“If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are”

Wisdom from Master Shifu shared with Po, the Dragon Warrior. Oh that Shifu, he’s full of wisdom! This statement resonated with me while I was watching Kung Fu Panda III with my son, James, and wife, Karen, at Century Cinemas in Lindsay this morning. My version of this same statement: “If you only focus on what you have mastered, how will you get better at the things you have not?” I was a painfully shy kid who was afraid of snakes. Not incapacitated by fear but certainly not comfortable with them. At the age of eight, that fear changed to fascination because I was pushed to overcome my fear and learn about the very thing that made me nervous.

Josh holding Green Eyes, a Florida Garter Snake, his first pet snake.
My first pet snake was a Florida Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, which was purchased at a pet store in Goderich, Ontario called The Fin & Beak.

Just before my eleventh birthday, I purchased my second snake. A corn snake from The Piranha Pet Store on Avenue Road in Toronto (now closed). She had to have been a wild caught snake because she was nervous and tended to bite. In fact, she bit me only a few moments after we left the store and I became fearful of her. My father would not let me give in to this fear. Every day after dinner, he would march me upstairs and I would have to get the corn snake out of her enclosure and handle her. I can still remember how I dreaded those “sessions”: Attempt to pick up the snake…Hesitate. Get bitten. Try and take her out again. Get bitten. Try again. Get bitten. Try again and eventually succeed. Getting the snake out was the tough part because that is when she, and I, felt most fearful and trapped. I learned, with practice, to reach in with one fluid motion and pick her up without hesitating which prevented her from focusing on any one thing as a threat. The hesitation is what got me bitten multiple times because once I stopped, she could focus on my hand and strike once I made a move toward her again. Once in hand, she was calm provided that I supported her and let her move relatively freely through my fingers. Of course, that’s when I discovered she had another quirk about her. She would occasionally just position her head beside a finger or wrist, pause, open her moth, latch on, and start chewing back and forth. Well, that just gave my father something else to push me through! While the snake was chewing, I would be talking to myself out loud. “Ouch, Ouch,…It doesn’t hurt, ouch, ouch, ouch,…it doesn’t hurt. Ouch, ouch.” My poor perforated fingers!

Corn snake climbing a tree.
A corn snake similar to the one I purchase at the age of 11. The snake I purchased was a nervous animal that tended to bite which gave me the opportunity to learn how to pick up nervous snakes!

In a literal sense, overcoming my fear of snakes and getting bittenĀ  has given me the opportunity to encounter, capture and get bitten by all kinds of snakes including some amazing annulated boas, Corallus annulatus, in Costa Rica! Yes, I see the opportunity and experience of getting bitten by these snakes as a benefit. I know I’m strange but I’m not making any apologies for it! Suzanne Spina, a Fleming College Ecosystem Management student on an international field placement in Costa Rica in 2012, capture this video.

Overcoming my fear of snakes and my fear of getting bitten taught me that the reward at the other end of the fear is greater than remaining “safe” and fearful. I have over come my fear of snakes, public speaking, and perhaps most importantly I have overcome the fear of failure. We must spend more time developing skills and knowledge that we have not mastered. We must spend more time in the uncomfortable and frightening world of the unknown. The zone of growth and change! The trick is that it is completely and utterly unnatural for any living thing to gravitate to something that makes it uncomfortable. Recoiling from uncomfortable things and situations is what protects us from harm but it is the very thing that prevents us from real growth and change. Unfortunately, I believe our culture focuses too much on preventing young people from experiencing this feeling of vulnerability and discomfort because of the belief that it will affect their development. It does. It slows it down! We all have to face something challenging and frightening at some point and we need to deal with it. The sooner we learn we can get through it the better!

At home, I push my sons to move beyond their fear and learn to manage it. I want my Liam and James to learn to be able to cope in that zone of growth and change where things are uneasy but achievable. I want Liam and James to learn how to put themselves in that zone of growth and change on their own. To do that, I need to let them know when I am in that zone myself. I mask it well which makes them think I am never there. Note to self: tell my boys when I am nervous, why I am nervous, and what I am doing about it. Now that I am over my fear of snakes, I still put myself in that zone of growth and change. I still welcome the unease and heightened sense of awareness that comes with situations where particular attention to detail is critical. You can actually see it happening in this video filmed at the Pacuare River Eco-lodge. Watch carefully when I’ve got the Terciopelo, Bothrops asper, by the head and I’m taking measurements.

Click here for more Kung Fu Panda wisdom or better yet watch the movies and listen carefully!