2013-03-18

Throw Caution To The Wind

Let me begin this post by providing the usual caveats for this sort of advice: If you are trying to make a complex and important decision, it is always best to proceed calmly and rationally, analyze the available information, and make the most informed choice you possibly can. 

For most days in life, though, the choices and decisions we make are not so serious. It is for this reason that I recommend throwing some caution to the wind. I'd like to explore that concept a little bit this morning, and I will begin with an example from personal experience.

Why I Didn't Bike To Work Today
As I may have mentioned before, I intend to start biking to work. In my previous post, I had the good sense not to mention a specific date I would begin biking to work so as not to embarrass myself when the date came and went, and I didn't start biking to work... Of course, we here at Stationary Waves don't really have to resort to such face-saving measures, because part of the creed of this website is to confront all of our illusions plainly and simply, and work to overcome them. So, let me formally acknowledge that today was the day I initially intended to start biking to work every day, but doggone it, I chickened out.

I'm acting a bit silly here. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in a situation in which I have determined to take on a new challenge, and find myself not quite ready to tackle it. It's a new challenge, which means it's something I'm not already accustomed to doing, which means it's above-and-beyond the proverbial call of duty, which means, Hey, I'm a busy guy with a lot on my plate and if I have to chicken out on a new project because I'm not quite ready, that's okay. No harm, no foul.

This is what it means to confront the illusion (in this case, the illusion being that I am totally awesome and perfect and can take on any number of projects without ever failing) plainly and simply. Now it's time to work to overcome it.

The Courage To Fail
I have discussed fear and exercise before:
I certainly know plenty of runners who are convinced that they could "never" bench press their own body weight. I know - I used to be one of them. Then I met a good runner friend of mine, call him DC, who could bench press nearly double his body weight, and could still run further and faster than I could. What was my excuse? I furrowed my brow and proclaimed that I couldn't understand his ability to lift weights. 
But by then it was obvious: I was afraid to lift.
There are two sides to fear and exercise. The first is what I wrote about back then, which is the idea that we furtively cultivate a false narrative designed to help us avoid doing something that we know is difficult. When I was avoiding strength training, I was engaged in just such a narrative. The other side of it is the fear, not of attempting something difficult, but of failing to succeed. What's the difference? One is a fear of one's own abilities. The other fear is a fear of how one's performance will appear to others.

You might be afraid to run a marathon, for example, because you think you're just not built for it - that if you even attempt it, you will suffer significant injury. That's the first kind of fear.

The second kind of fear is when you actually do want to (say) run a marathon, but you're afraid to start training because if you have to back out for some reason, you think people will judge you harshly. You're afraid of the endless supply of pessimistic jerks who are ready to pounce on anyone's inability to achieve one simple, stupid think (and there are a lot of people like that out there). You're afraid of the well-meaning, but insufferable, sympathy you'll attract from friends - the kind of sympathy that expresses their own fears, the kind of sympathy that makes you feel like, just because you couldn't succeed this one time, you'll never be able to succeed.

Regarding my bike ride to work this morning, I'd say it was a good mix of the two kinds of fear. The majority of the fear was the first kind. I felt like I just wouldn't be able to make it all the way to work, and then shower at the gym, and then start working at a decent hour. But a good part of it was the fear that, after telling everyone about my ambitious plan to start biking to work and become a fitness superman, I'd humiliate myself if I bungled the ride.

The question is, though, what's the big deal? Even attempting a daily bike commute is more than what most people are willing to try. Sure, there are many people out there who bike to work and don't make a big deal out of it. But I think if I told them I couldn't quite bring myself to bike to work this morning, they'd understand. This is no different than how I react when someone tells me that they couldn't quite run a marathon (or a 10K, or heck even a 5K). I totally understand what it means to feel unsure of myself when it comes to running.

So there I was this morning, driving to work in the vexing freeway traffic, complaining as all the other motorists bobbed-and-weaved among each other, honking, swearing, speeding. All I could think about was how gorgeous the weather and sunrise were this morning, and about how much fun it would be to be riding my bike along the route I mapped out for myself over the weekend.

I was a sucker. I really should have just thrown caution to the wind and biked to work. I should have had the courage to fail. It's part of my creed. And in this case, the stakes are so low that I was simply foolish not to have done it.

Conclusion
Hobbies aren't very fun if you succeed every single time. Think about it. Whatever your hobby might be - whether it's gardening or video games or cooking or sports or fitness or music or whatever - if it is something totally easy, with a known outcome that can be predicted with 100% certainty, it just isn't very fun. The whole point of pursuing a hobby is taking on something that is beyond your current level of expertise and trying to do it.

When you finally do it, you have to expand your horizons. That means that if your hobby is video games, you have to buy a new game when you win the previous game; if your hobby is fishing, you have to try catching a 2nd fish (or a larger fish, or a fish in a more remote area) after you've caught the first fish; if your hobby is cooking, you have to cook something new once you've perfected the previous recipe; and so on.

The remarkable thing about all of this is that, because we enjoy our hobbies, we are almost completely unaware of the fact that until we succeed, we're failing. It comes with having a hobby.

See? Failing isn't a big deal. Success is the big deal. Everything else is just a warm-up.

I'm biking to work tomorrow!