Like a Match to our Fears

I spent some time over the holidays cleaning up several things on my blog. It has a spruced-up look and URL, it’s easier to subscribe, and I migrated subscribers to Feedblitz.

I mostly did this so it would be easier for you to share posts and for new readers to follow the blog (follow here).

One of the additional benefits is much better statistics: open rates, bounce rates, new subscribers, unsubscribes. Though “benefits” may not be the right word.

Ever since migrating, I have been getting a steady drip of emails letting me know about people unsubscribing from my blog.

At least that’s how it feels.

The truth is, I migrated a few thousand people and fewer than 20 have unsubscribed. But, like rubbernecking, I can’t seem to look away. The unsubscribes cry out, “Look at me! Think about what I mean! Contemplate why this person no longer wants to read!”

It’s hard to remember that Laura wrote me a nice note. So did Amy and Jamie. Arnie and Cornelius left comments on a recent post. And, and, and… If you listened to the conversation in my head, you’d think that all that good stuff never happened.

It’s a rule of thumb for the workplace and the classroom that people should hear four instances of positive reinforcement for every instance of corrective or negative feedback (though for marriages the ratio seems to be 5 to 1).

The question is, why? Why does the good stuff fade into the background and the negatives stand out in such stark relief?

The answer begins with noticing that it doesn’t happen everywhere: for things that we don’t care much about (“you’re terrible at ice skating!”), and for things that we’re deeply confident about, we’re mostly immune to this nonsense.

But in that wide area in the middle—the things that we care about, but where we’re not fully confident—we’re wide open to fear amplification.

Unfortunately, this “middle area” is really important. It encompasses all creative endeavors, since we are never fully confident our art. And it thrives in any area where we’re trying to grow, because, by definition, these are the areas in which we are both less skilled and less confident.

The fear waits like dry kindling ready to be set ablaze.

This kindling allows me to construct an amazing, elaborate tower of meaning around something as simple as one person in one place unsubscribing. It is the same thing that takes us, when we make a suggestion in a meeting that’s shot down, from the words we hear to, “he thinks I do terrible work, always. So he must think I’m terrible, always.”

As we interact with those around us, our job is to be especially deliberate about how we interact with colleagues–especially when we talk about their art and support their growth edges. Unless we work in organizations with cultures of consistently direct, tough feedback that people are accustomed to, we will stamp out personal growth if we trample, Godzilla-like, over areas where colleagues already are holding armfuls of doubt and fear.

And, for ourselves, we want to keep asking:

How much kindling are we carrying around? And is it really helping us?

Do we want to be the kinds of people who are ready to be set aflame, our fears blazing around us?

Do those flames make us more more connected? More powerful? More brave?

Do they make us more effective? More willing and able to do what needs to be done?

People will always carry matches, often unintentionally. Part of our job is to learn to douse all the fuel around ourselves so we’re not so easily taken off our game.

Oh, and I also changed my settings so I only get that unsubscribe email once a week.