How I overcame fear

quicksandIt was 1998.  I was nearing the finish line for my graduate degree in counseling and I found myself in one of my last classes: “Clinical Diagnosis” (or something like that).  Each week class followed the same script.  The professor would start the class by popping in a tape (yes folks, a VHS tape) and on the screen would appear a patient who was suffering from some set  mental illnesses or issues.   Like grad school Jeopardy, our job would be to see who could diagnose the patient on the screen the quickest and most accurately.  From paranoid schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, I was a diagnosing rock star – the equivalent of the returning Jeopardy champ week after week (it didn’t hurt that I was working at an inpatient facility at the time).  Once the diagnosis was revealed to the class, we would dive deeper into that particular mental illness.  And every week, about the time the conversation would start to die down, Frank would slowly raise his hand.

“I’ve got that”

Frank was one of the older students in class.  In his mid-40’s, Frank always looked a bit unkempt.  His hair hadn’t seen a brush or barber in months and his clothes had the “I just got up from a 3 hour sweaty nap” look.  His fingernails were stained yellow from cigarettes and his legs were perpetually in motion as he sat.  He was a curious and nervous dude.  Eventually the professor’s gaze would fall on Frank’s raised hand.  Once Frank had secured the professor’s attention, he would matter-of-factly announce to the class, “I have that.”   It didn’t matter the week or illness, like clockwork, Frank would end every class period by adding one more illness to his growing collection.

Fear is like that.  We rarely have just one.  At points in my life, I’ve been like Frank.  I could raise my hand and say “I’ve got that.”  Here is just a sampling of the fears I’ve had in my life that I’ve worked through.

Fear of humiliation.  When I was 11 years old, I developed an uncontrollable stutter.  I could not speak in public without getting stuck and going into the stutter spiral.  Like a skipping CD (or broken record for you old-schoolers), it would go on for what seemed like an eternity, causing pain for the stutterer and everyone who was present.  Imagine if you knew you had this thing lurking, the last thing you would want is to have everyone’s attention on you.  Ordering a pepperoni pizza was no picnic.  For nearly a year, I would go to school early a few times a week to work with a speech therapist.  I was terrified of speaking in public.  After working through it, I became more comfortable.  But admittedly, it is still not my favorite thing to do.   It’s ironic that today I teach classes on communication to 700+ MBA students every year.

Some fears we can shrink so small that they fit in our pocket, but we still carry them with us wherever we go.

Fear of failing.  Admittedly, my high school and college days were less than impressive.  In high school, I typically slept through classes in the morning, ate two lunches and then took an afternoon nap to close out the day.  College wasn’t that much better.  I put forth the minimum effort required to pass.  In retrospect, I know what was going on.  I was afraid of failing.  I’m an “all in” kinda guy.  Deep down, I was afraid of putting forth 110% effort and having it not be good enough.  So, what’s the best way to stay on the sidelines?  Sleep a lot.  It wasn’t until I had the world’s worst boss that I discovered my purpose.  I had something compelling enough for me to face my fear and look it dead in the eye.  Today, I’m all-in in everything I do working to eliminate workplace dysfunction.

Fear of not knowing enough.  Fast forward.  I start my business and I’m coaching and consulting with companies that I know nothing about.  I started to wonder and worry.  What would my clients do if they knew how inexperienced I was?  What would they do if they knew how little I knew about their business?  Etc…  And then a mentor of mine looked me in the eye and said,

It is not about having the answer.  Everyone has a piece of the truth.  Understand that the value you bring is your perspectives, insights and ability to see things the client doesn’t see.  It isn’t about having the answer.

In that moment, my fear seemed to vanish.

big-dog-little-dogFear of being vulnerable.  Being vulnerable is never much fun.  I don’t know too many people that enjoy it but I do admire those who are comfortable with it.  My two big “vulnerability no-no’s” have been talking about personal tragedies in my life(my big bro killed himself when I was 10) and asking others for help.  I really don’t know what my hang-up was about these two other than I don’t want others to feel sorry for me.  I’ve been working on these two the last few years and ironically, they go hand in hand.  When others truly know you for who you are and what you’ve overcome, they feel compelled to help you.

Fear of hearing “no.”  Admittedly, I haven’t conquered this bad boy.  It is why I do not love doing business development and am an awful negotiator.  I’m working on it but it has been baby steps.  I’ll have to keep you posted on this one but I’m open to suggestions.

We really aren’t all that different from Frank.  We all have fears that we carry around with us.  Those fears can weigh us down and immobilize us or we can neatly tuck them in our pocket and continue on our journey.  The first step is to acknowledge what’s holding you back.

Maybe Frank was onto something.

What are you afraid of?

fear-256Fear.  We all have it.  It’s what keeps us from walking up to a fluffy black bear while on a hike and attempting to rub its adorable tummy.  But there is such a thing as too much fear.  Debilitating fear.

