Is fear holding you back? Consider these three lessons

girl running from imaginary monster

Maybe it’s time you stopped running from your fears and faced up to them.

Napoleon Hill once said that fear is the single greatest obstacle to success. Yet, even with success, fear does not go away. Instead, it burrows into your subconscious in more subtle and insidious ways. You get comfortable, and you hardly notice your fears. But when comfort and safety are your refuge, how much risk are you willing to take?

Max Lucado, in his book Fearless, poses an interesting question: “Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds?” No, he says. “The worship of safety emasculates greatness.”

I have been meditating on some fears of my own that I need to overcome to get to the next level in my business. Identifying your fears is the first step to conquering them. Here are three that you might recognize in your life:

1) The fear of not being good enough

In the early 1980s, I wrote several freelance articles for City Paper, DC’s alternative newspaper. My day job was writing a Washington newsletter for the National Restaurant Association. I also freelanced for several other publications. One day after work, I met the editor of City Paper for a drink. I announced with some fanfare that I was thinking about going back to school to get a master’s degree in journalism and that I had set my sights on Columbia University, one of the top journalism schools in the country. I thought he would be excited, clap me on the back and say, “Jay, that’s a fabulous idea!” Instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you want to be a journalist, then be a journalist. You don’t need to go to back to school for that, you just need to do it.”

It occurred to me as I drove home that night that he was right. I had gotten it into my head that despite my success in writing, I needed more education. If I wanted to be “real” journalist, I would have to go back to school. I didn’t have the right credentials, and of course the solution was to go to Columbia. This is how fear gets inside our head, creates insecurity and convinces us that we’re not good enough. We don’t have the experience. We didn’t go to the right schools. The reality is that for most careers, unless they require technical knowledge, we just need to believe in ourselves and go for it.

I did not go to Columbia or pursue a career in journalism. I found out I really liked association work. In addition to writing the weekly newsletter, I contributed to the association’s magazine and wrote congressional testimony and speeches. I traveled with the president and did media relations. In short, I was doing it, and I thrived on it—in part because I abandoned my fear that I wasn’t following the right path to success.

2) The fear of not being perfect

When I was at the restaurant association, I met Jerry, who worked in the public information office at the Small Business Administration. Jerry wanted to start a trade association for franchisees. He invited me and several other association professionals to join him on the project. For the better part of a year, we met every few months to review Jerry’s ideas. He’d pass around research that he’d done on franchising, membership benefits the association might offer, ideas on how to structure the organization, etc. I was excited because I had never been part of a start-up. But as time went on, I became frustrated. Jerry never seemed to get past the development stage. With each meeting, there were more charts, more franchises he said we needed to study and more work that needed to be done before we could get started. Then Jerry got an offer to work in one of the SBA’s regional offices in California. He took the job, and that’s the last I heard of Jerry and his plan for a franchisee association.

Jerry’s story isn’t unique. I see that same caution and over-analysis in my work sometimes, too. The fear that things aren’t perfect keeps us from following through on our goals. Because the blog isn’t perfect, we don’t push the “publish” button. We linger longer on assignments than we should. We decide not to submit the proposal because it needs work.

The fear of not being perfect has a co-conspirator. It’s call procrastination. When we keep tinkering with a plan, wordsmithing a document or studying a problem, that’s the foot-dragging of procrastination. I’m not suggesting that we rush into new projects without doing our homework, but I do think that our fears can sabotage us before we even get to the starting block.

We tend to forget that nothing is perfect. You can’t prepare for every single contingency. At some point, you just have to take the plunge. Push the publish button, give the speech, perform the song. Chances are it is ready. Chances are it will be well received. Heck, it might even be great!

3) The fear of not being accepted

It was the summer of 2008, and I was riding in a church van to the airport, where we would board a plane and ultimately arrive in Girdwood, Alaska, for a 10-day mission trip. I had never been on a mission trip, and I didn’t know what to expect. And while we all attended the same church (Annandale United Methodist), I didn’t know the people on the trip that well, either. I was still new to the church and frankly wondering whether I had made the right decision to go. It had seemed like a pretty good idea when I signed up—see Alaska, do some good and get to know people. As I sat in the van listening to all of those voices happily chatting away, I suddenly felt alone.

For 29 years I was married, but now I was going through a divorce. My life had been turned upside down. This trip seemed to me a way to right it, a way to get my bearings. I was excited to be going, but I was also weighed down by the past. Just walking through the airport gave me the willies. It reminded me of other trips in better times when my wife would have been at my side.

But a funny thing happened on that Girdwood trip. A lot of my anxieties melted away. Looking back on it now, many of those fears were magnified by my state of mind. But that’s how fear gets the best of us. I’ve seen the fear of not being accepted—one of our most basic fears—grab a hold of otherwise successful people. The boss who wants to be liked by his employees, so he punts on tough decisions. The CEO who doesn’t want to rock the boat when it comes to board members. The politician who pays more attention to the polls than the real needs of the country.

Taming the fear of not being accepted starts with accepting who you are and recognizing that you have intrinsic worth. It begins with understanding that you have a purpose that’s bigger than you are. On a mission trip, that’s not hard. Those 10 days made a huge difference in my life. I often think that God threw me a life-preserver that week, and thankfully I was smart enough to grab it.

The trip opened my eyes to what my life could look like, and I saw that I would be okay. It renewed my passion for life. On the flight home, I added to those voices that were laughing and carrying on. As it turns out, Girdwood was the beginning of something very special. I now count the people on that trip as my best friends.

When we let go of our fears, we free ourselves to grow and serve others. Like the traveler in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we have a choice:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s easy to take the beaten path, the one that leads to safety, comfort and fewer fears. But the road less traveled, the one that seems scary at first, that’s the one that leads to real success.

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