How to overcome the fear of trying something new

Credit: Dive by Madame Lolina

Trying something new can be scary, and sometimes, there’s nothing that anyone can say or do to make those feelings go away.

I have no magic answer that will make all those fears and insecurities go away, but only one piece of advice that has worked incredibly well for me: just jump right in.

Imagine taking your first dive into a cold, icy pool when you’re shivering from the chill morning air. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be in my warm bed, snuggled up in my blanket, instead of having to face that container of water that keeps lapping at my toes as I wince with dread. Though I love swimming, I absolutely hate that first contact between my body and the water. Every time. So I do what I normally do: tell myself that it’s going to be okay, close my eyes, dive right in, and keep on swimming until I’ve covered a whole lap without stopping. And when I emerge, it’s as though my fears had never existed in the first place, and I was in the flow of things – quite literally. If I had let my feelings about taking that first leap overpower my love for swimming, then I’d forever be on dry land.

Don’t just go back to bed.
Diving right in is also the best way to learn if this new thing is something you’ll like (even if you’re rubbish at it at first). When an idea is just in our heads, we glorify it a little. We imagine how great something is, only to be disappointed when what we churn out is not that great (which almost always happens when you’re a beginner – we all suck in the beginning, there’s no getting around it). The sooner you get over this thought of wanting to be the best at what you do right off the bat, and ignore damaging ones that tell you that if you’re not good at it then you must not be talented in it, the better. That’s just your brain craving to crawl back to bed, where it’s warm, familiar and safe.

The beautiful thing about doing, is that you also learn something new about yourself along the way. You’ll also get better at what you’re doing. But only, and only if, you like it enough to plod through the hard, difficult stuff, and wade through the feelings of inadequacy that inevitably follows an apprentice. The utter anguish of having to re-do something because if you don’t – even though no one would notice it but you – you can’t live with the thought that you could have done better.

So you do.

You unpick those stitches, and do it all over again.
You start with a new sheet of paper.
You rework that lump of clay.

You do it because your love of the unknown is stronger than the shackles that keep you in place, right where you are.

Add in a bit of time, patience, and some good old fashioned elbow grease, and you’ll soon realise that whatever you’re doing is no longer new.

It’s now a part of you.

The water may be icy cold wherever you are, but there’s no better time to dive right in.

On starting over

You know how when you start drawing on a sheet of paper and you’re happy that everything is going well? You’re in the flow of things – swish, stroke, draw, paint. This is the best thing ever! 

But then, oh crap. A slip up. No biggie. Let’s deal with that.

Ctrl-Z.

Swish, stroke, draw, paint. Hmmmm.

You erase, move on. Re-do. Undo. Paint over. Undo again.

Undo. Undo. Undo. Argh.

There’s a nagging thought at the back of your mind. This isn’t turning out so well. But it’s half done! It’s almost there! I can almost see it, I just can’t feel it… yet.

So you continue to throw more at it. Layers and layers of lines, paint, and paper. Until you don’t know how you got here. Everything looks like a hot mess. Crap.

Since it took you this long to flesh out the whole thing you decide to keep at it. More. Undo. More. Undo.

GAHHH.

At this point you start to sweat. You’ve done something alright, but you’re not happy. It doesn’t feel right. Or for that split second when you rationalise with yourself that hey, that’s pretty decent. Not great, but just okay. Nothing wrong with it being just okay, right? Right? Plus, look at all this time you’ve put into it! 3 hours! 10! What about the time you lost sleep over it? Surely it means you’re onto something worthwhile? No? What? No?

Listen, you’re not getting that time back. What you can do is to not sink more time and energy into something that you know deep down won’t work.

We can’t turn back time, but we can learn from it. Take your finger off the CTRL-Z button. No more undos.

Take a deep breath.

You know what you have to do.

You’ve got to start over.

It’s hard. Look, I totally get it.

But shittier things have happened. Natural disasters wiping away cities down to nothing. Earthquakes that swallow up whole postcodes. Families get torn apart. People divorce. But people rebuild. That’s what they do. They start from scratch again. Things will and can collapse, but we have a choice to rebuild. It’s not a question of do or don’t. It’s a question of when. When you fall down, you dust yourself off, and get back up.

Sure, you’ll mourn what could have been. You’ll stumble along the way. That piece of paper could have turned out great. Your time, effort and energy didn’t have to be wasted.

The same could be said of every disaster, hardship or challenge faced by people everyday. That accident could have been avoided. They looked so happy. No one predicted that the storm would be that devastating.

Today, it’s between you and that sheet of paper.

Starting again is scary. But so is holding on to something that you know can be so much better.

It’s natural to worry about the what if’s when you put aside that mangled piece of paper. It’s the fear that your work will never be the same again. Or that you couldn’t possibly recreate it again. It may not be a bad thing though. Let’s face it – your new work could go bad. Really bad. Or, it may very well be amazing. You could even outdo yourself. You could discover a completely new side to your work. Serendipity could pay dividends – but only if you’re willing to take the chance to walk through that door.

The point is, you’ll never know what will happen until you start fresh, without all the baggage that came with the old.

When we put so much expectation onto that one sheet of paper, it’s hard to move beyond the sunk costs. Darn it, I invested time and effort into this piece – it should pay off! I should be able to finish what I started on this sheet itself! It should look great!

But life doesn’t always work that way does it?

