Fear: 4 Questions You Should Ask

Fear plays a funny role in our lives. A funny role, but a very big role.

The earliest fear I remember having, maybe at 3 or 4 years old, was this: My family would be out for a walk. I’d fall behind, and as soon as my family was out of view, gypsies would rush out of the trees to steal me away and make me be their own child. (I had heard about gypsies.)

I remember watching The Elephant Man when I was 9 or 10. I hardly slept for a week. It’s an old black and white–true story–about a man with a deformed head who was put in a circus and ridiculed and died alone. I knew there was a good chance that would happen to me.

Around 11 or 12 I used to sit on the stairs crying because I was quite sure–in fact I knew–that I was going to die. Die early. Die early of one of two diseases: Small pox. Or spinal meningitis. And the morning I woke up with a sore neck after falling asleep propped against my headboard, I knew spinal meningitis was the culprit. I was beginning to die.

I’ve been afraid of lots of silly things in my lifetime. Of spiders laying eggs inside my ear. Of accidentally dropping something on a baby (like I actually had a phobia I’d like toss something on a couch only to discover a baby had been lying there). Of hitting somebody with a line drive if I ever batted a baseball as hard as I could. I have had many strange diseases I learned about on WebMD.

Maybe the scariest possibility of all was put in my 7-year-old head courtesy of my older brother: Bill Clinton and Al Gore were going to sneak into our house in the middle of the night and murder me in my sleep. (Bet you can’t guess which political party I grew up in.)

 

And then I grew up, and fears became more sophisticated. I’ll accidentally screw up my taxes and get in trouble. I’ll run out of money and become homeless.

So I say yes to things I don’t actually want, because I’m afraid of what someone will think.

More frequently, I say no to things I do want, because what if I screw them up?

What if people discover that I’m not a very cool person? What if nobody likes my blog post? What if I try making a podcast and nobody listens? What if people make fun of me? What if I accept a promotion only to fall flat on my face? What if I make close friends, and those friends let me down? What if I open up to a loved one, and they realize they don’t like me? What if, what if, what if…

Lots of things could go wrong. I could forget to lock the door to my home before I go to sleep. And when I go check to make sure I locked it, I might see it wrong and still leave it unlocked. Oh man… (#thankyoutherapy)

 

The thing is, I think even though our fears get more sophisticated as we get older, they’re still just exactly what they always were: Just fears.

Fears that you can get past. Fears that probably won’t come true. Fears that, if they do come true, will probably be fine.

Have you ever watched a child learn how to swim? Take their first jump in the pool? They stand there shaking and whimpering. Mom or dad smile and coax them into the pool. “I’ll catch you!” But the child is frozen. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.” But what if you’re wrong, mom? Finally–finally the child decides they want it bad enough to try anyway. They jump. Have you seen what happens to a child’s face in that moment? The terror changes to this incredible feeling of wonder and awe. So many emotions flash across their face: Relief. Excitement. Pride. They did it! They’ve unlocked a whole world of fun and fulfillment. They’re so relieved and excited they can’t help laughing. Giddy. It feels so good.

What’s something you’ve been so, so afraid of, that when you finally did it, you felt a similar relief and pride and excitement? What’s something you really wanted that you couldn’t have for a long, long time, because you were afraid? As Jack Canfield says, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Sometimes the fear doesn’t just go away once you’ve done your thing. Sometimes when you face your fears, all you feel is capable or healthy.

But I bet that most of your things you’ve done–through the fear–have left you with the incredible realization that it was okay. Even if it didn’t feel okay, you’re all right. Life’s not over. You are strong. You CAN.

 

But fear is still scary.

 

So in case it helps, I have 4 questions I’d like to suggest that you ask yourself about fear. 4 questions to quietly reflect on and answer thoughtfully:

1. What is something you haven’t done/aren’t doing because you’re afraid?

2. On a scale from 1-10, how vague is the outcome you’ve been afraid of?

3. What are the realistic possible outcomes? The good? The bad? If the bad happened, how would you deal with it? (Be very specific.)

4. What one step could you take today to move toward that thing you’ve been too afraid to do?

I don’t think answering these questions will make you unafraid.

But I do think when you answer question 1, you’ll realize that you want to do your thing even though you’re afraid.

And when you answer question 2, you’ll realize you’re mostly just afraid of the dark. You’re afraid because you have no idea what possibilities are lurking on the other side of your fear. As the iconic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft put it, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

And when you answer question 3, you’ll realize that when you switch the lights on and take a more realistic, honest, specific look at what was in the dark, it’s never quite as awful as you thought. In fact, the whole thing might be quite safe.

