Paul McAleer: Hi. You’re listening to Designing Yourself. This is Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess. On this episode we talk about anxiety and how to overcome to do what you love. Paul and I discuss this topic and try to figure out the difference between anxiety and fear. Then we’re joined by the lovely Roz Duffy, a creative facilitator, UX designer and researcher and community catalyst working behind the scenes to bring amazing people together.
We’ll talk with Roz about how the creative process can be used to get past whatever’s holding us back and help us create work that expresses who we are and inspires our communities. That’s all coming up on this episode of Designing Yourself. Stay tuned.
Paul: So, I was looking at the transcript of our second episode, and I realized something about it. I think that I was actually anxious and not fearful about things that I mentioned in that episode.
Whitney: Really? So you, in going back over it, recognized that you actually had a different emotion than the one we were talking about?
Paul: I think so because I know that one of the big things I wanted to do was talk about fear with you because I love the topic. And I like exploring it a lot. And then a few weeks ago there was an episode of Back to Work with Merlin Mann that talked specifically about anxiety. And it changed my perspective on it.
And the reason is it was a very nice discussion on, amongst other things, the difference between fear and anxiety. And that was something that I really hadn’t thought about much, honestly. I don’t know if I knew that there was a difference, actually.
Whitney: Tell me all about it. What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?
Paul: Well, the way that I understand it now is that fear is something that is provoked by some sort of stimulus. So if I am walking down the street and a lion jumps out in front of me and roars at me, I’ll probably be pretty scared. But I’ll probably be fearful more than anything else, right?
And anxiety is more about this whole idea of anticipating this stimulus happening even though it’s not actually there, so kind of imagining it. And that was a lot of the stuff that I was talking about in that episode. I was talking about losing sleep over things at my work. I was talking about how I had imagined the way some things would go down, some conversations at work at the time. There was definitely overlap with fear, but I really now thing that a lot of my stuff was actually anxiety.
Whitney: That’s interesting because I don’t know that I’ve ever really differentiated between the two. Whenever I think of fear it’s about an anxiety of something in the future. Fear is totally future-based. It’s like I fear that my plane is going to go down when it’s turbulent. I fear that I’m going to not get that gig that I really want. Is that anxiety?
Paul: I am not sure. But I think that, like, in the case of an airplane and turbulence, which is a great topic to talk about, I would almost classify that more as fear because something is happening in that moment to make you afraid. There’s a little drop in the airplane and where it’s going, and that causes you to feel fear because there’s that moment where you’re like, oh wow, hey, I’m in an airplane and I’m above the Earth right now.
It kind of takes you out of that moment and, at least for me, makes me feel just kind of scared for a moment. And then I generally come back. But the future stuff seems to be more aligned with anxiety than fear. Now, that’s how I’m classifying it. But I don’t know necessarily if that gains me anything by knowing there’s a difference yet.
Whitney: Well, I have definitely grappled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. And at least that’s what other people labeled it. But I felt like it had its triggers. It had - as you were saying, the difference between fear and anxiety, fear being something that’s immediately causing it. Am I understanding correctly?
Paul: Yes. There is a present trigger with fear. And anxiety, it’s not here now, but it might be in the future.
Whitney: See, what’s interesting is because I have been told by people in the past that the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is that a panic attack has no external trigger whatsoever. It’s just like you’re sitting there watching a movie or you’re in a meeting or you’re driving to work, and suddenly you’re overcome. But there’s nothing of particular happening around you that causes or triggers that moment.
And that’s a panic attack, whereas an anxiety attack is when it’s caused by something around you like your body is very astutely responding to a negative stimulus, like you’re in a situation with a person you shouldn’t be in, or you recognize that you’re reinforcing old habits that you don’t want or something of that nature where it’s like, yeah, good job, body, for responding this way. Let me pay attention and get the heck out of this situation.
So, is that not anxiety then? Is that something else if there is, in fact, that trigger?
Paul: It sounds a little like fight or flight, in a way, a little bit. But I’m wondering if fear is more about an isolated incident and anxiety is more perpetual. Is it possible to just have a moment of fear? Well, I think everybody would agree yes. It’s also possible to just be anxious over one thing, I suppose, too.
So maybe there’s an even finer difference, and we’re going to split hairs on this first before we really talk about it, in that you can be anxious over something and you can have anxiety as kind of a present thing over a period of time. And if it’s there for a long time that may be something that needs to be addressed in a greater way. But you can be anxious over something.
And I'm wondering as well if it’s not necessarily about negativity, because the anxiety could be something positive, right? You could have positive anxiety about something. Like, I could be really anxious about going to bed tonight because I got a new pillow, which frankly -
Whitney: Is that anxious or excited?
Paul: Maybe a little of both. I’m anxious to get to bed to try my new pillow. And I’m also excited about it. And I really do actually need a new pillow, by the way. So that’ll be a new segment on the show. We’ll talk about pillows.
Whitney: Well, we just got new pillows. So if you need any pillow recommendations -
Paul: Oh my gosh. I’m a side sleeper, and I can’t find anything that’s firm enough to support my neck.
Whitney: I’m a side sleeper, too. We got our pillows from IKEA, so we can talk about that after the show.
Paul: OK. That’s a fine idea. But I think -
Whitney: But what’s interesting is you’re talking about anxiety not being negative, and I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t think I would be anxious to check out my pillows unless I was worried that my pillows were not going to fit, were not going to be right for me. I think that anxiety is kind of by definition worry or unease or a feeling of something not going the way you hoped or a dread that it’s going to go a bad way.
Whereas excitement is a belief that it’s going to go a good way and that you’re looking forward to it and it’s positive. Anxiety, can it be positive?
Paul: If I look back at, and think about, really, not just look back at, those things that I was thinking were fear but aligned more with anxiety, well, they’re all pretty negative things. They’re not -
Whitney: What were some of them?
Paul: Well, one of them was losing sleep over a change at work that happened that ultimately was a restructuring. And I had a feeling it was going to happen. I had a feeling it was going to happen. And then my brain kind of kept me awake all night because I was going down every possibility and kind of planning out what would be said and how it would go down in the person’s office and where I would be sitting in the office and kind of all of those factors.
