Face The Unfamiliar

I have never done this before. My decision to pursue a future as a writer came as a surprise to myself. When I tell people about it — especially that it will revolve around a blog — I typically receive a sympathetic, concerned smile. A smile that tells me they think it’s an appealing ambition, but also naïve.

I often find myself procrastinating and postponing the act of sitting down to write. My mind is mostly on how much better the other writers are, and I feel hesitant to begin. Instead, I convince myself that it’s more logical to finish designing my website first, or to read an article about how to write well.

This isn’t because I have nothing to say or because other people doubt me, but because I doubt myself. I’m still insecure in my abilities. I have to create my own plan, and I’m scared that I won’t be able to execute it. I keep hoping that I’ll find some sort of guarantee that it’s all going to work out. Sure, I welcome good surprises and the occasional adventure, but for the most part, knowing what to expect lets me plan ahead and gives me some peace of mind.

As I’m contemplating my situation and my future, fear creeps in and tells me to reconsider. Maybe I should simply drop the idea. Maybe I should listen and choose the safer path. I’m tempted.

But before giving in to peer pressure or to our insecure selves, it is helpful to see our feelings for what they are. When we are in doubt, understanding where our emotions and inclinations come from can enable us to make better, informed decisions.

As it turns out, our tendency to avoid the new and unfamiliar partly comes from our ancestors.

Part of You Is Wired To Assume the Worst

In our evolutionary past, being fearful and assuming the worst typically gave better chances of survival.

Consider a scenario where an early human is out gathering berries and hears a crack nearby. If he assumed that the crack was from a bear stepping on a branch, he was more likely to survive than if he assumed it was just the wind.

bear

Let us say the assumption is correct only one out of ten times. In spite of being scared and running away from the wind nine times (while looking like a bit of an idiot), the cost of doing so is lower than standing still and encountering a hungry bear in close combat on the one occasion where the assumption is correct. In general, the cost of averting an imaginary danger is lower than encountering a real danger. [1]

The same principle applies when deciding whether or not to eat an unfamiliar type of mushroom he found in the forest. Foregoing nine edible mushrooms may leave him hungry and weak, but he also avoids the one that would kill him.

We are the descendants of humans who were paranoid enough to run from imaginary bears and let edible mushrooms go to waste. The world is full of things that can kill us, and since optimists took fewer precautions, they would likely have died at a younger age and had fewer children.

Of course, some optimism and courage was necessary to find new food and more hospitable territory. People would venture into unknown territory and explore new domains either when their basic needs were met and they were relatively safe, or when their circumstances were so bleak they had no other choice but to be optimists.

Another way of looking at it is that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is where they fall on the spectrum of risk-tolerance, the former having lower tolerance. The level of risk-tolerance we have inherited is one which has been appropriate for the majority of our species’ existence. There will be individual variation, and it goes without saying that life experiences can heavily tilt the tolerance in one direction or the other. Regardless of variation, however, we are partially wired to be cautious of the unfamiliar and the new.

The Familiar Demands Less of Your Brain

Your brain always tries to make inferences from previous experiences and to predict the future. It has an imperative to figure out how the world works and categorise the elements in it.

Combined with mildly pessimistic survival instincts, this can make encountering a new situation stressful for the brain. Being in unknown surroundings, meeting unfamiliar people and performing new tasks puts the brain to work, as it wants to form an idea of what to expect and prepare for all the things that could go wrong. It much prefers to relax.

relaxing

The brain does the least work when its predictions and expectations correspond with reality. It is easier for you to do a job you have performed before, interacting with the same person repeatedly makes it easier for you to assess whether they can be trusted, and so on. Avoiding the unfamiliar requires less mental effort and involves less risk, and is therefore the brain’s safest and most effective strategy.

When it comes to choosing between the habitual and the novel, these characteristics of the brain explain some of our behaviour. Another factor to consider is what emotions we associate with change and uncertainty.