I’ve recently learned the hard way how true this is. The act of holding on to something that you’ve poured your heart, sweat and tears into, one that no longer fits – is painful. Learning to let go, to set it free and to try again takes a lot more courage than we dare to admit. But that’s what we have to do, even if it feels like conquering Mount Everest. Even if it’s letting go of a piece of paper.

So do yourself a favour – take one small step today.

Time to take out a fresh sheet of paper.

White. Empty. Fresh. New. The possibilities are endless.

Ready? Go on, make your mark.

Again.

And again. And again.

Pretty soon, you’ll realise that starting over gets a little easier everyday.

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As I write about starting over, I’m hitting the reset button myself. I’m launching a new online class in September (based on the feedback you lovely readers have generously shared with me!) More details will be afoot in a couple of weeks, so watch this space!

Illustration by Ryo Takemasa

Drawing parallels in art and fashion

Anna Parini

Anna Parini

When I was younger, I didn’t know how to pick out clothes for myself. I didn’t know where to begin. I had to march to the fitting room, try everything (maybe even twice) before I could make a decision. Even then, I had to ask someone else what they thought of it. I’d rely heavily on their opinion for that final push – yay or nay? It was nail-bitingly hard because picking out an outfit was more than just choosing which pants that would go with a shirt or a blouse. It was (at least what I thought it was at the time) also a statement of who I was and what I represented to the world.

I didn’t know who I was.

And so I didn’t know what to wear.

Throughout my teenage years, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. These were clothes that my cousins no longer wore, but were in good condition and hence were passed down to us. I didn’t think too much about style back then – I wore what fit me, and I didn’t feel the need to go out and spend money on clothes because hey, I had them. My clothes were picked because they were already there – not because I picked them myself. And because of this, I was terrified of making the wrong decision when it came to buying my own. Unlike hand-me-downs or second hand clothes, I would have to fork money over for clothes, and that’s not even including the mental anguish that came from the sheer availability of choice.

You might remember that as a teenager, I had a bad case of cystic acne and wore braces. I felt like a badly melted version of Terminator. One person even called me Robocop, and others would ask (hurtfully) what was wrong with my skin. It took me many, many years before I started to gain confidence in my outlook, and to feel comfortable at looking at myself in the mirror. And even then, the awkwardness when it came to dressing myself was something I needed to overcome.

Drawing parallels

When it came to drawing, the problems I encountered were very familiar. I found it hard to nail down just one style or technique, and so I experimented a lot in between. Big thick lines versus small thin ones. I’d change mediums many times and tried so hard to like watercolour but gave up because it was hard to control (I know that’s the beauty of watercolours, but still). I went through periods where I experimented with collage, vector and brush and ink; and found out which worked for me.

How did I the problem with my wardrobe? It took some time, but I managed to navigate the choppy waters of being presentable by asking for tips from friends who’s dressing style I liked. I looked up references on how to dress better. I took the time to really look at myself in the mirror when I tried on clothes, identified how it made me feel and why; expanding my palette to include colours and prints and slowly taking more risks when it came to picking out pieces. Before, the insides of my wardrobe were swathed in dark colours (I still have this habit), because it was easy. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself, and I was comfortable being in the background. What I came to realise after I studying more about fashion and style was this: there is a formula to all this madness; just like how I learned which drawing style I liked best.

I found key things that worked for my body type: small prints, interesting necklines, details and hems. No garters at the waist, or fabrics that cling to the skin. No too-short skirts (I have varicose veins, ugh), or wide ones that would gather too much attention to my hips either. By creating a guideline of sorts, it made finding an outfit surprisingly simpler – I knew what would look good on me without having to try it on. Shopping became a fun exercise in seeing if I was accurate in picking out pieces that would play to my strengths while avoiding pieces that would exaggerate areas I wanted to play down. I’m happy when I’m comfortable, and to me, that’s a big part of being confident. Another example would be how some contestants on American Idol who has a great voice but chose the wrong song. We all have our limits (for now). We’re good at specific things. We accentuate the good and hide the bad. Why shouldn’t it apply to other things in our life?

The formula

As for drawing, I knew that I was good at brush and ink, and that I loved teaching more than I did dealing with clients. I love drawing on smooth paper and hate the sound that calligraphy pen nibs make when scratched on paper. Just like how we would flip at old photograph albums and cringe at what we wore before, the same thing happens when it comes to flipping through your old sketchbooks. Thank goodness we are able to grow and learn from our experiences!

In coming up with the syllabus for my upcoming class on personal style (I can’t fit everything into a book, unfortunately), the one thing I keep coming back to is that learning about your personal style is a process, one that is uniquely personal. Can we hurry or hasten the process? Yes we can, to some extent. Should we, though? It depends. I fully understand how some might take longer than others to figure out what style works best for them, whether it’s fashion, drawing, cooking, or even communicating. Some might have hit a snag, or others have allowed it to set them back professionally.

If time is no object, what usually works is this: having keen observation in learning and figuring out what works best for you. It’s very easy to forget that what comes naturally to you may not be the case with others (just like how it took me many years to dress myself well). So my advice is to talk to the people in your life: friends, family, mentors or colleagues who can help you gauge your personal formula, so that you can play to your strengths. Getting some help can often make you see clearer, make mistakes faster, and thus get quicker feedback. Pretty soon you’ll be able to decode the rest of life’s mysteries. Or some of it at the very least!

Share with me – what personal formula have you worked out that has served you well so far?

Also: If you need some help figuring out your personal artistic style (not the fashion kind!), here’s a free email course I created.

[Illustration by Anna Parini]
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