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Panic!

I had a great day today.

Back story: In my experience, our own fear is what’s holding us back the most.

We’re afraid the boss is going to be upset, we’re afraid our wife is going to disapprove, hate, or leave us. We’re afraid our friends are going to reject us. We’re afraid we’re not going to live up to our own standards. We’re afraid it’s not going to work out. We’re afraid the kids are going to make a scene.

Almost all of these fears are unconscious. And almost all of them get interpreted as something other than fear. Stress. Anxiety. Frustration. Insecurity. Unease. A desire to do something else. An innocent little thought that “I’ll do this some other day”.

But they’re all just different words for fear. And ultimately, when you keep asking “so what if this happened?”, you can always trace it down to an unconscious fear of dying. Surprising but true.

Example: So what if your wife gets upset? Then she won’t like me. And so what if she doesn’t like you? Then she might leave me. And then what if she left you? Then I’d be all alone. And then what if you were all alone? Then I’d die.

Once you say it out loud, you realize it isn’t so. But so long as it’s left to the unconscious to deal with alone, it’s in control of your life.

Anyway ... given that this is how I think, the next step is to keep asking myself the question: What am I most afraid of right now? What would I be most afraid that my colleagues or my coach might ask me to do.

And for long periods of time - weeks or even months - I don’t get an answer. But then occassionally an answer comes to me.

About ten days ago I suddenly woke up, just as I was about to sleep, and recalled a story that one of my friends and business partners had told me three years ago of a week-long workshop he’d been at in the UK, where they were asked to improvise and perform some act - a speech, a piece of music, anything - in front of the rest of the group. And one of the participants had played piano and had up until then always played by score, but were asked to let go of the score and just improvise and play in front of the rest of the group. Tears were shed and moments of divine beauty were experienced. Or something like that.

So what I realized is that I’m afraid of is being on stage without a script.

Not “on stage” as in doing theater. But metaphorically:

* Cooking without a recipe * Conducting a course without a prepared presentation * Giving a speech without a script * Playing piano without a score

The fear is, that going without a script might bomb. And if it bombs, people are going to be unhappy and not like me. And if they don’t like me, I’m not going to be safe (pictures of being chased and hit back in the schoolyard violence comes to mind). And then I’m going to die.

That’s my unconscious chain reaction.

But it turns out that I’ve spent years and years practicing and preparing for all of these things - cooking, teaching, talking, and playing music - that I really don’t need the recipe, the script, the score. Chances are it’s NOT going to bomb if I let go of the script. It’s just a crutch. It’s holding me back now.

And so it is for most of us. Holding on to the script might prevent the performance to be an unmitigated disaster.

But it’ll also prevent it from being spectacular, or even divine. If you let go of the script, there’s a real chance that inspiration might strike. That’ you’ll find yourself connecting with the audience in a way that really moves and inspires them and creates that special atmosphere.

But if you go with the script, then that’s simply not possible. Your attention is on the script and not with the audience. You have stuff you need to get through, so you can’t focus on and respond to what’s going on around you. You’re trying to reconcile your prepared plan with what’s in the room, and you have to let go of one or the other. You’re guaranteed to do something mediocre.

I saw a TED video the other day from TED India, namely Shekhar Kapur’s talk, where he talks about and practices exactly this: Going without a script. Both as a director and as the speaker on stage as he’s speaking.

To tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s a great talk. It’s quite confused and rambling. But it does have its moments.

What stuck with me was the beginnig of how he tells us how he deliberately tears up the script and puts himself in a state of panic when he directs a movie. Because he knows that only by getting out of his mind does he get access to the true source of inspiration, the divine, if you will. And I think that’s very powerful.

Now doing it like that is by no means a guarantee of divine inspiration, or even a success. But going WITH the script is guaranteed to PREVENT inspiration from striking. It’s a guarantee to do mediocre.

Just look at Zappos. They can do great ads like this and this (for background see here), precisely because they have the courage and the trust in their people not to script their customer service calls. And it’s so powerful precisely because almost no-one else has that courage. Or ability: Zappos is able to do this only because they have aggressively hired and fired for cultural fit during their entire history, so they can basically just let their people loose, and it’s going to work out.

(I still vividly remember back 3-4 years, when PragDave gave a keynote at a RailsConf in London where he took off his shoes and talked unscripted about fear for 45 minutes, connecting what was happening in the Rails world with what was happening in the world at large in a post-9/11 world. It was spectacular.)

So today, when I conducted my Mastermind group, I decided to go unscripted. I had a page’s worth of notes as a starting point. But otherwise I just went with my intuition. I talked about this. About how fear is holding us back, and how by letting go of the need to plan everything out and control everything in advance, we open ourselves up to be truly great.

Only by being real and present and unscripted can you be authentic and connect with people. And only by connecting with people can you truly make a difference.

Go panic!

5 comments

Alexander Kjerulf

I did that once. I was giving my 2nd presentation of the day and I didn't feel like doing the same thing twice. So I went on stage and explained my situation - and proceeded to tear up my notes for the speech on stage in front of the audience. I then asked them what they would like to talk about and did that for 2 hours. It rocked!
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Awesome, Alexander. Do it again! :) //Lars
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Morten Liebach

I used to go out training, meticulously recording as much of it as possible with my gadgets, analyzing and storing data. I use or have used both Polar, Suunto and Garmin stuff, it's all good, capable and helpful devices. Lately I've found that it doesn't matter much, I rarely, almost never look at my watch while running, because I can feel how hard I'm working, I can feel how well I am on that day, at that particular time. And that, above all else, is what matters. I started that by taking a few runs "naked", no watch or anything, just me and Amager Fælled. It was great, and really just another way of letting go of the script, inviting greatness. Thanks.
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Ola friend, Couldn't agree more. It has only been the times when I'm just in my element with some confidence and love for what I'm cooking that my boss says, "Excellent Dish"... I think a lot of times a recipe (metaphorically) can hold you back and prevent an authentic connection ...which is what people desire most.
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Exactly! The authentic connection is what we all desire the most. Good to have you back, Donia.
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