The Unfamiliar Is Uncertain

Few of us like the idea that our lives will be governed mostly by fate and coincidence. Instead, we wrestle with life and want control over our future. Usually we want the familiar to remain as it is, so we take measures to ensure that. We try to protect ourselves from poverty by getting an insurance, or from loneliness by getting married.

love lock

Despite our efforts, however, there is no guarantee things will remain as they are. In fact, they rarely do. Life has no guarantees except that it is finite. It can ruthlessly take away that which we imagined we would never lose, or deny us that for which we have worked so hard and long.

If we are having such trouble controlling and securing familiar elements, if the elements we have known for so long are so hard to subdue, it doesn’t seem attractive at all to bring in elements that are unfamiliar. Since we aren’t used to them, it would be even harder to determine what effect the new elements would have on our life. Stepping into unknown territory would be an act of relinquishing control completely.

We avoid and resist the unfamiliar because we don’t know if we can handle it, and because surrendering to it would demonstrate to us how powerless we are over life. However badly we want control and familiarity, the uncomfortable reality is that nothing — not even our own body or mind — is fully under our command. And change reminds us of that.

Society Reinforces Low Risk-Tolerance

This is probably a matter of opinion and context, but I find that modern society encourages a mentality of paranoia, xenophobia and neophobia.

It seems that news broadcasters have a fetish for catastrophes, murders, thieves, tragedies, maladies, disease, deceit, and death. The so-called news is sprawling with stories about everything that has gone wrong, and it seems fear-mongering is a bigger priority than educating viewers about anything meaningful or truly new.

police

I find that the educational system, too, discourages taking risks. Following instructions gives better grades than thinking outside the box. The ability to memorise and repeat what you has been told is wrongly considered a stronger virtue than to inquire and think critically about what you has been told.

In these ways and more, society makes it even more tempting to embrace our tendency to be pessimistic. It is no wonder many people conclude that, in order to best manoeuvre through this world, we should always play it safe and stick to the paths most travelled.

Should we give in to this temptation?

I’m confronted with this question as there are many things I don’t know about blogging or writing, let alone becoming successful at either.

Will anybody enjoy my articles or even bother to read them in the first place? How will I sustain myself financially while I write? Even if I don’t make it, will it still be worth the trouble to find out? I don’t really know.

Here’s why I think we should embrace the unknown nevertheless.

1. Resistance Is Futile

Regardless of how reluctant we are to face the unfamiliar, life always presents us with situations in which we have never found ourselves before. In the past, how did you overcome new challenges where you couldn’t rely on your old skills?

You adapted. You learned what was necessary to handle it, or you learned a valuable lesson from it, and still made it through alive. You needn’t worry so much whether the specific skills you learned in the past are enough. Instead of always relying on your old skills, rather you should focus on your overall ability to learn.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, we must learn to explore and assimilate unfamiliar elements into our decision-making if we wish to achieve our goals. Whatever your dream, goal or preference is, your success at maintaining or achieving it will always be more probable if you familiarise yourself with (currently) foreign elements. I challenge you to think of an example where this is not the case.

It doesn’t matter how long things have been the way you liked them, how justified your beliefs are, or how annoying and inconvenient the new conditions are. The more you reject change and avoid confrontation with the unfamiliar, the less fruitful your efforts will be. You may even work against yourself.

The unpredictability of life, however unpleasant, is exactly the reason we must become optimists and dare look into the unknown. Since change is inevitable, by resisting it we are setting ourselves up for even greater pain in the long run than the change might have caused on its own. Our fear that we may not be able to cope with the future becomes a reality if we fail to react appropriately to the present.

This does not mean abandoning your ideals and values. It means that your attempt to cultivate them will be based on reality rather than on a fantasy or a memory, and thus your approach will be more appropriate and effective.

2. Pessimism Is Dangerous, Too

As mentioned before, the level of risk-tolerance we’ve inherited from our ancestors is that which was appropriate for the savannahs and jungles in which they found themselves for thousands of years. Is that level of risk-tolerance equally appropriate in the present?

