Feb 26, 2014

Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable


I've decided to start writing again.

I have an oscilating level of self worth. There are times when I believe that I have very important things to say, and there are times when I would be loathe to voice an opinion, much less put it in print.

In my Sophomore year of college (not too long ago) I started a blog called "Thoughts, Uncited". The idea was that I was a person and I had thoughts and I would write them down and they would be completely mine. I had just read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and I was convinced that my opinions mattered by virtue of them being mine. After two articles, I ran out of steam and "pivoted" (before I really knew what it mean "to pivot") to brand Thoughts, Uncited as a publication that would collect such uncited thoughts. Despite getting a logo designed for $50, that also, did not last.

My second attempt at writing was called "Off The Record". This time, writing was the means by which I organized my thoughts and made sense of things I observed around me. I attemped to ask questions or follow streams of logic and arrive at insights. It was a very useful exercise, but at some point, I became both self conscious and bored.

My last attempt at writing in college was presumptous; I wanted to educate others. I thought I had things figured out, and I wanted to tell other people about it. I remember walking into our University newspaper and telling the Editors that I wanted to be a writer. I had no journalistic experience, but I had a blog and felt entitled. I even had the gall to demand a column. Of course, the answer was a diplomatic "Are you serious? No.", but they let me publish two articles before I quit.

It was here that I first got a sense of what it was like to be unqualified.

When I joined the software industry, I stopped writing.

I didn't stop immediately. I wrote about how I launched my first Rails app. I wrote about random weirdness I discovered in Javascript. I wrote about how to configure a PostgreSQL server for a Rails app (because I would always forget). But the more I learned, the more I realized that all the things I would write had already been written. More importantly, they were things everyone I respcted in the industry already knew. Sure, some people argued that there are always people who were "a few steps behind" and it would be helpful for them if I continued writing. But that argument never held, because I didn't think I was writing anything original.

I stopped writing because of an overwhelming attack of imposter syndrome. Working in this industry has made me keenly aware of how much I don't know—especially things that I'm really supposed to know. To combat this feeling of inadequacy, I taught programming as a volunteer and drank in as much as I could through conversations with other software developers (all of whom seemed years ahead of me). But ultimately, I stopped writing.

This is not to say that I was feeling less confident--every time I tell the story of coming out to California and joining a bootcamp to change careers, I feel decidedly badass and I don't mind giving myself the credit for it—but I was in the industry now. And I didn't think I had much to contribute. So I kept my thoughts--cited or otherwise--to myself.

Recently, I've discovered that the hesitation to stop writing is not a lack of confidence or competence. Rather, it is a lack of comfort. In college, I wrote either with a wild carelessness (Thoughts, Uncited), or about things I knew well, i.e. my own thoughts (Off The Record). Both were comfortable because once I hit the publish button, I could forget about it. I think that was a fundamentally different (if not wrong) approach to writing.

Taking a step back, I don't think writing, or, more generally, creating is about creating.

I think creating is about practicing being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's about being vulnerable. A nice externality of experiencing real vulnerability is personal growth. But I think there's even more to it.

I think that vulnerability is a universally appealing and binding emotion. For example, I used to think that the Classic Underdog Story was appealing because it was about the triumph of good over evil, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am about a Universal Good, so it cannot explain this universal appeal. I think the Classic Underdog Story is about identifying with some deficiency in a protagonist, recognizing their attempt to challenge that deficiency (usually by becoming vulnerable in some way) and then transposing the victory into our own life when the deficiency is removed altogether. The part where the protagonist becomes vulnerable is the part where we (or at least, I) form the deepest emotional connection.

The Underdog Effect is pretty well documented and studied by psychologists, but framing it in the context of vulnerabilities has helped me understand the lizard brain, or "The Resistance":

The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer's block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn't stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

- Seth Godin

My hesitation to write is essentially a hesitation to become vulnerable, which is in turn a fear of deep emotional connection. I think in some ways, the always-connected, always-online culture promotes this fear. (There was an excellent post by someone talking about this that I can't find anymore. So I guess I don't even know why I mentioned it.)

But I'd like to change that.

I don't think it will be easy or natural. I think I will succumb to The Resistance more often than not. I think it will take practice and positive reinforcement and courage.

I'd like to face this fear. I'd like to be vulnerable. I'd like to be creative.

I'd like to write again.

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