Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fear, Challenge, and the Potential for Growth

What is fear? Why do we fear it? What power does it have? And why do we, who host it from time to time, give it such power?

These are questions I am beginning to ask in preparation for writing a new short play.

This exploration of fear was spawned by by a realization I had recently in regard to how I'm reacting to some of my current classes as a grad student. (Like the litany of "r's" in that last sentence? Oh, alliteration.) The realization had to do with fear and how I have been hesitant at the idea of participating in different activities involving acting. Given my first 16 years of schooling providing ample opportunity (and later, training) in acting, this present fear of acting in my graduate classes should have no place. Yet there it is. What's going on?

One of the video assignments in my Inquiries into Teaching and Learning class shed some light on what I think the problem is here. This video on this idea by Carol Dweck will give you the gist of it:

In my case, it has to do with knowing that I have some talent and not wanting to negate that in the eyes of others (or my own eyes) by screwing up. So I'm fearful of trying something, showing that I'm rusty, not having acted in anything in a year (and the pressure is compounded given that I'm in New York City, Theatrical Mecca of Actors in the United States, full of some of the greatest talent this country has to offer). But why the fear? What's going to happen if I screw up, if I try an acting exercise and find that I am indeed off the mark a bit, not as adept as I once was (or can be in periods of more focused training)?

If you watched the video I posted a link for in the above paragraph, you heard about something called the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. The Fixed Mindset (according to Dweck) responds to praise of innate talent by not wanting to do things that prove that praise to be in error. In other words, someone who's been told "You're talented," may not want to venture into something more difficult for them after experiencing some level of failure in that difficult area, for fear that it might expose a falsehood about that praise. To condense it further, "You're talented," turns into, "You're not talented," when the Fixed Mindset is presented with something much more challenging than usual. Counter that with the Growth Mindset, which is stimulated by praise of one's efforts, not their talents, and according to Dweck, encourages one to take on challenges for their growth potential, no longer worry about whether or not they are talented. There is potential to get better, so the challenge is looked upon as an opportunity. How does all of this play into fear?

In the second mindset, the Growth Mindset, it seems that fear has less of a place. It's focused more on gaining rather than losing, on adding to knowledge or skill rather than subtracting from or negating it.

What if, instead of listening to fear, "Don't do that, you might expose your weakness," I, and others faced with a challenge, listened instead to the thought that says, "If it turns out more difficult than you thought, then doing it will give you an opportunity to find out and to get better at it." Whoever said that failure had to have such a weighty consequence? (Well, society perhaps says that to us all the time in a number of ways, and failure is rarely fun.) What happens if we stop trying to avoid failure and start focusing more on building skills that will by simple consequence result in increased success?

The one who is afraid to fail is less likely to try. I want take fear out of the equation. How to go about it? Try and fail enough times to find that failing is not so bad after all? Or try so many times to realize that success actually comes more often than failure?

Who said I was so rusty anyway? Who said I was prone to such failure? Where is that negativity coming from? I'm a trained actor. Key word: trained. So, rather than focusing on talent, shouldn't I focus on continuing that which helped to cultivate and sharpen that talent these many years past? On the TRAINING? And that implies something else: to try.

Allow me to spin the spotlight on you for a minute. Where are you afraid to try? Who told you that you'd fail? Others? Yourself? Past experience? Whether those voices are true or false (and I daresay most of the time they're false), why don't you step right past Fear's "Do Not Cross" rope and into the realm of possibility? Fail three times you might, but in the process, you might just gain (or sharpen) the skills necessary to succeed a hundred times after.

Shall we try and grow together?

P.S. For those of you who want to look at this from a spiritual lens, see this parable on investment that Jesus told to describe how his kingdom works. Check it out (this is the Message paraphase by Eugene Peterson)

"14-18 It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

19-21 After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

22-23 The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

24-25 The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

26-27 The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this 'play-it-safe' who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’"
-Matthew 25:14-30