Monday, February 18, 2019

Do something every day that scares you (but not if you value your sanity)

Motivational coaches, always full of good advice, by definition, are fond of telling us to ‘do something every day that scares you.’

I used to do a bit of motivational stuff myself (more on that later), but I’m not especially keen on too much flirting with danger. We’re not all cut out to deal with stress in a positive way, and repeatedly shoving yourself out of your comfort zone for no better reason than to ‘be your better self’ - whatever that might be - seems foolhardy and a waste of good worry-power to me. There’s quite enough real stress out there. We don’t need to go inventing more.

But, there can be powerful learning in this. It was a part of my job., at one time, to offer training to professional managers whose roles involved getting their teams or clients to alter their behaviour in some way. In this particular instance the goal was to improve the efforts of job-seekers to go out and find work, and one particular manager was convinced that this was a perfectly reasonable thing to expect and she could see no reason why fit and able-bodied folk didn’t just go and  do it. They had no cause to be reticent, and no reason to lack confidence. Jobs were there to be had, she knew that. She had lists and lists of vacancies on her computer. People were just stubborn. Or lazy. Or not trying.

The thing is, though, if you don’t have paid work, and never have, and if no one in your family does, either - your parents, older siblings, neighbours, it is genuinely very difficult to imagine yourself in any other situation. Unemployment spans generations, whole families are workless and stay that way. It becomes normal, the culture. It’s their comfort zone whether they like it or not. Unemployment may  not be pleasant, and poverty lurks around every corner, but at least every day is much the same, and it’s the devil you know.

It’s ingrained into us not to long for that which we don’t believe we can have,  never to aspire to that which we do not in our heart of hearts believe we can ever achieve. The disappointment would be too cruel.

There are occasional exceptions, people who despite all the odds step outside their reality, overcome awesome barriers, and find greatness. I’m thinking of the likes of Rosa Parkes, Stephen Hawking, holocaust survivors – but such individuals are rare indeed.

It’s a sort of defence mechanism or we’d make ourselves too unhappy. We have to cope with our reality and dreaming big in a hopeless situation is not the way it’s done for most. If I don’t believe that people like me can find a decent job and keep it, then I don’t let myself get sucked into that world. It’s just too terrifying.

But my JobCentre manager client was having none of that. She just didn’t see it. So, we played a little game. I split the group into teams of four and gave each of them a card with the name of a famous singer on. Their task, to select a song by that singer, one of their own choosing,  a favourite that they all knew. They were asked to have a little practice over the coffee break, then return to the afternoon session ready and rehearsed to perform that song to the rest of us.

Pretty much everyone cringed and went pale. I wondered is someone might actually throw up.

Sing? To an audience? Me? I work in  a JobCentre, I’m not a performer. I can’t sing!

Still, these were hardy souls and they reassembled half an hour later, shuffling and nervous, ashen even, but ready to have a go. After all, they were on wages, this was a serious training course, they had to do as they were told. The British Civil Service is like that.

Well, most of them are. My main target was no where to be seen. She’d taken a call from Somewhere Very Important and had to leave early. In short, she’d done a runner.

Of course, I had no expectation of listening to songs and quickly put them out of their misery. The relief was palpable. But for that wretched half hour that the trainees believed they had this coming, they experienced the genuine terror of being thrust unceremoniously out of their comfort zones, the same terror they inflicted on their clients daily. And now, knowing how it felt, they might empathise more and be ready to work with the people they were employed to help on ways of pushing those limits more kindly. And ultimately, I would hope, with more success.

I like to think it worked for some. Others, well not so sure.


  1. Ashe, that sounds like a clever test, though it might not be terrifying for people who sing in karaoke bars. (I would be asking can I have a drink first? and an instrumental soundtrack?) I would also be tempted to ask if I could propose a team effort with another person, or two or three (i.e. an impromptu little choir).

    At age 17, I had to sing on a stage in order to graduate from high school. I was in a two-year Fine Arts program in which all the students had to learn music (or music appreciation), creative writing, drama and visual art. Luckily, I wasn't ridiculed to death (or at all, to my surprise).

    Still, this does sound like a good test for a group of employees who grew up in a fairly non-musical (White Anglo-Saxon) culture on either side of the Atlantic. Latin Americans, Mediterraneans, and possibly Celts might respond differently, depending on their upbringings.

    This post reminded me of so many of my students, who are pushed into a university-level literature-and-composition class before they are fluent in English (and before they have adjusted to the harshness of a Canadian climate and the strangeness of Canadian culture). In some cases, they really can't meet expectations no matter how hard they try. Those of us who teach them have been explaining this to the administration for as long as I've been teaching (30 years), with no workable solution in sight.

  2. Ashe, I can relate to your post. For some years I, too, held a similar position as a job placement specialist for a non-profit agency. Many of my clients were third- and fourth-generation welfare families for whom public assistance was a way of life. Many of them had marketable skills, but it was tough to motivate them to "push their limits" and get out of that comfort zone. Good post!

  3. What an effective way to make your point, Ashe! Though that wouldn't have phazed me for a minute...

    I think the "do something everyday that scares you" should maybe rephrased as "do something that you'd really like to do, but that scares you". You're right that some people smother their expectations for themselves rather than be disappointed. However, there are also many cases where people have dreams, but just don't dare reach for them.

    The notion isn't to create stress just for the hell of it, but rather, to make the effort to believe something you deeply desire might actually be achievable.


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