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When everything could go wrong, and you do it anyway

January 20, 2022
On doing things even when they’re terrifying; failures of courage vs. regretted outcomes; and how fleeting elevator selfies are necessary reminders of a certain kind of contentment.

Fear was sitting with me this morning.

Fear of being visible, of communicating without apology, of beginning new work. It took me a while to acknowledge what I was feeling, and once I did, I was pissed. This, again? Really?

Because so many of the things that are most dear to me in the present are only here because of a choice to do the thing, even though it was terrifying, in the past. The capacities I reach for without a second thought as I go about my day only exist because of the hard, risky work it took to build them. Sending an ask over email. Ruminating on a story problem in a development meeting. Invoicing a client for a completed project.

For me, that work has almost always existed beyond places in which I already felt comfortable. I haven’t learned how to have tough conversations by avoiding them (well, perhaps some avoidance for a week or two). I haven’t learned how to negotiate through taking the first offer put on the table. I haven’t learned how to do the work I hold most dear by returning to what’s familiar, safe, and easy on a daily basis.

And yet, still, the desire to hang out in those spaces on any given Tuesday is huge. Tackling work that requires me commit to trusting an unknowable process? No, thank you. Pop it at the bottom of the to-do list. Doing something that’s completely in my wheelhouse, something so simple it could lull me to sleep? Perfect! Give me a double!

It’s an instinct I’ve figured out, for the most part, how to wrangle into submission.  At the same time, my genuine surprise at how often the desire to stay safe, small and comfortable makes itself known is laughable. Because it’s daily.

A huge part of making peace with the ups and downs of bringing something that doesn’t yet exist into being has been learning to read the tides of these feelings. Sometimes that resistance, or fear, is genuinely pointing to something that needs further investigation. There may be a disconnect with a creative partner. A lack of clarity about the project’s purpose. Confusion about the appropriate next step. It may be highlighting the fact that this is not a space that’s fruitful for you to invest your limited time, energy and abilities into.

In other moments, it’s simply routine. It’s pushing on the pressure point of what it is to make work that’s shaped by personal experience, taste, instinct. It’s asking identify-defining questions of us moment by moment: who are you? What do you have to say here? Why should anybody pay attention when you do?

When the resistance, or fear, rears up in response to that pressure point activation, that’s when the real work begins. The work of doing it anyway.

In Brené Brown’s Atlas Of The Heart, she chronicles 87 different emotions, pointing to the places we go when we’re uncertain or things are too much, when we compare, when things don’t go as planned, and so on. I was reflecting on why this familiar fear-identification-work-through-it pattern was, indeed, so constant when I reached the book’s section on regret.

‘Both disappointment and regret arise when an outcome was not what we wanted, counted on, or thought would happen. With disappointment, we often believe the outcome was out of our control (but we’re learning more about how this is not always the case). With regret, we believe the outcome was caused by our actions or decisions.
Interestingly, research shows that in the short term, we tend to regret bad outcomes where we took action. However, when we reflect back over the long term, we more often regret the actions we didn’t take - what we didn’t do - and we think of those as missed opportunities.’

Brené goes on:

‘The idea of “no regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe we have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunities to be braver with our lives.
…In our work, we find that what we regret most are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves, to say yes to something scary. Regret has taught me that living outside my values is not tenable for me.
Regrets about not taking chances have made me braver. Regrets about shaming or blaming people I care about have made me more thoughtful.
Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.’

Across 2020 and early 2021 I produced four scripted podcasts, totalling over 20 hours of fictional audio. This kind of production, at the time, was relatively new in Australia. When it came to some of the practical requirements (like scheduling, budgeting, production, post-production workflows) we were borrowing from other formats and testing new models as we progressed. This was daunting enough pre-pandemic. It escalated a tad when we needed to do the same thing across locked borders, running multiple studios in tandem, and using all kinds of tech combinations to set up remote sessions with numerous cast and crew members all at full capacity.

I quickly became friends with one of our sound engineers and studio heads simply because I was stalking him for all of the data we needed in order to pull these operations off. When I’d call him for help or with yet another technical gymnastics request, he’d ask me ‘what could possibly go wrong?’. Even though I knew he was being sarcastic, I would answer him: the internet could drop out. One of our cast members could get quarantined. The schedule could be too demanding and we’d miss necessary takes. COVID-19 workplace practices could change yet again and require a new production methodology. A microphone could fail. The software we were pushing beyond its normal ADR limits could implode. Everything could suck.

He would let me rattle the list off, with new varieties every phone call, and would come back with a genuine, easy response every time: ‘That could happen. And if it does, we’ll find a way through.’

Some of those things did, indeed, happen. And he was correct. We found a way through. Not because we got lucky, but because we were more prepared and more capable than I’d given us credit for.

In the process, we also developed new workflows that have since been implemented in other fictional podcast production processes. We captured performances and story beats that moved me so much in the moment I forgot to pay attention to what we needed to jump to next. We found creative ways around technological and physical distance barriers. We made work we’re really proud of.

As I read Brené’s ‘sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful’, I remembered an awkward elevator selfie I took on the first night of production in Sydney. We’d wrapped on a day that, in many ways, was going to be the hardest to pull off. As I travelled back up to our accommodation with dinner in hand, desperately tired, I was also suddenly, entirely peaceful.

We had navigated the bits that felt impossible. The process, it turned out, could be trusted.

I took this photo because I wanted to remember what it felt like to be in the midst of the unknown, vulnerable as all get-up, open to risk, and doing it anyway.

I’ve taken a number of elevator selfies since in similar moments. I'm not much of a selfie taker, but they're a not-entirely-conscious bid to capture reminders that the rhythm of work in the unknown will play itself out time and time again. Each of them features a tired woman at the end of an intense day. She’s made peace with herself in a way she hadn’t at its start. She’s content, despite the weariness. In the tension of the work not-yet finished, there is all kinds of rest, because the biggest battle is over: the decision to do it anyway.

Getting on with the work that’s impossible for us to ignore is not about waiting for the fear to subside. For conditions to be perfect. For a sense of readiness to introduce itself.

It’s about acknowledging the role fear and resistance can play in pointing us in the direction of spaces that are most fruitful. Because the regrets we will carry in an undefined and unknowable future? They’re more likely to be about our failures of courage than they are about our negative outcomes.

Odds are high you’re more prepared than you feel. More capable than you give yourself credit for. And if everything that could possibly go wrong does, you’ll figure that part out, too. No courage left on the table.

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