I believe we are in the middle of a fear epidemic.

It seems more and more of my friends, family, clients and colleagues have contracted this disease.  Good people, competent people, accomplished people that are paralyzed from taking the necessary first step towards the future that they want and they are meant for.  They sit as years pass.  Stuck.  Regardless of the role I’m playing with them: executive coach, professor, therapist, consultant, blogger, radio dude, parent, husband, friend, etc…  my focus is always the same: help them get unstuck and take the first step.  And yet, despite how easy and painless as I try to make the process, something always seems to be in their way.  Fear.  It causes paralysis inside its victim, but more importantly it spreads.  Only, fear is not like cancer.  It is exponentially worse.  Like cancer, it sits inside of us and eats until nothing is left.  Unlike cancer, fear is highly communicable.  It gets passed to friends in fear-riddled statements like “you can’t do that.”  It gets passed down to children in the form of overly anxious and controlling parents.  It gets passed down from insecure bosses that tell you that you aren’t good enough because, deep down, they believe that they aren’t.

If you want the life you’ve always dreamed of, the life you feel like you are meant for, you will have to look fear in the eye.

You can’t go around fear.  You can’t bury fear.  You can’t ignore fear.  If you try, it will simply feast on your soul.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Have you inadvertently contracted a debilitating case of fear?  Is fear holding you back?  Here are some of the most debilitating strains of fear that I’m seeing more and more.  Are any of these you or those closest to you?

The fear of acknowledging what you really want or need

This form of fear whispers into the victim’s soul that they can’t have what they truly want.  When someone is suffering from this fear, it exposes itself quickly.  When I present my magic crystal ball and ask the person to imagine their perfect life in 5 years, sufferers of this fear will respond to that seemingly innocent question with one of two statements:

Them: “I don’t know what I want or need in life.  I just don’t know.  That’s my problem.  Can you tell me the answer?”

Me: “I don’t believe you.  You are lying to me but more importantly you are lying to yourself.  The answer is inside of you.  Have the courage to listen, but more importantly the courage to claim it.”

OR

Them: “I’m good.  I don’t want or need anything.  Everything with me is perfectly perfect.” 

Me: “Really?  Your career is exactly where you want it to be?  Your relationships are golden?  You are living where you’ve always dreamed?  Liar.  Go sell that somewhere else.”

In an effort to protect themselves from that possible pain of disappointment, this fear convinces it sufferers to lie to themselves and to others in order to maintain a bubble of happiness.  The problem is that sufferers of this fear aren’t living happy lives.  They are often scared, anxious, judgmental, controlling, tired and dangerous.  This fear wants its sufferer to spread the mantra to others so they aren’t alone huddling in the corner.  Be careful.  This fear will try to get you to turn your back on your dreams.  

fakepeopleThe fear you’ll be found out

The impostor fear.  “If others find out who I really am, they’ll surely kick me out of here.”  This is one of the most common fears that emerges with accomplished working professionals.  It’s this idea that deep-down, we are still that young kid that doesn’t know what he or she is doing, only now we have 5 direct reports and a $3M budget.  “I sure hope no one finds out who I really am.”

This fear is easy to spot.  We often label these people as “too corporate” or “politicians.”  They seem plastic and phony in their interactions.  They fear authenticity because that would mean others would see who they really are, and they can’t have that.  Their fear won’t let them.  Instead, they dress, speak and interact in overly scripted ways.  This fear generates extreme self-judgment.  An important note about judgment: judgment is never one directional.   These individuals take out their fears on others by judging others, micromanaging direct reports, avoiding any type of “risky” assignments and sometimes decline promotions.  This fear will tell you not to be who you really are and to just stick to the script.  

The fear you won’t be liked, loved or accepted

This fear is all about giving oneself away in an effort to win friendship, love and acceptance.   While problematic in our professional lives, this fear is particularly troublesome in our personal lives.  Parents with this fear can’t tell their children “No” and ultimately raise selfish, rude and insecure human beings (Ex: Veruca Salt).  These sufferers have no boundaries.  They give themselves away freely to anyone who will ask.  They work extra-long hours at work.  They stay in unhealthy relationships too long.  They try to desperately rescue as many other people (and animals) as they possibly can because, by doing so, they feel needed and important.  I know when I’m dealing with someone suffering from this fear when I try to get them to set boundaries (Ex: “No, you can’t have spaghetti tonight for dinner.  We are having chicken…  No, I will not rescue another cat / dog…  No, I will not do your job for you.  That is your responsibility…  No, I will no longer tolerate your abuse.  Get counseling or we are done.”).  This fear hates boundaries.  When I propose setting boundaries to a sufferer of this fear, the person becomes angry, hostile and for a split second, I can see in their eyes the desire to leap across the table and kill me.  This fear will convince you that good people sacrifice themselves and never say “no.”  Guilt is its weapon.  Be on guard.  

