Leave no fear unanswered


Over the weekend, I did one of my least favorite seasonal things: climbing up onto the roof of the house and cleaning out the gutters. The reason why this task is among my least favorite isn’t because it’s cleaning (which is admittedly boring most of the time), but because it requires me to face one of the fears I’ve had since I was a child, a fear of heights.

My earliest memory of this fear was when I was 5 or 6 years old, visiting a local amusement park. I climbed up a set of cargo nets at the park, and got high enough that I was probably 30 feet off the ground when I slipped. Being cargo nets, I got tangled up almost immediately and didn’t even truly fall, but that was enough to make a negative impression on me about heights.

During my brown belt test in 1999, I took a different kind of fall, dislocating a shoulder on a rock from leaping over a practice sword. After 7 weeks in a sling and another 8 weeks of rehabilitation, I was physically back to normal, but mentally I wasn’t. I had grown fearful of the set of techniques needed to successfully handle that part of the test, and I failed the second time around on that test for that very reason.

One of my instructors, Ken Savage, took me aside and said that unless I answered that fear, unless I tackled it head on, it would continue to grow on me and gain power. So for the next 3 months, I subjected myself to all manner of dive rolling and other sword evasions until that fear lost its grip over me. Before my next test, I drove out to the woods where I took my first brown belt test with a shovel and dug the rock out of the ground, then brought it with me to my third and successful brown belt test.

That technique – the technique of challenging and answering your fears – is one of the greatest benefits I’ve gained from martial arts training over the years. It’s little more than putting yourself willingly against your fears, defeating them over and over again, until the grip they hold lessens. They never go away, but they do lose their power and don’t regain it as long as you choose to not allow them to. That’s one of the greatest secrets of success I’ve ever received: leave no fear unanswered.

That’s why every spring and fall, I’m up on a ladder and clambering across the rooftop, scraping out the leaves. It’s not fun, and my fear of heights speaks loudly to me when I’m up there, but I answer that fear with quiet defiance, one handful of soggy leaves at a time. When I set foot on the ground after I’m done, I stand over my fears once more.

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The problem with swinging for the fences

MASFAA Closing Ceremonies at Fenway Park

Here are two conflicting sets of perspectives.

On the one hand, there’s an argument to be made for self actualization.

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that the “bugger it all, I’m swinging for the fences” is dangerously unrealistic.

Believe it or not, these two extremes are not mutually exclusive. How do you reconcile them? I take inspiration from one of my teachers, Ken Savage, who says frequently to us in the martial arts: don’t reach for what isn’t there.

When I was testing for my brown belt long ago, I thought I was a lot better than I actually was. That overconfidence got me injured fairly badly, and it took me two more tries to pass that test, once to overcome fear of re-injury, and one last time to break my beliefs about my abilities in order for me to clearly see what I could and could not do. In order to train for that final (passing) test, one of the senior black belts, Jon Merz, spent 6 weeks applying percussive education to me until those delusions were broken and I could see myself for what I was, not what I wanted to be.

When one of your teachers is barreling towards you, slinging knockout punches and kicks, it’s foolhardy to do anything except rely on what you actually know and can do to protect yourself until you find a moment of advantage. You don’t get cute or try to be clever, you just focus on not getting your head taken off. Eventually, you know what you are actually capable of, and you make improvements.

That’s the danger of a lot of the “self-actualization” advice being given. It’s conceptually reasonable advice – shoot for your dreams – but the uncomfortable truth is that many of us, myself included, don’t always have a realistic perception of where we actually are with our skills, with our capabilities, with our resources. We can believe we have abilities or resources we don’t actually have, and when we try to make our leap, we fall far short of where we believe we should be.

The higher the risk, the more sure you need to be when you make a jump. If you can jump three feet, you can confidently do a one foot jump under adverse conditions. If you can jump three feet, you can reach for three feet, one inch under safe conditions to see what you can and can’t reach. The danger is when you reach for something that isn’t there under adverse conditions and it forces you to lose focus on the things that you have a solid foundation in – and the “quit it all and do it” is the most adverse of conditions imaginable.

So how do you benchmark yourself? You put yourself in adverse conditions that are reasonably safe and you work on breaking your delusions until you know where you are. The easiest way to do that is to try with a reasonably low risk project that forces you to put all your skills to the test. Volunteer for something, or promote your own stuff if you’ve got a regular job, but set a goal for yourself and force yourself to hit it until you know what you can and can’t do. When you’re 6 weeks into a 90 day project and you’re not at all on track for your numbers, you’ll know what areas you still need to skill up on. You’ll know what is and isn’t there, and when you face a higher pressure, higher risk situation, you’ll know what you can and can’t reach for in order for you to achieve what you want to achieve.

Once you hit that point, the idealist self-actualization perspective won’t seem like a moonshot. “Quit your day job and break through” will seem like a natural, logical next step and not a pie in the sky dream. It will take time – perhaps years or even decades – to reach that point, but when you do, it won’t surprise you. In fact, it may even happen without your notice.

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Become a better speaker by setting correct motivation

I was having dinner the other night with one of my coworkers, and we were discussing a talk I had delivered at a recent conference. During the course of the conversation, I related one of the biggest breakthroughs I had as a speaker that totally changed public speaking for me.

In the beginning of my public speaking career, I was up on stage mainly to promote either the business I was working for or my own personal brand, and while the talks I gave were substantive enough, they were neither inspirational nor terribly educational. I also struggled with things like imposter syndrome and even stage fright.

MFA Buddhist Art

What changed the game for me was a seminar I took in 2007 with my meditation teacher, Stephen K. Hayes, on setting motivation. During this training, we envisioned ourselves as these heroic archetypes whose very words touched the people around us and healed suffering, made the world a better place. From that training, I took the lesson that my motivations for being on stage were not what they could be. If I changed from a perspective of “the audience is here to serve me” to the perspective of “I am here to serve the audience”, then my motivations would set my energy and enthusiasm.

With the right motivations, the right energy, and the right enthusiasm, I now speak confidently and happily on stage, knowing that I am there for the right reasons. I am there to be helpful, to do my best to encourage, inspire, and help make everyone who sits in the crowd in any given talk a little bit better at their professions. I am there to do my part to help the world become a better place, and that perspective is incredibly energizing, exciting, and inspiring, which makes me a better speaker.

Call it karma, balance, or common sense, but my talks now achieve what I had originally set out to do as well: help grow the businesses I work for and my own personal brand, but by focusing on how I can help you, not how you can help me.

Om padma udbhavaya svaha! Every word helps the world become a better place if our motivations are correct!

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