Always Do What You Are Afraid to Do

Mon, Jan 19, 2009 - 3:47pm -- Isaac Sukin

I had never read any Emerson at the time; in fact, I would come to live my life by contrasting policies. But standing in the doorway of the dorm room at Duke where I would spend the next month, I had a realization that could not have been better expressed by anyone but Emerson: "always do what you are afraid to do." It was a moment not of selfish individualism, like much of Emerson's dissertations, but of zen: I recognized that the cumulative effect of my 14 years of life experience meant that I knew exactly how to behave if I wanted to do something I had never been bold enough to try before. All I had to do was cast aside my lack of confidence and step up to the plate.

I was on a coed hall, and in the middle of it, marked by thick lines of tape, was a "no-go zone" which we weren't allowed to cross after 11PM. It was only 6:30, and I had just returned from dinner with the other guys on my hall, who were treating the no-go zone as a permanent injunction. Most kids were in their rooms, presumably unpacking or meeting their roommates. A few of the braver ones flitted across the hall to chat with neighbors.

I stood in my doorway and observed the relative quiet. Then I retrieved a bag of chips, my iPod, and my speakers, and went and sat in the center of the no-go zone and waited.

Several girls dashing across the hallway paused to look at me in surprise. In a few minutes a giggling group emerged from one of the rooms and came and sat with me. Within 10 minutes almost every girl on the hall was crowded around me, arguing about which music to play or inching cautiously closer. In half an hour, not only was I the most popular guy among girls—but among interested guys as well, who would rush past and weakly comment on my prowess with ladies.

The lesson that I took away was not that I could be popular if I wanted to; rather, it was that I could be anything if I wanted to. I had plenty more to learn, but I enjoyed my time at Duke exploring the benefits and consequences of self-determination. By conquering my fears I could accomplish anything, but doing so incurred expectations of responsibility as well. At the end of two weeks I returned home with not only the knowledge of how to build a multimillion-dollar company provided by the Strategic Entrepreneurial Leadership class I took, but also the assured self-confidence and a characteristic calmness that would enable me to pursue passions at home that had previously been only a dream.

And pursue them I did. I began exploring 3D graphic design and computer programming in much more depth than I had before. Within a year I would begin to dabble in 2D graphic art, and soon I would begin to learn about website development. I also quickly learned how much I enjoy writing. All are passions I continue to pursue fervently.

The summer before junior year I attended a creative writing class at Brown University. I was asked to choose a word that described something essential to my world, and then write about a world that did not have that thing. I chose to write about passion:

Adam will stand alone on a hill, one of the many hills that will dot the landscape. The landscape will be green and rolling, delightful to see—if anyone would care. Adam cared once.

Adam will not see any people when he stands on the hill. It will have been months since he last saw a person. The last person he will have seen will have been his best friend. The last Adam will have seen of his best friend will have been a falling blur and a mess of red. Adam’s shirt will be red. It will have reminded him what it felt like to be surprised.

The other people, if any will be left, will be lying motionless in their burrows. That’s where they all will retreat when they stop caring. That’s what the hills will be. Houses will collapse and become overgrown, and people’s lives will drag on sedately underground until they die from lack of interest.

Adam will have spent too long wandering about above ground with little to drink and less to eat. He will have been looking for another human—for it will have been years since he last thought of the ground-dwellers as human. That will have been what his best friend was doing too, before his best friend will have jumped off a cliff.

Adam will remember his mother. He will remember the other kids on his street, and he will remember playing with them when he was young. He will remember how good the sun felt on his back when he had his first kiss, out in the garden.

Adam will have been passionate. Adam had always been passionate. But Adam will stand on the top of a hill. He will gaze out over the vast green landscape, and he will stand there for a very, very long time.

More than an exploration of future tense, this story is written in a form that I would come to use frequently: it creates a negative emotion about a subject, causing the reader to favor the subject's opposite. It is an example of what Edgar Allen Poe called in his essay The Philosophy of Composition a "unity of effect:" it is a collection of details designed to produce a singular emotion. It casts away the merely interesting in favor of the inescapably painful; it evokes passion by removing inhibitions. It goes into dark, untouched places, and communicates to the reader a clear sentiment, a reflection on the good in life.

Emerson's assertion that "to be great is to be misunderstood" is misleading. Greatness is the ability to make complex ideas understood; if no one understands you, you have achieved nothing. Da Vinci, for all his discoveries and designs that were far ahead of his time, was not great in his day because he communicated his ideas to no one. But history is kind to thinkers; modern historians think of Da Vinci as great because in the context of our own culture we can understand the significance of his inventions; but if we did not understand, Da Vinci would be merely an obscure painter.

Greatness requires more than merely being understood, however. It requires originality, innovation, and independence. In this case Emerson is correct: "always do what you are afraid to do." Without boldness and confidence—or at least without ignoring underconfidence—any discoveries, whether personal or scientific, will only be worth sharing if by accident. Greatness, then, is a willingness to go where none has gone before: to shatter limitations, and to explain the results so that others can go farther.

As I learned at Duke, to follow oneself is to be great. Doing so will allow an expression of unique independence and encourage passion. In time, independence will develop into character and confidence, and life's experiences will be all the brighter for it.