Correcting the Course of Fear

Today's a big day for me, the culmination of over six years of work: the publication of my memoir. I wrote Course Correction with the intention that, if there's someone out there who's stuck the way I was when I was a young person, I may change the trajectory of their thinking.

I was horribly lonely for a long time, from my pre-teen years throughout my 20's. I wasn't lonely because I was unpopular, although I wasn't exactly Ms. Charisma, that's for sure. I felt really isolated from other people, unable to share much of my personal experience, to confess my hopes and dreams, cop to my failures, anything. Why? Because I was afraid, plagued by self-doubt. Fear dominated so much of my thinking and shaped my world view in those years so extensively that I could not open up to anyone and talk authentically about much of anything.

A near-tragedy in my family introduced me to fear of the future, when my mother almost died. She was forever changed by her experience, permanently changing our family's dynamic. Often distant, her unpredictable moods dictated the tenor of our household. I had always taken her solid presence in my life as a given; when that presence disappeared overnight, the bottom seemed to drop out of my life. Suddenly, the future seemed unpredictable and dangerous.

To compound matters, I viewed my fear as evidence that I was a wimp, incapable of toughness, of measuring up, of getting the job done, whatever it might be. I felt I needed to look the part of successful, even if I was anything but, and in my universe success and fear lived on different planets, if not galaxies. My fear kept me distant at a time when connection would've made a huge difference.

Of course, like many others, my family was shaped by change, by people who deliberately sought it. My grandmother's parents traveled north from Summit, Mississippi early in the 20th century, cotton brokers looking for opportunity, and freedom from the South's anti-Semitism. Thirty years later, in another move to escape discrimination, my grandfather changed the family's last name from Goldsticker to Gilder when my dad was eight years old. My mom emigrated from Sweden in her early twenties, seeking escape from an abusive father and a predictable, boring future. My father married her partly because he was looking for adventure, someone different.

My father's desire for something new gained expression in his choice of career. He became a growth investor, buying and selling stocks in the public markets. Looking for young companies with dynamic leaders, he bought their stock before they became blockbuster success stories. He told me time and again: Do what you love. Besides telling me, he lived that way. We took road trips to test the merchandise of the companies he was excited about: eating meals at Denny's, buying donuts at Dunkin' Donuts, two of his favorite companies in the early 1970's. When I came to kiss him goodnight, he'd pat the cushion next to him and invite me to read the prospectus of whatever company he was researching. His absorption and fascination with his work impressed me.

My father also talked a lot about the importance of being "pro-growth," as he characterized it. He stressed the importance of pursuing challenge and continuously learning. "Don't stand still," he would say. "You have to keep growing."

I absorbed my father's words and example without question. I didn't think to ask what growth would require, and he didn't think to say. I didn't realize growth cannot occur without change; that changing anything requires stepping into the unknown; that approaching the unknown is risky business. I also didn't understand that apprehension, anxiety, doubt, fear, call it what you will, is a natural companion to risk.

Of course it seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn't consider that the painful change my family had suffered through could resemble some of the characteristics accompanying growth. Nor did I wonder whether finding a job I loved would be hard or require tradeoffs. I didn't realize my father's exhortations to pursue growth and my desire to follow his advice would set me up to confront my fear of change and disaster repeatedly. I simply had no idea what I didn't know.

My father never talked about fear. He never acted afraid or confessed to any doubt. He didn't talk to me about the risks he confronted in his business, the ones he considered when deciding whether or not to invest in a company, nor did he ever mention anything personal. As a result, I didn't realize that fear is part of growth, an important one. When I started contending with my own self-doubts and apprehension, I took those feelings as evidence of failure and had to fight off the near-constant sense of impending doom my fear imposed on me.

I have fought with my fear for a long time now. For some reason, it loves to hog the driver's seat of my life, especially when big decisions loom. Left to its devices, I would huddle in the passenger seat, slumped against the door, watching it steer me away from anything remotely risky.

Most recently, I have helped develop a new business designed to extend both the reach and the brand of the Seattle Storm, a WNBA team I co-own with my two partners. Force 10 Performance, the best affordable, multi-sport, community-based training center, just opened in Redmond, WA after several years of research and development. It's designed to help athletes of all ages and abilities develop their core conditioning and strength-building, thereby expanding access to the transformative power of sports to anyone who views themselves as an athlete.

The vision behind the business is completely aligned with my lifelong determination to expand access to opportunity; it couldn't be a more perfect fit. Nonetheless, I have battled my fear the entire way, starting when I was conducting research, searching for the right location, inveigling my Storm partners to take a chance and co-invest in this new venture, negotiating for a long-term lease, and spending big money to realize this dream, until today, when the doors are open and athletes are discovering Force 10 Performance. I had to talk myself away from the naysayer cliff so many times, as I panicked about the possibility of the business' failure, losing my partners' money, making an utter fool of myself for having ventured into a new field with minimal experience, and disappointing my supporters with a public humiliation.

Every day the fear tried to grab the wheel, warning me of imminent disaster, I'd elbow it back with one retort or another.

"What else are you going to do with your money," I reasoned with myself. "Doesn't this venture align 100% with your core purpose?" I'd challenge. "You can always move to Siberia, or the Midwest, where no one knows you if it goes up in flames." I soothed myself. "What's the worst thing that can happen?" I even tried logic.

I wish I could say it's no longer a day by day battle to refute my fear, but that's not true. But the routine is familiar now, and I'm quicker to engage.

Now I know:
1) Fear is not the antithesis of courage
2) It is proof that you are alive and growing
3) It often accompanies risk-taking, which is a vital part of growth.

Given that we're all different, we perceive risk differently, and react differently to risk. Not everyone experiences self-doubt, anxiety, or apprehension when they're attempting something outside their comfort zone. Sometimes, I swear, I really envy those people. And different people identify different types of challenges as risky. Depending on the circumstance, a person could face an intellectual risk, or a physical, financial, emotional, or social one, each carrying its own unique promise of painful consequences in the event of failure.

My biggest takeaway, after all these years, is that when my self-doubt or apprehension starts plaguing me, it's time to grow; risk is lurking close by, take a deep breath, 'cause--it's time to get going.