Sink or Swim

The best way to push yourself is work without a safety net.

I work on the same set of projects every day. I answer people’s questions, divide up all the project work, and chip away at the to-do list one by one. For the most part, I do my own thing and am responsible for communicating our needs to various vendors and helping team members with tricky situations.

But I’m not the one charge. When someone asks me a question I’m not familiar enough with to give a definite answer on or some part of a database starts acting wonky I take it to the project lead and work with him to resolve the issue.

Sure, in watching him solve the problem I usually learn a thing or two and am able to explain the solution afterward. But he’s a safety net. As long as he’s there solving the tough problems I’m not pushing myself to learn something new.

For the last two weeks the project lead has been on vacation and suddenly I’ve found myself in charge. At first, everything went smoothly. A few minor questions, some basic queries were requested. Small potatoes; nothing I couldn’t handle.

And then something happened. Our vendor reported that somehow 15,000 records were floating around in our database with no base. It’s delaying workflow.  I have to figure it out.

On any other occasion, an escalation as serious as this would have immediately been passed to the lead, but he’s not here. The safety net was happily lounging around on vacation and this was my problem to fix.

A dozen YouTube videos and an entire pot of coffee later I had a solution in place. While restoring the lost data wasn’t possible I was able to successfully build a series of queries to identify what was lost, pull it into a separate location and cross-reference the structure against other versions of the tool.

Once there was a solution I went a step deeper and identified where in the scripting the error originated from and created a patch to keep it from happening again.

It probably took me three times as long to fix it as it would have the lead, but that doesn’t matter.

I was in a sink or swim situation, and I swam.


The Anxiety Obstacle Course

Meeting people can be hard, especially if it’s not something you do often. But, like with most things, all you need is a little patience and lots of practice.

I’ve had anxiety my entire life. That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. More times than I can count or would care to admit I’ve forgone an opportunity due to an irrational fear I’d convinced myself to be true.

It’s a sinking feeling like the world will turn if you dare to speak to this person. Everyone will watch me walk across the room. This person will think I’m weird. They probably won’t even want to help me with what I need. The irrational (in hindsight) list of fears goes on and on and on.

But like I said, just because the thought of speaking to someone makes you want to curl up and cry isn’t an excuse to not do it. It’s an obstacle and you can, and will, overcome it.

Meeting people when you have anxiety is a lot like getting a tattoo. The anticipation is 1,000x worse than the actual event.

The first time I got a tattoo I made the appointment two weeks in advance. For that entire time, I walked around stressed and worried. What if he screws up? What if the pain is so bad I can’t take it? What if he thinks I’m a wimp? What do I say when I arrive if he’s not there yet or he’s busy? What happens when he’s done? Do I say thank you? What if I die in a fiery accident on the way there and he gets mad I no call/no show?

The longer you dwell the more ridiculous the reasons become.

By the time I showed up in was shaking. The whole drive there I tried to pump myself up. I listened to my favorite bands, I smoked, I gave myself a good Ole fashioned pep talk in the parking lot but still the sinking, falling, feeling of doom weighed on me.

And you know what happened?

I got the tattoo. I didn’t die. I didn’t embarrass myself at all. Dare I even go so far as to say I enjoyed myself.

I walked out of there with a feeling of accomplishment I’d never felt before. I acknowledged the fear and I did it anyway.

Great Tia, you have a tattoo, but what’s your point?

My point is, meeting people, like getting a tattoo, is only as scary as you convince yourself it is. Getting a tattoo isn’t painless, you’re going to feel some level of discomfort. But the instant that tattoo is finished, the pain goes away. The same applies to conversations when you have anxiety.

Beforehand it’s easy to freak yourself out and focus on all the things that go wrong, all the wrong things you might say or do. Even during the interaction, you’ll still feel the nerves, the panic, the red bell going off in your head compelling you to run.

But you don’t do it.

Walking away would only draw more attention to this imaginary crisis and we can’t have that, oh no. Much better to stay through to the end and suffer silently than make a scene. But a funny thing happens when the conversation ends; none of the catastrophic events you prophesied actually happened. You’ve survived the encounter. Suddenly you’re elated, you’ve done it!

I now have nine tattoos, and the ability to (at least more so than before) talk to people. It’s still scary, I still panic and make a list of scenarios, but I know in the end I can do it.

And if that means I need to set aside an extra 15 minutes of panic time before a meeting or writing out an exact script of what I need to say when I call the dentist then that’s what I do. Whatever it takes to get it done, do it. There’s no shame in being afraid.

It’s the only way to improve.

Make the call. Say hello. Walk down that grocery aisle even though there’s already 3 people standing there. Freak out if you need to but know the world won’t stop spinning.

You can do it.