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What are you afraid of?
What’s keeping you from living your dream? Are you afraid of being uncomfortable, or making a mistake, or looking like a first class idiot? Maybe you are afraid of there not being flush toilets, or some exotic disease, or airports (Ok that one is totally rational). We’re all afraid of things, often on an unconscious level. And that’s fine, we evolved with fear as a way to keep us safe. You don’t survive very long as a hairless ape without any natural weapons without a healthy dose of fear. But the same instincts that protected our ancestors from lions and crocodiles are holding us back.
There is something in your life you really want to do. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about it since you were a little kid, or you just heard about it and now you can’t get it out of your head. But something is stopping you. About a year ago I did something totally outside the norm for me. I got on a plane all by myself, flew to a city I’d never seen to spend a long weekend with a group of people I’d never met in person; not even once. There are so many ways it could have gone totally wrong. But it didn’t, it was wonderful. The trip was great, though it had its bumps, and the ladies I spent it with were hilarious, and weird in just the right way.
It made me brave. So when one of the wild group of women I’d met up with suggested we go big I agreed to it. I love to travel, but I’m not a great traveler. Ask my poor husband who about six months into our marriage realized that the 24 hours before any flight I turned into an entirely other person. I hate the act of traveling these days, the pressure and the rush and the inevitable delays and missed flights, and lost luggage and down right rude security people putting us through procedures that do nothing to increase security. Don’t get me started.
But I really wanted to do this trip, I’d wanted to since I was a little girl, and so I did the thing that scared me. I traveled to Africa. I booked the trip myself, did half the traveling totally solo, and spent 10 days with someone I’d only met once before. The number of ways this trip could have gone wrong were epic. But they didn’t. It was absolutely the trip of a lifetime and I would have missed it if I’d listened to any one of a thousand inner, and outer voices telling me why it as a bad idea.
The Critics & Haters
We’ve all been there. Whether it’s your grandmother shaking her head that you’ll end up mugged and lost in some Parisian alley, or your parents who are sure you’ll end up homeless if you quit your nice safe job to follow your dream. And those are just the voices outside ourselves, the ones perhaps easiest to ignore. We’ve all got the inner critics who don’t think we can accomplish anything, and who are sure that we are, well, doomed. There’s no way I’m a good enough rider to spend 10 days on a horse with wild animals. There’s no way I can survive 20 hours in a plane. There’s no way I can afford to go to Africa, and take the time off work. My husband will feel abandoned. Won’t lions eat your horse? I’ll get dysentery and die. I’ll get malaria. I’ll have to pee in the bush. I won’t like the food. Everyone else will be rich, and classy, and I’m not. Everyone else will be professional riders who will laugh at me.
That’s about what went through my head, or I heard from other people, in the first 20 minutes after the trip was proposed (the lion one became a running joke people asked that so much). I did it anyway. And you can too, in fact you should too. The things that scare us are usually the places where we’ve got the most growing to do, the places where we’re most passionate and vulnerable. If I didn’t actually care about seeing my favorite animals in their natural habitat from a horse the whole thing wouldn’t have scared me at all, I wouldn’t have cared enough to feel anything about it.
Being Vulnerable Again
And that’s the key. As children we hold our dreams out in front of us for everyone to see. We proudly announce that we want to be President, or a unicorn, or an astronaut to anyone who will listen. And when we’re really little we get a pat on the head and a smile because it’s cute. But at some point people start bursting our bubbles, and we start hiding our dreams. Eventually we even hide them from ourselves, because we internalize those criticizing voices. Eventually we come to believe the people who’ve told us we can’t or shouldn’t. We become adults an we start to think about what’s reasonable.
Playing it safe rarely achieved anyone their dreams, or create much joy. The things we value most in life involve risk. Relationships risk heartbreak, goals risk failure. Every time we step out of what is familiar and ordinary into something bigger we make ourselves vulnerable. And yet it is only in those moments of vulnerability that we connect with other people, or achieve or experience something new. The moment you leave your comfortable safe cocoon behind you risk your assumptions and your beliefs. You open yourself up for new truths, radical new experiences, and the perspectives of others.
It can all be really, really scary. And it is usually really, really wonderful.
Make It Happen
How to move past the fear and into that bold new thing? Here are some suggestions.
- Don’t go alone. Find a partner to help and support you. Even if what you are trying to do must eventually be something you do solo, everyone needs support. Chose someone you trust, who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it, who will call you out when you are totally off base, and who will push you a little bit for your own good. I went to Africa with a friend, it was a little bit easier having someone to compare notes with, to figure out the confusion of visas and entrance documents, vaccinations and itineraries. And once I’d committed, I couldn’t let my friend down, which kept my own worries in perspective.
- Assess the actual risk. Often the risk we build up in our heads is actually way bigger than the actual risk. When I quit my corporate job and moved across the country to go to grad school my parents were convinced I’d end up homeless. But the actual chances of that were pretty low given my education, background, and very marketable skills! When I suggested going to Africa I actually had people convinced a lion would eat my horse, and a travel doctor scared the crap out of me about disease. It turned out, there are no lions where you ride your horses, and none of the diseases I was warned about even exist where we went.
- Baby steps are OK. If your goal is to swim the English channel first swimming shorter distances in a pool, and then a nice calm lake, are probably a good idea. Starting with something smaller and more manageable isn’t failure, it is practice. Practice is good. But don’t let the practice take the place of doing the actual thing. Eventually you’ve got to actually get out there and swim the English channel, or at least try. In my case I did that little weekend test trip. I figured out my boundaries, and my safety conditions. The result? Success with the real thing.
- Fail gloriously. I have a boss who once stood up in front of all of his folks and told us he expected us to go out there and fail, gloriously. It was the best thing he could have said. He took away the fear of failure, the idea that if we tried something and it flopped we’d be in trouble. In fact his expectation was we’d fail at least a few times. If we didn’t he didn’t think we were setting our sights high enough. That’s hard, we live in a culture were failure is nearly forbidden. And yet every single successful person has failed many, many times before they succeeded. And they’re still failing, they’ve just learned how to work with those failures. Failure is our best teacher, I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve had some pretty rotten experiences. But I learned from all of them and that is the key. There were even missteps on this most recent, wonderful, trip. And next time? I’ll know even better.
- Do it anyway. You will never be ready. You’ll never be so prepared that nothing can go wrong, you’ll never be totally non-anxious, you’ll never mitigate all the risk. Do it anyway.
In the end life is short. I work with a lot of people who are at the end of their lives or dying. None of them have ever regretting taking the big risks, the huge experiences. Sometimes they had colossal stories about how things went totally wrong but those stories made their eyes dance and everyone one of them came away better for the risk. Their regrets were at the trips not taken, the relationships not risked, the dreams never tried.
Do what scares you, do the thing you care enough about to be nervous about trying. Because you’ve got one short, glorious life and there’s nothing worse than not trying.