On Fear, Elephants and Letting Go
The Voice Box
I was an aggressive fat little kid who stuttered and didn't have many friends. Every day at school I was afraid to open my mouth because it would invariably lead to being laughed at.
In French class when everyone had to take turns to read a sentence out loud, I would start calculating when it would be my turn, frantically trying to figure out how to get the damn phrase out of my throat. I'd be blushing and sweating when my time had come and I'd be exhausted when it was all over.
Don't even get me started about oral presentations.
I have this thing. Maybe it's a condition. Maybe it's just part of life. I get scared when a big blob of undefined work heads my way. I do love attacking big, new and unknown problem sets, but sometimes stuff just overwhelms me. Threatens to shut me down.
I've messed up things in the past because of that. Totally blew a big Drupal project once, when I found myself too paralyzed to really move forward and too stubborn to ask for help. In the end it cost me much more than a good relationship with a very interesting research institution, but that's a story for another day. Maybe.
Today I'm finding myself at the start of a massive project. Exactly the type of project I wanted to work on when I came to Africa. The kind of project where your work has the potential to change something at the end of the day, to create something new and meaningful. Loads and loads of man days are foreseen; almost all of it as of yet undefined.
There's someone I haven't met many times in real life, but whom I consider a good friend. He was recently offered an internship in an awesome team at a rather well-known social network. He's obviously over the moon, but I'm sure pretty soon he'll be entering the oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into stage and start sweating.
The Exchange Student from Cameroon
I have this buddy Big Guy. I don't get to see him too often, with me living in Senegal and all, but that makes our time together all the more special. He's a month younger but he's always been a decade smarter than me. He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. If he's not scared, I'm plenty scared for the both of us.
Years of speech therapy only put band aids on the wound. Nothing really changed until one day when I was 15 or so I saw an interview with a guy whose stutter was way worse than mine. Yet of all things he could have been in life, he was a public speaker. A public stutterer.
Here's what he said: if *you* are bothered by your stuttering and fear the reactions of the world, the world is going to react to your fear. If you are truly indifferent to your stuttering, no-one is going to care.
It took a few weeks to really sink in, but when it did, my stutter as good as disappeared.
In my early twenties I started working as a technical help desk operator, and a few years later I started publicly speaking - and stuttering - at DrupalCamps and DrupalCons. Thing is, most of the people I know have probably not even noticed I still occasionally stutter. And if they did notice, they didn't care. Because I didn't.
The Elephant and the Hydra
A former manager of mine once gave me a solid piece of advice. I didn't really get how valuable it was until much later. He told me "the only way to eat a whole elephant is steak by steak".
I've come to realize a blob is not a hydra. It does not sprout other blobs when you attack it.
We fear what we don't know. The way to defeat a blob is by describing it. By defining what it is. By pulling it from the realm of the unknown into the realm of the known. By breaking it into little pieces and killing it slowly, softly.
The Exchange Student Revisited
I haven't seen my buddy since he told me about his diagnosis. I'm still angry and scared and frustrated.
I'm not really sure how he's doing. He doesn't talk all that much. Real Men and all that.
He's hanging in there though, leading his life, getting promoted, doing an awesome job transitioning from a junior java developer to a project manager and team leader.
I think he stopped caring a little and started munching on some elephant filet.