A more unified theory of fear, excitement, and completing projects

Sondra and I had a discussion this morning about getting things done. We've both completed projects of various scales in our lives but were trying to figure out why it's so hard to finish the last step. We focused on creative projects where one starts with but an idea and makes that come to physical reality — step-by-step. It seems like it's not too hard to get a project started although there is some resistance because there's not yet a foundation which makes a creative idea alone pretty easy to dispel (except those ones that really nag at you). Once things get rolling it's even easier because there's always some next step to strive toward. But then right at the end, it seems the last few steps are just drudgery. We wanted to figure out why.

Since I've been on the kick of blaming everything on fear, I decided to do that here too. Like I blogged before, I feel that fear and excitement differ only in one's attitude: that if you're anxious, it's fear, but if you're joyous, it's excitement. In both cases, it's a reaction to your logical mind's "no answer" reaction — it happens when you don't have enough information to divine the best course of action … or you just don't know what's about to happen at all.

So with the end of a project, all the facets you tried to control are finally put to the test — and then there's all the things you didn't think of. Will it be like I thought it would? Will people react to it like I thought? Will it last? Will it fail? — All these unknowns suddenly come to the forefront.

But then we were discussing it and neither of us really felt that we were afraid of finishing a project. Usually we pushed through with either force-of-will or were excited to finish it, but never really "afraid" per se. But I still felt it fit the pattern of fear and the reaction to it: the process of dawdling through the last steps of a project indicate a fear of completion — that anxious reaction to the unknown.

So if there is indeed a fear/excitement (or fexcitement, if you will) reaction to this unknown event, is there a way to uncork it, let it out, and handily finish a project? Why was it that some projects we worked on seemed to never touch that dawdling stage but even accelerated to completion?

Yes.: it's celebration.

Whenever we had a project that was easy to complete, there was a celebration at the end. That's what I get from Burning Man: it's a celebration to declare the completion of projects and the presentation of them.

In fact, the more general case is that one celebrates a rite-of-passage. By celebrating, there's focus on the opportunity: the new, unknown things that are to come. By not celebrating, it's a focus on the loss: the absence of what was, and a dreary apprehension toward living without that ever again. For instance, a high-school graduation party celebrates a step toward adulthood, taking focus away from the death of childhood and coercing fear into excitement.

So projects call for a rite-of-passage celebration as well: from "in process" to "done". Because when a project is completed, the activity stops and the project makes the transition from something that is "to be" to something that "is". Focusing on the activity of the project and the end of "doing" — and specifically ignoring that transition to a new form — makes it a mourning experience of loss, an unpleasant experience to avoid.

I want to far overuse this technique in the near future, celebrating everything. But then I might skip that step and save it for the "big" things that really need a kick-in-the-pants.

Decisions, Fear, and Excitement

I got into a discussion on Tribe the other day about what is fear — specifically, when are decisions made because of fear. I argued that fear never comes into play in decision making because it never gets the chance to be explored. I talked about this with my friend Tony and he pointed out that biologically, fear is the same thing as excitement — the only difference is attitude. So I thought I'd revisit all of it and try and tie it into something coherent.

In the Extreme Honesty Tribe, I made a case for fear never actually being experienced in a rational decision-making process. It's a semantic argument, but important: saying one didn't act because of fear usually means they decided to avoid a situation that might cause fear. For instance, saying "you didn't apply for that creative director job because of fear" doesn't really mean that you were afraid — you just avoided the anxious experience.

In other words, fear is the experience of feeling anxious from taking an action that has a broad and unpredictable set of outcomes. Curiously, it's the same circumstances that cause excitement — except that instead of anxiety, one feels invigoration. Hence, it's all attitude; whether one is worrying about a negative outcome or anticipating a positive one.

Let me start a scenario to work from: running into a busy street, right into traffic. When I think about it, I think, "that's a stupid idea because I'd probably get run over." If I imagine myself actually doing it, there would be screeching tires and people honking their horns and maybe some collisions; I might get run into and thrown over a car; or maybe I get whacked and injured bad enough to lose consciousness and end up in a hospital.

But then I think, "well, I actually probably won't get run over unless I jump right out in front of a moving car." What would probably really happen is that people would honk and yell and stop. If I made my way to the other side, they'd probably cuss and gesticulate angrily and that would be that.

In that is an interesting demonstration: that our reflexive rational sense is often quite flawed. If I say, "why don't you just run out into traffic?" the reflexive answer is something like, "so I don't get hit by a car". However, if you separate "running into traffic" into two cases — "arbitrarily jumping into traffic" and "abruptly entering traffic such that an attentive driver would have adequate time to stop" — you find that two separate risks emerge. In the former, there's a statistical likelihood that you're going to get hit: if cars pass at an average of one every 5 seconds and it takes 2 seconds for them to successfully stop, then your odds are 2/5 that you'll get hit by a car if you randomly enter traffic. But if you only enter traffic when an attentive driver has the ability to stop, your chances of getting hit are much lower — let's say (arguably …. arguably)1 in 200 that a driver is not being attentive — then that's your odds of being hit. It's still not enough to warrant the risk, at least for most of us, but if you add in your own ability to jump clear in the 2 seconds when a driver is failing to stop, then it's really not all that bad.

But that in itself is a flawed argument. While statistical analysis opens up to new ways of understanding the world, it still is not a predictive tool: it can only guarantee the outcome of future statistical analysis. For instance, no matter how many ways I analyze the results of the roll of a 6-sided die, I still cannot predict the outcome of the next roll. If I run into traffic — whether arbitrarily or with caution — I cannot predict whether I will actually be hit by a car.

So now where's our rational mind? Mine says, "Well, regardless: I don't want to piss people off". I'll leave an exercise for the student to chase each risk and reward (to oneself, to the drivers, and to society in general) of such behavior to its nonexistent conclusion.

But what would the point be — of running into traffic, for instance? Therein lies the point of the whole thing: I don't know and neither do you. Perhaps one would grok the behavior of people in cars and find solace in that. Perhaps one would realize that they have been overly cautious their whole life. Perhaps someone turns around and seeks the pedestrian to punch them. Perhaps one would get hit by a car. — I don't know.

I can guarantee, though: that one will face a situation where the outcome is unknown. And that is the root of both fear and excitement.

I can also say that I experience regret whenever I encounter a situation that would force me to face unknown outcomes and I avoid it because of that — that I avoid a situation if I believe myself to be unlikely to succeed without evidence. I regret it because I think it perpetuates a state of childhood — that dispelling the unknowable through experience is the path to true adulthood.

And I think it is indicative in the culture around me. Powers-that-be are drawn to the safe and the statistically demonstrable. We shun risk-takers — and at the same time admire them … in an instinctive way. I think it is our nature to face the unknown to make it understood.

The ultimate, permanently un-shareable unknown is death itself. Only by constantly building confidence in our ability to face the unknown can we even hope to face our inevitable ends with peace, confidence, and grace.