By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 2, 2011
I’ve been out of the country for the past two weeks, in England and in Israel. (In fact I’m still overseas—and will be for two more weeks.) That’s why I haven’t put up any current posts. I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone, I couldn’t make myself sit down and write. How far out? Panic out. Serious freak-out out, just because I couldn’t figure out how to get online, or make my phone work, or read street signs, or even, for one memorable twenty-minute stretch, get my Hertz car out of an underground parking garage.
It got me to thinking about creative panic.
The trip I’m on is a research trip. I’m interviewing people for a book. One of them, whom I met just yesterday, is one of the world’s great fighter pilots. He was telling me about a time when his engine cut out at an altitude too low to eject from and how he managed to run through all the engine re-start procedures while the plane was dropping X hundred feet a second, toward a populated area. Bottom line: he ejected anyway, somehow survived—and had the presence of mind while still in the cockpit to trim the plane up so sweetly that it crashed intact and didn’t even catch on fire. I asked him, “How the hell did you do that?” He said, “That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?”
When we panic creatively, a lot of times we don’t even know it. There’s no smoke in the cockpit; the wings aren’t shaking like they’re about to fall off. We’ve numbed ourselves so much that we don’t even know we’re panicking. We simply don’t go to the gym or the rehearsal studio, or we don’t do our three pages, or we back off from that phone call that we know we have to make.
I asked this great pilot if he thought self-command could be taught. Can you train airmen to be cool under pressure? “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said, “but I will tell you this: there are flyers who are no longer with us, and the reason is not lack of skill or training but simply that they lost their heads.”
My own answer is this: I think composure can be learned. In fact I think the famous 10,000-hour rule is about that, much more than it’s about acquiring skill or expertise. What we learn as artists or entrepreneurs during those 10,000 hours of trying and failing is how to keep our heads when Resistance is flaring up like a jet-engine flameout.
In the old days of LSD, there was a warning that veteran trippers used to give to rookies. “No matter what you find yourself seeing or feeling,” they would say, “remember, it’s only the chemicals.” What these salty old hippies were saying was: it’s not you, it’s only a substance that you’ve voluntarily ingested. The effects of that substance will wear off, so don’t panic. Your hand is not really on fire. The refrigerator is not really reading your thoughts.
This is a key distinction—and one of the primary differences between an amateur and a professional. The amateur (i.e., me blundering around Tel Aviv or getting stuck for twenty minutes in a parking garage) identifies his momentary panic with himself; he internalizes it, blames himself, and loses his composure, making an uncomfortable situation far worse than it needs to be. The professional (i.e., this famous aviator in his Mirage fighter plane with the engine flaming out) does NOT identify with the fear he’s feeling; he focuses instead on the problem—and solves it.
In the creative arena, I’m as good as he is. I’ve learned over 40,000 hours (probably more) that there’s really nothing to be frightened of, even in the most excruciating creative crises, and that a steady application of will and patience (and a little trust in the Muse) will pull me out of my nosedive. That doesn’t mean I don’t go into tailspins. I do. It doesn’t mean engines don’t blow up on me. They do.
So here I am, in Steep Learning Curve Land. I have promised myself, however, that I will view my next panic attack as an opportunity to learn. I will not identify with my fear, but focus on the problem instead, and if I screw up, so be it. I will call the experience one small step for a man (or something like that) and keep trying.
Comfort zones do widen. What scared us on Tuesday becomes old hat by Friday. Composure can be learned. I’ll remind myself of that, tomorrow at Minute Nineteen, when I’m still trying to find my way out of the parking garage.