The amount of lions and snakes in our immediate vicinity has drastically decreased, but there are still unknown elements to be afraid of. The Internet is full of scams, and every city houses some unpredictable and dangerous people. These are fair reasons to always play it safe; to be sceptical and trust only those who have proven themselves trustworthy; to remain inside one’s house until this crazy world has changed. Now, I know you are not staying in your house all the time, but if we use our imagination to take pessimism and fear to their extremes, we get a clearer picture of how they work, and what consequences they can have for you.

First of all, the fearful person would explain his choice to remain indoors as a way to avoid unnecessary risks. “It is dangerous business going out the front door”, he might rightly say.

But life inherently involves risks. You are taking chances no matter what you do — even when you do nothing. What should we make of psychologists’ claims that we need exercise[2], new experiences[3], fresh air[4] and time in nature[5] to be mentally healthy? Perhaps staying at home is just as risky as going out the door.

Secondly, the pessimist’s attitude would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, during your encounter with a new person, you are very sceptical of his motives, he will take notice. If you treat him like a potential criminal, if you expect only the worst of him and speak to him as an untrustworthy person, he will resent you. The fact that you assume, by his looks, nationality, religion or whatever, that he is a lesser being, gives him a reason to feel insulted, and he may even make an aggression towards you. And voilá, you have created the reality you expected.

drummer

3. The Unfamiliar Is Life

Finally, when debating the advantages of facing the unknown against sticking to what is familiar, ask yourself: Do you want to merely survive, or to be truly alive?

Naturally, there is something wonderful about the familiar. It lets us relax our minds, feel sentimental and appreciate smaller details that we hadn’t noticed at the first encounter.

Much of the wonder of life, however, is found in the novel. Avoiding the unfamiliar does not only make you less adaptive to life’s challenges, you would also experience emotional and mental ennui. We very seldom care to learn anything until it is necessary, useful or exciting for us.

Remember: Whatever skills you have learned, whatever hobbies you practice, whomever you love, were all unfamiliar to you at some point.

You can never know how much you would enjoy Sicily until you’ve visited it, how much you would enjoy snowboarding until you’ve tried it, or how close friends you might become with your co-worker until you’ve had a drink with them.

In addition, having novel experiences gives you novel emotions next time you encounter the familiar — say, returning home after travelling for months makes you reflect on the passing of time.

You need optimism for your own well-being. By being too sceptical you will forego many opportunities that may never come again. Let us not become so cautious and fearful that we hinder ourselves from feeling alive. Life is short. What better way to spend it than trying to understand it, our place in it, and seeing everything for what it truly is, be it good or bad?

crossing bridge

In summary, the unknown often appears unsafe and dangerous because our brains tend to distort the apparent risk involved. When the elements we encounter and the actions we perform are familiar, our brains’ workload is smaller, and this makes us creatures of habit. For these reasons alone we sometimes avoid the new and strange unthinkingly.

Our ancestors’ instincts are inappropriate for the world we live in now, and we should strive to overcome them. However frightening or harsh it appears, unknown territory is where we come alive.

Nothing is permanent, nothing will remain under our control for long. These facts must be reconciled with to cultivate emotional health. Doing so allows us to respond appropriately to unexpected changes in our lives and work more effectively towards our goals.

So I will stop wondering whether every sentence I’ve written is perfect, or whether the points I’ve made are too vague or unoriginal. I’ll see my fear for what it is, publish my first article, and see what happens.

1 http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/276/1654/31
2 http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.aspx
3 http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0033-2909.134.1.138
4 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494409000838
5 http://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/jrnl/2014/nrs_2014_nowak_001.pdf

4 Comments

  1. Reading this I come to think of a great TED talk by Kathryn Schulz: “On Being Wrong”. If you haven’t seen it, I hereby recommend it strongly. 🙂

    • Just watched it. It’s very humbling to think that we are most likely wrong about everything, and an eye opener to be told that being wrong feels just like being right.

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