I stared at the phone. My torso felt like an ice box.
Maybe I could weasel my way out of this? It was a stupid idea. Nobody wanted to talk to me.
I reached for my phone and pressed on the digit buttons. The phone emitted tone after tone like a dying robot.
More than a decade ago, I’d written and self-published a semi-lousy book and wanted to get some publicity. I’d mailed the book to some potential influencers.
Then came the part that left me cold and sick with fear.
I had to follow up, ask the influencers if they’d gotten my book, and what they thought of it — but I didn’t want to face the awkwardness, sound like a desperate salesman on the phone or spend an afternoon trying to force myself into strangers’ lives to make a buck. Instead, I wanted what all immature introverts want – to become a success without talking to another human being.
One Sunday, I mapped out a plan: on Tuesday, I’d assemble a list of the influencers’ contact information and on Wednesday, I’d call them.
Wednesday afternoon arrived. I sat on my futon and stared at the chair by my computer. My phone rested on the desk, to the left. A Word document was on my screen with everyone’s phone numbers.
Okay, in a minute, I’ll stand from my futon, walk to my chair, and sit down.
A minute later, I did that.
In another minute, I’ll pick up my phone and dial the first number. I don’t actually have to call. I’ll just enter the digits. For the next 60 seconds, I soaked in the stillness and pretended I’d sit like that forever.
After a minute, I pressed the phone’s keys.
If I had synesthesia and saw sounds as colors, each tone would have looked like a shade of vomit green.
I entered the phone number. Now I can take a break – a mini-vacation. I can just sit here.
I soaked up more solitude.
In another minute, I can just press the button to dial. It’ll ring and I can still sit here. It doesn’t mean I’ll need to talk with anyone. And they might not even answer. Heck, I can hang up, if I want.
A minute later, I pressed the dial button.
Some people answered. Mostly, I left voicemails that went unanswered. It was a lot like my experiences with dating.
The whole venture turned out to be a waste of time and energy, but I got a few lessons.
One was how, if faced with a task so steeped in fear, I could not just plow through it.
I couldn’t even baby-step through it.
Instead, I did something different. Here’s another story to illustrate the point:
Recently, my wife and I visited Aspen, Colorado. It was fall and the leaves were just starting their mass tumble to the ground. We tried to time our western migration to witness the event and, this year, we succeeded.
As we hiked deeper into a mountain, the rumble of nearby construction faded, the sun ducked behind the slope, and we entered a different world. The ground shifted, leaves no longer munched beneath our soles, as we ventured along a trail of soft dirt shaded by deep green pines.
I looked down at a divide between the bright path and the fall leaves wagging in the wind.
The woods became silent, as if The Almighty had reached out and etched this line with a Divine fingernail.
Walking quietly, I glanced to the right. The ground plummeted, with a sheer falloff between a hill and a cliff. A minute later, we passed another pair of hikers.
“Does this trail take us back to the road?” I asked.
“Yeah, it does, just a bit ahead.”
My wife and I were tired and hadn’t eaten.
How could this trail get us down the mountainside? As we walked on, the way gradually revealed itself. The trail zig-zagged down the slope in dozens of switchbacks so tight you could almost skip on them as if they were giant stair steps. Maybe a few people dared to do so, but I didn’t want to risk falling.
We walked back and forth, back and forth, gently. Twenty minutes later, we stepped into the sun and civilization, passing the construction site and getting some food.
Afterwards, I thought about the switchbacks.
The mountainside was so steep that even baby steps straight up or down would be a challenge.
You’d practically have to climb on your hands and knees, but by adding another dimension of travel – side to side – the journey became easy — a step beyond baby steps.
That’s what I did when making those scary phone calls. I didn’t have the terminology at the time, but I weaved through it by making my own switchbacks.
Planning the day of the calls, I gave myself mini-vacations. I mapped everything out on Sunday. Monday was a day off – at least, a day off from this scary project. Tuesday I did more work, but not the scariest part, until the next day.
I gave myself more than one day to do something requiring only minutes of work. On the day of the calls, I gave myself more mini-vacations after each miniscule step. And I assured myself that I could tuck tail and run at any moment. Some people need to hold themselves accountable to plow through fear. But I’ve found, in certain situations, that I need to comfort myself.
By giving myself the extra dimension of time, I got enough breathing room to weave through the fear and accomplish what I wanted to do.
Is there something in your life that’s so monumentally tough and scary that it resembles an impossibly steep mountain slope? And you can’t conceive of how you can do it? You might need to make your own switchbacks to weave your way through it.
First, think in terms of baby steps. As an example, I have a daily routine of meditation. It’s a specific kind of Daoist meditation and it takes me an hour. I didn’t start with one hour or fifteen minutes or even five. I started with one minute – 60 little seconds. Then I added baby steps in the form of five extra seconds. Barely anything, but I added five seconds every day and never scaled back.
Another example. When I started saving money for investment, I set aside $30 per week. What’s that add up to?
Something between nothing and half a coffee at Starbucks.
Yet it became so much more. How? By weaving its way into greater and greater savings. I didn’t promise or force myself to save more, but it happened. Baby steps.
Anne Lamott, a successful writer and teacher of writing, tells her students to write 250 words per day. That’s not much more than a grocery list, depending on how fancy a chef you are, but it’s 1,750 words per week. Still an average article, but it’s also 7,000 words per month – a substantial article. It’s also 84,000 words per year – a book. And not a large-font, tons-of-white-space book, like the one I sent to influencers. 84,000 words is a book with a respectable thud factor – all from 250 words per day.
Yet that’s just baby steps. What if you’re trying to do something so scary, even modeling the itty-bitty gait of an infant isn’t enough? After you’ve mapped out your baby steps, add another dimension.
Take advantage of time. Let’s explore how.
If you get nervous or frustrated about writing, can you promise to merely sit at your desk and open a Word document? No promises to write anything, just weave your way through one switchback.
If you don’t think you have time to exercise – and you hate it – can you simply step outside and enjoy the fresh air? No promises to walk around the block or anything else, just weave your way through one switchback.
If you’re nervous about making a phone call, can you promise to make it tomorrow or next week, schedule it, and, on the day of your call, coach yourself through dialing a single digit? No promises that you’ll click the green button with the old-timey-looking phone on it, just weave your way through one switchback.
Some challenges, if you attempt to push yourself through them, are like trying to crawl up an impossibly steep hill. Some hills can be taken by powering straight up their slope, but others require a more indirect strategy – by gradually plodding up them with switchbacks. It’s not dramatic, sexy or cinematic, but when fear gives you no option, adding another dimension can help you accomplish something that truly scares you.