Hello Fear, Let’s Take on This New Year Together!

FeetThe year I decided to say goodbye to the shores of my beloved Trinidad and Tobago to pursue graduate education in the United States, “Fear” decided she was coming too. Though I tried to shake her loose, she resisted. “What are you  thinking, girl?” she asked. “Like  for real? Think girl!  Are you really  prepared to trade in your love of doubles, roti, corn soup, steelpan, sunshine, and just about anything Trini, for American food and smog and snow?”Then she asked more worrisome  questions: What if your money runs out? What if your Trini education has not adequately prepared you to succeed in the US academy? What if you are not able to cultivate a warm circle of friends to help you face the cold North American clime (literal or figurative)? What if……? What if…..? Fear nagged.

But even though my confidence was shaky, I packed up my two suitcases and the little money I had saved from selling everything I owned–everything, that is, except for what was in those two suitcases, and I boarded the plane to Michigan with Fear as an unshakeable companion.

Yet, when I think back on it, I recognize that I did own something far more precious than anything I had managed to squeeze into those suitcases. What I owned was a dream to do what no one in my immediate family had yet done –pursue higher education. What I owned was a determination to lay it all on the line in pursuit of a compelling life vision. The possibility of success lured me forward, even as Fear of failure threatened to slow my steps. Yet channeling the fierce spirit of my Caribbean ancestry, I was determined that “dis sista” was not going down without a fight! And if you are thinking, “Well, I wish I had your courage and confidence”, I’m just going to keep it real. On far too many days, it was all an act; I was faking it to make it.

Truth be told, it was a flickering confidence, burning brightly one minute and then almost about to go out the next when challenges presented themselves–-when the amount I owed on my student account was more than I could pay, when I got tired of wearing the one coat I could afford to get at the discount store, when I stopped to think about the long road ahead and my dwindling bank account, I was afraid. And although I have stood at quite a few crossroads of major decisions in my life since then, I recognize that FEAR remained within arms length.

Would or Should? So, what would you do if you were not afraid? The first time someone put this question to me, it was not difficult to rattle off a list of things right away—learn to scuba dive, ride a motorcycle, or sky dive, or perhaps travel the world, mountain climb etc. etc. Yes! I do have that adventurer’s spirit. However, as I think back on that encounter now, I have a more nuanced understanding of that question and my response. First off, though I would certainly bask in the thrill of saying: “Ta dah, done it!” to any one of these bucket list items, I sense that for me at least it would be a shallow victory—there are more pressing concerns that weigh on my mind—I have bigger fish to fry. Secondly, for some crazy ventures (which will remain unnamed) that I almost attempted, and for which I am glad my parents knew nothing about, I remain grateful for the fear that knit that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that kept me up at night, that prodded and provoked me to recognize my foolishness and change course.

But what if instead of being asked about what we “would do”, we were asked the more meaningful question: “what should we do EVEN if we are afraid? By should, I am suggesting what I believe to be a fundamental truth of life, that each person is called to walk road finalpaths that are custom designed for them. It is your path to walk, whether it is to write that book, marry that person, leave that dead-end relationship, move to a different city or country, take that new job or even the alternative, turn down that dream job in favor of a passionate calling. Whatever it is! It is YOUR path to take given who you are, and the gifts you have been given to share with the world. Yet, it is often at these junctures that we are most fearful of failure and of going against the grain, turning off the well-trodden path taken by so many others rather than doing what Robert Frost suggested: “ Two roads diverged in the wood, and I–I took the one less travelled by.”

Friend or Foe? As I reflect on my own life journey, I recognize that Fear is indeed like that annoying friend who no matter how you try to shake her loose refuses to leave your side. From the first day I stood before a class of college students many of whom were much older than I was, through leaving the shores of my beloved homeland, through walking down the aisle to say “I do”, to holding a newborn baby in my arms—I was shaking down to my cotton underwear! BUT I kept on putting one foot in front of the other as I walked on.

If you are waiting to be less afraid to make that big move this year to high tail it out of your current situation with a confident “Adios, amigos!” in pursuit of your vision of a preferred future, well then girlfriend, you may be waiting for a long, long time. In an inspiring video, entitled How to get over your fear of failure, motivational guru and coach Tony Robbins urges us instead to train our minds to think: “I can be fearful, but I can do it anyway”. Similarly, in the book Act like a Leader, Think like a Leader,  the author presents a paradoxical truth that no amount of thinking will allow us to get past the nettlesome companion of fear. Ironically, the only way to face your fear effectively is to take her along for the journey.

