Self-Bravery

They say that bravery isn’t not feeling fear but rather doing what has to be done in spite of being afraid. That’s relatively easy to pigeonhole. Big daring deeds, the stuff that books and films are made of, require bravery. I’ve already written about doing the right thing for other people. But what about ourselves?

Are we brave for ourselves? How can we rescue ourselves from ourselves? Under what circumstances do we need to? I’ll tell you. When we’re embarrassed, that’s when we need to be brave for us.

Did Yo-Yo Ma ever play the cello badly? Was Steve Jobs completely happy with the first Apple computer? Was Tony Hawk once pretty terrible on a skateboard?

Obviously the answer to those questions is yes. All great artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, in fact anyone who has achieved anything of any note has felt embarrassed about something at some point and has done it anyway in order to get to where they were going.

There’s a skate park on London’s South Bank near the London Eye. I pass it from time to time and have a look at the skaters. For the most part, they’re bloody terrible. Occasionally there’ll be someone pretty impressive but in the main they can barely do a single trick. By the way, this comes with full disclosure that I am in no way a skateboarder and I’m not using this discourse to be discouraging but to make a point.

Every time I’ve been to the skate park there has been a group, either in large or small, of skaters all practicing their art. One skateboarder will attempt a trick and either fail or bottle it, then spend five or so minutes getting around to having another go. This could be because skateboarding is a marathon not a sprint and there’s more nuance to it than a non-skateboarder can understand. Or it’s because they’re embarrassed. Having failed to complete a trick, they moodily push away on their board or stalk over and pick it up if it got away. There’ll be muttering and maybe some mimicking of the move-gone-wrong and then a seat will be taken or they’ll drape their arms over the rail for a bit. The general gist or at least appearance is that they’re embarrassed to not have pulled it off.

If I picked up Yo-Yo’s $2.5m Montagnana cello built in 1733 and had a go I’d be chuffed to bits if I got a single note out of it. There would be no pressure. I’m not a cello player. I don’t claim to be. Nobody, including me, would have any expectation of playing Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 on it any time soon.

But, this is what we do to ourselves all the time. We move very quickly from labelling ourselves ‘a bloke picking up a cello for the first time in his life’ to ‘a cello player’ and then we heap on the pressure. And we get embarrassed when it doesn’t work out pretty much straight away.

Okay, there are jobs where the consequences of dropping the ball are more serious than not completing a skateboard trick. Surgeon. Astronaut. President. But even then they are, or should be, learning and improving too. But for 99% of us, it’s all in our heads. Everyone is making this shit up as they go along. We wear suits and use big words and try desperately to pretend that we know what the fuck is going on but about 90% of the time we really don’t. Yet, we pile the pressure on and get mortally embarrassed when we don’t crack it first time out. In fact we get so embarrassed by the idea of failing that we don’t even try in the first place. It’s like taking half a pace forward and three back.

If the skateboarders just got straight back out there and failed more and were less embarrassed they’d learn a lot quicker than they are now. I’m being unkind by picking on skateboarders because we all do it.

Recently (today) I decided I would try to do 100 push-ups a day. I’ve always wanted to be better at them but have always been bad at them (I put this partly down to having an enormous head and long arms). I also took a transatlantic flight today. I thought “Why shouldn’t I do my push-ups on the plane?” Why indeed. So I found a little space and pushed out sets each time I got up and eventually got to 100. I’m not bragging about doing the push-ups but I’m proud of doing something that was very easy to get embarrassed about. People give funny looks to people who do stuff like that. But the funny looks you get now turn into the admiration you get later on when you master your craft, whatever that may be.

This pep talk is just as much for me as it is for you: Nobody cares what you are doing. Get over yourself. Embarrassment only works if you’re embarrassed.

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