And at the time I had equated it to mapping out just about every user flow or something that one could. But these were all negative things. It was kind of presumed in my head that everything would be negative no matter what. So that was a good start. And I say that in jest, but it was an assumption, really, that I had in it.
So, that’s all negative stuff for sure. And another incident with work was that I needed to talk with somebody about how his team’s interactions were happening with my team and how kind of terrible they were. And I had envisioned it a certain way and became a little anxious about it but then had confidence to kind of overcome that. And then I went down to talk to the guy, and he wasn’t in his office as I had thought. And for a moment I stalled and went in the kitchen and got a cup of water and things like that. And I had to bring myself back in the moment.
But that almost feels more like fear to me because I was presented with him not in this planned environment, like I had imagined it as we cut to the scene and we’re in his office and we talk back and forth, and it gets kind of heated but not too bad. And that wasn’t the reality at all. So the fear of what was actually happening in that moment just drove me to say, well, I’ve got to take a minute and compose myself and get out of it.
Those things are both relatively negative, right? And fear and the anxiety in those moments were not the emotions that really necessarily directly helped me through. They helped me process what was happening, but they also didn’t necessarily lead the way.
Now, the pillow example is a pretty intentionally silly one because I wanted to think about something that I would think would be pretty positive, frankly. I mean, I really like new pillows. That’s exciting to me. But there would also possibly be anxiety. And I’m just wondering if it can ever be positive. I threw that out there, and I’m not sure if I fully support it, but just as an idea.
And I wonder if part of it is just that the positive stuff around anxiety can already be covered by other emotions pretty well like excitement and optimism and joy, for instance, because those things don’t live in the - they don’t have to live in the present. They certainly can. But anxiety singularly feels like it’s about the future. And I’m wondering if that’s the uniqueness of it.
Whitney: I definitely feel like anxiety is either about the present tense or the future. Maybe fear is more future and anxiety is closer future, more present, because I can’t think of an example of anxiety about something positive, like something that’s inherently positive like getting a comfy new pillow. But I can definitely see how anxiety can be a positive, how it can be helpful in your life. And I was trying to describe that earlier, though very poorly.
When I have experienced anxiety in my past, even when I’ve had a full-on anxiety attack, at first they were very confusing to me because I was like, what is my body doing? Why am I shaking? Why do I have sweaty palms? It’s the fight or flight response, for sure. But then I came to realize that my body is actually really awesome and it’s intended, designed - I worry about using the word “design” when we talk about the body. But it has adapted to react in this way to certain stimuli.
And so I actually think that if you’re able to recognize when you are feeling anxious, whether it’s a full-blown anxiety attack or whether it’s just something stirring inside of you, to use that to evaluate your immediate environment, to evaluate the situation you’re in, and perhaps realize that it’s a situation you need to get yourself out of, because sometimes our body has intelligences that our mind doesn’t.
Like, we’re so steadfast to achieve something or to be a certain way in our mind. And our thoughts are doing one thing. But then our body’s receptors are picking up on something not cool in the situation where we’re like, OK, this does not make me feel good. My body is not responding well to this. Something must be going on that my mind isn’t attuned to at this moment because my head’s somewhere else.
I’ve got to listen to my body. I’ve got to recognize that anxiety is coursing through me and get myself out of the situation. In that case I see anxiety as having the potential to be a really good thing. But that’s still a negative situation or at least on the negative end of the spectrum. I don’t know that we could be so binary about positive and negative.
But anxiety around something that’s inherently positive or that you feel good about, I don’t know. I think that it’s kind of by definition an unease. And when you described the situation with the guy that you were needing to talk to and he’s not where you expected him to be, I kind of classify that also as anxiety, that your anxiety was ratcheted up because you had a game plan and you went to execute on it but he’s not there.
And so now it’s like, wait a minute. Now I’m uneasy again. I’m uneasy because I didn’t expect this and I have to figure my way through the situation again. Whereas fear maybe is more like the threat of imminent danger, like the plane is going to drop. It’s dropping, and I think we’re going to die. Maybe that’s fear, like I have a fear of flying or I have a fear of death or I have a fear of turbulence or whatever. It’s like a threat or a danger or something like going to attack.
Whereas, like, you didn’t really think that that guy was going to physically attack you or like physically harm you in some way or even emotionally harm you in some way. You just really weren’t looking forward to it.
Paul: Yeah. I didn’t think he was going to, you know, lash out at my physically or anything like that. Thank goodness for that, because that would be a hostile work environment. When you were talking about all of that, the thing that I kept hearing was that it sounds a lot like anxiety and less like fear because there was no direct threat in those moments, really. I was on the second floor of an office building. I was in no physical danger at all, to the best of my knowledge, in those moments.
So, that was kind of not present. It didn’t need to be present. But anxiety was there. I was very anxious. And it’s not something that maybe should be binary, but the experience of feeling anxiety for me is a pretty darn negative one. The other -
Whitney: Oh, yeah.
Paul: The other thing that, of course, I have to bring up is public speaking because we both do it and we have done it. And there’s a difference between doing client presentations, for instance, and speaking in front of an audience of peers or equals or heroes or mentors or any group like that. There’s a difference, to me at least. And I don’t know if there is for you.
Whitney: Oh. Well, there’ a big difference between a conference room and a stage.
Paul: Oh, sure. Yeah. And that’s exactly right. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve talked at - you’ve talked at IA Summit, which is - that’s a big audience. And I’m talking to people in about a week and a half here. I’m going to be in an audience of, like, 100, 150, which is -
Whitney: That’s still a lot of people.
Paul: Which is a pretty big audience. It’s one of the bigger ones that I’ve spoken for. And around that I have felt anxious. And I also acknowledge that I will feel anxiety around it. I don’t really feel fear around it. I'm not afraid of it. I know my material. I know my speech. I know what I’m going to say. I’ll see the space, so I won’t have any fear around that.
But I’m still going to feel anxious before I go onstage and talk. It’s just going to happen. And I acknowledge that. And there’s nothing - I could say there’s nothing I could do about that. I could try to blot it out and ignore that it’s going to happen. Or maybe I’ll get to a point someday where it doesn’t happen. But I’m not there now.
