When I was a kid, I suffered from a severe case of roller coaster anxiety. In the days leading up to a family vacation at an amusement park, I would get excited about the prospect of riding some crazy, new roller coaster and would psyche myself up for the adventure ahead. I would mentally forge an internal contract to overcome my fears, to stand in line, and to then buckle up for the twists and turns and the ups and downs. And then the moment would come when I was looking up at the Goliath before me, and that courage would escape me. I would break my internal contract, tear up, and walk back to the safer and smaller rides. Now as a parent (who has grown to love all sorts of thrill rides), I see this same effect in my kids as I try to compel them to come along with me for the ride. The strongest desire, plan, or ambition can be broken down by the intimidating sight of the tangible monstrosity of the challenge… The Roller Coaster Effect.
I’ve seen this same effect as I’ve taken on various challenges in my life… it can be in the “big” events like starting a new job, writing a book, or moving away from a hometown, or it can be in the everyday events like starting a small project at home, writing a short blog post, or moving out of my comfort zone. Sometimes although the mind is willing, the spirit just isn’t ready. It might be a fear of the unknown, an anxiety of embarrassment, or the avoidance of failure… so that when faced with the actual moment to step on the ride, we sabotage our own ambitions with an exaggerated sense of dread. While we have imagined ourselves ready for the challenge, the steepness of reality ends up drastically changing our perception.
With Election Day coming next week, I think this Roller Coaster Effect is a strong driver of why this presidential race is so hard to predict. There are likely more voters than ever before who will step up to the ballot box and not truly know which side of the ballot they will mark until the finality of the moment is before them. They want to do the right thing, are scared of making a wrong choice, and won’t truly know how they will respond until they are forced to put a choice “in writing”. While there are tons of stresses on this Election Day, this Roller Coaster Effect is heightening the impact both for the individuals affected directly as well as for those waiting to see who chooses which “ride”.
In so many cases in life, we do not truly know how we will respond to a big, hairy, audacious challenge until the moment is tangibly present. Furthermore, in all the examples listed above, there is at least some sort of concrete deadline… a finite time to make a choice to go for it or to retreat knowing that the moment will pass. But the scarier situations are the ones in which there is no deadline─ when the pressure of the goal is omnipresent and the easiest response is to continuously procrastinate taking the leap, thus defaulting to a long slow failure to ride.
For the sake of this example, let’s assume that we ultimately do want to overcome our anxieties and experience the thrill of the roller coaster. So what are some ways to Overcome the Roller Coaster Effect?
- Embrace the Fear: I think we often have some expectation that we need to first overcome and eliminate our fear, so that we can then fearlessly pursue our goal. Fear is not a sign of weakness. It is proof that we are trying something bold, stretching, and growthful. Bravery isn’t about the absence of fear, but rather the courage to act in its presence. Expect fear. Embrace it. And prepare to build the strength to push through it.
- Set a Deadline: Particularly if you are a born procrastinator like myself, it is critical to set a deadline for accomplishing the mission. Especially when it comes to making a life change or pursuing some crazy dream, it is far too easy to hide our scary goals in a box and to slowly procrastinate our way to failure by inactivity. Not making a choice is the same as choosing “No”… it is just a longer, more drawn out and ultimately excruciating process. Set a deadline and deliberately choose “Go” or “No Go”, and don’t let the easy allure of procrastination choose for you.
- Find a Mentor: There are very few “roller coasters” in life that someone out there hasn’t already found a way to conquer. It is easy to feel alone in the internal struggle to push past our own fears, but the truth is that there are experienced people out there who are eager and willing to help. This may be someone close to you today, someone from your past, or someone out there you haven’t yet met, but finding a person who has been down a similar road before can help you map the course, watch out for pitfalls, or even hold your hand along the journey.
- Look the Real Roller Coaster in the Eye: Make it real. In previous posts I have talked about “Bringing the Tiger into the Room”… it is one thing to commit to a hypothetical but quite another to react to reality. A few years back, I set a goal to run a Sprint Triathlon, but had never swam competitively (or even effectively) and didn’t actually own a bike. My initial pursuit of this goal consisted of running through internet research, biking slowly around the track of procrastination, and swimming through a fear of crashing or drowning, until I actual got myself away from the Internet and into the bike shop and the pool. I couldn’t begin to actualize this goal until I overcame the activation energy of starting it, and the successful completion of my triathlon began with a single, slow lap in a cold pool. There was still a ton of work before me, but by making the unknown into a known, I was able to forge ahead.
- Imagine the Regret: Picture yourself on the car ride home, not having ridden the roller coaster and not knowing if and when you will have the chance again. Taste the disappointment of letting your fears having stopped you from doing something memorable and amazing. Essentially… flip the Roller Coaster Effect on its head and let the fear of the future regretting of the missed opportunity drive you to take it on in the present. Concurrently, let yourself imagine the taste of success… the pride in succeeding and just transport yourself to tomorrow to help drive you today. Tomorrow’s regret can fuel today’s courage.
- Buckle In and Enjoy the Ride: Once you finally strap yourself in and start the climb, don’t look back and don’t look too far ahead. You’ve chosen to embark on the journey and there is no turning back, so you are inherently locked into this new path. Yes… there may be an unexpected twist, a sick feeling in your stomach, or even a fall or two ahead, but now that you’ve begun you know that you have no choice but to finish. Buckle in, enjoy the ride, and maybe even throw your arms in the air and let the coaster take you where it may. When all is said and done, the worst thing that can happen is that you overcame your fears and found that the accomplishment wasn’t as amazing as you had dreamt it to be (and maybe left you a little dizzy). The best thing that can happen is that you have achieved something that gave you a sense of joy in the moment, a sense of pride in overcoming the past, and a bold new path into the future.
And again, while it is easy to see this Roller Coaster Effect in the big, earth-shattering moments of life, it is also very real in simple day to day activities. And conquering a roller coaster once doesn’t mean that you won’t have to conquer that same coaster again. Even after writing dozens of a blog posts and authoring a book, it has still taken me weeks to publish anything new as I let my own anxieties, procrastination, and fear of rejection get in the way. I finally was able to forgive myself my fear of failure, set a deadline for my 3 hour flight to Mexico City, get a kick in the butt from a friend, force myself to put some initial ramblings on paper, imagine my annoyance at landing without having written, and have some fun with telling a story. It is not perfect… it had its ups and downs and its twists and turns, but I pushed through it, have the weight of procrastination off my back, and can now focus myself forward. And hopefully someone else will enjoy this ride and take home an insight or two of their own. The Roller Coaster Effect is real and the fear is indicative of something potentially amazing ahead. Forge ahead, buckle in, and enjoy the ride.