As a teenager I once spent a day at a challenge camp where, long story short, I chickened out and failed to reach the top of a 10-15 foot rock-climbing wall.
It was a failure I occasionally thought of over the next 10 years, always with a sense of disappointment and a wish for a re-do. Consequently, when my dear new husband suggested we visit a rock-climbing gym with a 30’ wall, he found me much more persuadable than I usually am about exercise.
At the gym, I scrambled halfway up the wall so quickly that he had trouble keeping the safety rope taut. Then, unable to find my next handhold, I looked down – and was instantly terrified. The floor looked immensely far away and, even though the logical mind trusts the harness, the subconscious mind still finds it unnerving to be clinging to a wall so far from solid ground. I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was go higher.
But I remembered that last failure. It would be too awful to fail twice in a row; too embarrassing if 10 years were not enough to work up my courage. And I sensed that if I stopped this time, there was almost no chance of succeeding with a future attempt. And so I continued, even if a few “I’m really scared and I really don’t want to do this!” whimpers escaped me and I cringed all the way.
I reached the top and returned to the ground shaking with adrenaline. But to leave it at that, while the experience was still scary, wasn’t really overcoming anything. I decided I needed to struggle up at least twice more to get used to the idea – a version of getting back on the horse that threw you. I wasn’t done being afraid yet and I wanted to be.
To my immense surprise, the very next time I went up, it was easy!
What? How did that happen?
The brain is a funny thing. When it encounters something new, especially if something about that new thing seems like it should be scary or hard to do, the thing becomes hard to do – whether or not it actually is, or should be. Once we have overcome the fear and done that thing, the brain recalculates the possibilities and says, “Well, I did it fine that time, so there’s no reason I can’t do it again.”
The flip side is that the longer we think about how hard something will be, the harder it becomes to beat the inertia. This is something I wanted to talk about in One Stranger at a Time but didn’t quite get to. The longer you think about how you should talk to someone, the more nervous you make yourself, and the less likely it is you will ever do so, because you have added fears to the initial shyness – “But we’ve been sitting in silence all this time. They’ll think it’s weird if I start talking now.” (At least, that’s a favorite of mine. Yours may vary.) I find the same holds true for most things.
The time it is easiest to do something new is the moment you first think to do it, preferably before you’ve had time to become afraid. The next easiest time is as soon as you become aware of the fear. Don’t give it time to grow. Prove it can be done, and make it easy.