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Fear as an Energy Surge

Oct 2012 - Grand Rapids

Fear itself is one of the key inhibiters of people that prevents them from achieving everything that they could achieve. Just acknowledging that you’re afraid of something gives you a chance to shine light on it and examine whether it’s actually a rational fear. I believe that the vast majority of all fears in the world are irrational. If you start examining the things that you are afraid of, you’ll find that they’re not worth being afraid of. And all the time and energy you put into fear can be unleashed and you can use it for something else much more worthwhile. – David Heinemeier Hansson, on This Developer’s Life

Fear is such an ever-present feature in my life that at times I cease to notice it at all. I go about my day, doing what I do, and only later realize that what I took for laziness, sloppiness, or just plain orneriness is actually fear screaming desperately for attention.

In the recent past I’ve been nearly paralyzed with fear about:

Oddly, it manifests itself as:

Amazing how much of me being a jerk is actually me being anxious. :-)

Learn fast: your imagination abhors a vacuum

The opening quote is from the Play episode of the fantastic This Developer’s Life podcast. David Heinemeier Hansson is the creator of Rails and an epic figure in the Ruby community. He’s wealthy, influential and secure in his technical legacy. A nerd hall-of-famer. But he feels fear like the rest of us:

I don’t respond well to frightening situations. […] I don’t like the sensation of being frightened. […] If something is perceived to be scary… can I learn more, can I know more to realize that it’s not very scary at all? […] Knowledge helps me combat or sidestep any fears that I might have. – David Heinemeier Hansson

He’s a nerd, so he deals with fear in a very intellectual way: information-gathering. How much of what we fear basically boils down to “I don’t know what will happen”? Our imaginations replace the question marks with worst-case scenarios that share one killer feature: emotion. Neuroscience has shown that the things we believe strongly are the things we feel strongly, so when one of these flights of fancy gets your fear-adrenalin going it can be very hard to shake off, even after the danger is past.

The lesson here? Start gathering your information as quickly as possible, because your imagination abhors a vacuum. Once you’ve filled in some of those blanks, your imagination doesn’t have as much room to work and you can think more clearly.

That’s not fear you’re smelling: it’s crap

Talking about fear isn’t something we do much – if any – of in a work environment, especially when it’s a competitive environment. We’ve been told from a young age that people can “smell fear” and will pounce on the weak like a lion on a wounded zebra. Therefore we should hide our fears: “fake it” until we make it. Deny all weakness.

So why is DHH comfortable with talking about this in public? Is it because he’s on top of the world and no longer has to worry if someone discovers that he’s human? No clue. He doesn’t say.

But one thing I do know is that the “common wisdom” – like most common wisdom in general – is a load of crap. In my experience, the best way to make an honest connection with someone is to confess that you’re a bit uncertain about something. Especially with someone you’ve just met.

When it comes up in conversation with friends the whole atmosphere changes: we’re being real now, not telling each other how awesome we all are or searching for something/somebody we both hate in order to be united against a common foe. It’s a good thing, if you want to be real friends. Hence, don’t do it with anybody you don’t really want to be friends with. :-)

Don’t start ranting about your downsizing fears with the next person you follow through the lunch line, but something like “this is a bigger group than I’m used to” or “maybe I should have dressed up a bit more” will put any normal listener in a supportive mood. They’ll tell you you look fine, and not to worry. If you’re lucky, they’ll confess some minor concern as well, and then you’re partners in uncertainty. By some magic, anxiety has brought you closer together.

That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, for the introverts we developers tend to be, but most things worth doing are hard.

That’s not fear, it’s an energy surge

Which brings me to RubyConf 2012. It’s a big deal for me. The first out-of-town tech conference I’ve been to since 1998, with a very real chance of meeting people whose exploits and opinions I’ve followed online for years. It’s a big pile of unknowns, so fear has lit up my dashboard.

In a happy twist of fate, my anxiety has made me hyper-productive: relaunching this blog after years of inactivity, watching screencast after screencast about OOD and testing, inhaling tech podcasts like the Ruby Rogues and the aforementioned This Developer’s Life, finishing Sandi Metz’s amazing Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby then immediately beginning Martin Fowler’s seminal Refactoring book.

The learning has been enjoyable but also nerve-wracking, because the driving force behind it all is don’t embarrass yourself, so no amount of preparation will ever be enough. I’m preparing for an enemy I can’t know in advance and that probably doesn’t even exist.

These are my people, my fellow nerds. If there’s a place on the planet I am less likely to embarrass myself, it’s probably the easy chair I’m sitting in right now: in my house, surrounded by my family. But while I sit in this chair, I’m writing this confessional, so even that’s not a guarantee. :-)

I’ll close with a thought from another hall-of-famer: Jack Nicklaus. In his book Golf My Way, he talked about fear and winning golf championships. My copy is long-since lost, but the gist was that most guys got butterflies on the first tee on Sunday when they were in contention and thought “Oh, man, I’m really nervous… I’ve got to calm down or I’m going to blow this.” Nicklaus believed the guys who ended up winning the tournaments were the ones who realized that that’s not fear, it’s excitement: an energy surge you need to win golf tournaments. Nicklaus said he’d know he was done with tournament golf if he ever stopped feeling that excitement, because it would mean he no longer had the energy he needed to win.

4 days to RubyConf. A little nervous. A lot excited. It’s going to be epic.

Post Script

In keeping with this blog’s focus on – and delight in – self-improvement, one more great quote from that same interview:

I think I’m addicted to improvement in itself. I’m addicted to becoming the best at whatever it is I try to do, for my own satisfaction. That is fun. The fun is improving. – David Heinemeier Hansson