The 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 paths 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 right 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?