Category Archives: Fear

Takeoff Speed

“Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.”

The flight plan is filed.  Safety checks are complete.  The long taxi to the runway is over.

Time to strap in.  This plane is about to fly!

Lifting tons of airplane, passengers, and luggage into the air is no small feat.

It’s full-throttle all the way.

We’re pressed back in our seats as the plane speeds down the runway and (hopefully) lifts off.

What if the pilots only use half-throttle?  What if they try to ease into the flight?  What if they “sneak” down the runway so nobody notices their plane trying to lift off?

Without full-throttle commitment, nothing good happens.  There’s no way that plane lifts off.

What type of commitment are you bringing to your life?  That runway you’re playing on ends before you know it.

It’s full-throttle time!

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash.com, Jon Flobrant

Before the Law

What can Franz Kafka’s parable, written in 1915, tell us?

Before the Law

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

What exactly is “the law?”  I’m sure it’s something real, but it doesn’t matter.  Alfred Hitchcock once said that every movie is a search for the MacGuffin.  Every character in the story lives or dies in relation to quest for the MacGuffin.

How often have you confronted a gatekeeper?  That mysterious person with unknown power.  They appear to hold the key you need.  Their power emanates from the knowledge you need.  Knowledge they often don’t possess.  Their greatest power comes from your insecurity.  The gatekeeper represents your desire to stay safe, risk nothing, step back.  Thank God that gatekeeper’s there!  Otherwise, I’d have to actually step through that gate, without any obstacle to block me.

The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.

The gatekeeper isn’t there to grant permission.  Access isn’t his to grant.  Our hero focuses so intently on every last detail of the gatekeeper that he gets to avoid thinking about what lies beyond the gate.  The biggest challenges in life aren’t delivered in the first step but in the thousandth.

The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end, he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet.

Status quo is warm and comfy.  Pursuing the mundane is safe.  Busying ourselves with the day-to-day tasks gives us something to do, but doesn’t move us any closer to what lies beyond the next gate.

The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”

All the preparation in the world is meaningless without the desire to put that preparation to work.  To take what you’ve learned and test it in the real world.  To learn the real lessons that come from experience.  To make the mistakes that can cost you everything…and nothing.  To risk real failure, and real triumph is what makes life most interesting.

During the many years, the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper.

How long have you waited for someone to pick you?  How long have you waited for your stars to align?  Stars are part of a perfectly ordered and yet totally chaotic system.  Their alignment is rare and temporary at best.

There are about 6 billion of us on this planet.  The law of averages (and large numbers) works against us being picked.  More likely, our small piece of the world is waiting for us to choose, and run in that direction.

The gatekeeper isn’t good or evil.  He has only one function.  To guard the gate, and warn us about the challenges that may lie ahead.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death, he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body.

We don’t have to grow old for our vision to fail.  That can happen at any age.  It’s easy to lose focus.  It’s easy to find darkness in the midst of all the light.  We each have beacons of light to guide us if we choose to look in their direction.

The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it. 

Woe is me!  I’m the only person in pain.  I’m the only person with these challenges.  I’m the only person struggling.  The world is so unfair.  The deck is stacked against me.  Get over yourself!

Never assume you’re the only one struggling.  I saw a quote from That Gratitude Guy (look him up) recently that said, “Never compare your inside to their outside.”  Excellent advice.

Each of us has a path to follow.  Sometimes it’s smooth.  Sometimes not.  We will encounter obstacles on our journey and even more gatekeepers.

The most powerful gatekeeper of all is fear and the stories we tell to hide it.

No one else can overcome your fear.  That task is assigned only to you.

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Joshua Earle.  Why this photo?  Why not a photo of a gate, a bureaucrat, darkness, or fear itself?  This photo reflects a beacon of light and an “impossible” next step.  Here’s hoping he finds his way past fear and towards the light.

 

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Getting on the Next Pole

I sat in front of a pole vault coach on a recent plane ride. Overhearing his discussions brought back memories of my vaulting in high school.

I had no idea I’d become a pole vaulter when I went to the first track practice in my sophomore year.  The coach told us to go run a green (running around all the grass in the school, maybe a mile) as a warm-up.  I didn’t know anyone on the team as I started my warm-up run.  Suddenly, a group of guys ran up behind me and asked what my event was.  I said that I didn’t know, but I was a pretty fast runner so I figured I’d do one of the running events.  Looking back now, I really had no idea.

Immediately their response was, “You should be a pole vaulter.  It’s the best event out here!”

My response, “I’ve never vaulted before,” was met with an even quicker response of, “No problem, we can teach you…it’s easier than it looks.”

So, by the time we got back from running the green, I was a vaulter.  When the coach called my name and asked what event I was trying out for, I said, “Pole vault,” like it was my plan all along.

Fast forward a year or so.  I was stuck at 11 feet for the longest time.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear 11’ 6”.  We were blessed to have a pole vault coach, and he recommended I move to a pole that was a foot longer and rated for a bit heavier vaulter than my actual weight.

Moving up to the next pole is quite an adjustment.  It feels completely different.  Everything is off from what you’re used to.  The run-up needs to be adjusted to accommodate the additional height of the pole.  Plus, you have no idea how the pole will respond on your first jump.  In a worst-case scenario, your step may be off, the plant goes poorly, the launch is compromised, and the pole might spit you back, instead of taking you into the air.  For a high school kid, that’s a lot to consider.

