‘Leap and the net will appear’ – John Burroughs
Do you ever feel like you’re standing on the edge of something great but you can’t for the life of you just jump in and go for it? You’re filled with the spark of inspiration, you know it’s a cool idea; every fibre of your being is humming in tune and when you think or speak about this idea your eyes light up, your heart beats faster and your passion is clear.
But. You. Just. Can’t. Leap.
You can’t afford it. You don’t have time. You’ve already got too much on your plate. What if you fail? What if people don’t like it? You’re not good enough at it. Someone else would do it better. Someone else has already done it better. It’s not clever enough. It’s not exciting enough. No one else cares about it. It’s too big a risk. People will laugh.
Everyone has these anxieties, except maybe sociopaths. It’s completely normal, because it’s so commonplace. What’s happening here is our amygdala, a tiny but crucial part of our brain, is sensing our anxiety and sending us signals to RUN AWAY FAST, while the left side of our brain is articulately describing our fears to us in full technicolour (‘I will fail!’ – ‘I’m not good enough!’ – ‘People will judge me!’).
So we don’t leap, and we certainly don’t strain our eyes looking for a seemingly invisible net to catch us. Inspiration and motivation fade, and we never quite get around to doing that really amazing thing.
Why on earth would our brains do this to us? It’s not like we’re about to jump in front of a train – we’re talking about potentially starting a new creative project, or leaving a soul-sucking job, or moving cities, right? These aren’t life-ending decisions.
The problem is that even just thinking about doing something new arouses feelings of uncertainty and this is what triggers the amygdala. Back when we were cave people, uncertainty was something to avoid at all costs. Uncertainty meant potentially being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, or squashed by a woolly mammoth. So our amygdala developed this clever, highly sensitive radar for uncertainty and as soon as it sensed it – BAM – anxiety attack!
Back then we retreated to our safe places: the well-trodden paths, the warm caves. We stepped back, away from the edge, and our anxieties settled down. Crisis averted.
The problem with this pattern is that the more you do it, the stronger those neural pathways become. When you focus on something, such as how anxious you feel, or how badly you’re going to fail, that activates neural firing. This then creates neural pathways that determine how we respond to and interact with our world. The more we strengthen these pathways, the more automatic and entrenched those responses and reactions become. We go around fearing the proverbial woolly mammoth for most of our lives.
There’s also another kind of fear that prevents us from leaping: the fear of success. It is strange to be afraid of winning, but it actually masquerades as a fear of failure. It’s the voice that whispers to us, ‘What if it’s really good and takes up all your spare time? What if it’s really popular and suddenly you can’t keep doing things the way you have been? How will you fit it all in!?’ Oh, the horror.
The Jonah Complex is the name given to this fear of success, which prevents you from realising your dreams. Interestingly, the fear of success can be triggered by exactly the same challenges that trigger the fear of failure: big decisions that result in change. And it’s this change that we really fear, because we fear the losses that potentially come with change – loss of freedom, of reputation, of the status quo. Regardless of whether you believe you’ll succeed or fail, when you start to consider change the fears that crop up are endless.
You can project into the future as much as you want, but you can’t get a clear picture of what’s truly going to unfold unless you take that leap. You might be wildly successful and have to revisit your core values and priorities again and again, constantly refining your idea of what’s most important in your life and shedding things that are not. Or you might fail, in the sense that what you try doesn’t work out and you either go back to what you were doing before or you try something new.
Either way, the not knowing is scary! But have faith in this: if you do leap, the net will appear. It may not be the net you were expecting, but it will still be there to catch you if you fall. You will emerge from your leap a different person, changed by the experience of having tried something new and of stepping outside your comfort zone. This will be a good thing!
You will be able to say with authority, ‘I tried that, and it didn’t quite work, but now I’ve thought of a better way.’ Or you might even exclaim with relish, ‘Eureka! I tried it, and it worked!’ Don’t let your fears about what might happen in the future stop you from creating that future. It’s much more satisfying to be able to say you actually tried something than to regret never giving it a go.
Each time you try something new you learn fresh lessons and grow from the experience, whether you win or lose. You forge new neural pathways and strengthen old ones that will enable you to do even better next time.
So harness your enthusiasm, follow your current passion, and take that leap! Try the new thing and learn from the experience regardless of the outcome. Know that by doing so you are growing and evolving, and becoming a deeper, more multi-faceted and interesting person in the process.