector lay strewn across the parking lot. My friend, who shifted from laughing to not laughing to genuine concern, ran behind me, trying to catch up.

I would later recount the scene to my father, my mother, an admitting nurse and a reconstructive surgeon: I was a half block from my house when my wheel had come off my bike. I was riding down a hill. The fork of my bike came down first, and I went up and over. My face went into the concrete. Where I slid. Where I spent just fractions of a second, jarred, confused. Then: alive.

I was alive. But I wasn’t hurting. I wasn’t in pain.

I was scared shitless.

Not Knowing Enough To Know What You Don’t Know

The web moves quickly, and we struggle to run along with it. I was reminded of this at the recent IA Summit in New Orleans, where I found myself hanging out with a group of the weekend’s speakers. As we laughed and ate and drank and talked about anything but information architecture, I realized that these people knew each other from way back. I was lagging in both familiarity and experience.

And, as the weekend rolled on, I realized just how much I was lagging in knowledge. The people I had spend the weekend getting to know were all accomplished speakers who could engage in hour-long discussions on IA, while all I could do is sit back and soak it in. I walked into the conference expecting to learn more about information architecture. I never expected to leave learning just how much I didn’t know about the field.

Turns out, this isn’t rare. This shit happens all the time.

Here’s some dude walking into a meeting with his first big client. Here’s a new author who’s signed an agreement for her first book. Here’s a small-time strategist who’s been asked to speak intelligently with much smarter people about things that may or may not be over his head.

These situations are common. They are called “New Situations”,” as in “This is something you’ve never done before.” They are situations in which we are required to be on point, knowledgable and charming, lying through our teeth about our experience. At all times, we’re scared to be found out, which means we’re scared of being discovered as an amateur.

As if we didn’t all start as amateurs. As if we weren’t all scared when we started something new. The difference is whether we took that fear and used it to our advantage.

My Little Black Book

I collect fears like some collect phone numbers, storing them away for future correspondance. Each one is categorized by relationship, given its own avatar and recalled as the mood fits.

Here’s a section I like to call “Professional Disembowelment.” It’s filled with doubts. I met them all when I started writing, and they still threaten to tear me apart. There’s the Fear of Being Found Out. There’s the Fear of Hackitude. There’s the Fear of Speaking and Not Knowing What I’m Talking About. The gang’s all here, folks, and they’re ready to party.

Sometimes, I steal fears: “Will My Child Be Okay?” and “Am I As Big Of An Asshole As I Sometimes Seem?” are things I’ve seen manifest in close friends. “Will I Be Overweight Forever” was borrowed from the Mass Media Television Complex. “Am I A Good Husband/Father/Friend” was lifted from everyone, everywhere, ever.

We all have these little black books, where fears and anxieties collect and pool and begin choking on our ability to work and create and live. They stop circulation. As the pools become muddy and still, they continue to coalesce until we do something about them.

We can ignore them and watch as they silently take over. We can accept them and stay stagnant. We can confront them and learn from them.

I never delete a fear. I never know when I’ll need it again.

Here’s a Moral, I Guess

Without fear, I am nothing.

Without the fear of being left behind, not accepted by my peers, forced to live in the nerd I’ve imagined myself to be, I’d have never met any of my best friends. What’s more, I’d have never met Kerrie. I’d have never captured her heart. I’d have never learned to feed off of her strength.

Without being thrown into a new industry, forced to write by the seat of my patched-together pants, scared to death that a client was going to come back and ask why they had hired such a damned hack, I’d have never pushed myself to become better.

Without the fear that I’d be left out of something wonderful, I’d have never moved toward the web.

Without the fear that I’d be discovered as a fraud – scared shitless that I’d open a drawer and find a litter’s worth of rabbit feet, proving that everything from the past five years was an extended exercise in luck management – I wouldn’t keep fighting to learn more.

Where there’s fear, there’s consciousness. We don’t fear things we don’t care about. I am who I am because I’ve stopped fighting the uncomfortable. I’ve accepted fear as a necessary part of progress, separating it from anxiety, using it for good instead of for ulcers. I haven’t done anything special – nothing that we all can’t do. I just bucked up and accepted life. Accepted fear. Accepted progress.

Without the fear, I stand still. We all do. Fear is the next killer productivity app.

We Move On

It only took a few minutes to get to the emergency room. My mother arrived shortly after. I was bandaged, gauzed and cosmetically altered, my chin sewn together and swaddled in gauze.

I usually forget about the accident, but I’m often reminded of the scars. I can still feel the lump where my tooth punctured my lip. I can still see the white line on my chin that refuses to beard over.

I can still feel the impact. Every time I get on a bike. Every time I ride down a hill. Every time I wobble, my tire sticking in a curb or against a railroad track.

What’s more, I feel it every time Sierra gets on a bike in the backyard and starts riding in circles. I feel it every time Isaac, unaware of his own mortality, speeds down the sidewalk head first, feet dragging, full speed. It was my accident – my blood, and my shock – but I’ve saddled them with the repercussions. I hover over them, I coddle them, and I sometimes block the warm rays of carefree childhood.

When I was a kid, I was scared of people. I’ve never gotten over that; struggling against the undertow of introversion has become one of my pastimes. I hope that my kids will learn from my mistakes – that being scared is okay, that you SHOULD be scared, that you can’t progress without the fear of failure and the fear of mistakes and the fear of being discovered.

But they probably won’t. They can’t. They have to make their own mistakes. They will develop their own fears.

They will learn from them. They will become stronger. On their own. In time. With or without my help. Which means all I can do is hug them and comfort them and hope they learn their lesson long before I did.


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