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Embracing Discomfort -- What it means to Be Fearless

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Fear less, hope more, eat less, chew more, whine less, breathe more, talk less, say more, love more, and all good things will be yours. ~ Swedish Proverb

At some point over the last few years, I started thinking about fear. This isn't the scary movie, dark and rainy knock at the door fear. This is the fear that slowly stirs you out of bed in the middle of the night, the fear that speaks quietly and reminds you of the most essential parts of you. It's the fear that holds you back from being everything you ever dreamed you could be in this lifetime, your best and highest self in work, in love and in life.

I started thinking about this kind of fear during a time where I'd had a few personal and professional wins and just as many set backs. For awhile I just observed, but then I started realizing everything I wanted in life was just on the other side of comfort.

So when AOL, my employer, bought Huffington Post this past January and Arianna Huffington gave out her book internally, On Becoming Fearless, I took it as a sign that perhaps I was supposed to start getting a little more vocal on living fearless. What qualifies me to write about this? No more than life experience. I am a professional, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. I don't have a PhD in Courage from a top school on this topic. I just believe that everything I want in life lies in being slightly uncomfortable.

I read On Becoming Fearless over the summer and was struck by the raw, emotional and authentic voice that ran throughout. Huffington raises every fear I'd personally experienced or witnessed in others: fear of one's body, of loving, of parenting, of working and leadership, of money, of illness and death. I started to realize that my greatest moments were when I was most afraid; when I finally got quiet enough to listen to my thoughts and then act on them, when I was really tight on money and had to get industrious to power through, when I was in labor with an emergency C section, petrified that the pain might never end and that I or my child might die. Huffington captures this so well and though she writes from the perspective of a woman, her view of fearless work and parenting makes the topic distinctly universal.

After reading the book, I started seeing examples of fearlessness everywhere I went. Simple case in point: I ride my bike to work many mornings. The bike path along the water on the west side of Manhattan teems with riders every morning and it's not for the faint of heart. While it isn't the Tour De France, most riders are moving at a fast clip. I saw a man the other morning who struck me as fearless... he was riding the path but was in a wheel chair. No helmet or protection -- just keeping up and wheeling swiftly along with the crowd. As I rode along side him, I wondered if he was angry, or frustrated or sad or afraid that his "bike" was a chair. If he was, he was riding through it, focused on achieving his goal. He was fearless and he immediately commanded my respect.

Fearlessness comes in many forms -- acts of courage every day in what we strive to achieve physically, mentally, emotionally. Many of use are so caught up in our own existence that we never see it in others but if you stop and look around you'll see it. It's the mid-level manager who finally decides to voice a strategy-changing opinion, the triathlete who was never a swimmer and competes in the open water, it's the person whose life is moving along nicely and is suddenly diagnosed with a life-altering disease, and it's the single mom who struggles to go back to school in order to take better care of her children.

In On Becoming Fearless, Arianna tells us of the fears she has had to overcome in order to achieve her success. And she also does an incredible job of having other people share their own vulnerabilities of living fearless. One of the personal stories that truly struck me was that of documentary film producer, Kathy Eldon. In 1993, Kathy's son Dan was stoned to death by an angry mob as he was photographing the site of a US bombing in Somalia. Her story had me sobbing on a cross-country flight. As a mother with young children, it is my greatest fear (as it is with many parents) that something will happen to my children. Kathy had parented Dan to follow the message of the Oracle at Delphi to 'know thyself' and to seek his own truth and follow it -- no matter what. Thus, she supported and encouraged him to become a photographer. Her story is two and a half pages of such complex emotions of grief and guilt that it catches you by surprise. What also catches you by surprise is her healing. This, I think is truly fearless because healing requires a surrender (which I am personally terrible at...). She quotes Gandhi, "we must be the change we wish to see in the world" as an inspiration for her path to becoming fearless.

Since I finished reading the book this summer, a few well known fearless people have died including legend Steve Jobs (whose lack of fear I will write about in another post) and less well known but still highly influential Jennifer Goodman Linn. Jen was a friend of friend, a Harvard MBA and professional whirlwind, a 6x cancer survivor and creator of Cycle for Survival. Her blog, You Fearless, is just a taste of how Jen showed up in life. She, like the other women in Huffington's book, share so much of the same spirit. Though often in pain, she grew Cycle to Survival to an organization that has raised over $9M for cancer research.

So I ask, in the name of living to your fullest potential emotionally, mentally and physically, what would make you uncomfortable today? Is it contacting that key professional connection, climbing that mountain, taking a moment to stop and tell someone how much you love them? That's what I've started to ask myself each morning. Collins World English Dictionary lists thirteen definitions for fear including 'to be afraid', 'dread', 'to revere and respect'. Most of the thirteen fall in to the traditional understanding of how we explain fear, except one: to be sorry.

What about you? What will you be sorry for if you can't get fearless?