Breaking the Habit of Self-Doubt
Several weeks ago, I experienced something nearly every so-called “creative entrepreneur” has dealt with at least once in their career (if not once a week): Project Meltdown. I was only a few days away from a video shoot I'd been planning for several months when a major part of the preparations fell through at the last minute. I'd never taken on a media project with so many moving parts, and as I felt the support for the awkward load I'd been shouldering shift without warning, I was staggering to keep my balance.
Following this setback, there were plenty of technical and logistical issues to consider. Could I learn what I needed to know about the technology in time to fill in the gaps? Would I physically be able to make everything run smoothly? Would I be too distracted to play my best? Was my playing even ready, anyway? As these concerns swirled around my brain, they all seemed like a perfectly reasonable excuse to get derailed. After all, no one else was begging me to make this video, there wasn't a deadline, and even if it went well, the impact on my career might be minimal or nonexistent. So why struggle?
Letting it go seemed like the obvious thing to do, and I felt myself slide into a familiar story of resignation and despair. “If it's going to be this hard,” I groused, “it can't be worth it. It must be a sign that I could go back to the drawing board. I should rethink everything. I should wait until I feel ready. Next week would be better. Next month. Next year...” Or maybe never.
The Fear of Falling
As I mulled over what to do, I traced this familiar story of retreat back in time. When I was a toddler, my parents were puzzled by the fact that though I could talk anyone's ear off, I didn't seem especially keen on learning to walk. “You didn't need to,” they often joke, “once you realized you could just order everyone around!” It makes me smile to envision myself as a bossy baby demanding adults hand me things or pick me up, but now I wonder if there was something else behind my apparent lack of motivation, my resignation to staying on all fours. Maybe I was just really afraid of falling.
One evening well into my pre-walking stage, my parents left me in the care of an uncle who thought it was high time that I learned to get around on my own. His kids, my older cousins, were fearless. They did swan-dives off the TV stand onto the bed, tore around on four-wheelers, and would try any sport or game on offer. Aside from some gentle teasing, the family respected my more delicate nature, but maybe this time they thought I needed a little shove in the right direction. I don't remember the evening myself, but suffice to say that when my parents returned to pick me up, they were greeted by the sight of me toddling my way from one side of the room to the other, and though I'm sure I've fallen many times since, I've never stopped walking.
As I returned to the video project hanging in the balance, I saw that the snafu I'd encountered was stirring up some very old fear I'd faced learning to walk. I could either move forward or stay slumped like an overgrown toddler, reaching for something beyond myself, feeling bereft of the help I needed, and looking for an excuse not to summon the courage to grow up.
Turning the Story Around
As I pondered what to do, I thought back to a workshop for emerging conductors several days earlier that had left a powerful impression. One of the participants, no doubt feeling somewhat nervous to be in front of the orchestra for the first time and exhausted from a long week of intensive training, was having trouble getting through a mixed-meter section, and was getting increasingly flustered. When the program director stopped to offer her some advice, I could see her blinking back tears of frustration. It seemed like her moment on the podium was slipping out of her control. But then, she paused. She closed her eyes and gathered herself, and though it lasted only a fraction of a second, I felt I could read the expression on her face perfectly: “Nope, not going there.” She opened her eyes with a refreshed, determined smile, and led us through the section much more smoothly. The performance that evening was even better.
As I thought back to my video, I realized this woman had given me a lesson in facing the feelings of helplessness at the core of my indecision. After all, I hadn't suddenly lost interest in my project, nor had I discovered some unsurmountable obstacle or fatal flaw. I was just looking for any reason at all to abandon the project and myself, because as awful as it felt, it was just so temptingly familiar.
What stopped me in my tracks, just like that conductor, was seeing what a lifetime of making that same decision over and over would add up to, no matter how readily I could justify it in this individual instance: one enormous wasted opportunity to express myself and engage with the world. It was alarming to see how easy it would've been to collapse, and recognizing how often I'd unwittingly made that choice helped give me the conviction to try something different this time.
One Step at a Time
Once I saw how my habitual response had hijacked me, I could see more clearly. Was I really alone and helpless? Was there a way forward that didn't involve abandoning the whole thing? What resources did I need? I made the calls, I sent the emails, I did the research, I practiced. Each time I felt the urge to slide into helplessness, overwhelm, and self-abandonment, I just kept moving, and I ended up with a great video and learned a ton in the process.
And I remembered something else about learning to move forward on my own two feet. In high school, long after learning to walk, I ran two seasons of cross country, something that seems almost beyond belief to me now. I was a mediocre runner at best, one of the slowest on the team, chronically sleep-deprived from late nights of studying, overcommitted to extracurriculars, and dealing with a 90-minute round-trip commute to school. No one would've held it against me if I'd quit and stuck to things I was better at. So why didn't I?
Looking back, I could barely understand how I'd made it through practices, let alone the races, where I was invariably one of the last people over the finish line. So I went back and asked my sixteen-year-old self, gasping with exhaustion, what she had to teach me about not giving up on myself, and her answer was clear, not in her words but in her dogged, steady steps.
“You don't do it to win the race. You don't even think about the race, or the course, or how much is left, or who is winning. You just keep letting go of 'I can't', and take this step, and the rest is a miracle. Be thankful and amazed.”
P.S. Have an idea or suggestion for a future post? I'd love to hear from you!
P.P.S. If you want to see how the video turned out, check it out here!