In the summer of 2008 a teensy e-only press bought a romance novel from me. It was the first piece of fiction I’d ever sold. Only they didn’t buy it, exactly. They published it and let me keep a percentage of the cover price if anyone bought it from them.
Not very many people did. I made about fifty bucks. But I wouldn’t have cared if I made fifty cents. I was a novelist and I was riding high.
So, I did what any rational person would do. The Romance Writers of America were holding their national conference in San Francisco — one state over — in three weeks. I paid more than $500 for a ticket and $200 for a roundtrip Amtrak ticket. And found three strangers to share an ungodly expensive hotel room with.
The scariest thing I did that weekend, believe it or not, did not involve sharing a bed with a woman I’d just met.
The scariest thing, by far, was going down to the hotel’s ballroom, where dozens of literary agents sat in rows waiting to talk to writers. I had one ticket that gave me one three-minute pitch session.
I was so scared. They called my name and I walked all the way through this huge room, sat in front of an agent I knew nothing about, and somehow managed to stumble out a few sentences about the book I was working on.
It was awful. I’m sure I barely made any sense at all. She asked me a few questions and when our three minutes was up, handed me her business card and said, “send me the first three chapters.”
Now that I have more experience I know that send me the first three chapters is the literary-agent-at-a-conference equivalent of writing have a great summer in a middle school year book. No agent wants to reject you to your face.
But I didn’t know that then.
What I knew then was that I did this really scary thing, and a literary agent gave me permission to send her three chapters of my book. She even told me to write requested material in the subject line.
(Another thing I know now, thanks to experience, is that even if agents only ask for those first three chapters because they don’t want to reject you to your face — they read them. They’re a foot in the door.)
Lots of writers didn’t use their tickets. All week, I heard writers hem and haw and then decide against being scared. At some point someone told me that I could sit in a little waiting area. When a writer no-showed and an agent didn’t have a pitch, volunteers would fill the gap with one of us.
I pitched my work-in-progress over and over. I came away from that conference (and many other conferences over the years) with a little stack of business cards, a request for some part of my manuscript scrawled on the back of each one.
Two years later I signed with one of the agents I pitched that week. And I’m still friends with the women who were strangers when I showed up in their hotel room.
Fear has it’s place.
It keeps us from inadvertently killing ourselves in a blind pursuit of what we want.
Fear is why we don’t hurl ourselves off the edge of a building when we want to be on the ground. Fear is why we don’t (usually) drive 100 miles an hour down a residential street on our way home from work. It’s why there aren’t more heroin addicts in the world.
Fear is what makes us careful. And a lot of the time, careful is good.
Careful is awesome, really. When it comes to things like motorcycle helmets and parachutes and using your blinker, careful rocks.
And sometimes it’s not that great. Like when it lets us off the hook from doing something extraordinary.
Careful is what makes us ordinary.
There’s an outer boundary. It’s easy to push ahead to a certain point — the point where you run into your comfortable, careful wall. Going further than that often feels too hard.
Everything gets buzzy in your head. You can’t focus on the next thing you should do.
This is how it works for me when I get to that wall: I can see where I am and I can see where I want to be, but all the steps in between get muddled.
My small, quiet inner voice says, “Yeah, never mind. This is too much. Let’s go just go have a sandwich instead.”
Extraordinary is on the other side of the outer edge of comfort. And there’s no way of getting there without taking a blind, un-careful step.
What if you pushed through?
What’s the worst thing that might happen if you reached out to a stranger?
What’s the worst thing that might happen if you say yes to something you don’t feel ready for?
What’s the worst thing that might happen if you take a leap when you don’t know exactly what’s waiting for you on the other side?
Or if you dance in public. Or if you write your novel. Or if you buy that ticket without knowing what you’ll do when you get there.
Embarrassment. Looking like a lunatic. Dealing with someone saying no to you. A stumble. Lost money or time or energy. Rejection.
The kind of things they’re talking about when they say “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Feel the fear. Then do it anyway.
Understand the consequences. And then do it anyway.
I think that’s what we miss sometimes.
Being afraid doesn’t mean you can’t do the thing. It’s not a stop sign. It’s more like one of those flashing yellow turn signals. The kind that sometimes mean stop, but also sometimes they mean go.
Here are a whole bunch of things you can do when you find yourself flirting with your comfort wall.
- Speak to a stranger.
- Make a list of ways over, under, or through the wall.
- Share an idea. (See: Speak to a stranger.)
- Ask for what you want/need.
- Figure out what just the very next tiny, baby step is.
- Take that step.
- Take the next step.
- So on.
- Ask yourself what advice you’d give to someone who isn’t you. Sometimes it’s easier to see the in-between steps for someone else.
- Find someone whose already done what you want to do.
- Reach out to them. (See: Speak to a stranger + Share an idea.)
- Tell another person your plan. (Doesn’t have to be a stranger!)
- Flex your adventure muscle by: eat something you’ve never eaten before, go somewhere you’ve never gone before, do something you’ve never done before.
- Flex your creativity muscle by planning something super elaborate and unlikely to every happen. Like: a bank heist, a hike through of some epic trail, the filming and distribution of a summer blockbuster.
- Make sure you plan it like there is nothing at all standing in your way. Nothing physical. Nothing emotional. Nothing financial. Nothing.
- Flex whatever the muscle is that lets you do scary things. Practice being fun-afraid. Go dancing or to karaoke night or white water rafting or bungee jumping or on that one death-defying water slide.
- Flex your imagination and imagine how you’ll feel in five years. Will you pat yourself on the back for being so careful? Will you wish that you’d been braver?
- Take an honest inventory with these two questions: Is your fear about discomfort or is it trying to save your life? Are you willing to give up the best thing that might happen to avoid the worst thing that might happen?
- Train your brain to identify the thing that scares you as the thing you, at the very least, need to explore doing.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.