Fear comes in a lot of different forms – bad dreams, nervousness about meeting new people, wanting to hide behind the couch while watching Doctor Who. (No, not the Weeping Angels!) In its best form, fear can help us better understand who we are, while in its worst, it can prevent us from making changes in our lives. Personally, I believe a lot of problems we face as both individuals and a society are wrapped up in fear of failure and trying new things. Fortunately, fear can be overcome. As I wrote in my wrap-up of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee’s safety campaign, I created my communications products for that campaign to address people’s fears about cycling. From thinking about that campaign as well as drawing on my own experience, here are a few ways that I’ve found to turn something fear-inspiring into an adventure.
1) Bring in expertise you can trust.
Starting from scratch on a completely new venture can be very intimidating. Getting professional help from someone with years of experience can help lift some of the confusion. For me with cooking, this meant finding one cookbook I really liked (Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) and starting with very simple recipes from it. As I went along, I also recruited Chris into giving me advice and helping me out. For other people, it might mean taking a cooking class. For biking, it may be worth taking a Confident City Cycling class from your local bicycle organization or even just getting in touch with a cyclist friend. No one ever has to start alone.
2) Start small, realizing that you can’t learn everything all at once.
When I first started cooking, I found the sheer amount of skills to learn overwhelming. It felt to me like other people must have just known how to hold a knife from birth or learned to improvise by osmosis. But by focusing on one skill at a time and working closely from recipes, I built up knowledge that serves me well. On the other hand, forcing someone into something too difficult can put them off for years. In high school, I convinced Chris to go on what I thought was a relatively easy bicycle ride, which turned out to be significantly harder for him than it was for me. He still (jokingly) complains about it ten years later.
3) Keep the pressure low.
When I first started cooking, it was several months before I cooked for anyone besides myself and years before I cooked a big holiday meal for my entire family. Knowing that I was the only person who would know if I made something completely inedible took a lot of the pressure off and allowed me to do as well as I could. For our first year of gardening, I took the attitude of, “If I produce anything, I’ll be pretty happy.” As it turned out, some plants died while others did amazingly. Instead of dwelling on disappointment for those that died, that attitude helped me enjoy the food we did produce. If you’re thinking about bicycling to work, riding the route on a weekend beforehand helps alleviate some of the nervousness. You can take your time, find out exactly where you might get lost, try a couple different routes, and even see where you might be able to switch to public transit if the weather gets really bad. None of these are things you want to do when you leave work late and it’s getting dark.
4) Participate in a group.
This one is especially true of cycling, where more bicyclists equals greater safety. While it can be intimidating to be the only bike in a sea of cars, participating in a group ride can be refreshing and even empowering. Beyond the ability to demonstrate good riding practices, my purpose on planning the community rides like the Dessert Ride was to help people feel comfortable riding on the road.
5) Start young.
The best way to prevent unnecessary fear is to get kids used to good habits at an early age. Because I’ve been biking semi-regularly since before I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it. Even city cycling was much easier for me to pick up because I was familiar with biking on roads. Similarly, introducing children to gardening or cooking can build a lifelong love. When I taught gardening workshops to elementary school students, their enthusiasm and knowledge sometimes eclipsed my own! Kids rarely fear the things that adults do and harnessing that daring nature can pay lifelong dividends.
I’m not going to go all FDR here, but instead quote another classic American, Ben Franklin. “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”