And so, I kind of prep myself in that way, like if I know I’m going to be anxious in the situation, then that’s actually empowering for me. That’s a little bit of awareness because then, yes, I know I’m going to get butterflies, and that means the first 30 seconds of my talk I’m going to be super-fast on talking because my voice will just go super-duper fast and I will not be able to catch my breath for a few moments and I will shake a little bit. That’s going to happen. Even thinking about it right now is actually making me shake a little bit.
But if it happens, well, it will happen. So I need to take the attitude of it’s going to happen. And then on the other side of that, what’s going to happen after that, really, and getting past it and saying that, yep, that’s all going to happen. I’m going to survive it because it’s not going to last long. Maybe it will, but I’m going to give a good talk.
And that’s the attitude that I’m taking into that is that anxiety will be there. And knowing it will be there versus kind of letting it kind of surprise me as well. It’s like planning for it.
Whitney: I think that’s fantastic. And I think it’s absolutely normal, first of all. I think that it shows how much you care about your message and care about the audience that you’re giving it to and respect them, care what they think. And I think those are all wonderful things to have as you’re going into a speaking engagement.
If you had no anxiety and no unease, maybe you just didn’t care at all, you were complacent, you probably wouldn’t give a very good presentation. So, I think to have that anxiety, to kind of prep for it and know that it’s going to be there, but recognize that it will serve you well, that you can turn those butterflies into excitement and be joyful and joyous when you’re on that stage and have that come through, that’s all awesome.
I think there’s a really big difference between being anxious for a moment that is in the future or experiencing it in the moment versus having anxiety almost all the time, like suffering from anxiety where that state of unease, that state of emotional threat is there constantly, like it’s almost the din or the background noise to your whole life.
And it comes and goes in varying degrees depending upon the situations that you’re in, perhaps, or a variety of factors. But having it once in a while and being able to recognize what’s causing it and that this is in fact a good thing and I’m going to use it to my advantage and I’m going to harness that energy, because anxiety really is that buildup of energy in some way, and I’m going to turn it from a negative energy into a positive energy, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s amazing when we can do that.
But a lot of times anxiety, especially when it’s long-term and when it’s beyond the realm of knowing what the stimulus is, I think it can be debilitating. And it can absolutely get in people’s ways. And it’s a lot harder to recognize it as being this great bodily reaction, like a really smart mechanism that we have as human beings to help us.
And instead it’s like, why, why, why? Who do I have this? I’m in a situation where I shouldn’t feel anxious. I’m in a situation where I am safe. And I just want to enjoy it. And that anxiety can totally get in the way. But something you said earlier made me realize that I think I have a take on the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is a physical threat. You said something, and it made so much sense to me. Fear is a physical threat. Anxiety is an emotional threat.
Paul: Ooh, I don’t know if I said that exactly, but I will take credit for it.
Whitney: Yeah. That’s what I heard. So fear is like the plane’s going to crash. The spider’s going to bite me. The wave is going to take me under. I’m going to drown. I’m trying to think of phobias, I guess. And that’s fear, being afraid of the ocean, being afraid of planes, being afraid of spiders. It’s a physical threat.
Anxiety is an emotional threat, like I’m feeling unease. I’m feeling worried. I’m feeling nervous about putting myself into a situation that’s going to cause me emotional distress. And I think there’s - what I was referring to a minute ago about the difference between being anxious about an event coming up and it being kind of a “normal” - I hate that word, but I’m going to use it anyway and put heavy quotes around it - “normal” level of anxiety, like pretty much everyone gets anxious before public speaking, versus a hyper-anxiety which exists kind of more constantly, is in the background of everything you do.
That, to me, happens when - and I’ve experienced it, so I can only speak from personal experience, that when that feeling of emotional threat goes to a place where you think you’re going to be physically harmed, I can’t say it right but you know that it’s happening to you emotionally. But it’s so overwhelming that you feel like there is a physical threat when there is clearly not one.
And I think that maybe that’s what you were getting at with the definition with Merlin Mann, that with fear there is a very clear physical threat like the plane could go down. Yeah, that’s pretty clear-cut. But with anxiety it can be this emotional disturbance that gets to such an extent that you can be convinced that there will be physical harm caused to you, like that your own insides are wired incorrectly and you’re going to cause yourself a heart attack or that physical harm is going to come to you even when there’s no obvious threat of that, there’s no likelihood of that happening.
When you get up on stage to speak at a conference, there’s no likelihood that you’re going to be physically harmed. But a hyper level of anxiety might cause someone to believe that there is a physical threat.
Paul: Yeah. And they can go hand in hand with each other. You can be anxious about fear, for instance. And one thing I’m wondering about with the public speaking angle is, is it really both anxiety and fear that most people have? Because, yes, there’s the anxiety part. And yes, nobody hopefully is going to harm you physically when you are speaking in public.
But there is a very physical component to public speaking as well. It’s not something that’s just over a conference call, although that might be one thing, and not to diminish that people might have fear around that. But in the cases that I’m thinking about it is in front of an audience. And there’s a physical presence there as well, yours and theirs, right? So, that interaction is happening, and thus I’m wondering if it is both or could be both.
Whitney: Yeah, I totally see that. I totally see that you are making yourself physically vulnerable in some way. And so that fear could be associated with that. But now that I just said that word “vulnerable,” I’m reminded of one of our last episodes on Season 1 where we talk about vulnerability. Is anxiety and vulnerability, are those two things related?
Paul: I think they can definitely be. And maybe they’re very close, after all, because the way I see anxiety has to do with generally somebody finding something out about me or me being exposed in a way that I would otherwise not choose to be exposed. Does that make sense? Because I said it and it made sense in my head. And then I said it out loud.
Whitney: It does, kind of. But now I wonder how distinct that is from vulnerability, because being vulnerable means being open, exposed and potentially able to be harmed. And I would imagine that the fear of vulnerability, is it in and of itself anxiety?
Paul: See, but I can see the idea of bravery and confidence being a lot closer to vulnerability than I can anxiety, not to say that, again, everything is binary. But I can see those going hand in hand a lot closer because you can be vulnerable and brave - in fact, by being vulnerable, you know?
