The Other Side of Fear

“It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer in than we could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that that step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more complicated, our identities equally clouded by fear and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.”

– David Whyte

Our tenacity gets us where we need to go when we have a big thing to do that we know is right, and is hard, and worth it. It gets us past the edges that threaten to stop us from moving through thresholds of new experiences via an openness and curiosity that leads us to the other side of fear, where we find ourselves and all that we’ve got.

In my undergraduate days back at Montana State University, I had a quote scrawled on a large index card taped to my bedroom door which said in sharpie: Run Towards the Volcano. It was a line from one of my horoscopes that stuck with me. The message was to move towards the thing that scares you, versus turn away, and see what’s there. This became a bit of a mantra for my then 20-some-year-old-self as I began to do new things and push the edges of my comfort zone. But mostly, it was a reminder to not retreat from my fears. (Unless, of course, it was a grizzly bear, and I was in the woods–I was in Montana after all.)

I began to notice what scared me, how it would scare me, and then I’d learn to decipher how best to pay attention to that fear. I lived by the motto: If it scares you, you should probably do it. All of this made the shy part of me want to run for cover. This motto applied to many things– from gnarly outdoor adventures, to a year of learning tango, to taking an improv course, to using my voice when I had something to say. The “saying the things” was always the hardest edge to lean into for me. It still is. 

Run towards the volcano became my inspo-image for leaning into the fears that make me want to stop and retreat. What happens while “running towards the volcano” is what’s on the other side of fear: I found more of me. 

Each time I leaned into the vulnerable feeling at the edge of fear (once I got past the impulse to sit on a couch, kvetch to my roommates, and eat carbs to self-soothe the stress of thinking of being vulnerable), I crossed the threshold of added capacity. Each edge was the edge between the known and the unknown. I willingly ventured into terra incognita with everything I had, a cute pair of shoes, and some well-learned tools in my quiver (not all of which I needed, but there just in case). Each time I stood in the vulnerability of not knowing where I was, or what I was doing, or what was next, I met more of me as more of me showed up. In the process, I always surprised myself.

It’s as if in crossing the threshold, I grew. I gained added capacity and confidence and was less afraid of things. This strength felt like a new muscle that supported me each new day, and each new encounter with life. Neurologically, what was happening was moving out of fear by way of curiosity, and getting the neurochemical reward for doing so along with satisfaction, pride, and gratitude to be alive, still. Thereby adding some myelination to ‘all the more’ confidence in myself. As I found more and more of myself, I could recognize the firmness of what that felt like, even when things felt groundless. I had the solid ground of my very self as my foundation to stand on. 

Jules Pieri, author of How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses, talks about her definition of tenacity in this podcast conversation with Jerry. She defines tenacity as identifying the fear that stops you, and allowing the higher part of your brain function to work with the fear so that you move forward anyway. As entrepreneurs and artists in the maker space, and most humans endeavoring to go after something they value or desire, tenacity is exercised daily (or moment by moment). 

Tenacity is perhaps one of the most important muscles to strengthen. When things get hard or fears fill you with clouds of self-doubt and inadequacy, tenacity is built when you keep re-investing in your product, your team, your company, your work, your partnership, your marriage, or your life even when part of you would rather disengage.  

Bringing a dream into the world, or a product to the marketplace, has a big learning-and-living-through-it curve that calls for a hearty dose of stick-with-it-tude. I spent the early part of my post-masters’ degree “real-world” working life helping a wide range of people bring their products and services to the world via their online platform before the internet made doing so as easy as it is these days. For many of my artist friends, this part of the process was daunting. Creating the thing was where their energy sang. The hardpoints of actually bringing a new creation into the world, into a market, bound for success to connect with the folks who most needed it, brought up the new edges along the execution learning curve. And, a lot of feelings. 

As David Whyte notes: “It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer in than we could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that that step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more complicated, our identities equally clouded by fear and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.”

Where has passion and aliveness been squelched by fear in your life? What’s waiting for you on the other side? What possibility is lying dormant in yourself, waiting to meet you there? Where can you find your curiosity and longing towards and within life so that you can re-invest where and when needed?