Some people become stronger when challenged by others. I’m at my best when confronted by my fears. The thought of taking the first steps is never comfortable, yet at the same time, always irrelevant because I know that sooner or later, I’ll take them. In the end, what I fear most is to be defined by my fears, so I much rather move into them. –Mirha Masala, Moving Into Fear
In 2010, Oral-B ran a prize contest in Dutch magazine Viva, asking readers: “What wish can we help you make come true?” I responded: “Become a TMF VJ.” They picked my entry out of hundreds, and over the next few weeks, I visited the TMF studio for a live interview, broadcasted the evening news on TV network SBS6, and recorded two street interviews and five vlogs with a camera crew while being coached by Dutch TV personality Chimène van Oosterhout.
For one of the street items, I was dropped in Amsterdam’s most exclusive shopping street with an apple and egg and assigned to trade both for more valuable items. After ten minutes of bartering, I ended the game with a bottle of wine and cufflinks.
The apple and egg challenge provided a peek into what I’d consider one of life’s worst-case scenarios: having no money. And for a stint, it made me practice poverty as encouraged by Seneca (and often quoted by Tim Ferriss):
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” –Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 18, On Festivals and Fasting
Not only did the game help me overcome my shame of borderline begging, but I had fun and thought it was impressive how far one can get in ten minutes of bartering. Perhaps, I now believed, if I were to end up dirt poor, I’d somehow manage.
Similarly, walking up to strangers for interviews, speaking in front of a camera, and appearing on national TV were all scary just the moments before I did them. The forward pace of the program and having a camera crew follow me around didn’t allow me to doubt myself for long, so I acted. And felt great afterward.
Since, I’ve conquered plenty of fears by pretending I was filmed or by turning my fears into challenges and taking up a bet with friends or announcing them on my blog. More than that, I’ve let my fears shape some of the most exciting stories of my life, like The Spin-Off Project.
The Spin-Off Project
In the same weeks that I was doing the TMF challenge, I met G. A couple of months later, on a train to see a Selah Sue concert, I shared my idea to immerse myself in 12 different lifestyles with him. It was the first time I spoke about what would become The Spin-Off Project.
I’m mentioning both events, the TMF challenge, and voicing my wish for The Spin-Off Project because I believe the former made the latter possible.
In 2010, most people thought quitting your job to travel and discover your passions was nuts. But I think my success with the TMF challenge gave me the courage to consider it, and topped with G’s support; I went for it.
Like that, I set myself on a path of fear-setting through 12 lifestyles and a bucket list, conquering fear after fear, each conquest building upon the former, enriching my life and strengthening my character.
The Fear List Chapter
After completing The Spin-Off Project, I kept tackling fears (mainly through artist dates). Thus, when Laura suggested that we could “help each other get out of our comfort zones” for an upcoming Knitting Club chapter, I was thrilled to share the power of overcoming fears with friends.
For this chapter, which we dubbed The Fear List, every Knitting Club member shared eight fears. Then, each picked three fears themselves and had one chosen for them by the group.
While brainstorming my own fear list, I had to think about all the fears I had already conquered. I wanted the other Knitting Club members to understand that no fear was too silly to start with, so I shared a list I had ticked off over the years:
- City trip alone (with the first city being Madrid and Mumbai topping the fear factor)
- Learn to dance salsa
- Run a 10K race
- Backpack alone for a month
- Go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat
- Learn to surf (and keep surfing)
- Dress up for a fancy solo dinner (three-course minimum and no book or phone allowed)
- Start conversations with strangers for 30 days
- Ask for discounts
- Ask strangers for street portraits for 30 days
- Do an acting workshop
- Sign up for a singing class
- Forgo surgery for a self-researched 3-month therapy
- Sign up for a coding bootcamp
- Present publicly
- Teach code
- Give a tech workshop
- Pitch Neo’s Tree
- Don’t tip for a year
- Focus on one pursuit
- End friendships
- Initiate difficult conversations with G
- Write Everything I Never Told You
Still, more things scared me: signing up for an improv class, asking for help, promoting my blog, writing mom a letter, and others. And yet, the longer I examined my current fears, the less they excited me. That’s when I uncovered that my biggest fear would be to do nothing.
