The Gift of the Unknown (or, What Happens When We Don't Allow Fear to Win) April 01 2016, 1 Comment

“What ingredients are you using?” 

The woman who asked the question sat on a stool by the corner of the prep table.

“Rolled oats, brown rice flour, sea salt, and dehydrated cane sugar” I said, tossing the dry mixture together with a spatula. 

The inspector took notes as I spoke.  The oven hummed loudly in the not too far distance. 

Next, I started on the wet ingredients, the oil, the maple syrup, the vanilla, hoping the woman didn't see the slight tremor in my hand as I poured the various liquids into measuring utensils.  I recited each ingredient out loud for her as I stirred. 

The inspector stayed while the granola baked.  She took a reading on the oven, refrigerator, and sink water temperatures, asked questions about what my practices would be for sanitizing sheet pans and other equipment and left me with only one suggestion that would not affect my pass/fail status.  It was April 1st, 2014, and the passing of my health inspection was the final green light I needed to open my business.

My first reaction after the inspector left was relief, followed by a brief brush with jubilation.  I posted a photo of my inspection report on Facebook to let my friends know that I was "this close" to opening day. 

But somewhere in between Facebooking my news and cleaning off the equipment I had used to bake granola for the Department of Agriculture Inspector, the panic hit. 

Why panic?  I had devoted the last six months to the startup of the business, from the upfit of the building to choosing the right equipment, packaging, logos, labels, credit card merchants, building a website, figuring out financials, among other numerous tasks.  I was finally able to start what I had set out to do a half a year earlier.  Yet, not soon after I shouted out my news on social media, I sat down on the floor of the bakery kitchen and cried. 

Suddenly, it was real, and it was here, and I was scared.    

What was I scared of?  I don't know exactly.  I suppose it was a free floating anxiety of walking into the unknown.  This sort of anxiety isn't new to me, and I should preface this by telling you that I am someone who is basically "scared of everything." 

A few examples: 

I'm scared of my car not starting. 

I'm scared of the dog running away. 

I'm scared of being late.  

I'm scared of important mail going to the wrong address and my never receiving it. 

I'm scared of saying something in innocence that might offend someone. 

I'm scared of speaking in front of crowds. 

I'm scared of screwing up my children. 

I'm scared of losing someone important to me before I get one last chance to tell them I love them. 

I should add that most of my fears are unsubstantiated.  I'll find myself afraid of running late, even when I've given myself 30 minutes to drive someplace that's 20 minutes away, or I'll stress over my car after my mechanic has recently looked at it.  I can watch every word that comes out of my mouth and still be afraid of "saying the wrong thing."  I'm fortunate in that even though I live with fear, I've learned to recognize fear and call it out. Also, I understand that many of mine are irrational.  When it comes to fear, for one reason or another, certain circumstances, or the thought of being in those circumstances, trigger me/us in ways that make our very survival feel  threatened where in reality, running late for an appointment or my car not starting is not threatening my survival at all.  Yes, I will go into panic mode over things that are inconsequential, but I've learned how to talk myself off the ledge.  When I remember, this is a great skill to implement.  

Given my susceptibility to anxiety, it's not surprising that I am someone who, for most of my life, played it safe.  I stayed well within my comfort zone with work, living situations, friends, family, extracurricular activities.  There weren't many things I took on that felt risky.  I talk about moving to North Carolina with my children and opening my business as often as I do, not to boast or pat myself on the back, but risks like these are so out of character for me, that it's as if I need to remind myself that this is my life.  These events actually happened, and they are real.  I'm still, two years later, a little surprised by them. 

If you were to ask how someone with anxiety and risk aversion took on a venture as risky as a brick and mortar business, one with substantial start up costs and overhead, and having no way of knowing if the business would ever get off the ground, the only answer I have is that I wanted it badly enough to deal with the emotional discomfort  that accompanies moving forward in fear.  Every big decision I had to make in the process of starting the business was its own exercise in managing emotional discomfort.  From choosing my location, to investing in the construction on the space, to purchasing appliances and equipment, to creating a product line, over and over again, I found myself having to challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone. 

The gift of pushing beyond our comfort zones is that after we do it once and realize our survival has not been threatened, we are more willing to do it again and again.  I am willing to take more risks now than I ever have before, because the start up phase of my business was one continual lesson that fear won't kill me.  My life is richer and fuller for this.  From little things, like being willing to walk into a room full of people I don't know, to big things, like taking my children on trips by myself, are possible because of the risks I was willing to take for the business. 

I can't tell you how many times I just wanted to back out.  

I wanted to back out on April 1st, 2014, after passing my health inspection, because on that day, I was nose to nose with the unknown, and the unknown is scary, especially to someone like me. 

But the truth is, we live in the unknown every single day.  Whatever we hang onto as security is really nothing more than an illusion, our material possessions, our tight, impenetrable circle of friends, our jobs, our routines, they can all be interrupted, if not taken from us, in an instant.

I love my work.  I can't image doing anything else right now, and this feeling is amplified on weeks like this one, where many of my "summer people" who were back on the island for Easter, to open their houses for the season, came in to say hello.  After two years, these are more than familiar faces to me.  They are old friends.  

They are the people I never would have known, had I allowed fear to win.  

When someone hands us a gift, what's inside the box is unknown to us, but usually, we trust that whatever is inside is something that will have a positive impact, something we will love, and something we will appreciate.  I'd like to start thinking of life's "unknowns" the same way.  Instead of fearing the worst, believing in the best, not necessarily predicting what's inside the box, but trusting in its fundamental goodness.  

Sometimes, if not all the time, what's inside that box is so much better than what we ever could have imagined.