The Fear

I was talking to my daughter. Her grades were very disappointing, and it’s because she’s not doing the work. So I pushed her on this, and she broke down, announcing she’s a total failure.

I knew the feeling. I’ve been afraid of failure all my life. And I chose an industry (the web) and a practice (UX) where failure is not only common, it’s an accepted part of the process.

There are many moments I want to crawl into a hole and hide when I’m working on design. They mostly involve the awkward minutes, hours, days I’m staring at a piece of paper… or a whiteboard… or my computer screen and waiting for the moment the ideas start to come out of me.

And every time, I feel embarrassed that yet again it took me three days to pull together a design plan I’m happy with. And every time, it turns out just fine, and I promptly forget the next time around to give myself the space I need to face my fears.

Five years ago, I went to Cincinnati to give a talk at HighEdWeb, the pre-eminent conference for people who work on the web in higher education.

I was incredibly nervous about what I wanted to talk about, and the anxiety had created a disjointed mess of a slide deck. I’d had a disaster of a presentation at SXSW the previous year, and it still left me shaken.

To make matters worse, plane trouble left me stranded in Salt Lake City, where I was stuck with all my fears in a dingy hotel room overnight.

Unable to sleep, I did the only thing I could do to assuage the anxiety: I rewrote the talk, piece by piece, on a hotel notepad at 4am. I ripped out slides and replaced them, fought the hotel wifi to get Creative Commons licensed photos off Flickr, and rethought the entire point of the talk. On the plane to CVG, more of the same, only with slower wifi, but I finally had a draft I could live with.

I got in for day one of the conference. Everyone was so… good at this. No, they were great. And my deck sucked by comparison.

I skipped out on some of the partying to practice the talk, twiddle a couple more slides, and in the end, write the talk out in longhand. (If you’re going to be anxious and neurotic, might as well go all the way.)

Day two and time for me to give the talk. It was 5:30am back home, I’d barely slept, and here I was with this ridiculous talk in this city I’ve never been in before and…

And that’s when the fear finally stopped. I was on stage. I’d been here before, a dozen times. I knew what to do. If I failed, it would be over in 45 minutes and I could get on with my life.

The words that came to mind were “F**k it. Let’s go.”

So I went. 45 minutes later, it was over. Only, it wasn’t. They had me reprise it the next day, twice. Then the conference attendees voted me Best Talk. (That was a hard one to explain to my skeptical coworkers who didn’t understand why I would “go to Ohio to speak at a conference when I was just the web guy.”)

And yet, the same thing happens every time I do anything creative. I spend time getting myself to “F**k it, let’s go.” Experience has taught me, to a point, that I should expect this, but it still doesn’t help when I’m in the midst of that moment of unknowing. And it doesn't assuage the feeling that I'm wasting time.

From the conversation my daughter and I had after her breakdown, I discovered we shared a dark fear: The fear that we’ll embarrass ourselves and look stupid because we don’t understand what’s going on.

Because that’s the feeling I’m really having in those minutes, hours, days before I start designing. I’m trying to understand. I’m trying to make myself not feel stupid. Getting to “F**k it, let’s go” is letting go of that fear and becoming dumb in order to understand.

So, I practice. I remind myself it’ll get easier if I do the work. And I remind my daughter of the same thing: The practice of the practice is what makes us smart, and the only truly stupid thing is living in fear.

And now she and I roll up our sleeves and do the work. She has her math homework adding and subtracting negative numbers, I have a messy project with disparate stakeholders and blurry goals. But I remind her to “F**k it, let’s go.” (Well, the PG version.) The fear isn’t worth the time we give it.

I just have to keep reminding her -- and myself -- of that.

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