On our end-of summer family vacation to San Francisco, my husband Michael and I were delighted to spend quality time with our adventurous West Coast cousins, we were enchanted by the snap-fresh organic produce at the Ferry Terminal Farmer’s Market, and felt mesmerized by the gigantic Redwood trees at Muir Woods. It was an abundant blessing of family, food and forestry.
Despite this bountiful feast for the heart, belly and eyes, our nine year old twins had an entirely different favorite from the trip: Alcatraz. They had been looking forward to visiting the infamous island prison ever since they had seen it featured on a children’s show about haunted buildings. For months, they had been talking about walking its dank corridors, standing in its creepy solitary confinement units, and, if all worked out as they hoped, having a hair-raising close encounter with the undead.
In other words, they couldn’t wait to be scared stiff. Their goal was goosebumps.
As I witnessed my kids experience both the glee and the fear of this historic locale, I realized that they approached Alcatraz in stark contrast to how most grownups I know approach life.
While the two of them peered around the jail’s cracked corners eagerly awaiting whatever shock, surprise, or specter might appear, too many of us run from the unknown rather than gallop towards it. We cower in the corners of our lives, watching giant opportunities and novel challenges pass us by because we’re too scared to come out and play a bigger game in work and life. And while nobody wants to set themselves up for certain, epic failure, the fear of the unknown seems more daunting than risking something or anything in pursuit of a better tomorrow.
I should know: I scare myself for a living. I have been a professional public speaker for the past 21 years, and when I teach presentation skills in corporate settings, I like to share my favorite Mark Twain quotation: "There are two kind of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars."
I include myself – despite decades of training and experience – in the first category. Every single time I give a new presentation to a new audience or on a new topic, I experience some degree of fear. What if I mess this up? What if they figure out that I don’t know what I’m talking about? Or the worst: What if they don’t laugh at my jokes?
Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, "If fear of public speaking is the #1 fear, and fear of death is the #2 fear, doesn’t that mean that people at a funeral would rather be the guy in the coffin than the person giving the eulogy?" Clearly, that’s not me. I do love my job, both the challenge and the novelty. And the goosebumps are part of the package.
This fall, I have the chance to kick the chill and thrill of public speaking up a few notches. In November, I will be heading to Beijing as a visiting Professor of Executive Communications at the Beijing International MBA Program at Peking University, China. Giving 24 presentations in 30 days is daunting. Doing this for an international audience is even more intimidating. Living without my family for a month is the scariest part. And I’m going anyway -despite and because of the fear factor.
Happily, only one part of my job is about scaring myself. The other part is about scaring others. I’m like the anti-Ghostbuster: I’m hired to help my people tolerate and explore their fear rather than zap it at the source.
There is method to my madness and madness to my method: We distinguish between the real, useful and beneficial fears that serve a positive purpose from the ghost stories – the tales we’ve told ourselves over the years to scare us into limiting our hopes and dreams. Of course, I don’t encourage people to put their lives or livelihoods at peril, but I do champion my clients as they risk new behaviors, activities, attitudes and expectations that will take them someplace new. In the wise words of David Ben-Gurion, "Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared."
Goosebumps are one of my qualitative evaluation tools: Does thinking about making this change (e.g. a new career, committing to a romantic relationship, rewriting your organization’s mission, soliciting a major philanthropic gift, confronting a toxic coworker) make your heart pound? Make you queasy? Make you want to run away? Good. Let’s get started.
It’s a New Year. Are you, your team or your organization ready to take on something that gives you goosebumps?
Ask yourself or your team the following 10 questions:
1. What do you really, truly want that you don’t have yet?
2. What’s important to you about achieving that?
3. What scares you the most about going for it?
4. What’s the best thing that could happen to you if achieved this?
5. What’s the best thing that could happen if you tried to achieve it and failed?
6. What "ghost stories" are you telling yourself to keep the old way of doing this alive?
7. What feels too frightening to risk?
8. What feels too frightening not to risk?
9. Who else needs to be on board?
10. What’s it going to take to get you going on this?
Wishing you a (goose)bumpy New Year!
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at www.myjewishcoach.com or www.elevatedtraining.com.