Why Having Fear Is the Key to Living Courageously

Regardless of your background or circumstances, your desire for change will allow you to move in the direction you want to go. You can be the most risk-averse person on the planet, but you don't have to remain stuck. Stop fighting your fear.
03/12/2014 08:18am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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I am a product of war. Being a product of war means you are seriously messed up. You accept impermanence as the norm. Wait. Maybe, that's healthy. After all, everything of this world is transitory.

You have feelings of worthlessness. You have zero idea of home. You have poverty thoughts. You don't know what to do when your checking account hovers above $100 because you are used to living paycheck to paycheck. You feel a sense of alienation even when you belong to something (church) or someone (husband, lover).

You are intimate with every shade of fear. Some, you can easily talk yourself out of. Others are so crippling that you wake up quaking from it, and the only solace is to stay underneath the covers in order to make your world smaller and more manageable.

When you are uprooted or have no roots to speak of, you start craving the thing called stability and security and safety. I bring this up because my childhood background does not lend itself to fostering fearlessness or risk-taking, which is the main topic of this article.

My parents weren't Antarctic explorers, professional athletes, bohemians or other types one imagines fearless people are birthed. Though I'm biased and think of them as extraordinary, my parents are ordinary people who, when it mattered, showed deep courage and conviction in starting over. Inside a refugee camp, they put their past behind them (Laos), they lived in the present and kept one eye on the future (America) -- and by doing so, they have few regrets.

But my parents did not encourage risk-taking.

The message of my childhood was "play it safe." Keep your nose clean. Don't rock the boat. And I took these messages with me throughout my adult life. Sure, there were smatterings of small rebellions that surfaced from time to time. Like taking off on a solo road trip with something less than $300 in my pocket to look for work in TV. Moving to an out-of-state college before having money to pay for tuition and a place to stay. But each time I stepped out, there was someone or something that tempered it.

That's when I started keeping journals. I kept journals for the practical reason that it helped me unload the brain junk. One day I sat down and read each one of them. I scribbled the main points of my life down on an index card, challenged myself to see patterns. Ten years of my life condensed to a few index cards. If that wasn't the most humbling experience. And the most enlighten.

From this simple exercise, I saw unhealthy patterns in my relationships and career. When I was employed, I neglected my health and personal relationships. When I was without a job, I saw how I devalued myself as a person. Clearly, I was someone who over-identified with her work. My self-worth and self-esteem were very much tied to my making a living. Who I am was the same as what I do.

In both my professional and personal life, I saw how when one ended, I was eager to jump into a new one, thinking it will be different. But it is the same relationship because you are bringing your old self into it.

In recognizing the patterns, I saw two common threads. One was that I used fear to rationalize my remaining stuck. Two, I viewed fear as the enemy that was preventing me from living the life I wanted. And since I was so convinced that fear was the enemy, I looked for ways to annihilate every shred of fear in me. I began to despise my own vulnerability, something I see as weakness in myself.

Is this how you've been looking at fear? If so, you are looking at it all wrong.

After reading Laird Hamilton's book A Force Of Nature: Mind, Body, Soul (and, Of Course, Surfing), I never saw fear the same way again. If you are unfamiliar with the author, Hamilton is a legendary big wave surfer. He's credited with revolutionizing the world of surfing with a method called tow-in surfing that allows surfers to get closer to giant waves.

Hamilton views fear as a useful energy rather than a destructive emotion.

"Forget your emotions around fear for a second and look at the simple reality: It's an energy source designed to increase performance."

The trick is learning how to harness it. By mastering this technique, Hamilton said it helped him derive at peak performance. In fact, he went so far as to say that it gave him power.

Adrenaline and the natural hormones your body create when you're scared are more powerful than any drug. Once you start to understand fear, it becomes something you can tap into. In my experience, fear usually prompts me to make really good decisions. I'd even go so far as to say that it gives me power.

Every time you compete in a game, speak in front of an audience or go on an interview, wasn't there a part of you that was afraid? I was. Every. Time.

But the thing that set me apart was that I wanted it more than the other guy. That's my one secret to stop being afraid. In order to succeed, your desire has to be greater than your fear.

Regardless of your background or circumstances, your desire for change will allow you to move in the direction you want to go. You can be the most risk-averse person on the planet, but you don't have to remain stuck. Stop fighting your fear. Stop seeing it as an enemy or a paralyzing emotion. See fear as simply energy, a nervous anticipation for greater things to come.