I came across this image (from a Julia Evans tweet) last night and I was thinking about it a lot today. Although it’s about software debugging it’s applicable to hard problems of any kind.
We are about 4 months away from being in full family transition, setting sail for Scotland from the U.S.A. There is a lot up in the air and the only thing that is certain is that this will be a moment of unmooring for us all. Many people have asked me how I feel about it. “Am I scared of moving?” they ask, “I would be.”
I’ve come to the realization that for me, it’s the exact opposite. I am afraid, but I am most afraid of not doing it. Doing it fully. I am afraid that I am not able to conquer the fears that have been both a great builder of strength and a great liability to me up to this point in my life. Rather than feel like I’m giving up what I have, I’m more fearful of missing an opportunity, that I might give up what I know I could have more of. I’m not talking about stuff, but rather, time, experiences, learning. I’m afraid of not knowing what else is out there. Afraid of succeeding. This fear of discovery and realization is new though. For most of my life, I didn’t want to do anything unsettling.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”Jack Canfield
Like most commonly held fears, I can trace most of mine back to childhood experience. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my sister and I went through multiple family configurations and many different schools from grade 2 through college. We moved with my Mom to a different state at one point (Washington) and spent the school year there and visited my Dad during school breaks. Of course, throughout this I felt like I had no control of my situation. I had to make new friends continuously and what I wanted most was to fit in, to have a “regular” home, and I wanted my Dad back. Being slightly overweight, short, wearing glasses and being obsessed with video games meant I was destined for my fair share of bullying and ridicule. Junior high was hard. High school was harder. Eventually, I figured it out. The lack of emotional stability at home and the desire to be part of the tribe of my peers made me very adaptable and it drew me to seek to create my own order (I’m an organizer and communicator by trade, huh!). It also made me amenable to people of all sorts, and taught me that making friendships is a lot easier if you are open minded and a good listener.
As a result of these experiences, my life has since been defined as one seeking stability and maintaining the status-quo. I am very lucky to have all of the comforts and success that I have, but I can see ways that my fear of instability and of not fitting in have held me back in my personal and professional life, and it’s time for me to learn to set them aside.
I’m trying to shift my stance towards fear and approach decisions differently now. I want to do more things that give me that sense of fear, not less. I’m trying to not to look at the cost of my fears coming true, but rather the cost of them not coming true. Said another way, what likely opportunity (versus unlikely risk) am I missing out on by giving fear the final say in a decision?
I’ll give some examples of fears that I’m wrestling with related to our move to Scotland this summer, and how I’m thinking about them in an inverse way than many others in my life seem to be.
Here are three of my big fears with the move:
- Moving to Scotland will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities
- Moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained
- Moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially
Note that I didn’t say they were rational fears! But, what if I looked at them differently, like this:
- NOT Moving to Scotland will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities
- NOT Moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained
- NOT Moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially
Is there truth here? Is it just as likely, if not more, that this alternative will happen? I think so. Here is how I think about it:
- Not moving will deprive Sam and Vivian of (educational and other) opportunities: I dread that Vivian and Sam will end up having awful experiences in school, either with crap teachers, school bullies, or infinite other cruelties, but that can (and will inevitably) happen anywhere. We live in a great school district in the US with all the advantages that implies, but I know that the first-hand experience with a new culture, seeing kids and people that are different than them, and building friendships from scratch will pay off more in the long run than anything they will learn in school.
- Not moving to Scotland will cause my relationship to my wife to be strained: Being in a relationship is something you have to constantly do, it needs to be active and provide sustenance to both people involved. This means different things for different people, but for us, travel and new experiences are important. Following this dream generates energy that forges new bonds. Not following through with a move would keep things comfortable, perfect conditions for things to atrophy. Our relationship will surely be tested throughout this next chapter, and that’s exactly the point.
- Not moving to Scotland will set me back career-wise and/or financially: I’m going to set aside the imagined/real impact of Brexit for the moment on this one. If I were to believe that I am better off to stick with what I have now, I must believe three things. The first is that I need to maintain my current salary to be happy. The second is that I can reach my full potential in what I do now. And third is that equally great opportunities (or likely even greater) don’t exist or aren’t attainable in myriad forms and places that I have yet to discover. I choose to believe none of it.
Looking at where my fears come from, how they’ve both benefited me and held me back, and the worst-case of them coming true vs potential upside of them not, is a practice I hope to revisit regularly when making big decisions.
Yes, I am afraid of moving, but in the best way possible. Fear will always be present, and I choose to embrace it as an ally, a compass that is telling me something interesting is happening, and look for the opportunity behind it. Try it and you might be surprised what you see.