But I don’t know if there’s the same idea around anxiety. It seems to be a thing to pass through and work through and not necessarily stay in, because you can stay in vulnerability and be brave about it, I think.
Whitney: I’m going to be my English major self for just a minute. Since we are talking about distinctions here and distinctions between the definitions for each of these words, and you’re using the word “bravery” now, and to me bravery means physical strength. And when I think of kind of emotional strength I use the word “courage.” And so now I’m wondering if bravery and courage go hand in hand the way fear and anxiety do.
Paul: Oh, that’s a nice connection. I don’t - see, it’s funny because I don’t associate those with physicality kind of at all. I see them as very close to each other, honestly.
Whitney: What’s the difference between bravery and courage?
Paul: I don’t know.
Whitney: I don’t think I - I don’t know the answer either. I just know that I have a distinction in my mind.
Paul: I feel they’re pretty interchangeable. I like the sound of the word “courage” a little more, and I like the idea of being courageous more than being brave, in some cases. But I can see how you could align those with physical and other areas of the self versus just kind of using them synonymously. But I tend to use them synonymously. But when I choose I choose courage.
Whitney: And I think that we use fear and anxiety interchangeably as well. I mean, that’s essentially what you said when you were looking at our Episode 2 of Season 1 transcript, that you realized that a lot of the things that you were describing as being fears were perhaps actually anxieties.
Paul: Mm-hmm. That’s exactly right. So, it’s not -
Whitney: So, maybe all this doesn’t matter, and they’re interchangeable.
Paul: Well, I think part of it is, yeah, I wonder that, too, right? I wonder if it is that. It’s a matter of understanding the words. But I want to grasp on the words in part because I think that we could employ different tactics to deal with them, right? So, for me it comes down to if we get that finer understanding of ourselves and what these nuances are between these emotions which, you know, at this point these are fairly nuanced things, I would say, bravery and courage and fear and anxiety, we might choose different ways to address them and/or work with them.
Whitney: Hmm. That’s my response.
Paul: You sound thoroughly unconvinced.
Whitney: I just struggle with it because I feel like definitions, the definition conversation is helpful to an extent when it allows us to create a distinction that helps us see the edges of something that we otherwise didn’t see before that gives it a better definition. And I use that word not to mean dictionary definition but actually like a physical definition or a shape so that we can use it to describe with greater accuracy what we are experiencing and what others experience.
But to the extent that the conversation just becomes kid of rhetorical, that’s where I start to struggle a little bit.
Paul: I understand. And I think part of my brain really likes to think about that stuff because, hey, I’ve worked in IA, and I care about words. And I know you do, too. But I also find it a little more useful for me to separate out the two ever so slightly because if I use that as a guide, then that gives me a very different perspective on how I was feeling in those moments and also how I operated before those moments and looking at patterns in my life and all those good things, too.
Because, that doesn’t necessarily mean I just reclassify things that I once thought as fear as anxiety. But again for me it’s about understanding that nuance and what the difference is. And what I’ve mostly settled on is the whole stimulus/not stimulus, future/past thing, or present as well, and kind of separating them out there.
And for me that means that when I think about these emotions and feel them that I’ve got new words to try out and see if they fit better. And I might change my mind in the future, but for now I’m finding that having a little bit of room between those two has been pretty useful for me.
Whitney: Yeah. And I still - I get the distinction between fear and anxiety being fear is caused by a trigger, anxiety isn’t. But I don’t know that I want to subscribe to that definition. For now, though perhaps this will change in future conversations, I think I feel good with fear being something of a physical threat and anxiety being something of an emotional threat.
And I do see a relationship to bravery and courage because courage is this thing of like, of the heart. Coeur in French is heart. And bravery is like bravado or like brutality, like physical strength. So maybe our definitions aren’t that different from each other and it’s just semantics. And the one that you’re using from Merlin Mann’s podcast is that fear has an immediate, eminent danger, whereas anxiety is an underlying emotional experience that is present perhaps due to some life events but it doesn’t really need a stimulus in order to be there.
Paul: I like that idea, too. I really do.
Whitney: Well, we came to somewhere in the middle, I guess.
Paul: Yeah. There’s always a middle way. But thanks for talking with me about this stuff. This has been great. And I don’t - I can say confidently that I don’t feel anxious about it anymore.
Whitney: Well, I had a little bit of anxiety going into it because talking about anxiety can be anxiety-provoking. And I wasn’t particularly interested in feeling anxious. But I think we got there and we were able to distance ourselves from it quite a bit.
Paul: I agree. Well, thanks.
Whitney: Thank you.
Paul: Roz Duffy is a user experience strategist and researcher. Translation: She loves creating great experiences for humans of all kinds. You’ll often find her bringing meetings to life with design activities or organizing events and conversations around empowering change and thinking creatively.
When not trying to understand the way people interact with the world around them, Roz can be found sipping soy lattes, running or writing in her journal. Roz, welcome to Designing Yourself.
Roz Duffy: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here today.
Paul: Well, we’re glad to have you here, for sure.
Whitney: So glad you’re here, Roz.
Paul: Yeah. So, I want to start with something that you say. And it’s a very simple phrase, and I want to know more about it. You say “Do what scares you.” I’m wondering why you consider that such important advice.
Roz: Well, I think that is something that has been inspiring me lately because I feel like I’ve been maybe playing on the safe side of things. And when I look back and think about any of the times that something was really scary to me and I wasn’t sure if I should be doing it, that was exactly what I should be doing. And I got so much out of it.
And it wasn’t always something easy. There was always a point that I came to where I started freaking out or crying or, let’s be honest, calling my mom. But in the end what did I learn? That I could survive, that I could adapt, that it was - I needed to learn that lesson and it really wasn’t as scary as I thought.
Paul: So, what do you think kind of leads up to that scary feeling?
Roz: I think it’s about fear of failure or of not being good enough or having anxiety or just being worried that you won’t come out on the other side or that people won’t appreciate you or any number of things. There’s so many different directions it can go depending on what it is.
Whitney: So, what is it that typically scares you then so we can be a bit more concrete about this?
