Last week I did a short workshop with the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce to kick off a Woman in Business Series. Our topic? Using Fear to Thrive and Grow. These courageous women tackled the topic of fear in a profound way. Fear is an interesting topic – because it’s like eating. We need fear to survive, just like we need to eat to survive. And like eating, we can overdo fear, becoming bloated with woulda, coulda, shoulda instead of living the big life we are meant to live.
Every single woman in this session had a story of doing something big and important in the face of fear. Some of these actions involved physical danger – like jumping out of an airplane. Others involved following her own spirit instead of falling prey to “what will people think?” And some involved speaking truth to power, where the danger was more political than physical.
Since that session, I’ve been corresponding with some of those women and reflecting a lot more on how fear can help us learn and grow. Here is what I’m learning.
You don’t jump out of an airplane without some training. You start with some level of skill and then continue to build on that until you are ready to do a tandem jump, and eventually, with enough skill, you do a solo jump. Skilled skydivers do all kinds of things a newbie would never dare to try. Me? Not interested in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane! (Nor do I want to get over that kind of fear!) I would rather fly them.
When I was in pilot training, my first flight had me to do the takeoff, flying around and landing, with the instructor in the right seat of the plane. Even though I had a lot of fear and no skills. You can bet he wouldn’t hand me the keys to the plane without him being in there! He gave me the illusion of control and it was exhilarating. It made me want to learn to fly – which was the point of giving me the challenge of being in the left seat. The key was the support of having someone in the right seat who could fly the plane – and more importantly get us out of any trouble I got us into.
As my flight training advanced, I came to learn that flight instructors train specifically to handle rookies, who are probably scared or sometimes too cocky. They learn to do everything from the right seat, which is very different than the perspective of the left seat. While it can be very scary to turn an airplane over to abject beginner, they are trained for it.
So if I had accidentally gotten our airplane into a stall the very first day I flew, the instructor was trained to get us out of it. Would he have been scared? Probably not, because it is a maneuver he had done successfully so many times. Was I scared the first time we intentionally stalled the airplane? Heck yeah! Was I scared after doing many times? Not as scared, because I eventually learned to do it without being totally freaked out.
If fear is stopping us from doing something we would like to do, we need to build our skills to deal with the fear.
First, we have to acknowledge that we even have fear. Take the idea of speaking truth to power. This is not an impossible task. Somebody has spoken truth to power before. They did it knowing they could be fired. They did it knowing that the person in power might get mad. They did it while being aware that they may not be listened to. All of that is ok. The point is to learn to say what needs to be said, to not let fear stop us.
Fear almost stopped me from learning pottery. I tell that story in this video (which also includes our drawing for who wins the mug in today’s drawing!
Fear can help us thrive and grow. It points us to our personal edge of discomfort.
When we reach that place, we have a choice. We can either turn back and say – nah, I wanna be comfortable. I want to feel secure in what I know, I would rather be really good in my sandbox instead of learning to play at the beach or swim the ocean. Or we can move forward and decide to learn and grow.
We can seek the skills needed to help us navigate the “discomfort zone”. We can take a risk and act while being scared.
Where is your discomfort zone? Do you have more fear in physical danger, or social and relationship situations? What do you do to overcome your fear?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I want to learn from you!
Know someone who would love this article? Share it with them.
Missing an appointment with an IBM Selectric Typewriter most likely changed the whole trajectory of my life. It’s truly mind-boggling to realize that such a small thing made such a huge difference.
I was in high school, and my teacher had signed up me and several other students for a typing contest in a town a couple of hours away. Thanks to the vintage Royal typewriter at my grandparent’s house growing up, followed by my very own typewriter when I was about 8 years old, I came into the class already proficient on the classic QWERTY keyboard.
Quickly I became one of the fastest typists in the school – and accuracy counted in those days. We did not have a “back” button on the typewriter, nor were we allowed to use Liquid Paper. My teacher was quite sure that I would have won the typing contest that day – I was really good.
On the morning of the contest, I slept through the alarm clock. For the first time ever in my life. My mom came rushing into my room about the time the bus was due to leave the parking lot of the school 20 minutes away, prepared to whisk me out of bed and to doors of what might have been the gateway to heaven--or hell. (From today’s vantage point, I pretty sure it would have been hell.)
We had no cell phones at the time and I decided to miss the bus, rather than go into the OMG-we-gotta-get-out-of-here rush. It seemed like an unmitigated disaster at the time. My parents were so upset with me for being irresponsible, and I was puzzled myself. It wasn’t like me to sleep through the clock – in fact, I have always been a pretty early riser.
Yet I am quite sure that my life would have gone in a much WORSE direction had I made it to the school bus that morning.
See, my serious typing skills had me looking for careers that needed fast, accurate typists. In the mid-70’s, guidance counselors were still offering young women traditional women’s roles. We called them “pink collar” jobs back then.
All roads were pointing towards “legal assistant”, something I embraced because – I don’t remember why. It just sounded good because I was a screaming fast typist. Of course I would want to leverage that skill.
Then on the day of the contest, I slept through the clock and did not make the bus. It was an event soon forgotten as just one of those tiny disappointments in a normal life. Until I had a reason to remember it 30 years later.
Someone asked me why I started my career in accounting. I had all these reasons, like being good with numbers, understanding basic bookkeeping and so forth. But then I remembered my screaming fast fingers. The 10-key adding machine was the gateway. I was as fast at adding a column of numbers as I was typing a document.
When I didn’t go win the typing contest, I started winning in adding up numbers. My career choices started leaning towards accounting because my flying fingers were also good at the adding machine. What a way to choose a career, right?
