Life’s Thresholds

No impactful decision comes without contemplation, evaluation of opportunity costs, and weighing pros and cons. It consumes even more energy when it’s for the first time. I think of these as thresholds – like through a door. The physical doors in our life can play tricks on us. We’ve all walked into a room and immediately forgotten our thoughts or why we walked in there the first place. Just the same, the metaphorical doors can have the same effect. You can scheme up a hundred possibilities but no matter how many practice rounds you take, it never goes exactly like you’d imagine after you stepped through. Once you’re in the arena, emotions take over rationale and you’ve forgotten it all. Luckily, understanding this truth is an amazing first step.

I separate these types of situations into two different terms. Experience thresholds, physically participating in an event for the first time, and relationship thresholds, the first few conversations with someone new. You can only do something new once while each relationship is unique.

Behind Door #1

Relationship thresholds can feel like a maze as even before that first interaction we can be influenced from all different directions. This is especially true in work cultures where rumors run rampant. For example, imagine you’re set to meet with a manager from a different department on a cross-functional project. You tell some of your co-works and it’s almost too easy for them to list off their two cents.

“I’ve heard that manager is all work and no feeling.” “I heard they’re combative in meetings.” “The emails I’ve been copied on are brash and passive aggressive.”

The first thing you should notice is those statements are not facts nor first-hand experiences. Regardless, after hearing this you prepare to match the managers intensity, getting your facts straight, and rehearsing exactly what you want to say. Then, ten minutes into the meeting, you realize everything you heard about them is not what you’re seeing. Where someone might see combativeness, you see passion. Where someone might see passive aggressive emails, you see clear direction.

In e-mail land, it’s so important to practice positive intent. Without hearing tone and seeing non-verbal cues, an innocuous message can be twisted by the receiver that may be desperate to find hidden meaning confirming their own bias formed from preconceived notions, from the rumors, about the sender.

The meeting ends without confrontation and you leave with high aspirations of the success of your project. Yet you wonder, “Where on earth could my co-workers have gotten those ideas?” It’s incredibly easy to accept other’s perceptions especially if you trust them. We need to remember that perception is function of experience. People, from their past experiences, react to others differently. The only way we can truly know is to step over the threshold into the unknown, first-hand. These first interactions may elicit some fear or nervousness.

For me, to quiet those fears is to think back to other threshold-crossing moments. Moments that turned out fantastic in the end. The sense of confidence and courage I felt afterwards. Why should this one be any different? Once you’ve done it once, it’s replicable. I also remind myself that regardless of the outcome, I will for sure learn something about them and if I’m lucky, something about myself.

Behind Door #2

Experience thresholds is doing a physical act for the first time. One of my thresholds I have yet to cross fully is flying. I flew often as a child, younger than six. As an adult, when we’re no longer indestructible, I’ve flown just once. A ninety minute flight to Illinois for a wedding. I know; statistically planes are safer than driving, I know that. I also know my definition of flying – Listening to the slow drone of engines keeping a one-hundred and fifty ton chunk of metal cruising at thirty thousand feet in the air and me being stuck in a small cabin with no control over any of it – Not conducive to my inner peace.

I want to cross this threshold though as I can see what’s on the other side. I’d love to visit other states and someday internationally to Rome or Ireland. I’m not sure what would happen if you fold in “over water hundreds of miles from land” to my personal definition. Probably s*** a brick, which would make the plane too heavy, then panic by running down the aisle which will also make the plane become unbalanced and now given that it’s too heavy, begin barrel rolling into a uncontrollable downward spiral towards a cold, shark-infested ocean where I can’t swim. Yup.

When considering to cross an experience threshold, hesitation comes when we have a fear of it. If it were exciting, we’d go for it immediately. When we’re fearful of what might happen, we’re mostly asking ourselves if we’ll regret it later. Chip Conley’s Emotional Equations tells us two things: we more regret instances where we didn’t do something over instances we did; and we tend to weigh short term pain over long term gain. To help guide us, he asks two questions. “Is it repeatable? Can it be repaired? If it’s not repeatable, beware of saying no. If it can’t be repaired (if something goes wrong) beware of saying yes.”

I haven’t had the opportunity to put this into practice with flying. My wife however, played this out beautifully a few years ago. She had the opportunity to spend a week in Greece…for $500. Two zeroes. Her first flight ever was with me to Illinois just a few months prior but instead of ninety minutes in air, she clocked in fourteen. Applying these questions:

Is it repeatable? Will you ever get the chance to spend a week touring Greece for 5 Benjamins? Doubtful, unless you win The Price is Right.

Is it repairable? This answer is situational and less direct. What you may be most worried about going wrong differs from someone else’s and the solutions to circumvent or rationalize those concerns will also differ.

In the end, her downsides were minimal and she earned a lifetime memory.

On the Other Side

Stepping through relationship or experience thresholds is an endeavor. It means getting out of your comfort zone, accepting you don’t know what comes next despite your careful planning and forethought. On the positive, it gives way to richness and fulfillment. Deeper relationships with co-workers or friends. My final reminder that it does get easier over time and for better or worse, you’ll learn a thing or two.

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