Roz: I think that putting myself out there and creating, like the creative act scares me. And you’re catching me in a moment where I am just trying to stare down that creative act with just simple routine, just creating space and just giving a little bit of time to it every day. And I feel like that’s been really liberating. And I feel like a lot of experiences, you build them up in your mind. But if you break them down into some kind of a daily thing that you contribute to, then it’s really not that scary.
Whitney: Wow. So, essentially the things that tend to get in your way, it sounds like, are when you are producing something, creating something that’s meaningful to you where not so much like standing in front of an audience like what scares a lot of people. But it sounds like what you describe as that creative act. And so I’m wondering what some of those things are that you’re in the process of creating, to whatever extent you can share with us that bring up those feelings.
Roz: Well, you know what’s really funny? I am employed full-time now, but I used to be a freelancer. And during the time I was a freelancer I never had a portfolio online. I never even had a page that said what I did anywhere except for maybe LinkedIn. And I don’t have that now, but I’m working on it. Like, I’m trying to say, hey, this is what I do. These are my interests, and this is how e might be able to collaborate on a project together.
But it’s amazing. It’s almost like I haven’t even hung out my sign, like I haven’t even done that.
Paul: Hmm. That’s really interesting. So how did that feel? How did you end up noticing that and kind of working with that?
Roz: Right now what I’m doing is actually just trying to open myself up to other people. So by doing that it could be having a one-on-one conversation. It could be having a group conversation. I facilitate some groups about conversation because part of my personality is a behind-the-scenes person who likes to create and set up environments for other people to succeed.
And I used to call myself almost like a platform creator because I used to organize a lot of conference-type of events. And I was very interested in creating a space where someone who had a great idea or was working on a project could get their idea out to a wider audience. Like, nothing was more thrilling to me.
But in that process I also learned, like, oh, I really love doing this. And I have a lot to say. And as it turns out I have a lot to say about the creative process and about going for things and doing the things that scare you. And then it became this sort of ironic thing that I wasn’t doing the things that scared me.
So, recently I applied to something. Let’s call it something that scares me. But it’s an opportunity for me to put myself in a position that is not comfortable. It is definitely not comfortable. It is something that I know that I walk around and say that’s something that other people do. That’s not what I do.
But then I thought, like, well, why not? Why isn’t that something that I do? And why isn’t that something that I could work towards and I could practice and I could open up to other people and learn from how their experience was or make myself vulnerable and just realize, like, look at that fear in the face and say I see you but you do not own me. You just don’t.
Whitney: Wow. I really love the way that you’re talking about this because it makes me feel as if - and probably something I always knew - that anxiety is this thing that closes you off from other people and maybe even from yourself in a lot of ways. And when you learn how to overcome it through sheer force of will or through various practices or techniques, that that can then open you up. And when you open yourself up, you are able to see what you’re really made of, and you’re able to actually fulfill upon the things that are of such interest to you and that you’re so passionate about. And I can hear that in your voice.
So you mentioned earlier finding this routine and giving yourself these kind of time constraints to say, OK, this is when I’m going to create. How did you develop this technique? And are there other techniques that you used to let that anxiety ease so that you can open yourself up to creating?
Roz: Well, I think for me it’s about knowing the time of day that is almost like a sacred time of day. And for me that’s morning. And I think that I would venture to say that for a lot of people it’s morning. But I know that some people are night owls, too.
But I think when I wake up in the morning I don’t have that much on my mind. I just woke up from a restful sleep. Let’s hope it was restful. But there’s not a day’s worth of things and stuff weighing me down.
And I can’t help but tie the creative act to the act of moving your body in fitness. And that’s a huge metaphor for the way that you approach life and the way you think about things that you carry around that you can release. It’s complete biological metaphor to creativity.
But I used to live in New York, and I had this job that was really stressful because that’s the deal. And it was just my head would - by the end of the day I would just be like, this is awful. And what I would do at the end of the day, actually, was go to yoga class because it was two blocks away from my office.
And this particular yoga studio the classes were almost two hours long, so it was like a pretty big time investment, too. But that, to me, was a really good way to melt away. It was almost like literally at the beginning of practice the way you start you’re pretty much like dumping out your head. I mean, that’s what you do. And by the end you have just burned everything away. And then you lie on the floor like a puddle, like you’re done. And that is how you have to - that’s how you get by in New York.
But eventually I left New York, and that whole going to the gym or doing whatever at the end of the day, I just was like, I can’t. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m self-conscious. I have all these reasons why I can’t go, and I’m not going to go. So then I reasoned with myself and I thought like, well, you have to do this because you have to move. You have to shake things up.
So, in the morning there is nothing in my head. There’s nothing holding me back. There’s nothing. Like, I didn’t have a stressful day at work or anything like that. So, it’s a critical part to just make the space, put the clothes out, have a plan, go do it. And then through that movement I feel like it starts to wake up my brain. It’s like a little warm-up for my brain.
And what I try to do now that’s really important, and this isn’t even a creative act that’s about, hey, read my blog post or look at my awesome design thing that I did. It’s just me and my journal. And that’s why it’s even in my bio right now because it’s just like journal writing has become such an important component to creating that creative space because it’s just thoughts. And no one is reading them but me.
It is moving a pen on paper. Most of us are sitting in front of a computer all day. It’s a light shining back at us, and our eyes are squinting. And we’re sitting on our butts. And it’s just so - it’s not normal, but it is the new normal. But when I’m writing in my journal it’s like how long have people been using pens and paper? A while.
Paul: At least 10 years, I believe.
Whitney: At least, I know. But that feeling, I love that connection. I mean, I’m kind of going off here, but if you think about writing it’s movement and it’s - you're literally taking thoughts in your head and you’re making them into something else. You’re making them into letters and sentences and everything like that.
But that, it’s just so calming. And it’s just a release. And depending on how that goes, some mornings I'm like, oh my gosh, I’m so ready to write this thought, or else I’m just like ready to approach my day because I’ve just kind of almost had a little conversation with myself and said, OK, all right, you know? And I just feel like it sets a really good tone for the day.
So that’s like a big part of just making that space. And a morning routine is something that I can be really consistent with. And I think consistency is one of the biggest keys to doing this.
