October 18, 2006

Two Forks in the Road

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.
Mark Twain

Steve likes to call it “going over the wall”.

He’s writing a one-way ticket out of his old life…and so am I.

And our voices have changed.

His day is filled with talking to engineers, designers, computer specialists, imagery gurus, banks, governments, tax specialists, graphic designers, and his nephew. He’s head of business development for a new company.

Steve worked as a grip/electric in the film business for 20 years. He can duct tape/wire/glue/solder/ratchet anything into anything. He says grips are engineers with an authority disorder. Okay, build this town in a day, okay take it down.

One of his last jobs before he took a left turn was an infomercial for an animatronic monkey head. Imagine a monkey chopped at mid thorax sitting on your desk, or perhaps a table in your foyer. It has a motion sensor (built in!) that triggers the monkey’s head to turn and look at you as you enter the room. It makes monkey sounds. It makes happy monkey sounds when it's happy, screeches when it isn't. In fact it has "4 distinctive moods": curious, happy, feisty, fearful. All for just $129.99.

That was his last foray before going over the wall and running fast. No looking back. Burning bridges. Steve loves to tell that story.

Steve's new company can analyze stuff for renewable energy – his nephew is the brainchild of it – making renewables more efficient, saving us money, doing something positive for the planet – and at the very least isn’t about selling a robotic animal head for fun, torture, or haut décor.

Steve’s other life (while gripping) was/is to absorb every piece of information about the environment and fixing it. He’s spent more than 10 years reading everything/attending conferences/talking to visionaries/inventing stuff and has a non-PhD in the topic. It’s encyclopedic really. Plus, bless his heart, he can’t contain himself when he talks about it. And can he talk about it.

So when he arrived at his fork in the road…he veered left.

And he’s happily absorbed 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day, sitting at a desk, getting a tan from his laptop LCD screen. He’s never had a desk job. I make him eat. He's a little focused. I look at him directly and up close if I need him to take in a piece of information, and he responds, if I'm lucky. Kind of like an anti-authoritarian robotic head.

I love watching every minute of it. He’s passionate and driven and happy.

My fork is a little less clearly marked. I’ve enjoyed my career in television. I started as a researcher, moved onto field producing, directing, producing. I’ve gotten into places people normally never see. And I got paid for it. But I’ve never felt at home…never was using my own voice. I felt like an impostor most of that time, like someone would eventually come up and tap me on the shoulder and tell me to leave.

And yet, I did know stuff and learned so much. It just felt like being married to the wrong guy.

It took me the last five years to admit it. I’m not a quitter. I have always believed you don’t quit, you try harder. I've done it with jobs...I've done it with relationships.

The price of that is the stress. And the problem with the stress is that it kills my appetite. No food. The worst weight-loss plan on the face of the planet.

One of my last jobs in television was to direct some stories of youth making a difference in the world – I loved it, but I was in over my head in terms of style. And I floundered. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. I took my pulse a lot because my rib cage was hurting from my pounding heart – it was regularly at 120.

Finally a friend pointed out it doesn’t mean failure if I quit – it means I have a different voice to them. So I worked out an arrangement with the wonderful producer to help get me out of it. She later told me she’d hired me again. So was I imagining it?

My built in! emotion sensor was set on 1 distinctive mood! Fear was eating me alive. I spent some time thinking – digging – why would I let myself get to that point? Why had it become a life and death thing that flushed all the chemicals for my flight or fight response? I knew it was an overreaction. I started to think I was going crazy.

So I wrote about it. I wrote a feature about the impostor phenomenon...believe it or not there’s an actual label for it. Successful people feeling like they’ve made it and don't deserve it. You can take a test. I got an A.

Fear of failure/success has driven me a lot in the past – and I’m not kidding myself, it still does. When I was writing the impostor article I came across this: “When is a mistake ‘failure’ and when is it just a mistake? The Impostor Phenomenon can lead you to that ‘all or none’ thinking, in which success equals perfection and anything less than perfection equals failure.”

Yup. Quitting is hard work.

And it’s one of life’s hardest lessons: when is it smart to quit? How come we don’t learn this stuff growing up? How come no one tells you when it is okay to quit? When quitting is being good to yourself? When staying is harming you? How come no one points out the difference?

We get better at quitting the more we do it – the boundaries of acceptance/non-acceptance get clearer. I call it learning from the shadows - knowing what we don't want, rather than what we do.

There are those who get too good at it and become pathological about it. They quit everything. Then there are those who never try. Those who never quit. Those who accept that there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are happy and those who aren’t. This is their lot and they can bear it, not happily, but with peaceful resignation.

Writing it out helped - lowered the temperature, put it in perspective. And Steve told me I wasn't perfect (imagine), no one was...and to remember that tigers aren't going to eat me. So life is pretty good.

I found myself falling in love with storytelling all over again. Feeling in control of the tools, instead of the tools using me. Hearing me through the sentences, the paragraphs, the whole.

I found my voice again. I knew it was there somewhere.

My appetite for challenge came back. I’ve stepped away from tv to see if I can make it in writing. That is what you call jumping from the fat to the fire - because tv actually pays a living wage.

So, I guess I took the left fork in the road too. The right fork would have been to play it safe. And for some reason, Steve and I don’t seem to be in the mood for safe, kind of ironic eh?. Like our relationship and marriage, our life seems to be driven by listening to instinct, tempered by what our experiences can offer.

I still have to deal with fear. I have to actually get articles pitched to editors. I can’t just hide here in my blog, as comfortable as it is.

It’s better trying than not. So...I’m going over the wall.


AnnieKNodes said...

Good luck, Nicola!

I can certainly relate to your fears, to changing your direction, and to finally treating your genuine talents with the respect they deserve.

I've heared an acronym for fear is
False. Evidence. Appearing. Real.

A guy today told me that Fear was faith...a faith in things turning out horribly. And although it takes practice, you can easily switch your faith over into believing things will turn out fine.

PS: I'm totally coping your idea and planning an NY food bloggers party where everyone brings their "shameful" foods. Wanna come down? :)

Nicola said...

oh your fear acronym...that's going to a few friends who also relate...

...if i can't make it to your nyc version of the shameful food party...i'll send some suggestions!

Pam said...

Nicola, congrats on taking care of yourself and all good luck in your new career! I loved your likening being in the wrong job to being married to the wrong guy. So true, and we spend more time at work than we do with our families so we'd _better_ like it! I'm a career counselor so you can trust me on this stuff. :-)