And when you answer question 4, you’ll be starting your new journey. A journey toward the life you want and dream of. No matter how scared you are.

Because you see fear for what it is: Just fear.

You’ve got this.

And you’re going to be okay.

Ralph Waldo Emerson - world is not so scary when you look

Re-Reexamining: Is That REALLY What You Want?

Debbie Ford - Be Who You Are

Like most kids, I had a plethora of career plans by the time I was about 7. I was going to be a zookeeper, I was going to pilot a spaceship, I was going to be a cowboy, and I was going to be a detective (I even had my briefcase picked out–a plastic hot wheels organizer). Most of all, I was determined to be a soldier back in World War II.

All that had changed by the time I was a young teenager. I knew I had one calling in my life–the best calling–to be a pastor. I attended conferences for kids who were going to be pastors and I bought hundreds of books on theology. I obsessively chased that one life goal.

Granted, when you’re a teenager, getting to the bottom of your feelings can be hard. So I’m not sure if this was the driving cause for my ambition or if it was just a piece of the puzzle, but looking back, this definitely screwed up my thinking: I thought that being a pastor was the “highest calling” a person could have. In other words, being a pastor is better than being other things. Now I would also say, somehow, that every other “calling” could be just as meaningful and good in its own way. But somehow I lived with this cognitive dissonance in my head, where still, in one sense–the most important sense–being a pastor is best.

As I grew older I reexamined a lot of my thoughts on the subject. I discovered that I wasn’t really sure that’s what I wanted to be. I replaced the narrow-minded “pastor-is-best” idea with a more progressive “helping-people-deeply-is-best.” That meant I could be a pastor, a therapist, a life coach, a writer, a leader… as long as my life’s purpose was to help others deep down inside, I could be happy.

Eventually, I became fully convinced that people can and should be happy with just about any kind of life they want to live. There’s nothing “better” about helping people as a therapist than about working for Disney as a junior animator’s assistant (is that a thing?). That it’s just as good and beautiful and amazing and meaningful to chase your dream of being a musician as it is to chase your dream of being a teacher. Movie director or rock climber. Cook or personal trainer. IT professional or pharmaceutical sales rep. A philosopher or a yoga instructor. There’s not a right and wrong choice. There’s not a “best.” At least that’s what I believe now. And I’ve believed that for a long time.

But here’s the problem. I shed my old narrow-minded views years ago. I got rid of my prejudice about “higher callings.” For everyone else in my life. But not really for myself.

I still had never imagined the possibility that I could be happy doing something that didn’t fit that “better calling” of helping people deeply, like being a therapist or life coach. I never let myself be truly free to consider being a happy chef, a happy pianist, or a happy movie buff. I was the biggest cheerleader my friends could have in chasing their own unique dreams, but I still held myself to a different standard.

 

I’ve been discovering lately that this is a very widely shared experience. Maybe you’ve known it or are just finding it out for yourself:

A big principle or belief about the meaning and value of lives and careers and dreams has changed in your mind. You no longer believe that it’s “better” to be a doctor, “better” to be a pastor, “better” to make a lot of money, “better” NOT to make a lot of money, “better” to make a huge impact, “better” to have kids, or “better” to do anything the traditionally “better” way.

So you’ve stopped holding other people to that standard. If your friend asked you for advice, you’d say, “Do what you want! Don’t feel pressure to be or do one thing over another! Find what really makes you tick! Don’t do what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, do what you really love!” You’ve grown out of your old prejudices for others . . .

But not for yourself!

Sometimes it can be totally subconscious: I don’t even realize I’m putting pressure on myself to have a “better calling,” to have a traditional family or relationship, etc…

Or maybe I’m totally aware of the pressure because I think it’s my own true preference: “I WANT to do this meaningful career. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do this meaningful career!” . . . But was that preference shaped by a standard you no longer believe? If you let yourself truly feel free to be who you wanted to be, would your dream still be the same?

Maybe it would be. For example, I think I’m genuinely very happy when I get to help people feel happier or stronger, or when I get to help people grow or learn. I really think that’s me deep down. So no matter what path my life takes, I think I’ll always be looking for little (or big) ways to do that.

