Can I let you in on a secret? When I try something new, I always assume I’m incapable of it.
For example: after college, I worked as a technical writer for a consulting company. A local manufacturing facility wanted us to create a small- to medium-sized website for one of their departments. My boss told them I’d be the perfect web designer.
I had zero experience with web design.
The day before I met the client, my boss handed me a Web Design for Dummies book so I could prep. At the client meeting, I stammered a lot, but managed to spit back enough jargon that our company landed the job.
Now that I’d BS’d my way into a contract, I actually had to create the damn thing.
That night, my husband woke up to hear me arguing with myself in my sleep. “But I don’t know how to build a medium-sized website,” I moaned.
I really thought I’d screw up the assignment. But when I sat down to do the work, I realized that building a website isn’t rocket science. I did a perfectly adequate job. It wasn’t gorgeous, but it met the client’s parameters.
Underperforming Under Stress
But I don’t know how to build a small-to-medium website became a running joke between my husband and I, because the anxiety that made me sleep-talk comes up again and again. There are a lot of things I try in my life that I feel spectacularly unqualified to do—even if I’m perfectly qualified.
It’s as if I get freaked out by every pool of water, and then realize that a) I can swim, and b) the water is waist-deep.
The other day, I came across a mention of Harriet Lerner, the author of The Dance of Anger and other books. Lerner says most of us manage anxiety in one of two ways: through over-functioning (controlling, advising, rescuing) and under-functioning (getting less competent, depending on others to take over.)
I kind of wanted to over-function. It sounded better.
But then I thought of that small-to-medium-sized website. Crap, I thought.
Under stress, I usually under-function. New stuff stresses me out. every time, my brain recites a litany of my incompetence. Changing my homeschool strategy? I’m incompetent. Writing a book proposal? Incompetent. Hosting an event? Incompetent. Pitching work to a new website? Incompetent.
I’m like Pavlov’s dog: given a new challenge, I’m always sure I’m incompetent.
But there’s a plus side to the predictability: After realizing 1000 times that I’m not as incompetent as I assume, I can quiet the voices more quickly.
Here’s how to try new stuff even if you feel hopelessly inadequate:
Given that every time I try something new I face a mountain of fear, I have to pick my battles. Taking time each month to think clearly about what I’d like next month to bring helps me prepare myself for the battle. These aren’t all work-related goals. For example, I set goals to get together with friends because people make me nervous. Think about one or two tasks you could do in the next month would make you feel joyful, alive, and courageous, and write them down.
If I look at my list of tasks for the month and see, “Invite someone over for dinner,” I often go blank and avoid sending an email. But if I see a name written down? Part of the work is already done. Get specific: how many minutes will you spend on the task? How many days a week? What would success look like, and is it reasonably achievable? A nebulous “work on my book” is easy to ignore. “Write 500 crappy words” is a goal I can pull off in 30 minutes, even if I’m all nerves.
Do the task even if you’re lousy at it.
Cheryl Strayed, in her Dear Sugar column for the Rumpus, said of finishing her first book, “’I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked.” It’s okay to be terrible at something. Everyone is when they begin. But you can’t improve if you don’t try.
Be willing to suck at whatever you’re trying to do, and you’ll eventually improve with practice.
Acknowlege your fear.
Half of my energy with fear has been spent trying to convince myself I’m ridiculous for being afraid. I try to tell myself, a la Stuart Smalley, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it! People like me! It doesn’t work very well.
Lately, though, I just acknowledge the fear is there. It’s like a cat; it sits on my lap when I’m at my desk and tries to swat at my hands while I type. Instead of endlessly trying to get the cat out of my lap, sometimes it’s more realistic to move the keyboard far enough away that she can’t reach it and keep typing.
Stop being surprised.
Often I feel ashamed and lame that I hamstring myself. I hate being so predictably fearful. I hate freaking out over medium-sized websites. I hate selling myself short.
But if I treat my surges of anxiety and fear like inconveniences instead of character flaws, it’s easier to move past them. We all have coping mechanisms, each has its pros and cons. Having unhelpful responses to life means I am human. You know what? It’s not the end of the world. If my fear doesn’t surprise me, I can concentrate on what’s important: What is my assignment for today, and how can I do it faithfully (not brilliantly, but faithfully)?
Keep expectations low, then celebrate.
Today I had a stomachache before I sat down to edit my manuscript. I’d set a goal to work through 2000 words. Every word was a slog, and I really phoned it in. But when I saw my word count was 2000, I closed my computer, lay down on my couch, and finished the murder mystery I’d eyed for an hour. I’d done the minimum, and it was enough. And it felt really good to enjoy a book.
Competent doesn’t mean brilliant.
You don’t have to be brilliant every time you try something hard. You don’t have to triumph. You just have to show up do the work that’s required.
What if you were a working stiff about your dreams? Showing up, meeting goals, then letting yourself off the hook for quality control? What if it was okay to be mediocre, but diligent? What if you set the bar for ‘failure’ very low?
Most complex dreams are just grunt work dressed up in fancy clothes. Show up enough, write or create or try something and you’ll be surprised by what happens.
It’s okay to be afraid. It’s normal. Let’s do the work anyway.