Whitney: I love what you’re saying, Roz, about anxiety really being just a collection of thoughts that live nowhere else but in the mind. And there are these exercises that we can do to shuffle around the thoughts that live in there and create space for us to create the magic in our lives, to create whatever that is for us. And that can be journaling. It can be yoga. It can be meditation. It can be a million things. And I think that that’s so important for all of us to recognize, that they’re just thoughts and they don’t own us.
Roz: No. And I think - I’m glad that you brought up meditation, because I love when I find a blog post that comes across my feed somewhere where it’s just all about how you can’t really do meditation wrong. And there’s no perfect meditator. There’s no person that their mind is like this vast landscape of no thoughts whatsoever. I mean, meditation is all about thoughts happen. Oh, there’s that thought. There it is. And then it goes.
And I think it’s important to find ways to release those thoughts rather than letting them eat you alive, because if you let them, they will. But if you learn to look at them and say I see you, there you are, you are that, it’s so much better.
Paul: Yeah. And that’s - for me with meditating, too, I can relate to that because it was just very hard, at first, to not chase down those thoughts. But then as you say you get to a point where you start to recognize them and see them and let them kind of pass. And that’s a very different place to be, for sure. You know, one thing that I wanted to touch on was with regards to creativity. Do you listen to the Alton Brown podcast, by chance?
Roz: I don’t, but I’ve heard that you like it.
Paul: Yes, I do. It’s on my list of podcasts, and I happily promote it because he’s a good interviewer. Alton Brown, for people who don’t know, used to do a TV show called Good Eats. He was on Food Network, and now he does a podcast and other stuff. But here’s where it’s relevant.
I was re-listening to the episode he did with Alex Guarnaschelli, and she is a chef out of New York. And it was all about her career and how she got to do what she’s doing. I mean, she’s a very successful chef and owns multiple restaurants and is an Iron Chef and does all sorts of TV shows and stuff like that.
But when he was talking with her one of the important things to her was to really just go for it. She was talking about this repeatedly when she was talking about how she wanted to open a grocery store, and there were lots of things that she was interested in doing. And she hasn’t done that yet, but she wants to just go for it. And when she approaches cooking, she just goes for it.
So, when it comes to being creative, just going for it is a really simple way of putting it because there’s a lot in that. So, when I hear you talk about the creative process and kind of just doing things, what all goes into that? What else is there with anxiety, if anything, that you kind of might bundle up and then have to plow through to get something done?
Roz: I think that because, again, I’m in this moment of creating, and it’s a moment and I’m seizing it and I’m creating that moment at the same time, I think just what you said, like just going for it. But you have to just not really worry what anyone else thinks. And you have to just be authentically yourself and be true and just let the purest expression of yourself come out and create the space for that to happen.
And don’t judge yourself. Just write. Just paint. Just sing. Do whatever it is that you need to do, but just do it because as you were talking I was thinking, like - you know, I’m sure there’s a really great expression, and I don’t know it right now, but just about like you kind of have to play ball. You can’t sit on the sidelines.
And actually I’m a person that’s perfectly content being an observer, and I have done that for a lot of my life. But I’m so encouraging to other people that I’m like, wait a minute. Maybe I need to turn myself on a little bit because I want to just make things and do them.
And I think it’s important to just - it’s really just about being your true self. And I love hearing about chefs because I love cooking. And seeing when there’s people out there that you feel like they are making art and they love it, they love what they’re doing, and you can see they’re not faking it, it is pure joy. That is so amazing. How could you not love that?
Paul: You can totally tell, too. That’s the beautiful part, right? You can tell when people, when they’ve got it. You can totally tell.
Whitney: I think the quote you were searching for was you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Roz: I think that’s it.
Whitney: Wayne Gretzky. Yeah, I really hear just how important the creative community is to you and how important it is to help people cultivate their own creativity. And you live it yourself, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful for others, that you are constantly experimenting on yourself and you're not coming from a place of having all the answers, necessarily. But you’re going through it as well.
And I have - you know, you mentioned it briefly earlier. But I’ve benefited so much from the communities that you’ve built throughout your career. And some of them have been public like Barcamp Philly, Refresh Philly. And some have been private like women’s support groups that exist solely on Facebook, private groups that no one else can see. And I’m curious, why has community been so important to you throughout your career?
Roz: That is a really good question. I don’t know. I actually don’t know. And the story - I’m glad that you brought up Barcamp, because that is like a pivotal moment for me. And it’s a story that I’ve told before, but it has to do with that was the moment when I took a different path from being an observer to having a more active role in creating platforms for other people to express themselves creatively.
The only way that I can really describe it is that it’s some kind of calling because that’s really how it feels, because it is the kind of thing that makes my heart sing, and I love seeing people feel good. And it’s hard for me not to actually take a leap to cooking again. Since you went with the cooking thing I have to go there.
Paul: Please do.
Roz: I’m sure some people know this about me, and I do write about it sometimes. But I went to culinary school years ago, and I went - I cooked at a yoga retreat center for the summer. And one of the things that I had to do every day was make a meal for 75 people.
And I was so stressed about it. And I definitely, that’s when I called my mom and was like, what am I doing? I’m so afraid. How did I get here? When I was in school I was with a group of people. I could ask questions. I could mess up. I could stand over a pot and stir it for an hour if I wanted to. And I could look at the recipe and be like I am not deviating from that recipe. It has to be perfect.
But when you’re cooking in a kitchen that has, like, gas burners just kind of sitting on a table and you have a weird oven and you have like 10 ingredients and you have to cook for 75 people in like two hours, you have to learn on the fly, basically. And that is how you grow as a person, when you just have to do it. There is no but. There is no I can’t. You have to do it.
But the reason I come back to that and how I can tie it to the community thing is that that is a creative act. I was terrified of it. But you better believe that when I put those dishes out, there was like a buffet, I would stand in the door of that kitchen and I would watch. And I’d wonder. I’d look at people’s faces, and I’d try to see, are they excited? Does it look nice? Did I plate it, like put it out in a nice way? Is the food colorful? Is it tasty? Is it this? Is it that?
