“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.” -Yoda
Uncertainties are ok, they are healthy in a way, I get that shit all the time. I stopped trying to get rid of them, cause I always have them, it’s part of my DNA.” -Smiley
The topic of fear has come up a lot recently, talking to my friends and talking to myself in my Moleskine. Fear can be especially brutal when you’re going through a major life transition, and has been a constant presence through the process of leaving my job and beginning anew as an unemployed yet optimistic I-can-fucking-make-it-as-a-writer, don’t-fucking-tell-me-I-can’t. I had the fortunate opportunity to hear Ted Gonder, a 22 year-old graduate of the University of Chicago, speak last week on the topic of “Smashing Fear” at the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation, and in the course of 90 inspired minutes we watched YouTube videos of the honey badger (motherfucker can run backwards!) sticking his head into a swarming bee hive to get the larvae, Mike Tyson calmly taking endless jabs to the head only to use his impregnable defense to knock-out his opponent with one perfectly-timed, perfectly-placed punch, and then we stood up with 100 other people and bit into a whole lime to suck all the juice out (don’t eat the peel!).
Gonder, who received his college diploma last weekend, was recognized this spring by President Obama as a Champion of Change in the White House Campus Challenge, for being the co-founder and director of Moneythink, a Chicago-based nonprofit that empowers urban youth through financial life-skills and entrepreneurship mentoring. This past week Moneythink became the recipient of the $25,000 Chase Community Giving Award and was featured in Forbes. Gonder lives by the simple, yet powerful mantra: “If I’m not at least a little scared to do something, it’s probably not worth my time.”
Rather than a sign of encouragement or motivation, fear all too often becomes a red light that makes us put the breaks on the very ideas, dreams, goals, and journeys that we know we need to take. Why? Because the most epic life decisions naturally involve risk and the potential for success or failure—if they didn’t involve risk, you wouldn’t be thinking about them. However, our fears are rather lame and paltry when we actually say them out loud or spell them out on paper. Exhibit A:
My friend Shira Bee: Smiley, what’s your biggest fear right now?
Smiley: That I’ll suck as writer and never get published or make a living and have to go back to an office job that doesn’t 100% fire me up in the morning.
Shira (looking disappointed): a) You don’t suck as a writer. b) Even if you have trouble making money from writing, you’ll be doing what you love and have gone for it, and worse-case scenario, worse-case scenario, you go back to an office job that would be pretty much what you were doing before, so… that’s really not that bad is it?
Smiley: No, I guess it’s not that bad.
Our fears are not nearly dramatic as we conjure them up to be in our heads.
“If all my friends give me money on Kickstarter for this documentary film and it doesn’t end up getting into Sundance, everyone’s going to think I’m a loser.” False. YOU MADE A FUCKING MOVIE, YOU’RE A ROCKSTAR! How many people in this world have actually written or directed or starred in a film? Like 0.00001% of the world’s population—you’re basically famous.
“My parents will be worried or upset if I leave my paycheck to travel the world or be a Peace Corps volunteer or start a nonprofit with my best friend.” Your parents love you dearly, but they care most about your well-being; following this urge will shape the course of your life and in the end, actually earn your parents’ respect.
“If I take a gap year to write a book before graduate school, employers won’t hire me because of the gap on my resume.” Any employer worth working for should value personal growth and exploration and should judge you based on what you did in your time off, not by whether you took it.
When we spell them out, our fears are actually quite manageable and you don’t need Mike Tyson’s psycho-superhuman abilities to conquer them. As Marianne Williamson said, “Our biggest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our biggest fear is being powerful beyond measure.” Despite this fact, anyone going through a major life decision knows that uncertainty and doubt creep in. Every run I’ve gone on in the past four months, every yoga class, every time I’ve laid down to sleep, there is some amount of doubt or uncertainty or “what the hell am I doing?” that finds it’s way into my brain. For months, my approach was to escape this sensation as fast as possible—go away fear, get away, get away get away, leave me alone, alone I said, shoo, fly! You know what? Didn’t work—doubt came back the next day. Then I had a revelation; uncertainty and doubt are part of my DNA, they make up part of who I am. I have a loving Jewish mother (who I love dearly)—there is no way, no fucking way, whether I want to or not, that I’m living a life without questions or uncertainty or doubt or guilt or worrying should I be doing something else instead or is this a good idea or should I have taken an umbrella?
So instead of running from fear, I embrace it and use it as fuel. I say to the doubt, directly, “Ok doubt, I see you, I see you doubt, and I raise you ten; I’m gonna run a little faster, gonna work this downward dog a little harder, gonna write some more today, gonna call three friends who live far away today, gonna hug five new people today.” As my friend Shira writes, “If we stop trying to eliminate fear, and instead use it reveal what it is that we love and value, it can become an incredible source of energy and direction.” Instead of a dreaded menace to escape from, fear has become fun for me, and embracing it has unlocked a renewable energy source I’m just beginning to discover.