The Fear of Stillness
People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing. It demands all of you…there is no object to hide behind. It’s just you. –Marina Abramović via Stillness Is The Key
When we started The Fear List chapter, I was 36 weeks pregnant and still running full steam with work, side projects, and gatherings. Some days were busier than ever.
On the one hand, I argued that these were my last weeks to get things done before our baby boy would be born. On the other, I knew it was time to stop ramping up and compulsively cramming more on my plate and instead just be.
When I thought of the actions required to conquer my fear of doing nothing, I pictured: less input, better-defined working hours, and a lot more downtime.
Still, in search of inspiration to help structure the weeks ahead, I read Stillness Is The Key, which prompted me to reframe my challenge of doing nothing to an ironically more active pursuit of finding stillness.
Though I decided to work on one fear exclusively (in contrast with the other Knitting Club members who chose four), I included different weekly steps.
Week 1: No Audiobooks or Podcasts
My main challenge for the first week was to stop listening to books or podcasts while doing something else simultaneously. But I also wanted to quit filling every available moment with noise, so I cut out audiobooks and podcasts altogether.
For the first few days, I had withdrawal symptoms. Doing the dishes and laundry, putting on make-up, going for a long walk, and packing my suitcase felt like a waste of time without listening to something useful.
Moreover, my mind was in overdrive. It wasn’t unlike the experience I had during the first days of the silent Vipassana retreat I did in 2014, when it took three 10-hour meditation days for my thoughts to become sparser and settle down. I was sad to find that I seemed as un-zen now as then.
Even though I was thoroughly cranky about not being able to tune into my audio sources, I also observed that without them, I:
- Spent more time with family
- Noticed when G wanted my attention (and also didn’t have to gesture for him to stop talking while I paused the player)
- Started writing bits of first drafts in my head
- Was coming up with solutions for work problems
- Noticed when I was tired (and thus could choose to rest)
- Became calmer and more excited about meeting Peanut
Overall, there was less, and that felt good.
Week 2: Journaling and Meditation
For week 2, I kept out the audio, which meant I was pretty bored when we made the 20-hour drive from Sarajevo to Amsterdam. Yet, at the same time, it was relaxing not to have my usual list of reads and to-does to catch up with while on the move.
However, doing mundane tasks without playing books in the background still made me feel down. I couldn’t shake the sense I was wasting time. This lingering sadness only increased when we arrived in Amsterdam to nest, which meant more cleaning, shopping, organizing, washing, etc. in preparation for Peanut’s arrival. I did my best to be more present and curious about these day-to-day chores, which helped a bit.
Nonetheless, I also included journaling and meditations, trying to discover where my need to escape the moment was coming from, and worried about the blues. Like that, in the silence of both practices, I just sat with my uneasiness and found pockets of stillness.
Week 3: Siestas and 6-Hour Workdays
I’ve resisted siestas forever. Most days, I find it impossible to stop working and lay down to relax, even though I’m familiar with the benefits of napping, and I always feel better when I do manage to nap.
But by week 3 of The Fear List chapter, I was two weeks away from my due date, and my body craved rest. I had also repeatedly read and heard that once Peanut was with us, I’d need to nap whenever he did, so I figured I better start practicing.
I also slowed down at work, skipping all meetings to allow for extra headspace, and cut down to six hours a day.
To ensure I wouldn’t use the extra time I created to be productive, and hoping to boost my oxytocin levels, I planned a relaxing activity for every day of the week: going for a long walk, getting a massage, having dinner with friends, or joining a yoga class.
Week 4: Introspection and 4-Hour Workdays
For week 4, I kept napping, limited audio (painless by now), and moved to 4-hour workdays (my work-life balance sweet spot, apparently).
By now, I enjoyed the nothingness I had created to the fullest. I didn’t feel like cramming in productive tasks anymore, and instead, I chose more slow, stillness-invoking, self-care rituals, like meditation, gratefulness exercises, mini yoga sessions, walking, and writing.
While creating more space for stillness each week, I began wanting less and less noise in all its forms and instead sought out even more stillness. On top of the weekly challenges, I left my phone home often, just drank my coffee, surrounded myself with low-maintenance friends, and even observed the birds in the trees. It was stillness attracting stillness.
What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. –Tim Ferriss
In hindsight, it seems so clear that finding stillness is what I needed to practice most at this point in my life. It allowed me to spend more time catching up with friends, and my parents, bonding with Peanut and daydreaming with G about the life ahead of us.