Why Betraying Your Instincts Might Be the Best Thing You Could Do for the Work You Care About
By Derek Penwell
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
I’ve been thinking about this Michael Jordan quote a lot lately. That’s a lot of failure.
There are so many things to hate about failure—that feeling in the pit of your stomach you get when you realize that once again you didn’t do what you set out to do, that voice in your head that says, “I told you you could never do this,” the realization that if you’re going to succeed, you’re going to have to risk failing all over again.
But the thing I hate most about failing is being embarrassed. Missing 26 game-winning shots means that you have to stand before the world, and admit that—at least at that moment—you’re the one everyone counted on to come through … and you didn’t. I hate, hate, hate being embarrassed. But according to Seth Godin, not wanting to be embarrassed is encoded in our DNA.
Actually, it’s not just the avoidance of embarrassment that is buried deep within us; it’s the fear of standing out from the crowd.
Evolutionarily, we’ve developed an extraordinarily sensitive threat-detection system, which in the past used to protect us from predators. And in a predatory environment, the ones who get eaten are the ones who stray too far from the herd. Sticking with the pack is the safest place to be, since the pack is much more difficult to attack than the lone individual. Wander too far from the safety of the group and you’re a prime target.
Unfortunately for us, the finely honed survival instincts calibrated to keep us safe from lions and tigers are much less practical now that we live in environments without those kinds of predatory threats. We still have these threat detection systems that continually tell us to keep our heads down, not to stand out, not to get too far ahead of the herd. Only now, the threats come more in the form of disapproving looks in a meeting, or the more subtle but no less devastating “no-that-was-fine-really-it-wasn’t-that-bad” consolation from people who are trying to be nice, or the now ubiquitous public shaming and unconstructive criticism on social media.
Consequently, nowadays most of us live our lives afraid of saying something that will draw negative attention to ourselves. In our world what many of fear most on a daily basis isn’t being eaten by a hungry tiger, but being eaten alive by an angry troll. And so we hedge our bets in an attempt to remain safely hidden in the pack.
Of course, what suffers when we hew too close to the middle for fear of drawing attention to ourselves is creativity. The impulse to remain invulnerable from attack, which Steven Pressfield calls the resistance, is what keeps most of us from doing the creative work we were put on earth to do. The resistance is that voice in our heads telling us not to put ourselves out there, not to do anything too new, too dramatically different. Because when we separate ourselves from the conventional, from the ordinary, from the expected—that’s when we’re most vulnerable.
But as both Godin and Pressfield point out, the resistance, if we’re brave enough, can become our friend. Because art is always a risk, the resistance can act as a barometer or a compass for creativity, which tells us when we’re getting close to our most important work. The louder that voice in our head warning us about embarrassment is, the more likely it is that we’re closing in on something important.
In other words, when it comes to creative work, the more insistent the voice in your head is about telling you not to put yourself out there, not to risk failure—if you can manage to listen to it in a different way—the better the chance that you’re headed in exactly the direction necessary for accomplishing what you have it inside you to accomplish.
There’s an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza reflects that his instincts have always led him astray, caused him to make bad choices. So, he figures he’ll try something different: he decides to do exactly the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do. If his instincts are so bad, then, he reasons, doing the opposite of what they encourage should lead to success.
Crazy proposal for creativity: When it comes to the work you love, the passion that drives your endeavors, what if you started, like George Costanza, to do exactly the opposite of what your instincts tell you?
What if, when the resistance tells you to slow down, that becomes a cue for you to step on it?
What if, when the resistance tells you to shut up, that’s the signal for you to speak more loudly?
What if, when the resistance tells you that you don’t have any business doing something that risks public embarrassment, you embrace the risk and do it anyway?
Chances are good that you could fail.
But if you don’t, chances are excellent that you’ll never do anything interesting.
And here’s the thing: We need you to do something interesting. The world is a better place when you’re doing the creative work you’ve been put here to do.
Look at Michael Jordan.