Fear as Water, Fear as Fuel

It was the spring of 2006, and like all procrastinating seniors in high school, I nervously thumbed through college pamphlets. I was on the hunt for the perfect college. For me, perfect meant “good enough” for someone with “okay” SAT scores, “okay” grades, and “okay” extracurriculars. Oh, and it had to be as far away as possible from the terribly provincial New Jersey town I was cursed enough to reside in.

I caught a glimpse of Penn State’s lush campus in the pile of pamphlets. Penn State sounded like a good school because I had a ratty, old Penn State sweatshirt. It was also tucked far away in the boonies. Maybe that was too far and they wouldn’t accept me, anyway.

“Perhaps I’m more of a high brow girl…,” I thought. Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale were reasonable choices for a now-decidedly-bourgeois gal like myself. That didn’t matter though, because I was certain my SAT scores weren’t good enough. I “knew” I’d totally get rejected.

Never mind that I took the SATs the first year they introduced the new scoring system and scored in the high 80 percentile. My grade point average was 3.75. I participated in art, drama, marching band, and choir. And by luck of the genetic card game, I’m black and female.

My story was that I wasn’t good enough to get into my chosen colleges and I was too afraid to try. At the tender age of 17, I allowed fear and internal chatter to extinguish any passion for what I wanted out of life.

Fast forward to now, and I’m a much different person. I’ve reprogrammed my skewed “not good enough because I’m afraid” story into something more positive, though not all of it. And drawing upon countless, intimate conversations with friends and strangers, that seems to be the case for a lot of us.

For me, my current skewed story is that I want to become a thought leader in design thinking but I’m afraid I’m not a “good enough” designer. And with that, I get a lot of chatter:

“Wow. Who are you? You’re no Paula Scher! People will laugh at you!”

See, that chatter is where it gets ugly. It’s easy to use that chatter as an excuse to judge and accuse any poor, unsuspecting prey for your confused thoughts and your perceived current failures.

“Ugh, that dude is wearing too much Axe deodorant. He probably thinks my design/code/business idea/app/whatever sucks! I hate him and his pressed suit!!!” or “I’m stuck because you/my mom/my significant other/my family won’t believe in me!”

I suppose those thoughts provide temporary relief. In the end, they strip you of your volition while placing the power in someone else’s hands. You end up living a life of self-fulfilling “if onlys” all because you indulged in the ugly side of your fears. Oh, and those people ruining your life? They don’t even know that they’re doing it to you! That’s the worst part!

So we agree that chatter sucks and that it should be ignored. You’re not crazy. I’m not crazy. We’re just afraid. And that’s normal.

Keep in mind, you will always feel fear. It will never go away. Will you choose to use that fear as water to extinguish your dreams or as fuel to further ignite your passions?

Today, myself included, is the day we take steps change that. I’m asking you to stand up and take responsibility.