10% Rule

February 18, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I traveled abroad for the first time ever. On Monday I realized I didn’t have any work for the week. I’d already had a slow several weeks prior, during which I caught up on all the mundane Life Things (laundry, taxes, sweeping the floor, sleep, etc.) that I’d let slide while being absolutely crazed from September through December, and by that point was getting antsy.

So I started pricing plane tickets. Why the hell not.

After an hour on every travel site I could think of, I decided on Berlin. Cheap airfare, I’d been hearing of its awesomeness for some time, and somewhere — anywhere — is better than nowhere. My flight was to leave about 48 hours later.

On Wednesday I sat near my departure gate at Newark (side note: not nearly the pain in the ass to get to that I expected) and started to get nervous.

Honestly, this doesn’t happen often. I have solid faith in my ability to figure out how to pretty much anything I need to, and a somewhat realistic perspective that the risk of most things I could do in life is pretty damn low. The whole world isn’t waiting to laugh at my failures, money is just money, time is just time, and I don’t do that many things that could realistically physically incapacitate me. So nervousness is not part of my general state of being.

But there I sat, getting a little scared. Going to a new place, taking the longest plane ride I’d ever been on, embarking on a trip I hadn’t really planned beyond the flight and hostel reservation, venturing into a land that uses a language I did not speak or understand. I knew it would be fine. Worst case scenario, I’d hang out at the hostel and walk around aimlessly for three days, maybe embarrass myself a few times in front of people I would never see again in an attempt to obtain nourishment without a word of German. While that’s not exactly the greatest vacation anyone’s ever had, it would also not hurt me in any way. So the nervousness was quite arguably irrational, but kept gnawing at me no matter how much I tried to argue it away.

And it made me start to think… it’s kind of cool to be a little freaked out. If I look back at any of the really Big Moments I’ve had in my life (moving to New York, biking a century, submitting my application for the internship that got me started in sound, any of the most important or ambitious projects I’ve embarked on as a freelancer…), they were all preceded by me wondering if (and sometimes being absolutely positive that) I was in over my head.

Which is… kind of awesome. What nervousness really seems to be then is an indication of an expansion of limits. I think about it exactly the same way I do about exercise: honestly, I kind of like being sore in the days following a hard workout. It’s painful as hell, but it means I pushed myself hard enough to go beyond where I’d been before — I’m getting stronger. I’m getting better.
Perhaps nervousness is an indication of stepping it up in life — choosing to rise to the next level of a career, a relationship, a hobby, just about anything. You don’t really get better (and you never get great) if you’re sitting comfortably, a safe distance from your boundaries of ability.

So what if being freaked out itself became a value? I don’t think it’s right, or even possible, for it to be true all the time. Or most of the time. Or even close to most of the time. In order to maintain a solid sense of self, as well as my relationships, my ability to keep paying all those cumbersome bills, and possibly my life, most of my time probably needs to be spent in a non-freaked-out state. But how about 10%? What if, one moment out of ten, I was scared? Not 100% positive what the outcome of my activity would be? Not 100% certain of my ability to succeed? What would the artistic, physical, social, emotional, or financial ramifications be?

History indicates the rewards are massive and the risks are not negligible, but far from life-threatening. So I’m going to try it — see if I can spend 10% of my life freaked out.

Which both excites and scares me. Just the way it should, I suppose.