Crippling or Motivating? Fear can cripple you or it can motivate you to advance towards your dreams —the choice is yours. Some years ago, my husband and I faced a difficult decision. Should he continue with the world’s largest consulting firm which paid mucho dinero, but which came with an attached puppet string that pulled him on planes, trains and automobiles here, there and everywhere? Or should he say “Hasta la vista, baby!” and launch out on his own–chart a course towards having his own business? There was a moment of great pause. Actually, who am I kidding? There were MOMENTS of great pauses. Are we crazy to even be considering this? What about the risks? We have kids to put through college! So many fears!!! The lure of a stable paycheck to which we had set our GPS was tempting—it threatened to cripple our movement towards a different path. Yet, as a financial consultant to others, he realized that staying in the firm’s safety zone in uncertain economic times would lock him out of his future earning potential on his own terms. But more importantly, he was driven by a desire for a better quality of life–more time with the kids and me, and to do more than his parents had done—to work towards a richer legacy than a stable pension plan. The fear of what could be lost if we did not make this move outweighed the fears we had about the loss of that paycheck—fear was a motivating agent.

I confess, that even now, after making that and other major life decisions together over the years, there are still moments of uncertainty and lingering questions. Did we do the IMG_7032right thing? Can we really make it? Yet, it is in the presence of this troublesome companion–fear–but armed with a growing confidence that we are determined to keep on walking courageously in fulfillment of our purpose and calling. And here is what we are discovering: every day, we make that choice –it is a choice that is positioning us well to experience the gift of joyful living. And it is wonderful!

So as you stand on the brink of this new year, what is your resolution? What should you do even if you are afraid? I know you’ve thought about it. Well? What are you going to do? My advice: Go ahead and DO it! Prepare yourself to begin walking that road even if you are afraid!

I would love to hear your personal story or thoughts of wanting to or facing fear head on. What lessons are these experiences teaching you?

“Nah! Not today!”–Leading Courageous Conversations

 

Kathy- SpeakingFew people are willing to start courageous conversations. Now, I am not referring to
the standard “Well, I’m jus’ gonna’ give him a piece of my mind!” Yeah, yeah, those conversations do take courage.  But the conversations of which I am writing require a level of relational transparency that is becoming sadly too rare. Let’s be real for a minute, how often is the friend who asks:” “Now, I want your honest opinion, how do I……?” really interested in your honest opinion?  My experience is NOT often! That’s why it takes courage to step out from the comforting limb of evasion, of half-truths, or outright lies to share a hard truth. After all, not many of us are able to take critical feedback and not despise the messenger. Ask me how I know.

I can still remember the day, about twenty years ago, when a close friend and mentor told me a hard truth about myself. It was unflattering, hurtful even, and in that moment I did what any self-respecting person would do. I launched a three-pronged counter attack. Ha!! First, I told him something bad about himself too. Then I called him a liar. “Untrue!” I said. Then, I resolved right then and there that the friendship was officially over (smh).  Yes! I know, not one of my finest moment! Shucks, I was ashamed, and embarrassed and very, VERY angry with him.

Kathy-1Yet, today, as I stand at the 50th mile mark of my life journey, and I reflect on that moment, I think now about the courage it must have taken for him to begin that conversation and risk my displeasure–to share a truth that was necessary for me to know to continue to improve. (Side note here, in case you are wondering, we are still close friends). Moreover, I now recognize growing in me a fierce determination to also take on courageous conversations.

Just so you know, it is not because I have a secret yearning for martyrdom or a quest to achieve wonder woman status. (Though, her suit is kinda cute, especially the cape. Don’t ya think?) Rather, at this juncture of my life journey, I think of it as a responsibility—a calling if you will to be a truth sayer, to care less about what others think of me, and more about what I think of myself–to walk firmly in my convictions. And even though, I will confess, there are still too many times when confronted with the task of speaking up, that I have hesitated, rethought, analyzed, re-analyzed some more, and eventually simply walked away in silence, each day that I continue to live, I challenge myself to fight against that beguiling sense of comfort.

