Fear, Fun & "Foam Man"

An interesting confluence of events has me thinking about the nexus between fear and success.  I’m reading Seth Godin’s remarkable book Linchpin, in which he discusses, among other things, the biological manifestations of fear that can keep us from achieving success.  And then there’s my friend the 50-something woman who has decided to teach herself to do this.  No, that’s not her in the freeline skating video – it’s some crazy teenage boy.  Or perhaps you’ll see him as a young man with great coordination and little fear of grave bodily harm.  And that’s the point.

My skating friend injured herself yesterday, but apparently that has not dimmed her enthusiasm for the sport.  She’s clearly having too much fun to waste time being afraid.

And that reminded me of “Foam Man,” whose story I read years ago in a piece in The New Yorker by Jane & Michael Stern.  I whisked the story into my quotation file because I just knew it would come in handy for a speech someday. It took nearly 15 years, but I finally found it the perfect home, with an executive welcoming a bunch of college students to a workshop during which they would be evaluated as potential recruits:

As I was thinking about what to say to you tonight, I remembered an article I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. It was an article about a group of people who signed up for an experience that promised to be exciting, if a little bit intimidating, but which, when it was over, would leave them with a huge sense of accomplishment. I imagine there might be some people in this room who identify with these emotions.

The experience the people in this article had signed up for was bull-riding school. These were not professional cowboys – they weren’t even people aspiring to become professional cowboys. They were just a group of men and women who, for various reasons, wanted the experience of sitting on top of a two-ton bull and staying there for at least eight seconds as the bull did everything it could to shake them off. It should be noted that the students were there voluntarily; the bulls were not.

The part of the article that stuck with me was a story about one student. This guy had shopped for his bull-riding wardrobe very carefully. He had purchased the regulation cowboy shirt and jeans – but he bought them eight sizes too big. And then he stuffed all of the extra space in his shirt and pants with yards of foam rubber. The people who wrote the article said he looked like the Michelin Man. But he didn’t care. He knew he was likely to be bucked off the bull, and he wanted to make sure he’d be safe.

So what happened? I’ll quote directly from the article: “After Foam Man was bucked off his first bull he bounced like a Super Ball, then came down right on top of his unprotected head.” The writers added, “Foam Man didn’t return.”

It’s a great story. But you have to wonder why Foam Man was there in the first place. He knew staying on that bull would be challenging – and he knew he was likely to fail before he succeeded. Why sign up for an experience and then try to insulate yourself – in the case of Foam Man, quite literally – from what the experience provides?

You’d never catch me looking like Foam Man, mostly because you’d never catch me signing up for bull-riding school in the first place. But I suspect I create a cushy foam lining around many other experiences – a lining that keeps me from engaging myself fully. It may keep me from getting bruised, but perhaps it also keeps me from giving my all, flat out – and from getting the most out of everything I do.

So I wonder…what could we all accomplish if we packed away the foam, faced the fear, and accepted the fun?

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