But maybe you’d find you have some new dreams. Maybe there’s a whole world out there that makes you tick that you didn’t know made you tick–because you only ever let the “better way”, the “traditional way,” or your “higher calling” make you tick. Maybe it’s the world of medicine. Maybe it’s the world of sports. Maybe dance. Maybe movies. Maybe food. Maybe education. Maybe family. Maybe business. Maybe volunteering.

We’re all different. I don’t think anyone has this one elusive dream that will make them the happiest, where if I never discover my love for that world, I’ll never be fulfilled.

But I do think a lot of us make choices every day–little choices and big choices–that are subconsciously guided more by old prejudices we shed long ago–standards we’d never hold our friends to now–that keep us living lives in a way we don’t truly want to live them–chasing dreams that “should” be ours, being who we are “supposed” to be.

 

You’re progressive. You’re a free thinker. You no longer hold anyone to some old prejudice you used to have. But maybe that old prejudice is still holding onto you. Maybe you haven’t let yourself be free yet. Maybe it’s time to re-reexamine your old beliefs.

The sooner you can let yourself be free of those “better-choice”/”better-calling” standards you don’t actually hold anymore, the sooner you get to discover worlds that make you happy and excited. And then you get to enjoy diving into those worlds head first.

There’s nothing wrong with being a movie nerd or a CrossFitter. There are so many amazing lives to live and love.

So free yourself. Reexamine every once in a while.

 

The other side of the coin is how we’re affecting others: Please be aware of the web you may be accidentally creating for the people who look up to you. Especially really young impressionable people.

Parents, teachers, mentors, leaders: Your words, the opinions you express, the things you do and don’t celebrate, the activities you require, the comparisons you make–these can all teach an impressionable mind that there’s only one “best” dream they should chase. Or instead, you can carefully choose the words to help a little mind know that they live in a big, beautiful world full of countless amazing things to explore and enjoy.

I’ll try to do my part, too. It’s a big world out there, friends. :)

Urgent vs important

Henry David Thoreau - Not enough to be busy

Can you imagine the feeling, finishing up a task, sitting back, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm… I literally have nothing left to do today!” That would be really weird, right???

Life just needs to slow down. Right? But I have a hundred things to do today. So much to catch up on. So much to organize, fix, clean, or find. So many people to get back to. Those things I’ve been wanting to try, and stuff I’ve been invited to.

I happen to think it’s a particularly American tradition to live every day at a breakneck speed. We never, ever, ever run out of things to do right away. When my wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy we learned that the entire country traditionally closes its shops and sends its people home from work for a few hours over lunch. I often reminisce about my days in Ethiopia and Uganda, where even hard-working people walk slowly wherever they go and spend hours in peace and quiet with family or friends.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in the States. We have stuff to do. Always. We wear our over-flowing inboxes and day-planners like a badge, like there’s something special about our ability to cram a thousand little things into every single day.

But what are we even busy doing?

 

When are we going to do those deeper, bigger, more meaningful life things? The things we keep putting off “until we have more time.”

I think the big things that we want to do–that we want to look back and be happy about at the end of our lives–we want to do just right, and we want to do with unlimited time and attention. So we keep putting our real life off while we try to catch up with our bottomless stack of to-dos.

 

What would happen if you set aside the urgent stuff today? Let them just not happen? Would you finally start writing that book? Take your kid out to do something fun together? Make a plan to eat healthier and exercise?

And what if you kept ignoring so many of those “urgent” things–would you keep writing, stay more connected to your loved ones, and discover you actually have time to get to the gym most days?

 

Urgent vs Important–we constantly face a choice between the two. Urgent is the squeaky wheel whining for your attention. But at the end of your life, which will you wish you had chosen more often? Urgent or important?

What big life thing have you been putting off for years because you’re always too busy? What if you decided this weekend you were just going to start it–no matter what notifications pop up?

If another human can…

I’d like to be a professional writer and public speaker who helps make the world a better place. BUT. I’m SCARED.

I’m scared that I don’t have what it takes. So I often find myself giving up. I hold myself back. Out of fear.

Do you ever find you’re not trying because you don’t want to fail? Turning your back on your dreams because you probably couldn’t bring them to life?

 

I often find myself wondering in amazement about grand things that other people have done: How the hell did they get somebody all the way up to the moon??? How does one person handle as much responsibility and stress as a country’s leader or a giant company’s CEO? How did my friend ever get so successful at sales? And what the hell even is the internet and how can it possibly work?!?

Sometimes other people seem superhuman. Sometimes the advancements and accomplishments that make up the world I live in seem like magic.