In an age of “fake news” and insincere “like” clicks or “beautiful” comment posts, I remain convinced of the necessity of courageous conversations.

Courageous Conversations Honor Self: It is easier to advocate for others when such advocacy comes in the form of compliments and glowing letters of recommendations. Everyone loves praise. How, much tougher it is to advocate for others through critical feedback that can be unflattering, or even unwelcome! How very difficult it can be to say “no” in a crowd of “yeses”! To understand that in taking a position, you will perhaps be viewed, as “hard” “inflexible” and even in my case, considered “unchristian”. It is in these moments that I remind myself that advocacy for affirmation is merely self-promotion.

For the many times, I have made the choice to travel the lonely road of “The Voice of the Opposition”, there have been moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Yet, I remain convinced that the best contributions we can make in this life is to speak and act from the perspective of our deeply held convictions. That being said, we should not do so from a place of brutish recalcitrance. Rather, we should speak from an emerging position that requires us to critically interrogate our views as we continue to become intelligently informed and to listen to perspectives that differ from ours. Even as we stand firm in our truths, it should birth in us the ability to recognize and respect the rights of others to stand in their own truth. In sum, the experiences along our individual life journey is crafting in each of us a perspective that is distinctively our own. When I am true to my convictions, whether right or wrong, I am making a contribution that is branded as uniquely me! To deny that is to live inauthentically and to dishonor the gift of my presence in this world.

 Courageous Conversations Advance OthersA few years ago a colleague, who I came to know through my professional circle, came to seek my counsel. She was disappointed that once again she had ben overlooked for a senior level leadership position at her institution. Having observed her for some time though from a distance, I knew exactly what part of the problem was. Though she did possess practical leadership skills, she lacked the professional presence and finesse that could secure her a C-suite position. Yet, in spite of years at her place of employment, and a host of mentors, no one had been courageous enough to have that conversation with her, to provide her with necessary resources for her leadership development. I wondered why. But then again, perhaps they had, and she had not been ready to receive it, or perhaps the timing was bad or the approach was wrong? Though she had come to me looking for comfort, empathy even, I recognized the moment for what it was—an opportunity to start a brave conversation that perhaps she would find embarrassing, and yet it was necessary to advance her along her career path. And though I was fully aware that I was about to make her uncomfortable, to take on the inevitable risk of being disliked, misunderstood, or even unfriended, I chose my tone carefully and began the hard conversation…

Courageous Conversations are Necessary to the Cause:  Moving to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, I have come to a new construction of what it means to be a Black person in this context.  Existing and working in predominantly White spaces has positioned me and others like me to speak up for issues that often get overlooked, because the context is informed by a predominant majority perspective that threatens to marginalize us. It is a threat that is strengthened when we choose to remain silent. For me then, the iconic presence of Rosa Parks is a commanding symbol of courage—courage that refuses to acquiesce in the face of injustice. “Nah! Not today! I will not give up my seat!”

Whatever the cause, the counterattack begins through opposition. It is the lone voice that shouts aloud about injustices that are whispered in hushed tones; it is the lone voice that is not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions: “And why were no Diversity_Matters-coverpeople of color invited to the event? Recruited for the position? Received the award? Offered a seat at the table? Why are there no women in the top leadership positions? How were candidates recruited, selected? What are we doing to address these inequities? Why? What? How?

Though my cause may be different from yours, the advancement of work against systemic injustices requires a conversation starter. It requires someone who is brave enough to voice the concern that unapologetically challenges the normative–and lets the chips fall where they may.

Now that kind of courage does not come easily. In fact, every time I have started one of these conversations with students, colleagues, relatives, friends or even in my scholarship around the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have done so in spite of my fears. No, it is not easy, but it is indeed necessary. And whether we emerge from such conversations on the winning or losing side is not really the point. The point is: “Am I? Are you courageous enough to walk in your convictions—to make a mark that is distinctively you– to speak your truth even though your voice is quivering?” That is the kind of courage that Harper Lee defines as “real courage” ….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

So, bring on the courageous conversations! Why? Well, because at 50 and counting I have earned both the right and the responsibility to lead such conversations  And come to think of it now, maybe I will get that cape after all…