What’s Fear Costing You?

Is fear standing in the way of what you truly want and need?  Do you know that deep down, you are meant for more, but you just can’t seem to take the first step?  Your first step is to ask yourself “what is fear costing you?”  Are you willing to pay that price?  I’m no stranger to fear. At times I’ve been paralyzed in my life, afraid to take that first step wondering if I had what it takes, wondering if I could stick to it, wondering and doubting until I took that first step.

Make no mistake, the road to realizing one’s dreams is littered with fear-consumed souls.  At its best fear is sneaky and paralyzing, but at its worst, fear takes lives.  In my family, we have had the misfortune of losing three relatives to suicide.  My oldest brother Chris was one of those, a casualty of fear.  Fear was too much for him and he succumbed. Fear kills.

Don’t let fear win.  Get courageous.  Look fear in the eye and take one step forward.

One step.

That’s all it takes.

 

 

 

How I scratched the “meant for more” itch

turtleIt was last Fall.  I was sitting in my office waiting with anticipation for my cellphone to ring. Over the past year, I had been running hard coaching, consulting, speaking, teaching, blogging and doing my radio gig. In a few short minutes, I was going to receive the phone call that represented the culmination of all of my hard work. I was going to have my very own TV show. We had already shot the sizzle reel (TV lingo for the three minute promo for the show) earlier in the year and the production company had been pitching it to networks for several months. In my mind, things were going to play out like this: First, a network exec would hear the pitch and almost instantly would have responded with, “Yes. We love it. And his hair is frickin’ awesome.  Let’s start production tomorrow.” After fighting off several equally interested networks, the production company would select the winner and would call me with the news.  And in a few short minutes I was going to receive that very call.  After graciously accepting my prize (a show), I was going to begin to move things around in my life to accommodate this new adventure. Soon, workplace dysfunction was going to be treated on every screen, from tablets to TVs, across the country.

But that’s not what happened.

The sizzle reel had fizzled.

As the next few months unfolded, I realized two important things about myself and how I had been operating. First, I had this persistent itch that I was “meant for more” than what I had been doing. Before you jump to conclusions, let me clarify what I mean by “meant for more.” I wasn’t saying I was unhappy with what I do.  Far from it.  I wanted to see how I could do it bigger.  And I wasn’t suggesting I was “meant for more money, more stuff, more fame, more glamour, etc…” I’m quite happy with the stuff that I’ve got (although my daughter would rather not share her bathroom with her two brothers, but that’s a whole other issue). It was a deeper sense that I was meant to play a bigger game than I had been playing. It was akin to feeling like I was roaming centerfield for some obscure minor league team in a one stoplight town knowing that I had the skills to play in the big leagues. Second, I realized I was doing this whole “meant for more” thing all wrong. I was sitting back waiting for some big thing to come find me. The reality was that the production company found me. I didn’t find them. It was the production company that was pitching me to the networks. Not me. I was simply sitting back sipping a cappuccino, waiting for them to bring me something wonderful.

I realized that’s not how “meant for more” is supposed to work. You can’t just wait for something big to come along and find you.

And when it does find you, you then conveniently move things around in your life to make space. I realized I have to make space first and then set out on a mission looking for that bigger thing. I set out to scratch the itch in a different way.

Make room in your life for something big to come

Last year was a whirlwind. Nearly every day was packed full with work. The first thing I set about doing was to clear space in my calendar for something big to nest. I immediately honed in on my relatively large teaching load across multiple MBA programs.  I realized if I took a step back from some of my teaching commitments in the Fall, I could pick up about 15 extra days. Done. Second, I took a harder look at the work I was saying “yes” to and I started to become much more discriminating. I don’t do stuff that I simply don’t like and I have raised my rates on the stuff that I was giving away too cheaply. That bought me back even more days. Finally, when folks want my advice or help but aren’t looking to hire me (in other words, they want a free workplace therapist), I still say yes. I just ask they either meet me at my favorite breakfast joint early or opt for a phone call during one of my commutes. The net effect? I’m thinking I’ve picked up at least 30 days of open space between now and the end of the year. Not too shabby.

Put your money where your mouth is

When the production company first broke the news that the sizzle reel fizzled, I asked them what the feedback was from the networks. Their response was simple. Since I’m not a “throw chairs” type of guy, the networks would have liked to have seen me on TV first. So, I get on TV when I get on TV? Riddle me that. I hired an awesome PR firm and with their help, I made several TV appearances on Fox and PBS this year. TV appearances. Check. I also realized my “Workplace Therapist” blog had serious room for improvements in making it more user friendly. Site upgraded. Check. Finally, I realized I needed to have a separate site that could communicate what I (and hopefully others) could provide for individuals and companies looking to eliminate workplace dysfunction and take their organizations to the next level of awesomeness. With the help of a fantastic consultant and my web master Kristen, The Worksmiths was born. Check. Bank account empty. Check.

