I had a moment of clarity, last weekend as I flew from Portland to San Jose, CA to attend my 20 year high school reunion. It started when I began thinking about what the event really represented. 20 years! 20 years? I was 17 when I graduated from high school, which means that I’m more than twice as old as I was that June afternoon in 1991, when they handed me my ‘ticket to freedom’.
As I thought back to that time in my life, it struck me how much I had to learn, though, at the time, I was sure I knew it all. The summer after graduation is still a blur, but I do remember dreaming and thinking about all that I wanted to do in life, what I wanted to learn and to experience. I remember feeling like the world was mine to conquer. If only I had had the wisdom of an older me to warn me of the challenges I was to face, and to prepare me for the obstacles and heartbreaks I now know were part of life.
I started thinking and decided that I wanted to try to document the lessons I’ve picked up over the past 20 years. What would I tell that younger me? There really is so much… much more than I can fit in one post. So I’m going to begin a series, “Advice to a younger me…”, about the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, in the spirit of Gretchen Rubin’s “Secrets of Adulthood” from The Happiness Project. This way, I can give myself some space to explore and share where the lessons come from and how they’ve impacted me over time.
Please feel free to comment with thoughts about your life lessons or to suggest any I should add to the list. The lessons are in no particular order other than that in which they came to me as I created the list. It may be safe to say that the most important are always top of mind, so Lesson #1 is surely somewhere in my Top 3.
Lesson #1: “Fear is good. Face it!”
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.” -Nelson Mandela
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Thinking back to that summer of 91, I would say there were so many things that I was afraid of, many of which I didn’t even know, at the time. To begin with, until I boarded the plane to Boston, MA, in August of that year, I had never traveled alone. This meant that to take that very first step onto the American Airlines flight from San Jose to Boston, I had to summon up some serious grown-up courage pretty early. And for the most part, it was all a sham. I think this lesson comes first because very soon after that first flight, I began to recognize that when I faced my fears head on, I became more confident and in turn more willing to do things that, well, were downright scary.
I would say that the biggest fear I ever faced in my life, was my fear of public speaking, which manifested itself through a panic attack I suffered while delivering a speech to my university capstone class, in the fall of my senior year of college. Until that point, I had never had a panic attack and quite frankly had no idea what it was. Throughout my presentation, I remember the dialogue in my head going something like this…”I’m going to die. What is happening? Must be a heart attack. Oh no, I’m going to die!”
Isn’t it funny the moments we remember, so vividly? It’s during these moments that we are given the opportunity for growth. I am convinced the moment I had that first anxiety attack, was a turning point in my life, because it put me on a mission to face that fear head on. Because, I could no sooner see myself continuing in life without speaking in public, than I could imagine living without eating. It was not a question of if, it was a question of how. And it was my responsibility to figure out the how.
What I soon came to realize was that this fear was not one I could conquer easily. True phobias, I’ve learned, are subconscious, meaning they induce a physiological response to a stimulus. In other words, I couldn’t think my way out of this fear. So I began a multi-year effort to give myself as many opportunities to speak in public, as possible. I registered for a graduate course on delivering speeches, I joined the student government, as a Senator for the College of Engineering, a position which was often vacant (I know, shocker: not a lot of engineers campaigning for a chance to speak to and for others…), I even wrote and delivered a speech to an audience of ~4,000 of my graduating classmates and families. While the anxiety didn’t go away immediately, delivering speeches and presentations over time, began to become bearable. And what kept me going, was the satisfaction I felt, each and every time I stood in front of an audience, felt that fear… and, well, did it anyway.
It’s possible that this lesson is most important to me because the process I went through to learn it defined a large part of my career. Or perhaps because it required so much of my effort to overcome. But it is true that I now deliver between 50-60 presentations a year which is a pretty healthy portion of my professional life. If I had accepted my fear of speaking and moved on to other things, who knows what I’d be doing, now.
What fear have you faced, and how has it impacted your life?
Tomorrow, I’ll share Lesson #2… stay tuned!