You're Not Supposed To Be Here

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I'll always remember the message. It was in the top room of the tower in a tiny alcove hidden behind a nondescript wall. Most people never even noticed that alcove, let alone tried to find the way in. But I did -- and there was the message: six simple words inscribed in sharp red letters on the gray brick.

"You're not supposed to be here," it said.

The message, and the tower that contained it, were just patterns of 1s and 0s -- virtual objects in the late 90s video game Quake. So the message didn't frighten me, as it probably would have if I'd encountered it in the physical world. Instead, it thrilled me, as it thrilled thousands of other players who discovered that hidden area. Back in those dial-up days when secrets spread more slowly, each of us who stumbled onto that message felt a private thrill of discovery; a jolt of rebel satisfaction.

The level designer who wrote that message understood our psychology perfectly, of course. Most of us players were teenagers or young adults for whom the phrase "You're not supposed to..." usually heralded the approach of a penalty, if not an outright punishment. But this message carried a different tone: "I'm not even mad," as Ron Burgundy would say. "That's amazing."

It stuck with me with a vengeance. Even today, when I'm on my way to a pitch meeting or a nerve-wracking date or a new country, and the cloud of "I have no idea what I'm doing" descends on me, I still remember that message. I imagine the universe broadcasting it at me in neon lights. I remember that what separates an interesting life from an agonizingly dull one is the willingness to try going where you're really not sure you're supposed to go.

We hear so much about respecting boundaries that we tend to forget there's a world of difference between violating them and simply testing them. Every breakthrough -- whether in science, in art or in a one-on-one relationship -- involves crossing a boundary. And not all boundaries are as hard to cross as they seem.

In her TED Talk, Aimee Mullins describes the experience of bringing pairs of artificial legs to an elementary-school classroom. Kids who haven't been told to act polite, she says, are, naturally, unabashedly curious about new things -- like her artificial legs. Good manners would tell us adults not to stare at or comment on, even if those legs are the very reason for the class visit. This is how Mullins landed the absurd pre-class task of urging the teachers not to prevent their students from learning.

And then there are those beautiful sets of artificial legs that Mullins and various artists collaborated on when they realized -- apparently to their utter shock -- what every seven-year-old child already knows: that sometimes you've got to create something simply because it's cool, and let someone else figure out how to classify it. So we end up -- thank God -- with things like the cheetah paws that can replace Aimee's feet, her set of legs that branch off into jellyfish tendrils or the ones made of soil and living vegetables. All totally impractical, seemingly unclassifiable, undeniably cool to anyone with even a trace of childhood imagination left in them.

None of this makes the actual act of testing a boundary any less frightening. Every time I do it -- in business, in my social life, in my travels or in any other area -- it still feels like my first time asking a girl to prom. And that's how it's supposed to feel. Our nervous systems have evolved to warn us against taking unnecessary risks, because creatures who take unnecessary risks tend to meet unpleasant ends. Fair enough.

But a warning isn't the same as a consequence -- and the really cool stuff has a way of happening in the space between the two.

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