I don’t have dramatic phobias. In facts, even my nightmares are mundane. But, this week, I’ve tackled a bunch of my everyday fears. Some might note that several of the things I did during the week were things that I would have done anyhow. That’s true, but to me, sometimes the essence of tasking is not just what I do, but the attitude, mental context, or reflection around what I do. So here’s my week:
Day 1: Riding alone in taxis
Result: Arrived at destination
Details: I am scared of taking taxis by myself. I am extremely suspicious of the idea of getting into a car with a stranger and trusting them to take you where you want to go. I know some of you hitchhike, so taking a taxi probably doesn’t seem very dramatic. Possibly I am just a worrier by nature, compounded by my parents’ worldview that everyone else out there is up to no good and just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of you. It might also be related to fearing a lack of control and wasting money. To be honest, it may also be related to fearing men from disadvantaged ethnic or racial groups. This particular ride, I got into a car with a large man. He asked me where I was going, grunted, and then started talking on his cell phone in a foreign language, cutting off cars and changing lanes. I got to my destination just fine, despite being uncomfortable the whole time. If I had thought about it in time, I should have asked him if he’d mind not talking on the cell phone, since doing that would have been one more thing that scares me (though, if he had complied, the taxi ride would have been less frightening).
Day 2: Public speaking
Result: A little SF0 publicity
Details: I hear that public speaking is a common fear, and one that I share with the majority of the public. I gave a 90 minute talk at a large conference. I was particularly nervous about this because it was the longest talk I’ve ever done, plus, during a read through rehearsal, I’d gotten through the whole thing in about 45 minutes. Which would have been awkward. I decided to employ the sneaky tactic of coercive audience participation. I started by asking everyone to help me test the technical equipment for communication by all raising a hand. This was good for a little laugh, as were some of my spontaneous audience polls (“Who here has ever encountered a coworker who needed to improve their organization or communication skills?”) I ended up right on time, and with reasonable audience participation. I also got to show a slide that used SF0 examples of game incentives for shaping behaviors, which was extra relevant since I was working on this very task at the time.
Day 3: More public speaking
Details: I thought that after the 90 minute talk, I would have no problem doing a 30 minute talk. But, actually, I was still scared. Partly because some of my company management came to this talk, and I’m always concerned with making a good impression with people who make decisions about me. For this one, I was also speaking without any supplementary notes to use as a crutch. It went pretty well, I got a lot of good questions, and several people told me afterwards that I was a good speaker.
Day 4: Thank a soldier
Details: I am sometimes afraid of seeming too earnest when it would be cooler to seem blasé or be sarcastic. And although I always though the idea of thanking a soldier or veteran sounded good, going up to someone and saying something earnest makes me nervous. Also, there are a lot of public displays of patriotism which I avoid, because they seem to be motivated by attitudes or opinions that I don’t agree with. So I’d never done this before. But I was talking to a man who was going to hear in the next day about whether his third deployment was going to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the moment seemed right, so I thanked him for his service. He was gracious and appreciative.
Day 4: Follow scantily clad women into a dark room
Result: Carnivorous dinner, light-up toy
Details: I was planning to go to a networking dinner, but as I was walking through the hotel lobby, I saw pairs of women dressed in high heels, miniskirts, and glittery tops prancing around saying ‘Come to our party.’ They were talking to hordes of men walking by. Coincidentally, earlier that day, I had remarked upon how I was surprised that although I was at a large event with a 95% male population, nothing had happened that I found offensive. (As I am a card-carrying feminist, it may not surprise you that some people consider me easily offended.) Well, these women were advertising a party being held for a different event that also had a 95% male attendance list. As I was looking to do things that scared me, it seemed like crashing a party designed for the kind of guy who expected scantily clad women as part of the entertainment qualified. (A lot of times, what makes something offensive is that it feels threatening.) However, this party did not turn out to be a den of offensiveness. Rather, it was full of food stations, all featuring different chunks of meat. I wandered around, ate meat, and swiped a light up swizzle stick.
