Breaking Through Fear

Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.
— George Addair

The past two weeks have been interesting to say the least.

Earlier this year, I made a promise to myself that I would work on overcoming some of my self-limiting fears. I wasn't exactly feeling stuck - I have a lot of great things going on - and I've never been one to shy away from risk, but I felt like there were some things that I wasn't pursuing because of fear.

In an earlier life, my life in the Canadian Rockies from 1995 to 2005, fear - and overcoming it - played a large part in my life. I lived in the small mountain town of Fernie, British Columbia, and in the winters I did a lot of backcountry skiing.

Backcountry skiing involves climbing up mountains and then skiing down, typically in remote terrain. Avalanches are a constant threat (there's no such thing as zero avalanche risk in the backcountry), so they are a constant preoccupation. There are strategies to mitigate risk, from digging test pits and doing stability tests, to safety equipment like transponder beacons and Avalungs, but they are by no means a hedge against the risk of getting caught in an avalanche.

So that meant that every time I reached the top of a mountain, stepped into my skis, and prepared to ski down, I was taking on a not-insignificant level of risk. Many of my friends have been caught in avalanches, and several acquaintances have died in them. I was caught in a small avalanche that buried me up to my waist in Kokanee Glacier Park, just 1km from where Michel Trudeau was killed by an avalanche a few weeks earlier.

My friends and I liked to ski steep slopes, which not only increases the risk of avalanche but the risk of injury or death if an avalanche does occur. When you're skiing steep terrain that's full of terrain features like cliffs, even a small avalanche can knock you off your feet and into terrain you don't want to be in.

 OK, this isn't me, but it's a pretty nice shot, isn't it?

OK, this isn't me, but it's a pretty nice shot, isn't it?

I loved skiing this terrain, and I loved being in the backcountry, so I couldn't let fear get in the way of this passion. Every time I skied onto a steep descent, I had to engage in a fierce mental battle against the little voice that was telling me 'This is crazy. What the f!@# are you doing?' Even relatively mellow slopes were a mind game. I knew that an avalanche could strike at any time, and I had to mentally prepare myself for that. Eventually the mental script that worked for me went a little something like 'You love this deeply and you can't live without it. You've done everything you can to mitigate the risk and you've prepared as much as you can. If anything happens, so be it. Let the fear go and enjoy yourself.' And I could get over the fear.

Eventually my risk taking caught up with me. In 2003, I skied off a small cliff, against my friend's advice, and shattered my femur. My left femur ended up broken at a 35-degree angle, and I lost 7 units of blood. Thankfully, I was in bounds so the ski patrol was able to get to me before I lost too much blood. 

It was a long recovery, and it left me with a much healthier appreciation for risk. Looking back at my decision to jump off that cliff, it was silly one, based more on having to prove something than a real desire to jump off that cliff.

OK, back to the present.

I don't backcountry ski anymore, and I don't push myself physically nearly as hard as I used to. I have 3 young children and I can't put my life at risk like that anymore. 

So earlier this year I came to the realization that although that was a well-justified fear (the fear of dying and leaving my kids without a father), I was letting other fears get in the way of what I wanted. And I vowed to get better at overcoming those internal voices of self-limiting doubts.

Three events of the past 2 weeks have nicely illustrated what happens when you overcome your fears.

THE FEAR OF LOOKING FOOLISH

About a month ago, my wife connected me with a woman who was looking for a guitar player to join her for a kids' songs project. She'd recorded a CD of kids' songs, and needed a guitar player to accompany her for gigs. My dear wife, who knows me so well, knew that I was missing my former life as a musician, and thought this would be a good way to get me playing again.

My first instinct, on seeing that email, was "Kids songs? No way! I played on stages in front of 10,000 people. I'm not playing kids songs - I'll look like a fool."

It wasn't exactly how I envisioned my music career 10 years ago, when I was a full-time musician. I worried about how people would perceive me, and I worried I would look foolish playing and singing kids' songs. 

I got over those ridiculous fears (with some help from my wife), and emailed Sarah to set up a time to rehearse. We've now had 2 rehearsals, which I've enjoyed greatly, and we're set to play our first gig in a couple of weeks. It's not exactly Wembley Stadium, but I'm really happy to be playing again, and I couldn't give a damn anymore about what people think or whether I'll look foolish (truth be told, I'm pretty comfortable with a high level of foolishness).

By they way, if you have kids, check out Sarah's bandcamp page. The songs are really catchy, and your kids will love them (especially 'I don't need pants').

THE FEAR OF NOT BEING GOOD ENOUGH

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a job posting on my Facebook feed, for an Entrepreneur-in-Residence position at the Toronto Public Library. It's a high-profile position, and although it was a perfect fit for my skills and experience (I've been running entrepreneurship workshops for years and am launching an online course for social entrepreneurs), my first instinct was that it was out of my league.

The application was 3 pages long, and I worried that is was a significant investment of time for a very small chance of reward. 

I thought back to my pledge to overcome self-limiting fears, and decided I would apply for the job. And guess what? I got it. 

THE FEAR OF BEING VULNERABLE

I've generally been comfortable speaking in front of crowds. After 3 years of touring with my band and playing in front of crowds large and small, I developed a comfort level with being on stage. But an event 2 weeks ago scared the beejezus out of me.

About 6 weeks ago I was approached by a friend at the Centre for Social Innovation with an invitation to speak at an 'Untold Stories by Social Innovators' event, where I would share a personal story. I met with her and told her the story of one of the most difficult times in my life, a period when I went through a serious depression and almost killed myself. She was moved by the story and encouraged me to tell it.

As the event approached, my fears grew. I'd told the story once before, but it had been in the context of a 'talk', with Powerpoint slides, behind a podium, to strangers. This would just be me, telling my story to 100 people, many of whom where friends and colleagues. 

I wrote her to tell her I might share a different story, about a journey I took through the wilds of Nicaragua. This story was more adventurous, and far less vulnerable. 

Once again, I thought back to my pledge to overcome fear. I realized fear was holding me back from sharing a story that I wanted to share, one that I needed to share. I resolved to tell the story.

The night of the event, I was terrified. I'd written the story out and rehearsed it many times, but I was worried I would screw it up. I was also worried that this would change how people viewed me.

I was the last speaker. Everyone before me took their notes with them and in most cases, read from them. They all stood behind a podium. At the last minute, I decided I would take my fear challenge a step further and ditch my notes, and ditch the podium - just me and my story, with nothing between me and the audience. 

I walked in front of the audience, shaking, and told my story. It was a deeply powerful moment in my life, and one that completed the catharsis of my healing.

Afterward, I had many people come to me and thank me for sharing. Many shared their own stories of depression and loss.

I decided to share my story online, where it could reach more people. I'd recently been accepted to write for Huffington Post, so I decided it would make an apt first article. That article, and similar posts on Linkedin and this blog, have lead to an outpouring of support from hundreds of people around the world, all thanking me for having the courage to share my story and often sharing their own. 

GETTING OVER YOUR FEARS

I encourage you to look at how fear is holding you back, and how you can take steps to overcome those fears. Start small, with little challenges to yourself (a few weeks ago, I challenged my students to stare into a stranger's eyes for 4 seconds), and as you get comfortable, challenge yourself even more.

The more you can get comfortable with dealing with and overcoming fear, the less you will hold yourself back and you will get more out of life, I promise.

I'll close this post off by bookending it with the earlier quote:

Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear
— George Addair

How has fear held you back? How have you overcome fear? Let me know in the comments below!

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