war on the rocks

Entry 81: You Better Never Let It Go

April 10, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 81st installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I wrote 1,200 words on the flight back to Wellington. That’s less than 100 words per hour I sat there with no conceivable distractions other than being tired and dehydrated. I watched crap movies, daydreamed, and ate too many carbs. I tried to sleep and failed.

I had several conversations with friends last week where we discussed what I often call 8-Mile moments. Yes, 8 Mile, the movie starring Eminem. The biggest song on that movie’s soundtrack was “Lose Yourself.” It’s a dope song, but it’s also uber-motivating. I’ve never heard lyrics that so captured the feeling of fear and excitement that comes from trying to seize moments in your life that are bigger than you think you can be.

In 2014, when I was fresh out of government and on the think tank circuit—which involves a ton of public speaking—I gave remarks on a panel at the Brookings Institution. Someone on our panel was a no-show, and I spotted a friend in the audience who was also recently out of government but had no background in public speaking or punditry as far as I was aware. I immediately invited him to join the panel with literally no notice (with the conference convener’s blessing). He was clearly unprepared, but he knew the topic well. In his initial moment of hesitation, I told him it was his 8-Mile moment; in truth I was psyching myself up for the panel as much as I was him.

Anyway, right there in the middle of the auditorium at Brookings I started rapping the lyrics to “Lose Yourself”—“His palms are sweaty. Knees weak, arms are heavy. There’s vomit on his sweater already—mom’s spaghetti—he’s nervous…” I can’t remember how much of the lyrics I spit in that moment but he got the point, and since he was a hip-hop head too, I suspect he appreciated the added color of somebody rapping at a think tank conference. He seized that moment, jumped on the stage, and did just fine. Nobody in the crowd was aware that he too was originally supposed to be part of the crowd. I was impressed that he rose to the occasion.

Since then, an 8-Mile moment has been any big moment when you have to perform and you can feel the weight of the consequences, good and bad—especially if it’s something you don’t have to do. I can recall 15 or 20 big 8-Mile moments in life. They were times that I felt I might look back on later as critical junctures. They were opportunities I didn’t have to take, and there was a risk of embarrassment or failure in each instance. Joining the military. Giving my first radio interview. My first TV interview. Recording my first podcast. Giving congressional testimony for the first time. My first academic job talk (before I even finished my PhD). Approaching a major academic publisher with my first book proposal. These were all 8-Mile moments. There are a dozen others too but you get the point.

These were all moments where I stepped up to perform—feeling nauseated and inadequately prepared—even though I didn’t have to. A very fearful voice in my head told me there was nothing obvious to be gained from rising to the occasion. Why put myself through jangled nerves and the risk of ridicule—public or otherwise? Where did I get even get off thinking any of these moments would transform my life or make me successful?

But you never know unless you try. There’s a bigger voice inside my head that usually urges me to just do it. There was this feeling that the upside potential of each moment was limitless but could only be realized by stepping up to the plate. If the thought of the thing makes my knees weak and arms heavy, then it’s always the right thing to do.

It now feels like my life is a collection of habits interspersed with 8-Mile moments. In reality, most of these moments didn’t translate into anything directly tangible or measurable. But I’ve experienced them enough that I know I can face nauseating decisions and come through okay. The accumulation of them allows me to believe that I’m a person who seizes every moment the universe gives me. And believing that makes it easier to take opportunities that not everyone would take.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.