One afternoon last week, I was nervous about speaking to a woman. It’s not the first time this has happened in my life but this time I wasn’t even worried about whether she would like me. The problem is that she was French and I had agreed to speak to her in her own language.
Despite seven years of learning French at school and a few weeks of re-learning vocabulary and pronunciation through flashcards, confidence drains out of me when it comes to speaking to a real, live French person. I recently experienced this in Paris where I panicked and responded in Swahili. This time I had organised the conversation with Laura, a community tutor on the website italki, which brings together language learners and teachers. I was to have a half hour trial lesson to assess my level. And I was bricking it.
I’ve known for a long time that I need to get talking French in order to work through this fear. I’ve found notes to myself from four years ago where I’ve said I want to pick up French again but it has never quite happened until the last few weeks when I’ve given priority to using the methods from the book Fluent Forever to create and test myself with flashcards and now sign up with italki. It has taken me making this a priority and giving it time and attention to get me to face my fear.
Often we procrastinate on the things that scare us. As blogger Leo Babauta puts it: “If you take a deeper look at the stress, it’s really an unfounded fear that’s causing it (usually the fear that we’re not good enough), and if we examined it and gave it some light of day, it would start to go away.” This can happen to smart people who are used to finding things easier and looking impressive – they’ve got more pride in their ability to do things well.
My mother, who teaches maths to kids who have fallen behind, has been raving about the book, “Mindsets” by Carol Dweck. The basic ideas are:
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
Dedication and hard work are needed to get through the discomfort towards a love of learning and resilience.
Discomfort precedes Growth
Moments of discomfort and fear often come directly before moments of growth. We’re about to do something new to us that will be outside our previous experience. Or maybe we’re tried it before and it hasn’t worked straight away or somebody has laughed.
In my current period of travelling, learning and communicating, I’ve faced several moments of fear followed by a breakthrough:
- Just before my first italki session
- Running faster and further than normal in my training for a half marathon
- Publishing personal blog posts
- Writing an essay on international tax law reform
- Speaking (very simple) Dutch to my partner’s parents
- Cycling in Amsterdam – my first time cycling in a city, on the right hand side, in the dark and without handbrakes.
- Just before presenting a review of part of the medium term national plan to senior stakeholders from the sectors I’ve written about
- On a minibus in Malawi when my uncertainty about how I would get to my bed for the night translated into anxiety about my future overall
- Before my bungee jump at Victoria Falls.
Fear is the Mind Killer
The brilliant comedian Stephen Colbert has spoken about working into this discomfort:
“Our first night professionally onstage,” he said, the longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”
I have many weaknesses where I still resist participation but would benefit from me taking the plunge. These include swimming, dancing, becoming flexible and stronger, using statistics packages and meditation. I’m exploring how to tackle these next and will use the following principles:
- Think about what could be the worst thing to happen – it’s normally not something you couldn’t handle;
- Understand why you’re doing it and take a moment remind yourself of this motivation when you’re wavering;
- Commit yourself – sign up for it and/or have accountability to someone else;
- Fail safely – Leo Babauta says that “The way to master discomfort is to do it comfortably.” Explore your weaknesses with a trusted friend, admitting how you feel and go swimming in the deep end with a life guard present. Don’t paralyse yourself with panic or overwhelm.
Being uncomfortable is the thing that stops us doing most things we care about. Language learning guru Benny Lewis says he goes out of his way to make 200 mistakes a day. Now there’s a SMART target.
After half an hour of stuttering conversation almost entirely in French I was tired but proud. I had remembered long-discarded vocabulary and grammar and, more importantly, I had worked past my fear. I booked another lesson straight away. I’ll be nervous again but will try to embrace it.