The summer I was six years old I was terrified a lake would swallow me up, I stopped fearing death.
You just made a thing. You want to tell humans about the thing. You send an email about the thing
Hey dude, here is this thing I made. I was wondering what you thought of it? Could you take a look?
You regret this email immediately. Your thing is terrible, you realize this now. You start to worry that everyone will discover you are terrible. You just wasted this human’s time. Your work is terrible. You are terrible.
The next day you wake up to a hundred mentions.
Hey dude, I saw your thing! What is this shit?
Haha look at this guy and his crappy work
I know right. This guy is terrible. His work is terrible.
Everyone hates you and everyone has discovered you are a fraud. Everyone knows you suck.
You close off twitter and go into work. Everyone is gathered around Jerry’s desk. Jerry, I fucking hate that guy. They are laughing at something. You get a bottle of hint water, a donut, and make your way over to see what all the fuss is about. Then you see it, your work on a 30 inch cinema, more pixels to see more of how terrible you are, more viewing angles so more humans can see that you are a fraud. They are laughing at you. Now they know you are a fraud too. You leave early that day.
You get home to an email from your CEO
Hey, can you jump back on Slack for a second.
Fired over Slack. Then your house burns down. Then during a google hangout with a bearded Swedish guy from a cool new hip startup – you forget to put on pants. He cracks a joke about how even in Sweden they put on clothes sometimes. You don’t get that job. Your cat dies. You become homeless. One day Jerry runs across you begging for change and he hands you a dollar.
This is silly. This would never happen but this is how my brain works. This is what I worry about, so I do what is easiest, I avoid things.
The summer I was six some kids convinced me the pipe that ran on the lakebed could suck you in. "If you aren’t careful it can pull you in", they said. For weeks every time we went to the lake I was convinced I could be sucked in at any moment. I carefully avoided the pipe and always swam swiftly over top of its location. When I’d forget and end up above it, it would send me into a panic and I would swim away as fast I could.
I tried convincing myself that everything was fine and that it was silly to think I could be sucked into a pipe but to a six year old a dangerously placed pipe at the bottom of a swimming area seemed reasonable. Incompetent adults surely cared so little for the safety of children that they would do such a thing without a second thought. It seemed plausible enough to me.
Try as I might, I could not get rid of the fear of that pipe. I could not forgot about it. I could not push it from my mind. I became controlled by the fear that this pipe would suck me in. Swimming that summer became defined by all the rituals I would go through to help with my anxiety. I’d always make sure I knew where the pipe was. I always made sure to swim over it as fast as possible. I made sure I never drifted over it and that I always had a line of sight to an adult so I could scream for help, in case the pipe suddenly powered up or something. My anxiety took control of me and ruined my ability to enjoy swimming for weeks and weeks.
Then something strange happened, I realized that it wouldn’t be so bad being sucked into a pipe. Sure, I would probably drown and die but it wouldn’t matter, I’d just be dead. Suddenly I was free from the anxiety. I realized that it no longer had any control over me. I stopped being frightened by it and I got my summer back.
That summer never really stuck as a life lesson. It was just the way I defeated the lake monster, it was how I got my summer back. I stopped caring about the worst case scenario and suddenly I was free.
I’m in a constant war against anxieties, they are monsters always lurking; underneath beds, in closets, on the bottom of lakes. I have setup countless defenses to keep them at bay. I have built blanket forts, I have taken pills, I have adopted self-care and excercise regiments that make me stronger. I constantly remind my brain that "they aren’t real". I’m terrified that they are real. I’m terrified of the worst that could happen happening. I’m terrified of emails resulting in me being discovered as terrible. I’m terrified of a pipe on the bottom of a lake sucking me in.
In July I played in the World chess Open (U1800). In the 3rd round I was outplayed by someone much stronger than me (big opens attract the underrated – I’m not the only that takes longs breaks from rated play) and this sent my emotions spiraling. When I sat down to the next game I was an anxious wreck. I was terrified of losing. I was terrified of messing up. I was determined to not mess up. I blundered horribly and lost the game while executing a winning a tactic. My anxiety killed my game.
I went back to my hotel room pissed. I was so angry at myself. I was so disappointed. I regretted ever having taken up chess again. Then something happened, I realized it didn’t matter if I lost. I was 25, I was no longer a strong junior (relatively) hoping for a scholarship one day, I was a slightly above average player, I wasn’t losing anything when I lost a chess game (except maybe some prize money). It didn’t matter if I lost, it didn’t even matter if I won. The only thing that mattered is what I wanted to take from the experience. I realized I just wanted to enjoy the game. Suddenly I didn’t need to worry about the anxiety either. What did it matter if I got anxious and lost? Who cares!
I proceeded to win all my next games. Most importantly, I finally enjoyed the game again. I didn’t care about winning or losing or fucking up. I just cared about making the best moves I could. I gave myself permission to feel anxious, to fail, to do whatever the hell I wanted and it freed me. Suddenly my love for chess returned. I felt like a beginner again with nothing to prove myself or anyone else. I could just play. And I played pretty well.
I have spent most of my life desperately avoiding failure. I became so defined by my desire to avoid a failing business and college that I became a shut-in. I did the greatest avoidance of all, I tried to not exist.
Although I left that shut-in life behind, the last few years have been defined by the same sort of avoidance. I avoid sending emails. I avoid sending job apps. I avoid interviews. I avoid success just as much as I avoid failure.
The measures I have taken to prevent anxiety have become the cause of it. I’m too anxious to try another interview so I don’t get a job, which makes me broke, which makes it hard to afford things, which makes me unable to do things, which makes me stressed. I’m in a constant vicious cycle where avoiding things makes me more likely to avoid things.
I cant go on like this. I have decided to end it at the source, to stop avoiding things. I will do the reverse of what I have done previously. I will organize my life around doing the things that I would otherwise avoid. I will send the emails first. I will apply to jobs first not later. I will reach out and network and be myself. I will be brave.
Humans are wired for a time when the worst happening meant death or starvation. But stuff like not getting a job, losing the chess game, messing up an interview, even homelessness these aren’t things to fear like death or starvation. The worst that could happen isn’t so bad anymore.
Do you know who disproportionately are the biggest entreprenuers? The wealthy. They don’t fear less, they have to less fear. They aren’t risk seekers, they have less risk. The worst that could happen isn’t so bad for them. Want to be like them? Accept your worst case scenario just as they accepted theirs. Their worst case might be a studio apartment but yours might be homelessness. You can survive homelessness. You can go for it!
When you realize that you can survive the worst that could happen you become free. You suddenly have permission to just be. You can send the email. You can apply for the dream job. You can quit the job and pursue the dream. You can take risks in the chess game. You can tell the girl you like them, You can tell the boy you like them. You can travel to far away lands. You can swim across the monster at the bottom of the lake.
You can do this not because you are fearless but because fear has lost its meaning. What if the worst that could happen happened? Everything would be fine. It wouldn’t stop you.