02/23/2015 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Not to Hang on for Dear Life


What stops you? I've found that my answers to that question fall into one of two categories: I'm afraid of failing, or I don't care enough to push through whatever discomfort may be involved to reach my goal. Yes, of course there are always several logistical obstacles lurking that can upend my best-laid plans, but I'd assert that solving them (usually requiring some combination of time and money) or not solving them is a function of how much I care. The less I care, the more I fall back on blaming those logistical challenges for not moving forward. The more I care, the more quickly I figure out how to address these hurdles. I've found that if I really want something badly enough, I'll lumber up off the couch and get going. If not, the excuses stream through my mind like a river flooded with ice melt in the spring. I'm not suggesting that success always follows action, but I do guarantee it is never the consequence of inaction.

The question of whether I care about something enough to move into action is usually fairly easy for me to answer. The matter of whether fear of failure is driving my decision-making is harder for me to cop to. After all, who likes to acknowledge it when fear runs her life? 2015-02-20-2.jpg

I've spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks contemplating what stops me. I've been skiing in Colorado for more consecutive days than I ever have before. I am not one of those people who learned to ski as I learned to walk (that would be my wife, unfortunately, as she approaches any ski run with the aplomb of someone who doesn't know fear). Nope, I learned to ski around age 40. That's an enormous disadvantage, being old enough not only to know how illogical and dangerous throwing oneself down a mountain is, but to have a more brittle body that's less forgiving when confronted with both the idea and reality of falling on one's face.


Every day for nearly two weeks the first run of the day has greeted me with the same task: to propel myself down a steep incline head first. Initiating the descent is the only way to unleash the fun that skiing is supposed to offer up. Progressing down any hill or mountain requires going head first at least some of the time, repeatedly in fact, as every time you turn, your skis have to point directly downhill for at least an instant or two. Skiing is so damn counter-intuitive. Everything your sane self tries to tell your crazy self -- the one that clicked you into the skis in the first place -- about technique is absolutely wrong: lean back into the hill; keep those boards on your feet perpendicular to the hill; maintain your weight on your heels; and once you get going, do NOT allow yourself to pick up any speed. Listen to those directions, and you will end up either frozen and stuck or constantly falling and cursing.

Learning to ski well forces you to ignore/overpower that voice in your head that preaches sanity and safety. Over and over and over. That's why it's such a fabulous metaphor for life. Fear of failure masquerades as sanity in pretty much every domain that humans have invented. When I hear the voice inside my head start to catalogue the reasons I shouldn't attempt something I've dreamed up, it sounds so calm and rational, so reasoned and experienced, that I find myself soothed into agreement before I realize the price I'll pay if I buy its message: the most boring, unchallenging, drip of an existence ever. Risk free, devoid of the opportunity to grow, and, worst of all, devoid of any chance to make an impact.

Fortunately, I've trained myself to deal with my fear as the opponent it is. If I yield to it, I pretty much guarantee that whatever aspiration I've been contemplating will die an unrequited death. I have become what others may characterize as a courageous person, although I know, given the chatter in my head, how untrue that is. I wasn't born to ignore my fear, but I have trained myself to recognize its appearance and symptoms, to consider the consequences of honoring it, and finally to act in concert with my aspirations. Despite having written many pages on this topic, I have repeated this cycle for decades now, and the process is rarely rapid or painless.

I am not particularly brave. But, after all these years, I know when to listen to my internal dialogue, and when to ignore it. I have built the muscles needed to defy my fear of failure. My fear's attempts to nudge me away from the steeps and redirect me to a safer path may be unrelenting, but I will do all I can to keep my skis strapped on and pointed down, however uncertain the direction and hairy the turns. "No guts, no glory." Trite, yes, and true too.