Who are these god-like people who shake the world? The inventors, the leaders, the athletes, and the entrepreneurs? What other-worldly stuff are they made of?

 

Turns out they’re just humans.

Like you and me. Made of the same stuff. They were born with the same senses and tools and brains as I was.

Sometimes I have to slap myself awake as I watch successful business-people who make hundreds of thousands a year. I so often find myself feeling small and weak and full of doubt. If only–if only I had what they had.

The other day I was having a heart to heart with someone way higher up than me on the ladder. She was describing to me how she sometimes struggles with communicating freely because she’s been burned so many times. Then it hit me–here’s this person in a position I tell myself I couldn’t handle yet or don’t deserve. And she has the exact same insecurities as me. But she’s made it that far and is doing great at it. Humanness and all.

Turns out I can do those things, too.

It stands to reason. We’re all humans. I’m fully capable of making the same decisions and speaking the same words as any CEO or world leader. We’re all human, with the same voices to persuade with and the same minds to decide with. I could be that executive that executive I hopelessly compare myself to when he walks by my desk. I have to stop telling myself that I can’t.

 

Yes, some start with an advantage. Some are born into healthy homes with supportive parents. Some get good educations and college degrees. Some are born into wealth. Some grow up surrounded by safety nets others don’t have, safety nets that help them take those big leaps.

But there are a lot of people who have started with huge disadvantages and still achieved their dreams against all odds.

One of my heroes as a baseball fan, Mariano Rivera, grew up in a poor Panama town using a cardboard milk carton as baseball glove and a tree branch as a bat. He accepted early on that he was born to catch sardines on a commercial fishing boat. Despite a deck stacked against him–poverty, discouragements, injuries, and broken dreams, he ended up achieving such wild success in baseball that he is now widely considered the greatest closing pitcher of all time.

And it’s never too late to start! Ray Kroc was a milkshake device salesman until he bought McDonald’s as a 52-year-old. Vera Wang didn’t start her designing career until she was 40. Colonel Sanders bounced from job to job until he finally founded KFC at age 62. And Harrison Ford was so disappointed in his weak attempts at becoming a Hollywood star that he became a carpenter instead to support his family–until he became Han Solo.

 

Point is–you’re no different. You’re a human. In general, you have the same abilities as the next person. The same potential. None of those massively successful people are super-human. You don’t have to be super-human. I don’t have to be super-human.

You can do it–just the way you are! You’re a person. If someone else can do person things, so can you.

 

I’ve experienced this time and time again in my own life. It’s encouraging to look back…

a1 - runningI took my little brother running one night that I’ll always remember. “I promise,” I told him, “if you just don’t stop, no matter how tired you feel, once we’ve made it about 2 miles you’ll feel so much better!” And it was true. A block in, he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. But he kept going and finally hit his stride. I have found that almost anyone can be a runner. And most of the people who “can’t” really can. They’ve just already given up.

a2 - guacamoleWhen I started my first job as a 19-year-old, I was absolutely terrified and clueless. I crawled into bed in tears night after night feeling like I was weird and awkward and would never fit in, never make it. But then I did. Before long I was getting promotion after promotion and found myself running my own store. And fixing up a mean batch of guacamole.

When we got engaged, Lyssi and I had this crazy dream–what if we went and got married in Italy? But we put the thought away. We’re not THOSE people! We can’t do that! Then one day we started trying–just for kicks. A few months later we were exchanging vows together at the Villa del Balbianello, living our dream. Turns out, we ARE those people!

a3 - wedding

Another big one that I think about a lot is the lifestyle my wife and I have embraced–full of exploring and adventuring, taking planes, trains, and automobiles everywhere we can to experience a world full of beauty together. I always hear people envying those people that have the time and the money to explore and travel all the time. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t have more time and money to travel with than the next person. In fact, for a long, long time we dreamed and dreamed that one day we’d be able to go on those adventures–like “those” people. And then finally we decided to stop waiting and figure out how to make it work. Only then did we discover just how much we really could do. (If you want any adventuring tips, let me know. It’s something we’re passionate about!)

a4

(Fyi, each of the above pictures came from trips there were good adulty reasons not to take.)

 

So please–please, please, please–don’t tell yourself you can’t. Don’t tell yourself you’re “not that person.” Don’t give up before you’ve started.

 

Lately I find myself daydreaming about the next big thing I’m going to discover I can do. Maybe perform piano. Maybe take writing to the next level. I could go back and finish my degree. Pursue another big promotion. Or what the heck, maybe I’ll go back and try baseball again.

