What are you afraid of?

Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.  ~John Wayne

Courage isn’t an absence of fear. It’s doing what you are afraid to do. It’s having the power to let go of the familiar and forge ahead into new territory. ~John Maxwell

One of the scariest things I’ve ever done was my very first public talk.

Not skydiving. Not scuba diving. Not travelling around China. Public speaking (which is turns out is near the top of the list of things most people fear).

About 5 years ago I decided that I would present at Content World. And I decided to a presentation on storytelling. I can’t remember what sparked me to give a talk when the thought of speaking in front of an audience terrified me, but since I’ve always been a fan of breaking rules (I confess the first management book I read was First Break all the Rules) I probably thought it would be fun to do a non-traditional presentation on story at a technology conference. Often in the technology business we talk far too much about technology and far too little about people, adoption, experience, story and purpose.

So I submitted an abstract. And to my delight (and terror) it was accepted. I was going to have to get up in front of a room of people and talk about story. Me, who made it through university seldom speaking up in seminars. Me, who knew little about story. Me, the impostor. Or so my inner critic kept whispering in my ear.

For three months before the conference I was almost paralyzed with fear. “If I quit my job, I won’t have to do the talk” ran through my mind at least once a day. “Maybe we’ll have a big storm and I won’t be able to fly” was top of mind the week I had to fly. “Maybe I’ll get sick” was my biggest wish the night before.

“If I quit ___________ I won’t have to _______________”  is often how we react to fear.

But I didn’t quit. I persisted despite the fear. I used the fear as fuel to motivate me, putting hours and hours and hours into preparing. I got on the plane. I showed up in the room. My heart pounded as people trickled into the room. And then it was time. I started talking. My voice quavered. I stumbled a bit the first minute or two. And then I forgot my fear. I had fun!

And amazingly enough one of the people who came up after my talk to chat (I’d let people know it was my first talk and asked them to let me know how to improve) said that I could be a motivational speaker. I think it was more because I was so passionate about my topic than the actual content of the presentation.

Everyone’s afraid

We’re all afraid. Every day.

Fear is a natural part of being human. Fear is our lizard brain (more scientifically known as the amygdala) helping us survive by protecting us from being eaten or thrown out of the tribe. When we’re threatened our lizard brain goes on alert and our nervous system is aroused.  Which is exactly what we want when we’re threatened by a bear.

Unfortunately the threat of being thrown out of the tribe can arouse the same symptoms as the threat of being eaten. Our brains react to social pain in the same way as they do to physical pain. The threat of public speaking can trigger the same “flight or fight response” as the threat of a bear.

So while we’re all wired for fear and some of us are more anxious than others because our amygdala is more easily and quickly aroused, we all have the ability to learn to harness and work with our fear.

The challenge becomes discovering strategies for learning to become comfortable with fear, stretch our tolerance levels for fear, and harness fear to achieve the impossible things we dream of.

Why do things that we’re afraid of?

Why do things that scare us?

Because we all have dreams. We imagine ourselves making a difference. We tell ourselves stories of doing or achieving daring, courageous, exciting things that remain dreams because we’ve labeled them impossible. And yet often those impossible things we dream of are only impossible because we’re afraid. Each time we deliberately do something that scares us we stretch the edges of our comfort zone a little further until we discover those impossible things aren’t so impossible after all.

And, as Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

For someone deathly afraid of snakes, the impossible is holding a snake. Their fear is so great that they’re afraid of getting out of bed. Of opening a closest. Of going outside. All because of the imagined threat that a  snake could be hiding anywhere. They’re so paralyzed with fear, it’s impossible for them to imagine living a normal life. Their dream is living a normal life.

And yet the impossible was made possible using a surprisingly simple strategy pioneered by Albert Bandura, one of the most  influential psychologists of the 20th century:

The client would be lead to a window looking in on a lab room. In that room is nothing but a chair, a table, a cage on the table with a locked latch, and a snake clearly visible in the cage.  The client then watches another person — an actor — go through a slow and painful approach to the snake.  He acts terrified at first, but shakes himself out of it, tells himself to relax and breathe normally and take one step at a time towards the snake.  He may stop in the middle, retreat in panic, and start all over.  Ultimately, he gets to the point where he opens the cage, removes the snake, sits down on the chair, and drapes it over his neck, all the while giving himself calming instructions.

After the client has seen all this he is invited to try it himself.  Mind you, he knows that the other person is an actor — there is no deception involved here, only modeling!  And yet, many clients — lifelong phobics — can go through the entire routine first time around, even after only one viewing of the actor!

The experience of seeing someone handling snakes, watching an actor overcome their own pretend fear, was enough to give phobics the courage to overcome their fear of handling snakes. The impossible became possible.

Doing things that scare us gives us the new experiences required to retrain our amygdala, stretch the edges of our comfort zone, accelerate our learning and build new neural pathways.

In an era of business and personal disruption we need courage

The s curve is a useful method for analyzing the failure of organizations, illustrating why it’s critical for organizations to keep learning and innovating. The s curve predicts that unless organizations do the impossible, shifting from tried and true best practices to risk the disruption of new ideas, they’ll die. Walmart is just one of the business giants currently looking to do the impossible and shift themselves from a company famous for rigid, coldly effective business processes into one that’s flexible, experimental, and entrepreneurial. “We’re going to find ways to live at the edge. Every three or six months, you’ll see something come out that from us that will make you say ‘wow’.”

As I was writing this post I starting wondering whether I the s curve would be just as applicable to individuals. And that brought me to this post on throwing your life a curve.

The S-curve mental model makes a compelling case for personal disruption … neither business nor life is linear, and ultimately what our brain needs, even requires, is the dopamine of the unpredictable.

Throw your life a curve

Throw your life a curve, Whitney Johnson, HBR

Like organizations who need to live on the edges, take risks, and disrupt their mental models and ingrained ways of working to thrive so do we, as individuals, need to flirt with our personal fears to disrupt ingrained habits and mental models if we want to achieve the impossible.

Go forth and disrupt

When I was in university, throughout my twenties and even into my thirties speaking up, speaking out, and speaking in front of a crowd was an impossible thing.

I’m still flawed as a public speaker. But I now love doing it. I’m no longer paralyzed by fear. And I keep experimenting in my quest to improve. But had I quit that first time, giving into my fear, I would never have discovered my love for presenting, facilitating, and leading interactive workshops.

Once we realize that fear is a state of mind (and body), we can choose to face our fears, change our minds (and bodies), and create the change we want to see in our lives, our organizations, or our communities.

And speaking of a state of body, check out this fascinating TED talk on the powerful role body language can play in shaping you. I think the advice Amy Cuddy shares would be useful for any situation that scares you, allowing “you to fake it until you become it.”

Next time I give a talk, I’m planning on giving myself an extra boost with the superwoman pose.

How about you, what scares you? What impossible thing are you going to tackle this year?


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    About Joyce Hostyn

    One Response to “What are you afraid of?”

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    1. I LOVE this post; maybe because I had (have) the same fear! I had to learn to just say yes and worry about how to do it later! I work with so many clients who are paralyzed by fear. They have the mistaken idea that they need to get over being afraid first and then they can try new things! Wrong! Fake it til you make it!

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