What was the scariest thing you’ve ever experienced?
I never thought what mine would be, until I ended up there.
It all started with an exercise in navigation on advanced diving course. I was supposed to set my compass to a nearby island, dive 10 meters deep and navigate towards that island underwater, until I reach the rocks and reef around it.
Doesn’t sound that hard, does it?
I started out very carefully, making sure I don’t descent too fast, and don’t drift away in the opposite direction. Then after a few minutes of staring at my compass and diving computer, I realised I am surrounded by a
PERFECT. FEATURELESS. VOID.
I was too high above the sea bottom to see it at all. I was too far away from that island to see where it was. I was too far ahead of my companions to see where they were.
All I could see was blue, perfect featureless blue in every direction. And the air bubbles going up, so at least I knew where was up.
That’s probably the closest I will ever get to free floating in outer space. I never knew floating in outer space would be so freaking scary.
I panicked so hard that I rushed towards the island as soon as I could, then bursted into tears when I finally saw some rocks underneath me. I didn’t think of slowing down even then, the divemaster and my fiancé both had to chase me for a while. For the next 30 minutes, I only dreamed of swimming back to the surface, despite the underwater magic and beauty all around me.
I couldn’t quite make sense of this experience, until I remembered how I felt right after joining Automattic.
It was a big change for me, from Korean corporate culture that was semi-military, to being in charge of when, where, how, why, and how much I would work. “Like all the walls, floor and ceiling around me suddenly disappeared, and I was in a free fall”, that’s how I described it back then.
That was a very accurate metaphor.
A free fall feels exciting, liberating, and out of this world. It’s also absolutely frightening, and not quite optimal when you want to actually get some stuff done.
As much as I loved the experience of a free fall when bungee jumping, I do appreciate having some ground under my feet in everyday life. I like to know it’s there. I’m happy I don’t have to think about it when I’m trying to get from one place to another.
If I couldn’t trust the floor in my high-rise apartment, I would panic each time I walk from my bedroom to kitchen.
It’s good to trust my accountant that I am compliant with all tax regulations and won’t go to jail.
It’s good to trust the company I work for they will pay me for my work at the end of each month.
It’s good to trust the city transport system that subway cars were tested, regularly checked and won’t suddenly burst into flames.
It’s good to trust the engineers who built my apartment block that it’s stable enough and won’t collapse even when the weather is harsh.
It’s good to trust the people I find most inspiring that if I do X I’ll have a good life.
That’s why navigating underwater was so hard. Without seeing the ground, the horizon, or a guide before me, all I could trust back then was myself.
You probably barely notice what makes up the ground under your feet. Until it starts feeling wobbly, and then you’re in the free fall again.
I have a whole system of beliefs I use to make sense of the world. Everyone does. This is the only way we can make any choices, or get anything accomplished at all.
The beliefs themselves might be completely irrational, and I might have no idea they exist, but they still affect what I do and how I think. I’m not running around paranoid worrying my house will collapse, because I trust and believe that this is not going to happen.
However, every once in a while my trust in the ground beneath gets shattered. Something I believed would not be going to happen suddenly happens, and leaves me stumped. I’m in a new situation where my old habits and ways of problem solving no longer work. People change so much I can hardly recognize them. Communities fail to give me the support and care I need. Someone I used to admire doesn’t seem that wise anymore.
This process is both scary and exciting, just like the free fall. If things so basic and obvious start to fall apart, what will happen next? Will I ever be able to trust anything or anyone again?
Navigating life with no stable ground underneath is like navigating underwater with nothing in sight. You have your compass there, of course, but it was you who set it up after all. Do you have that much trust in yourself, when you can’t even trust the institutions or authority figures you used to have so much faith in?
I thought that once I finally understand how the world works, I will avoid such disappointments. But then I realised, the stable ground is not as stable as it seems.
I used to have unconditional trust in my sense of sensemaking. I never thought there is another way. I had certain ideas about how the world works and who I am and I trusted them with all my heart.
Some of these ideas turned out to be total bullshit. Some others, I still hold, but with a grain of doubt.
This doesn’t mean I no longer trust anyone or anything. Nor that I hold every opinion as equal. In everyday life I put as much trust in my accountant, company, city transport system, or construction engineers as I used to.
However, I can see now how all beliefs are incomplete, arbitrary, and subject to refinement.
For all practical purposes, I’m the co-owner of a nice apartment and a safety cushion on my bank account. I do trust the institutions that confirm my ownership of both and there’s no point in me or anyone else acting otherwise.
Unfortunately, if there’s ever a war in my country, it’s probable that my whole block will be torn down to the ground, and all the money on my bank account will be worth less than a few bottles of vodka. This doesn’t lessen my trust in government institutions or banks. But if one day I find myself in a situation like this (hopefully not), my beliefs about the things I own will need to be refined.
For all practical purposes, it’s good to assume the sky is above your head and the Earth is beneath your feet. But if you find yourself floating underwater, you’d better find another way of making sense where you are and where you want to go.
It’s okay to cherrypick, iterate and have mixed feelings – that’s how you learn and grow.
One thing that stopped me from refining my beliefs was hoping for a complete system that will answer all of my questions. I used to think there is an ultimate answer, and people have either got it figured or not. If someone is a Wise Man, he must have all the answers right. He wouldn’t be a Wise Man otherwise, would he?
In result, whenever I admired someone’s way of thinking, but then found a flaw in it, my trust in them got broken. I was disappointed to hear that Steve Jobs rejected evidence-based medicine, he seemed like a smart guy to me before. If he was so wrong about such basic things, could anything he ever said have any worth at all?
Only with time I realised it’s perfectly possible to hold both very wise and utterly confused beliefs at the same time. Even Nobel Prize laureates can be deeply wrong on some topics that are not the main area of their expertise. Even an arrogant self-help guru can have some wise insights on life.
Again, realising this was both frightening and liberating. Frightening, because I could no longer have absolute trust in any philosophy, community or person, no matter how smart they seemed. Liberating, because I no longer had to defend obvious bullshit when I found it in my idols, and could still enjoy the good parts of a system I don’t trust as a whole.
It’s good to build my sense of how the world works on the shoulders of the finest philosophers, scientists and spiritual leaders.
It’s even better to sometimes verify if all their beliefs are equally valid and true.
And this I can only do all alone, navigating with my compass in hand.