Learning to be comfortable in the air


What if birds were afraid of heights?

Looking out our kitchen windows on a sunny morning at the top of the tallest tree on the hill behind us I could see a bird perched on the tip-of-the-tip-of-the topmost branch. The tree swayed gently in the light breeze. The bird looked to one side, seeming to defy gravity. There was no sign of weight on the sprig where it perched. The bird was carefree, confident. He didn’t seem worried that the branch could bend with a gust of wind, that he could tumble unceremoniously down, to be quickly surrounded by neighborhood cats ready to pounce. Plus, he was really high up there. He’s a bird, so I guess that stuff doesn’t bother him. Should he be disturbed in any way, I am certain he would simply fly.

That’s when my fifty-year-old brain suddenly goes from pastoral wondering to randomly curious – what if birds were afraid of heights?

As with much sense of wonder in middle-age, one can often count on such questions to be publicly internet-pondered in a serious and not so serious way. A quick digital query turned up these irreverent video clips, and a hint from a thoughtful amateur who tried in earnest to help a fellow internaut with the same question:

“If birds were afraid of heights, they would probably develop new ways to get around. (This should get you started) They would have less muscle in their arms, and more in their legs. They would learn how to get around without flying, and discover new habitats, surroundings and eating. They would probably also change colors, because animals have colors that match their surroundings. Also, they would probably bond with different creatures.”

A more learned bird owner had this to say:

Birds as well as any animal will instinctively put out its arms when there is a falling sensation. Birds and bats as well as a few soaring mammals learn how to be comfortable in the air.” 

The first answer takes an evolutionary approach. It speaks directly to the natural world’s ability to adapt. In talking about new muscles, in many ways it describes exactly what’s happened to us since moving to France – new surroundings, new food, new companions, new ways of getting around. In our case, we faced fear and uncertainty to gain access to new strength, learning and discovery versus giving in to it.

The second answer, though simple, is a prescient metaphor for the risks we must take in order to achieve something rewarding, something important, something we were meant to or really want to do – even when we don’t know it or understand it. Being uncomfortable is a part of learning, it’s a part of becoming who we really are, or who we want to be.

Learning to be comfortable in the air

Hyperlinking from a sunny morning to the inter-web’s metaphor for life as a work in progress I started thinking about how I’ve put out my arms in life and work. In some ways it is taking longer than I thought, but I am, uncomfortably, learning to fly. Turning my experience so far into advice for others, here’s a few quick things:

Know you’ve got a Net. Keep your family and friends close – physically or via any convenient means of communications. If you fall, and it’s possible that you will, your landing will be softer. These people will help pick you up, dust you off, and when you’re ready, give you the strength to go up there and try again.

Confidence by Default. Keep thinking you can do it. If you got asked to do something, don’t doubt yourself. If there’s something you want and you have the opportunity, take it, don’t worry that you might not succeed or it might not turn out perfectly (see item above). Gail Evans’ business advice book Play Like a Man Win Like a Woman touches on this concept several times – ladies, listen up and don’t give up when you feel out of your element. Fake-it-til-you-make-it and hero pose applies here – or deep breathing, or whatever methods work for you personally.

Take a Break. Only experience and practice can lead to mastery, but even masters need time to recharge. When you’re doing something uncomfortable all day, come back to something comfortable. Take a few days off. Give yourself permission to go off program.

Give it Time. Even birds don’t learn to fly in one day. Set reasonable goals in work as in life. And unless we are talking about a hard business deadline, or a need to survive in the wild (L’Aigle et l’Enfant) your personal timeline is just that – personal. How fast someone else did something and how easy it was for them has nothing to do with you. Maybe they can help you, great! But your timeline is completely, uniquely yours.

I think it can be a simple formula for a lot of different things. My uncomfortable moments have been about saying what I want, having the courage to go after it, living with the consequences of that, allowing for failure and disagreement and all the unexpected positives and negatives. And I’ve learned the truth is I am at least a little bit afraid of heights. It’s OK. I will keep putting out my arms.


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