“If you don’t understand me, then I don’t need you. In fact, I don’t really like you, so I don’t care how you feel about me.”

“You talking to me?”

I know exactly what Wheat means when he says that. I have a streak of that sentiment a mile wide inside me, and it runs to the bone. My first, instinctive response when someone crosses me, insults me, criticizes me, or even disagrees with me, is “Fine. Who needs you? Go [choose your own impolite verb] yourself.” Less so than it used to be, but to this day I still find myself reacting like this. Instantly, before I can think about it, a cold, reptile fury rises up inside of me, and I can feel my internal Department of State breaking off all diplomatic relations with the offending person.

Of course, it’s rare that I express any of this. Maybe in a quick glare or an exasperated gasp, but ordinarily I’m restrained (or perhaps cowardly) enough to let the moment pass until I regain my cool.

Still, I wonder about it. Wheat referred to it as a defense mechanism, and I think that’s right. I’ve never handled criticism well. I’ve never been able to view criticism as constructive or view it as anything other than a personal attack. I don’t hear, “you’re doing a good job, and you need to work on this,” I hear, “you stink as a person, and you have failed.” So, rather than learning something, I get defensive and think “Your opinion stinks. Who cares what you think anyway?”

I think there’s some uglier roots to this.

In college, I was introduced to the work of my favorite poet, Robert Browning. One of Browning’s great poems is “Andrea del Sarto,” which is a dramatic monologue delivered by del Sarto to his wife Lucrezia. Del Sarto was an Italian painter and the contemporary of Raphael and Michelangelo. He was known as “the faultless painter” due to his technical mastery, but, as the poem reveals, he did not have the ambition of Raphael and Michelangelo, and, so, did not attain their greatness. Browning sums this up beautifully in the poem’s most famous lines, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” Del Sarto was just as talented as the immortals, but he missed out on being a ninja turtle because he didn’t have the courage to stretch himself.

The man who would be the fifth ninja turtle

Malcolm Gladwell discussed this in an email chat with Bill Simmons. Gladwell asks the question, “why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so?” His answer is that most people do it as a hedge against trying their best and failing. If you give 70% and fail, you can always tell yourself that you might have won if you had tried a little harder, but if you go all out and fail, what do you tell yourself then? That you’re a failure? He gives the example of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.* Phil always seems calm and relaxed on the course, and Gladwell suggests it’s because he knows if he loses, he’s got a built in excuse that he didn’t really give it his all. Tiger is intense and fiery because he’s given every ounce of himself in preparing for every tournament. He operates without a safety net. Gladwell concludes, “it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.”

*This was written when Tiger was still the greatest golfer, and not yet the most famous serial adulterer, on earth.

I probably don’t have to tell you that I’m not Michelangelo or Raphael or Tiger in his glory days. There’s a lot more of Mickelson and del Sarto in me. Part of this is because school was always easy for me, and I never felt compelled to push myself when cruising altitude was doing the job just fine.

The bigger reason, though, is fear. The mind killer. The little death. The fear of failure and rejection has always kept me from extending myself and laying it all on the line. They can’t tell you no if you never ask.

I don’t say all this to be Mr. Poopypants or to try to get sympathy. I’ve learned the value of hard work as I’ve gotten older, and, little by little, I’m learning to not be driven – or paralyzed – by fear.

Besides, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. The most repeated command in the Bible is “do not be afraid, for I am with you.” Why is it repeated so often? My guess is because so many of us need to be reminded of it again and again. Because our natural response to the unknown and uncertain is to give in to fear, to make the safe play, to not take a risk and try our best.

In football, there’s an expression called “alligator arms.” It happens when a receiver is thrown the ball across the middle of the field, where there is usually a defensive player waiting to tackle him viciously. A tough receiver will reach out and make the catch, knowing he’s about to be in a lot of pain. But some receivers get alligator arms. They can’t make themselves reach out for the ball, and instead they keep their arms close to their bodies like stubby little alligator limbs. Their reach most assuredly does not exceed their grasp.

You may as well catch the ball; it’s going to hurt either way.

One of my goals for 2011, and, more broadly, for life, is to stop having alligator arms. To test the limit of my reach and, thereby, to increase my grasp. Though I may find I don’t have the talent of a ninja turtle, at least I will no longer have the reach of an alligator.