Day 5: Admit shallow motivations
Result: Blinky light toy
Detail: Usually, when I go to a career fair or vendor expo, I am afraid to admit that I covet the cheap and silly doo-dads that companies use to attract attention. It seems undignified and greedy to be so shallow. This time, I admitted to myself and to the vendor that I was attracted by their give-away, a pin with red and blue blinking lights. They told me that I had to fill out a survey and talk to an engineer to get the toy. I did as instructed, and was pleased with the flashing light doo-dad, and enjoyed not having to pretend to be more interested in the company than I really was.
Day 5: Be scantily clad
Detail: As a woman in science, it is a constant struggle to be taken seriously. Although most people aren’t blatantly discriminatory, there are a lot of unconscious biases that can add up to negative career consequences. For example, I think that if someone looks at me and the first thing they think of is ‘woman’ or ‘attractive’, they are going to active some implicit, unconscious assumptions that I’m not as competent, intelligent, or dedicated as the average (male) worker. So I am always deliberately making sure not to act or dress too blatantly female, because I am scared that people will start mentally categorizing me as a woman instead of a scientist. This is a difficult concept to explain to people who aren’t in a similar situation---I’m not saying that I think the world is full of evil men who discriminate against women. I’m saying that both men and women have implicit assumptions that can be detrimental to women in science, and believing this, I often modify my behavior to avoid activating the ‘woman’ label. In pursuit of doing things that scare me, I wore a bikini and swam around in a place where people I know professional could see. It was relaxing to swim around, but I have no idea whether I was observed and whether this will have any future effects.
Day 5: Touch an insect
Detail: I picked up a winged ant and let it crawl on my fingers. I have a moderate aversion to touching insects or bugs. Although I love earthworms in the abstract, when I see one in the garden unexpectedly, I usually shriek. Well, I don’t know if I gained much from deliberately touching a bug, but it seemed like an everyday life kind of fear.
Day 5: Attend a large formal event alone
Results: Impromptu tasking
Detail: I and a bunch of my coworkers had tickets to a formal dinner. They all decided to skip it and go out for Thai food together. Having spent too much time being the geeky kid that no one wants to sit next to during school lunch, I have a fear of eating by myself where other people are watching. I also felt kind of doofy because it was a formal event where women were wearing evening gowns and I showed up in pants and sneakers. I guessed being dressed inappropriately, or otherwise looking clueless is also something that I’m afraid of. I got the chance during dinner to do this other task
, and the whole experience was pleasant, if not as much fun as going out with coworkers would have been.
Day 6: Talk to the person next to me on a plane
Result: Pleasant chat
Detail: I usually avoid engaging with the person next to me on a plane because I’m afraid that they’ll turn out to be really annoying and I’ll be stuck talking to them the whole time. But I gave it a try, and it was pleasant enough.
Day 7: Highway on-ramps
Detail: I avoid driving on unfamiliar highways because I am scared about merging with on-ramps. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s been over a year since I drove on a highway, other than Route 2, around here, which is less intimidating. So, Listen put together this special route that involved using 5 on-ramps. I didn’t have any car accidents, though I did come to a complete stop at the end of one on-ramp due to heavy traffic. We got donuts at Honey Dew, which were ok, but I think I prefer Dunkin Donuts, and there are three Dunkins within walking distance of me right now.
This task made me ponder the difference between fear, nervousness, aversion and disgust. I mean, am I afraid of touching insects, or does it just disgust me? And am I afraid of doing certain social things, or just aversive? Does it only count as fear if you’re breaking out in a cold sweat or is the momentary racing heartbeat enough? I ended up being broad with my definition because it seemed like these things were all points along the fear spectrum, but I’m curious to see what other players come up with.
This task was pretty un-fun. The things I did specifically because of a pre-identified fears (insects, driving) were particularly unfulfilling because I was doing them just for the task, and didn’t feel like the experience changed me. But the things I did serendipitously because at that moment, I realized that there was a small fear keeping me from acting (thanking a soldier, admitting to shallowness) felt more interesting. It was a revelation to find and ignore these little everyday fears. And working on the task did give me some extra motivation to have a good attitude about things that I would have probably done anyways (public speaking, taxis).
An odd coincidence: I mentioned how I usually have really mundane nightmares (forgetting a locker combination, poor shampoo lathering). Well, during this task, I had much more vivid nightmares. I dreamed about being chased around by crazy people with guns, and being forced to turn a large cow carcass into little shish-ka-bobs.