And all I wanted was for people to feel nourished and happy and like somebody made something special for them that makes them feel good. And I swear, that experience has always stayed with me. And it’s been a huge part of why I like doing things like creating events and communities, because I love making a lot of people feel good. So, I don’t know what that is, but it’s not something I thought I would want to do. It just is.
So, I think where I’m going with this and with any creative act is that you have to put your energy into the things that you do because you love them, because you lose track of time when you’re doing them, because you literally feel a sensation of being filled up with joy, because it’s possible if you’re not feeling it you’re not doing the right thing.
And when I say you’re not doing the right thing and you might say, you're right, I’m not doing the right thing, but I don’t know what it is, you know what it is, don’t you think?
Whitney: Oh my gosh. What would our industry be if people went to work every day with the intent of nourishing who they served?
Paul: Oh my gosh.
Whitney: Whoo, I love that word. I feel like my whole life has been set up around trying to figure out what nourishes me and trying to figure out what nourishes other people. And that’s why I was drawn to user experience. And I can see the parallels between what you’ve been drawn to throughout your life - cooking and yoga and creating community and user experience.
I mean, when you put it in those terms of sneaking in a peek to see if people were being nourished by your work, that’s an incredibly powerful image.
Paul: When you’re creating, you're basically creating these platforms, as you say. And then a community kind of fills in, essentially, and sustains itself and grows. How do you see the community and the platform kind of working together to help people overcome anxiety and work with that? How does that play a role?
Roz: There was an event that I use to be involved with, and I sort of graduated from it. I moved and moved on to some other things. But for four years I was involved with an event called Barcamp Philly. And Barcamp has happened in cities all over the world.
But what’s the most awesome thing about that type of event is, at least the way that we produced our event in Philly was that it’s a safe space for you to try. It’s completely Democratic. It is, I have an idea and I’m going to write it on a card and I’m going to put it in a timeslot. And people are going to come and hear me talk about something that I care about.
And there’s no, you must fill out this application and submit a list of places where you’ve spoken and links to recordings of you giving that talk wherever and having a certain amount of credentials. You could be anybody. And that opportunity opened doors for people. And it helped certain people learn things about themselves.
And also it was fun when people who maybe had more experience were there as well. And you could say I spoke at this event that this person that I really admire also spoke at. So, it’s just like creating an opportunity to try. And I loved that.
And it’s really important to me. As Whitney mentioned, there are some things I run online that I don’t really talk about because in my mind they are safe spaces because they’re curated, in a sense. But I don’t feel like, hey, this is my show and I’m running it and I’m doing all the programming.
I actually try to create opportunities for people to hold the microphone, essentially, like it’s your turn because, guess what? I don’t like holding the microphone. I really don’t. I like giving it to people and saying the floor is yours. Enlighten us. Take us to your world. Take us on an adventure. Show us something new. I love that, and I love giving that space to people. I love it.
Paul: So, that is so awesome. And the immediate thing I thought of is, how do you create, as you put it, the opportunity to try with yourself?
Roz: That is a great question. Well, I think there are certain opportunities that exist out in the world. There’s probably a lot that I look at and say, oh, I’m not good enough. I don’t have those credentials. I don’t have that experience.
But there’s certain ones where they make it a point to say we want you to try even if you think that you’re not up for it. And I think it takes a really special - and special is not even the right word - like a centered person to be able to do that. And I think that for a lot of people - like, if you ever read job postings and they’re like I need a unicorn ninja rock star whatever with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience and whatever, I mean, something totally insane.
But what if they just said I want someone who wants to learn and is hungry and is creative and does a lot of really cool stuff just because they love it? Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what the job listing said? But life isn’t about job listings. Life is literally like you have to just go out there and be who you are and do what you do and find your flow and lose track of time and just do what makes your heart sing. You just have to.
Everyone who’s listening, you have to go to do that. If you’re not doing it, go do it, especially if it scares you.
Paul: Especially. And that touches on something that you and I had the opportunity to talk about, Roz, at IA Summit. And it was about the idea of being scared to share one story and just feeling really anxious and nervous about it. And I remember one of the things that we touched on in this topic was really just feeling like that my story wasn’t really worth sharing, in a way, and feeling anxious about - and nervous, more so, probably, about sharing it and saying, what can I possibly bring to this conversation?
Because people may have heard this thing already. They might already know how to do this that I’m going to tell them what to do, and just feeling like it’s just kind of redundant. Is that something - first of all, is that anything that resonates with you at all? And, if so, then how do you work with that?
Roz: Well, I often - there are so many things that I haven’t done because I’m like, oh, someone else did it or I’m not good enough. I’m not cool enough, or I’m not interesting enough. I haven’t traveled to enough countries. That’s one that comes up. I haven’t done this. I don’t have a master’s degree in that. And I haven’t lived there.
And you know what? I’ve done what I’ve done, and I haven’t said this expression in a while, but I used to think a lot like less than some, more than others. I mean, you’re always going to be on the spectrum of, yeah, maybe you didn’t do as much as that person, but maybe you did more than you thought. It’s just comparing yourself is just basically a recipe for you to stand still and be in place and not do anything that you want to be doing.
And I think as I get older and as I learn from things that I do and don’t do, I think it’s really important to have some patience, too. And the idea of daily ritual and daily practice towards where you want to be and where you want to go, I mean, the best metaphor I can give is just the idea of planting a garden. I mean, it’s not going to happen overnight.
It’s not going to - sometime there’s luck that happens. Preparation meets opportunity, whatever you want to call it. And maybe there is no luck. I don’t know. But I think you have to - if there’s something you want to do, you just have to take tiny steps and be okay with that, because you can wake up and be like, you know, I feel pretty good, like I’m doing what I like and that makes me happy and that’s good.
It doesn’t mean like you have to be the most awesome version of every person that ever existed. The most awesome version of you is whatever you dream it should be. And it could be that you have children and you’re raising really smart, responsible children. Or it might mean that you work at a place where people learn and grow. Or it might mean that you do the same thing every day and it makes you really happy and it gives you peace and you feel grateful.
