A friend of mine posted a few days ago about her constant struggle with confidence and fear. Her post was mostly just an “argh, this is hard” vent sort of thing rather than being something in search of deep profound commentary, but it happened to cross with a rather terrific article entitled “Nobody Knows What the F*** They’re Doing” that another friend posted via Facebook, and it’s all apparently inspired me to write something about, well, confidence and fear and the appearance of knowing what you’re doing. I’m not sure it’ll actually have a point. It may just be me rambling on for a while. It will, however, inevitably get long, so I’ll stick it behind a cut tag.
I come from the other end of the spectrum as the friend who made the original confidence/fear posting. It’s just the way I’m wired; confidence is apparently part of my nature, to the degree that it really never occurred to me that I was confident until people kept *telling* me I was. I never thought about it. This does not mean there’s nothing that frightens me (institutionalized money like the IRS, for example, just freaks me the fuck out even if intellectually I appreciate that it’s not necessary to be freaked out), but it does mean that most of the time, if I want or am interested in something, I’m inclined to seize the bull by its horns even if I find the prospect somewhat alarming.
I was thirteen when I essentially learned to do that. I’ve blogged about it a few times before, but in a (largish) nutshell, on a class trip as a teen, I was wandering through the airport and saw a Really Cute Boy who looked oddly familiar. I spent a while hiding out and watching him, really very certain he *did* look familiar but not knowing why, and chickened out on going up and saying “Um, you look familiar, how come?” Turned out it was Kirk Cameron, star of the very popular TV show “Growing Pains”, which I’d never actually seen, but I’d seen his picture on friends’ bedroom walls. Twenty minutes later, after I’d slunk away, my classmates discovered and mobbed him, and I ended up at the back of this group thinking “If I’d had the nerve to go talk to him, I’d have actually gotten to *meet* him instead of being part of this mob. That was really stupid of me.” Flash forward fifteen years and I was in exactly the same situation again, only with Jim Byrnes of Highlander fame, and that time I by God went and talked to him. And he remembered me for *years* after that. Lesson learned. Anyway, so that’s sort of where I’m coming from on the whole topic of fear and confidence.
I don’t think being confident means you have no fear. Mostly I think it means you control it when it’s important. Lemme tell you, selling URBAN SHAMAN scared the holy living *bejeezus* out of me. Even though THUNDERBIRD FALLS was halfway written and I had something like 7 or 8 books under my belt at the time, part of me went AAGHGGLGLGHGLAHGLH I’LL JUST GIVE THE MONEY BACK I CAN’T DO THIS OMFG AAGHGGLGLGHGLAHGLH. And then I pretty much said “This is what you’ve been working for, so get a fucking grip, Kit,” and did. Because, well. It was what I’d been working for.
This is something They rarely mention: success is scary. Success is much scarier than failure. Failure is familiar, it keeps you in the same paths you already know, it doesn’t require much effort, and it doesn’t test your limitations. We as Americans, at least, are pretty much sold the idea that success is going to make everything Okay, that it will make life easy and beautiful and full of roses etc etc etc, but really it means treading new territory and facing the possibility of newer bigger more exciting failure, which is frankly not all that reassuring.
From the outside, however, success looks pretty shiny, and people very rarely say “Jesus Christ this is terrifying”, partly because again, we as Americans, at least, aren’t especially sympathetic to somebody who is succeeding and who then *says* “Jesus Christ this is terrifying”. I mean, really, why would we be? “Look at CE Murphy, she’s put fifteen books out in five years, she’s moved to Ireland which is half the world’s dream, she’s making a living as a writer, she has an absolutely fantastic family, what on earth could she possibly have to be afraid of or complain about?” And believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that I recognize that where I’m standing isn’t a position people are going to say “gosh you poor darling” over. Nor should it be, but it does tend to stymie any inclination to admit to fear of failure, which isn’t very helpful in societal terms where most people deal with their fears with very little idea of how other people–perhaps especially people perceived as being successful–may be coping.
To be fair, I don’t really have much fear of failure anymore. At this point I figure if I give something my best shot, then I’ve done what I can and that’s all I can expect from myself. And (to bring this back around), that probably *is* an aspect of confidence–but it took me quite a while to get to that level of acceptance or certainty in myself. I mean, like many other people I know, I bombed out of college. For me it was mostly because it was easier to fail than try, so despite being pretty much hard-wired /for/ confidence, I still very much had that self-destructive tendency. I *loathed* myself for it, and eventually scraped through on my teeth, but the whole overcoming a fear of failure isn’t something that stems from never failing, it’s just a matter of having gotten a grip on the fear.
Somebody in comments on my friend’s original post said she was pretty sure even the most confident-appearing of people were just faking it while inside they were cowering and whimpering. I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Certainly I’m trepidatious about going into new situations, as I imagine many people are, but … well, no, mostly, I really am that confident. The worst that can happen is it will all go horribly, horribly wrong, but essentially if you don’t take that risk, you also don’t take the chance that it will all go wonderfully, amazingly right. There’s a Zen quote which I’m very fond of: “Leap, and the net will open.” I’m a big believer in the net opening.
I don’t think this is the same thing as always knowing what you’re doing, though. I’m pretty sure I /look/ like I know what I’m doing most of the time, but huge amounts of what I do is contingent upon things over which I have absolutely no control. It’s a little hard to actually know what you’re doing, in that case. I’ve got my five year plans, certainly, but my “plan” to get 10 CE Murphy books on the shelves in five years was based entirely on publishers deciding to buy that many books. The best I could actually do was *try*, but pfffssshhht, there’s jack-all that can be done about a plan to get 10 titles on the shelf if publishers only buy 4 books. As it happened, it *worked*, which I suspect leads (not just with me, but in general) to the perception that if somebody’s succeeding, they’ve got a really clear idea of what they’re doing, what to do next, what do in case of failure, and that probably they have quite a few answers, many of which we don’t especially feel like we’ve got ourselves. I’m not sure having all the answers is all that important. I’m pretty sure being able to roll with the punches *is* important, because ‘Man plans, God laughs’. I suspect adaptation is a more useful and overlooked tool than is generally considered, in terms of the appearance of confidence and fear.
…yes, see, like I said, not sure I actually have a point, after all of that. Possibly my point is just that I think it’s probably perfectly fine and normal to be terrified of things, and that indeed, really, nobody knows what they’re doing, even those of us who tend to look like they do, and that possibly the biggest difference between where I stand on the edge of my precipice and where my friend stands on the edge of hers is that I believe that when I leap, the net *will* open.
But then, I believe hers will, too.
(x-posted from the essential kit)