A seemingly innocuous disappointment pivoted my career from a “pink collar” job in a typing pool to a “white collar” role in the backbone of business. Who knows where I would be today had I gone down the other path. While I have long been a recovering accountant, that career laid a strong foundation for the leadership work I do today.
Disappointment can be like that. And it’s so much deeper than “one door closes, another opens”. The paths we don’t take, for whatever reason, shape us as much as the ones we do. I am always trying to sort the difference between a test and a signal. Sometimes, disappointments test our resolve. Sometimes disappointments signal our lack of commitment. They show us that the path we think we want will actually leave us flat.
Knowing the difference between a test and a signal is priceless.
In my typing story, I made two choices, mostly unconscious, that revealed typing to be the flat road. I decided not to try to make it to the bus that morning when my alarm failed, and more importantly, I never pursued another chance at winning a typing contest. No commitment there. I heeded the signal and moved on.
It other situations, disappointment has led me to double down on my efforts. I spent the better part of year paralyzed with writer’s block a few years ago. The easy answer would have been to quit writing. Clearly in my paralyzed mind, I had nothing to say. If there was something in there worth saying, it would be coming out already.
Writer’s block tested my resolve. It made me realize that artistic expression was something worth fighting for. I had to dig deep to restore the flow and face the debilitating fears under the frozen fingers on the keyboard. It was painful, illuminating, ravaging and freeing all at the same time.
Disappointment paved the path, as it has for so many of the pivotal moments of my life.
As our community was building a charter school, I watched the people rally around the idea, only to be disappointed by a variety of setbacks and challenges. More than once, these setbacks could have been seen as a signal but instead were seen as a test of resolve. I called this resolve “Grit” in a post by the same name. Many, many children in our community are benefiting because the founders of the school saw tests instead of signals.
Where do your disappointments test your resolve? What signals are you getting that what you think you want will not give you what you really want? How do you know the difference?
Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_suljo'>suljo / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Know someone who would love this article? Share it with them.
In my banking days, one our most closely held values was flawless execution. It may not have been printed up in an official list of values – but I can tell you this: it was a very real expectation. In reality, flawless execution is corporate-speak for perfectionism. For many years, I was a good “soldier’ and bought in to this ridiculousness. Mind you, I did not have responsibility to print accurate bank statements. Perfection is a good thing in keeping track of people’s money! However, it was insane to make flawless execution an expectation for a group that had a strategic imperative to create new things. If something must be perfect the first time, then you better do the same thing you’ve always done – actually, you better do it slightly smaller– to guarantee it goes flawlessly. There is a saying that perfection is the enemy of good. I will take it several steps further:
Perfection is the enemy of creativity, innovation and business survival.
It was in that group that I first tested the waters of experimentation. We were charged with taking a year long training program down to 10 weeks. That’s an 80% reduction in time devoted to learning. Oh, and the trainees were expected to be as competent in 10 weeks as they had been in the 50 week program from before. Innovation was definitely needed here! It was a tall order and gave me an opening to set different expectations around flawless execution. It wasn’t easy, but our team decided to test and risk mistakes instead of trying to be perfect. We set expectations for the first program to be at 50% of what was possible. We would take the best aspects forward so that by the third program, we would have created a program that was 5 times more potent than the old program. Yikes! With a lot of courage, conflict and discussion, our team was able to set aside the culture of perfection. There were a LOT of less than perfect moments, and yet we succeeded. We developed a significantly better program that was not flawlessly executed the first time – in fact was never perfect. It just kept getting better. We made learning the number one priority, and everything else was done at par. (See Distinction and When to Say No for more on discerning what types of work can be done to “satisfice” vs higher standards.)
You would have thought that I took that lesson with me, especially when I started learning to become an artist. Nope. I am a very slow learner. At first, I would look at the blank paper (I was painting in watercolor at that time), and decide to create a masterpiece. At the first mistake, I would get so frustrated, I often walked away. I really believed that every blank sheet of paper had to become a masterpiece. If not, I didn’t deserve to get another blank piece of paper. Then one day, I remembered my lesson from the bank about testing instead of perfecting. Seen through that lens, I decided it was just paint and paper. So what if it had to go in the trash can? (I tell more about this story in The Secret to Better.) The most important thing I learned in painting has been this: You have to get through the “bad” paintings to get to the great paintings. The same is true of almost any endeavor where you are creating something new.
The question is this: Are you willing to go through the “bad stuff” (phases of performing below your standards) to get to the “good stuff” (really great performance)?
I tested this question again when I decided to learn pottery. My early attempts were truly awful. Yet I kept going back to the wheel, slowly learning and frequently using the “F” word. I must have made 500 mugs before I had one that earned its way into my kitchen cabinet. Making mugs is notoriously difficult, because newbie potters like me leave too much clay in the bottom, making for a heavy mug. Few people want to drink out of a heavy mug. Many, many of the mugs I gave away in those early days became pencil holders.
Had I started pottery with the attitude of flawless execution, I would still be making teeny, tiny pinch pots, because that was the only thing I was competent to do at the beginning. Gratefully, art is slowly curing me of my perfectionist streak. It’s unleashing the freedom to test and experiment. And that freedom shows up in every domain, from work, to writing, to skiing and to friendships.
Where do you seek perfection? In what ways does wanting to flawlessly execute paralyze you? Where is one place you could experiment with doing something a little poorly now for the sake of being better tomorrow?
Perfectionism will still sometimes reach out and grab me by the throat. Anytime I find myself stuck or paralyzed, I look for those fingers on my throat and gently pry them away. My wish for you is to unleash your creativity and allow yourself the freedom to make it (whatever it is) better!
Know someone who would love this article? Share it with them.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
Once you have subscribed, you will be sent a confirmation email. Please go and check your inbox, if you do not see a confirmation email, it may have gone to your spam folder.