Boosting Bravery (for Normal People)

A former partner once said he was afraid of heights. Upon further probing, turns out his mother was afraid of heights and he assumed that out of some misguided loyalty he was supposed to, too. I suggested that life offers plenty of things to be afraid of. Best to only be actually afraid of things you, yourself, are afraid of. And then learn to control those fears or knock ‘em out.

A couple weeks ago I told the following story at Fireside Storytelling in San Francisco. The night’s theme was NERVE!

Part I: A European Medieval Allegory

Ha. I know nerve. It’s like when I’m curled up into a fetal position at one end of a jousting arena. My problem is mounted on a steaming, snorting war horse at the other end. I have some choices. If I stay where I am I await being skewered, or not — I don’t know. I can’t know. I’m not looking and not preparing for whatever may come.

Another choice is to mount my own trusty steed and charge out to the middle. I could go crashing to the ground, sure. But a couple other things could happen.

Battle practice & avenge circa 600 years ago

I could go charge out to the middle and, upon closer inspection, see that I’m tilting toward a ballerina doing a pirouette on a purple pony. Well heck. I can handle that. Why did I think this was scary? I do a victory lap and call it a day.

I could also charge out to the middle and, yes, it is my problem, lance down, shield up, heading straight at me on a steaming, snorting war horse. But wait — is it vanishing? By the time I’m full speed at the middle, my problem has disappeared. What was that all about?

Part II-a: In which a Trouble Surfaces

When I worked at Microsoft in Seattle I dearly wanted to be on the UX Research team at the Game Studios. Here are twenty Ph.D’s and Master’s social science researchers dedicated to the pursuit of video game awesomeness, and I wanted to be there. I had met a few managers, and at some point one asked if I’d like to come by and play games after work with them sometimes. Um yes. Yes I would.

The day came when an email arrived. Be at the Playtest Labs at 5 for a session of Medal of Honor. Okay, not my favorite kind of game, but yeah, gotta get on board if I’m gonna ride. We take our seats in cubicles, pick an avatar, and start learning the mission and the weapons.

Medal of Honor looks nice, but don’t get shot!

Before long we all, Nazis and Allies, are wandering a bombed-out French village, killing and being killed, and feeling the thrill. After about 15 minutes, another feeling comes over me. The feeling of a splitting headache, sweaty palms, and nausea. Maybe this isn’t the day to play this game.

Another invite arrives a week or so later. Medal of Honor again. I as my avatar join the Allies moving through the bombed-out French village, killing and being killed, and again, having a great time. Truly. This is fascinating. But minutes in, I realize that my head is killing me, I’m sweating, and I feel like I’m going to throw up.

At first I wonder if the sound is bothering me so I remove the headset and keep playing. But no. After a few more minutes I feel worse. I shove myself away from the desk and slouch in frustration.

Part II-b: In which the Truth is Faced

At home I have a cold washcloth on my forehead and lie on the bed with one foot on the floor, because in college they said that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re drunk, and I was up for trying anything to feel better.

Sure. Nobody likes to be shot at, probably. But it seems like I’ve touched on something big, something I should handle not just to get on this research team but for my life.

I’m clearly afraid, but I don’t know what of. So I wonder — how can I put myself in a real life situation that will trigger the same response without joining the Marines? And give me the opportunity to work through whatever this is?

The first and only thing I thought of was wilderness training. I knew about Outward Bound — good international reputation and so forth. And sure enough, online it says, “exercises are designed to…”. Makes me think of rickety rope bridges and trust games; this is perfect. So I drop a wad of cash at REI and spend the summer hiking and mountain biking to get ready.

Part III: In which Boots are on the Ground

Looks pretty cool from a satellite.

The day arrives when I am standing at the precipice of a cliff overlooking boulder canyons as far as the eye can see. I chose Southeast Utah thinking that if I was going to get my ass kicked it might as well be in a place I loved.