So, I think we all put so much pressure on ourselves, and I think I see some negative talk online sometimes about doing what you love. And I feel like people might be listening and be like, oh, she’s spouting that “do what you love” stuff. And of course you should do what you love. But I think that you need to do what’s right for you. And you need to be able to feel good about the choices that you’re making.
And if you feel like I want to do something else and then you have that little bit of a nag, look into it. Explore it. And actually you can try it and be like, you know, this isn’t for me. It’s not what I thought. And that’s totally OK, too. I feel like life is a series of things that you try and discard. And that’s fine. As long as you’re not like polluting the Earth, try it out. Whatever.
But, yeah, I just think it’s important to just listen to yourself and create that opportunity to hear yourself, whether that’s through meditation or running or talking to friends or literally recording your voice and playing it back, because that is an awakening experience, you know?
Paul: Totally. And some of it also boils down to, as you said, listening to yourself and understanding what parts of you are speaking as well and kind of getting to that point. And that’s fantastic.
Whitney: So much of what you're talking about is about trying and doing, which are actions that you take, as opposed to fear and anxiety, which are thoughts that you think. And what I keep hearing you say is that we have to act, that we have to live in our bodies and in the world and not live in our minds. And when we live in our minds is when we get trapped, is when we hold ourselves back.
And I love this idea that you can try one small thing. It doesn’t have to be everything. You don’t have to be the best at it. You may end up being the worst at it. But at least you did it. At least you did something. And I can really see how you have created platforms for people to try throughout your career and, I imagine, in much more of your life than just your career.
And I know firsthand how successful you’ve been at creating those platforms because I myself am a beneficiary of them. I don’t know if you know this, Paul. But the very first place that I ever spoke publically was at the first Barcamp Philly that Roz organized.
Paul: Oh, wow.
Whitney: And I was one of those people who had a lot of thoughts and a hell of a lot of opinions. But I never really said any of them or really did anything about it. And it was that opportunity to not have been in front of 400 people at a conference and have to submit a proposal and plan for four months some hour-long presentation and all this stuff that would have been like doing it to the fullest extent, but an un-conference instead that is relaxed and allows you to do things off the cuff and experiment and take a chance.
And with a tremendous amount of encouragement from Roz, who hardly knew me, and from our mutual friend, Matt Knell, who had brought me there from New York that morning, I had no intention of participating. I was just going to a bunch of other sessions and supporting friends and learning interesting new information.
I was pretty much forced into doing it, but I guess I showed up. And it opened up the rest of my life to me. I mean, I don’t know where I would be had it not been for you creating that space, Roz. So keep doing what you’re doing, because at least for me, and I know for many other people but I can really only speak for myself, it has had life-altering outcomes.
Roz: Wow. What an honor to have been a part of that experience with you. It was truly, truly awesome. And I actually was thinking about when you were talking. I just wanted to say I remember it was the last session of the day. And we were trying to wrap up the event. And I don’t know what was going on in the room that you were in, but your session totally went over. And every single person that was in there was Tweeting pretty much everything that you were saying. And they were just like, oh my God, this is so inspiring.
So there’s no way to end an event than with something that people literally are just so excited about. And they don’t even care what time it is. They’re just like, wow. So, that was really, really awesome. And that was great.
Whitney: I can’t believe you remember that. And what’s actually really important that you said just a minute ago that I really want to reiterate, which is you don’t have to be an expert. And you can just be getting started. And you're somewhere along the spectrum. There were plenty of people who knew more than me in that moment. And that could have held me back.
But there were also plenty of people who knew less, and they walked into that room because they identified that there was something that I was going to speak about that they wanted to know more about. And if you don’t open your mouth or you don’t take the chance or you don’t create what you’re trying to create, you’ll never find that audience. But if you do the audience will find you.
And it was a - well, not a presentation. It was just a conversation on going independent. I think it was called “Quit Your Job” or something like that.
Roz: Ask Me Anything.
Whitney: Oh my God. Your memory is ridiculous. Yes, Quit Your Job. Ask Me Anything About Going Independent. It was November of 2008, and I had only left my job at the end of August. So it goes to show how little I really knew. I mean, we’re almost six years later. I knew so little about what it meant to be independent at the time. But you gave us a platform to share what we knew regardless of how little it was.
But it was still an opportunity to open yourself up and to share what you knew with other people. And that’s part of what you have created. And I hear that it’s something that you live yourself. And I think that that’s what makes it so powerful, when we live what we teach.
I have a very favorite saying. You teach what you need to learn. And I think those of us who are teaching what we’re actively going through, what we’re trying to learn, it makes it so real, so authentic for the people who are hearing what you have to say.
Roz: I totally agree with that.
Paul: Well, Roz, I have to say, this has been such a treat to talk with you about this topic. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. And one last question, though - if people would like to follow your adventures online, where should they go?
Roz: You can find me on Twitter. I’m @stellargirl. And you can also find me online at stellargirl.com.
Paul: Well, thanks again, Roz. And honestly it’s thrilling to hear that you have done so very much for so very many people. And I am super-excited to see what happens next for you.
Roz: Me, too.
Whitney: Can’t wait until that super-secret stuff starts reaching the internets.
Paul: Yes, indeed. Yes. That will be fun.
Roz: Yes, it will. Thank you again for this opportunity to share.
Paul: Thank you, Roz.
Whitney: Thank you, Roz.
Whitney: All right. That brings this episode of Designing Yourself to a close. Our thanks for listening. If you want to learn more about Roz Duffy, visit stellargirl.com. that’s S-T-E-L-L-A-R girl.com. We appreciate your support and openness, and we will talk to you soon.
Designing Yourself is hosted by Whitney Hess and Paul McAleer and is edited by Aaron Dowd. Our theme music is “All Heroes” by Ardecan Music Productions with some rights reserved via creative commons. You can follow Whitney on Twitter at @whitneyhess. And you can follow Paul at @paulmcaleer.
Paul: If you like what you heard on this episode, stop by our website at DesigningYourself.net. You can subscribe to the show via your favorite podcasting app or via iTunes. We love to hear your feedback. So if you have an idea for a topic, a guest, or just want to say hello, you can call our listener hotline. Call 1-404-500-SELF. You can always reach us on Twitter at @designingyou, and our super-secret email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening. We’ll talk again soon.