“I only want to teach people who are going to stab someone or get stabbed.”
Whiskey in one hand, my friend was only half-joking. He teaches martial arts, including knife fighting. He was mocking the fact that students come to him, including police officers and members of the military who need the skills for their work, although few are willing to get cut.
You may not want to learn knife fighting, but the fear of getting cut is real in much more mundane pursuits:
- You want to learn a language, but you don’t want to make mistakes speaking.
- You want to give speeches, but you don’t want to bomb your presentation.
- You want to write a novel, but you don’t want anyone to laugh at your work.
- You want to be a surgeon, but you don’t want anyone to die on the operating table.
Nobody wants to get cut. Failure, injury, pain, rejection, and death, are all things we instinctively avoid.
At the same time, the risks can never be eliminated. For many skills, the only way to learn them is to endure a long run of painful mistakes. Even for those where the price of mistakes can be deadly, there’s always a residual risk you must be willing to accept.
The Fear of Getting Cut
Of course, the most learning mistakes don’t result in getting stabbed. You get booed on stage. Critics thrash your latest work. Native speakers interrupt you and switch back to English.
The fear can be as acute as mortal danger, but the actual risks are small. In those cases, it’s better to just get cut a lot. Start by getting rejected. Start by failing utterly. Start with the worst blows so that they lose their sting.
Two things happen when you decide to get cut. First, you get cut a lot less than you expected to. The world isn’t really so mean as your imagination. Second, when you do feel it, it’s not as deep as you anticipated.
Minor scrapes aside, you can stop being timid and start getting good at what you’re afraid of. The fear itself was more unpleasant than the actual experience, so it is, ironically, by being willing to get cut that you endure the least pain overall.
When Cuts are Deadly
Of course, not all wounds are minor. Get stabbed regularly and learning stops pretty quickly. Doctors, pilots, engineers and those who hold life in their hands can’t be so frivolous as to ignore the risks.
Yet, even here, accepting the risks is essential to be able to move forward. I once met someone who worked in medical technologies who told me that, “Every choice you make, you have to accept that people are going to die.” This may sound callous, but from his position it was simply a fact. A life-saving treatment fails to work, people die. Don’t try the life-saving treatment, people die.
Cuts are minimized through training, simulation and practice. But they’re never eliminated. Being willing to get cut is the only way to more forward psychologically.
What Cuts are You Afraid Of?
What are the cuts of your work and life you’re avoiding that need to be accepted? The anxieties that keep you from attacking the problems in your life? What minor cuts could you feel now, so you don’t spend your life flinching or face worse wounds later on?