It’s probably just as well they didn’t tell us everything that would happen in the next five days. That we would be hauling ass into, and out of, two 820 ft. wilderness boulder canyons at a 6,600 ft. elevation with a 65 lb. pack. Well, they did mention the 65 lb. pack, and I figured out the 6,600 ft. elevation (and here I’ve been exercising at sea level). But the hauling ass? Not exactly designed experiences.

The first night we split up into patrols of six people plus a patrol leader. Ours is Michael. He’s got a thick German accent and cares not a whit about our suffering. He mocks our pain the entire time, running around on boulders for the heck of it as we peer at him, sipping our iodized frog piss. We call him “Hans”.

The next morning I realize it’s important to trust my boots because they’re the only things keeping me upright. Nothing even vaguely resembles a trail. Uneven surfaces going straight down means days of falling down. My center of gravity is being constantly pulled off. There are no helmets, no ropes, and certainly no safety net.

It’s gorgeous until you’re climbing it. This is maybe only 400 ft. down. We never thought about taking out cameras.

The next day is the same but this time we’re hustling straight up against gravity. I put my right hand, um…finger tips…here, yes…here. Then left foot…ah, toe…no, one lug at the toe of my boot…there. Test, test…yes, it holds me and my 65 lb. pack’s weight. Left hand there for balance, and pull uuuuuup.

Now. Right foot goes, th…, no, there. And…no!-no! SLIDE SLIDE SLIDE SLIDE no!-no!-no!-no!-no! SLIDE SLIDE. (hm.) Okay. Where is everyone else? Are they successful the ways they’re going? Do I think I can go those ways? Is there a better way to go? How would I do that. What’s the first thing I should do. And…go.

No indulgence in self-pity, out loud or to myself. Even a moment of doubt is a break in concentration. For sure, a fall. I’m likely to fall even if I don’t think thoughts such as, ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ or ‘holy fucking shit’. I learn to compartmentalize my thinking. Total focus on the intellectual and the physical. Emotions are bound and gagged in a back closet of my mind. I’ll deal with that later…sometime. I must live to fall another day.

At the top of that canyon the theater manager from Boston drops her pack to the ground and declares herself done. Hans pulls her aside for a chat but no, she’s out. He makes a phone call somehow and that night an old green pickup truck shows up from Colorado. We take the opportunity to offload accumulated trash and a fair bit of equipment and food. One less eater but also one less person to help schlepp. We re-distribute the remaining weight. No one repeats her pet phrase “Gravity — it’s the Law” for the rest of the journey.

Next morning no direction presents a path. There’s nothing to go back to, and so on we go. We are told to unstrap our backpacks and throw them into the canyon. Then we follow on our rear ends. Lower center of gravity. Others in the patrol start falling as often as I do. Hans tells us that he now knows he’s pushing us too hard. I was not a canary in the coalmine.

At the top of the second canyon we are wiped. We make a huge dinner and gorge ourselves, so relieved are we that it’s over. We still have gobs of food so we prepare another dinner. By the time we finish eating that one other patrols start showing up. We’re not proud of being first. We would have preferred to take our time; we’re envious of the other patrols. Still, we see shredded clothes held together with duct tape. We see more injuries than we have.

We head back to civilization the next morning in a school bus. Speaking for the women, pulling into the first rest stop elicited almost disbelief. Flushing toilets followed by washing our hands, in clean water, from a faucet, for the first time in almost a week produced barely-contained communal euphoria.

Part IV: In which Results are Revealed

A few months later, three weeks after I started at the Game Studios I mustered the guts to inform a research manager about my problem with first-person shooter games; Medal of Honor, for example.

“We all get that,” he said. “ We take Dramamine.” Just like that.

Part V: Epilogue

It’s okay. Now I know how much my body can take. I know how to control wandering thoughts and emotions better and focus on tackling the here-and-now. Next time, I’ll have that much more nerve.