If there’s something you want, don’t be afraid. Go for it. Embrace it. Know that it could be you. Know that the people already doing it are just like you.

What’s next for you?

~

 

“All our dreams can come true–if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney

Scary till you do it

H P Lovecraft - Fear of the unknown

I find that things can be scary to me until I do them. If not scary, at least intimidating or overwhelming. Giving a performance, running a marathon, making new friends, confronting a coworker, or even just a little handyman project at home.

“It’s scary till you do it” seems like a good general rule to me, and one that can be very helpful to remember.

I say “general rule” because on occasion, things we are scared of get even scarier after we make ourselves do them. Case in point: Giant crowds or loud parties can get worse and worse every time for an especially introverted introvert.

But this really is a more common theme in life than we may first imagine. Sure, most things in life don’t scare you right now. But they used to. When you were a newborn baby, meeting a new face scared you. As a toddler, dogs scared you until you had met a few of them. You were scared of riding your bike without training wheels until you finally just went for it. You probably used to be scared of the pool. And even though you’ve gotten used to most things in life, there are probably a few things that still really scare you. Interviewing, mortgages, or maybe even spiders.

A perfect example: My wife and I were hiking the other day and found a snake. She assured me it was harmless. She and her siblings used to catch them in their yard. In my head I believed her. But when she reached down and grabbed its tail, I just about had a heart attack. The thing is, she had plenty of experience at this. I did not. Easy peasy for her. Not for me.

More applicable to day-to-day life–and what got me thinking about this in the first place–is car shopping. Last Saturday I went with my brother-in-law to a dealership to look at cars. The entire process was brand new to him, whereas I had bought from a dealer twice before, loans and all. More than anything, I was really there to help make it less overwhelming, to lend some confidence. After a day at the dealer, my brother-in-law talked about how much easier it would be next time around for him. He knew what to expect now. It was no longer uncharted territory. And someday he’ll be the experienced car shopper helping someone who’s a little scared because they haven’t tried it before.

 

Understanding that things are less scary after you do them doesn’t magically make things not scary. It just makes scary okay. It helps us do the scary thing anyway so we can have the big reward.

Planning our entire wedding and honeymoon trip to Italy by ourselves, when neither of us had traveled far in a long, long time, was very nerve-racking. I just kept feeling like something wasn’t going to work out. Like we’d get there and realize we hadn’t gotten our plans quite right. Like we weren’t actually going to be able to pull off our dream wedding. But there was also a little part of me that remembered traveling to Africa alone when I was younger, and how much easier and less scary it was than I thought it was going to be. So we took a leap and did it. It was absolutely incredible, and now travel planning is a lot less intimidating.

 

Understanding this general rule helps us to do scary things anyway. Understanding a bit more about how it works might make life even easier. So here are a couple more things I’ve noticed:

The longer you put something off out of fear, the scarier it gets. Standing at the top of a cliff, staring down into the water below, friends daring you to jump in–you realize just how high it really is. You take a step back and start to launch yourself. Halfway through you freeze. You panic. It’s too far. So you wait and wait and wait. You keep preparing yourself to jump. But for some reason, it gets harder and harder and harder the longer you wait. Sometimes life is easier when you just do the scary thing quickly.

It might still be scary after you do it–just probably not quite as scary as before. Doing something you were scared of doesn’t guarantee it won’t be scary anymore. In fact, with many things it will probably stay scary even if you’ve done it a number of times. Like starting a new job. It could be your tenth employer and you’ll still be nervous. But I’ll bet you’re not as when you started your first job.

The more you do the scary thing, the easier it gets. If you want to be less scared of something, do it again and again. I have come to love public speaking, but I was definitely not a natural at it. The first time I ever tried, I lasted about 10 seconds, did more squirming than speaking, and cried in front of an audience. Then I kept doing it through the fear. After a few times it was still awful, but a little less. I kept doing it through high school, and then later on through a Toastmasters club. Eventually, public speaking became so familiar and comfortable it just wasn’t scary anymore.

It is okay to be scared. Just let yourself be a human. You’re going to do better than you think.

 

Courage isn’t not being scared. It’s doing something even though you’re scared. And the more you exercise your courage, the less scary things get.

When you were laying in bed as a kid, the coat hanging in the closet that looked like a monster got a lot less scary when you got up the courage to go check it out for yourself.

Now that you’re an adult, remember: Big scary things life things usually aren’t so scary once you get to know them.