Embrace other’s discomfort

Throughout this journey,some of my closest friends, surprisingly, have been vocally uncomfortable with my new plan.

Friends: “What? Are you sure you want to walk away from some of your teaching gigs this Fall? Isn’t that guaranteed income that you’re turning your back on?”

Me: “Yep. Yes it is and I’m sure this is what I want to do.”

Friends: “Do you have other work lined up?”

Me: “Nope. I sure don’t. That’s the point.  I’m trying to create space.”

fishWhen my friends first tried to talk me out of my plan, I began to question myself, and then it hit me. That’s what faith is all about. This isn’t my first faith rodeo. Nearly 10 years ago, when I was finishing up my MBA, I received a full-time offer from a prestigious consulting firm to join their human capital practice. Nationally, I was the first and only MBA they extended an offer to at the time. After much soul-searching, I turned down the offer and decided I would do my own thing. The news spread like wildfire in the business school.  Upon hearing the news, no one in the business school would talk to me for two weeks. Whatever it was that I had contracted, no one else wanted to risk picking up.  Turns out I had come down with a serious case of faith. Trust yourself and what you feel called to do. You are on the right track when others are uncomfortable.

Want to scratch your itch?

Feel like you are stuck in the bush leagues, playing a mean third base waiting to be discovered? Stop waiting. Make space in your life. Start putting some resources toward your plan and know that the more uncomfortable others get, the more you are on the right track.

Big isn’t for everyone. That’s why it’s big.

I’ve got a final recent turn in the story. Over the next month I shoot sizzle reel #2 with a different production company.  Through a series of events, we found each other. Turns out, big things do happen to those who don’t wait.

Space, effort and faith.

Get scratching.

 

“I’m meant for more”

meant-for-more-400I have to confess, I’m an itchy dude. As my kids will attest, dad is always looking for a good back scratch.  But my itchiness doesn’t stop with back scratches.  It seems like I’ve always got an itch that I am trying to scratch. Sometimes that itch is a feeling that I’m running out of time. Chalk it up to attending way too many funerals before I turned 10. Other times the itch is just a desire to do more of something that I seemed to only get just a taste.  And then sometimes the itch is more difficult to isolate. I can feel it but I can’t quite tell where it is and how to get at it.

Years ago I had knee surgery to repair a torn ligament I suffered playing basketball (an example of what happens when a non-athlete thinks he’s a champ). After the surgery, I had a bulky brace that I was instructed to wear for several weeks without removal (showers were a blast, let me tell you). As anyone who’s ever had a cast or a semi-permanent brace can attest, when you’ve got an itch underneath the thing, there is nothing worse (other than perhaps the smell when you finally do take it off. Whew.). All you want to do is scratch the itch but you are neither sure quite where it is nor how to reach it. Your anxiety spikes. You become fidgety. You shake. You wiggle. You yell out in frustration. You’ll do anything to get that feeling of discomfort to simply go away.

Sometimes we have those kinds of itches in life. The kind of itch that sits just under the surface that slowly and persistently needles us until we do something about it.

The itch prods, nudges and irritates. The problem is that we usually don’t know quite where it is or how to scratch it. All we know is that where we are in life is not where we want to be. The itch tells us that something is out of place, that this is not how it is supposed to be.  This is not how we are supposed to be. Maybe it’s the relationships we are in or the career we’ve chose? Maybe it is where we live? And sometimes it is what we are not doing that we should be that is the cause of the itch. Regardless of the reason, we know deep down that the itch is trying to tell us that we are meant for more. “But what?” is the question.

I got the itch last year.

On the surface, you would never have been able to tell. Things were rockin’ and rollin’. I was as busy as I had ever been and work was just coming. But something just didn’t feel right. Something was missing. While I enjoyed the work I was doing, it didn’t feel like I was making the progress I wanted to make on my mission and purpose to cure workplace dysfunction. I had an itch that I needed and wanted to scratch, but I didn’t know exactly where the itch was or how to scratch it. So what did I do?

Over the next month, I’m going to share with you my journey of scratching the “meant for more” itch. To get the itch to go away, I am doing some crazy things. Namely, the following:

  • Taking some big chances and walking away from guaranteed work
  • Depleting my savings to build something better for my mission
  • Learning how to ask for help
  • Working on myself and who I want and need to be

Will it be inspiring? I don’t know.

Entertaining? Probably. Watching others do potentially embarrassing things usually is.

A cautionary tale? Only time will tell.