In practice, I never actually took any jumps with the new pole.  I merely worked on adjusting my run-up to get the plant right.  As our next meet, against Warren High School, approached we decided to bring both my old pole and the new, longer and stiffer pole.  I remember the bus ride to Warren, wondering if I’d have the nerve to jump with the new pole in competition.

Warren had the “new” rubberized track and runways (standard nowadays).  The rubber runways added bounce and speed to my approach.  This was the perfect time for me to get on the new pole.

My coach’s advice was to block out any negative thoughts (always good advice, by the way), focus on a smooth approach, and nail the plant.  He said that if I relied on my technique, the rest would take care of itself, and I’d have no problem making my first jump.

My warmups were over and I still hadn’t actually vaulted with the new pole.  The plan was for me to take my first attempt on the new pole, and if it didn’t go well, then use the old standby pole to clear a height.

My opening height was usually 10 feet, just to establish an opening.  We decided to pass to 11 feet since our competition was good and we might need to win with fewer attempts.  Pole vault competitions are won by the vaulter who goes the highest with the fewest number of total attempts on the day.

I passed at 10, and then 10′ 6″.  Other vaulters cleared their opening heights.  My tension mounted as 11 feet came up.  He gave me the sign to pass that height as well!  So, I did.

Finally, at 11’6″ I took my attempt.  My heart pounded in my ears.  I didn’t hear anything else, except for my deep breath as I readied for takeoff.  My run up felt great.  I focused on hitting my plant perfectly and blocked everything else out.

The plant was perfect and I felt a sensation I’d never felt when vaulting. There was a noticeable pause in the takeoff and then a sudden lunge straight skyward.

As I twisted at the top of my vault I saw the crossbar whiz by and still I was climbing.  I had skied over the crossbar by at least two feet!  Everything slowed down and I reveled in amazement that I was higher than I’d ever been before.  I caught myself celebrating in my mind before realizing that I needed to let go of the pole and prepare for my landing.

I fell backward toward the pads in slow motion.  All I saw was that crossbar sitting there, motionless, as I cleared my opening height with a pole I’d never used before that day.

The cheers from my fellow vaulters (my team and the Warren vaulters) and my coach were deafening. The height I cleared wasn’t high (even by 1983 standards).  But, everyone knew that I’d just catapulted (literally) to the next level in my vaulting career.

“You flew that vault!  You could have easily cleared 12’6″ or even 13′!” my coach yelled as he patted me on both shoulders.

We decided to pass at the next two heights and come back in again at 12’6″.  Another height I’d never cleared in my life.

On only my second vault of the day and my second vault on the new pole, I easily cleared 12’6″.  My new personal record.

I don’t remember what place I finished that day.  I think we swept the top three spots in the vault and collected all the points from that event for our team.

It didn’t matter to me at the time.  Overcoming my fears, leaping to a new level, delivering for my team, and creating a new launch pad for future improvement was more important to me than my place in that day’s standings.

We are being formed throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not.  We face opportunities for failure every day.  Opportunities to let fear win, for status quo to take the day.

Overcoming the mental terrorism that only we can inflict on ourselves is the key to finding that new level.  The new levels are there, waiting for us to arrive.

Once we arrive, we can choose to stay or leap to the next level.

It’s (Just) an Experiment

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Failure has a strange power.  It can provide the most effective lessons in life.  And yet it’s also a source of fear, anxiety, stress, and a reason many choose not to try.

How is it that some people can launch new ideas, new ventures, new strategies, new hobbies, and new friendships without fear of failure?

I think they’ve realized it’s all an experiment.

Experiments are there for us to test a hypothesis.  See what works and what doesn’t.  See what’s provable.  Experiments are ways for us to demonstrate, first to ourselves, that this new idea can actually work.

What if it doesn’t work.  What if it fails?

That’s just it.  Experiments are, by their very nature, free from failure.  The experiment that “fails” merely proves or disproves an idea.  The experiment itself is a success either way.

The continuous journey to explore and experiment leads to the opposite of failure.  The outcome of each experiment is merely another observation in a long series of experiments.

When a person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem are wrapped around the execution of something new, the experiment’s natural flow can be compromised.  The experiment can’t function properly since the “owner” is working so hard to tilt the results away from his definition of failure.

The true experimenter gets to explore without fear of failure.

In fact, the failures pave the way to new successes.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–SpaceX

 

 

Wishing Well

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What’s the first thing you think of when you see a stranger?

How about your competition?

Or, the jerk that just cut you off in his Porsche?

What’s your default setting when it comes to others?

How critical are you?

How many stories have you made up about that stranger—stories that only you hear—based on nothing more than appearance?

It’s easy to be critical.  It’s easy to look for the worst, and even easier to find it.  Defaulting to fear and distrust is the safest play.

What if you defaulted to wishing others well?  Even strangers?

What if the stories you tell in your head give that stranger the benefit of the doubt?

What if you looked for the best, instead of the worst?

What if you had no opinion about that guy who just cut you off?

What would happen if you helped your competitor improve?

Starting with a mindset of wishing well, looking to give instead of take, understanding rather than responding, reveals our best self.

Our best self hides behind walls of criticism, doubt, distrust, fear, and ill will.

Take away its hiding places and get to know your best self…default to wishing well.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Brandi Redd

Anyone But Me

  • unsplash-benjamin-child“Who wants to start?”
  • “Any volunteers?”
  • “We need to think outside the box.  Do you have any ideas we can pursue?”
  • “Who’s gonna drive innovation for our company?”
  • “Did you see what they just did?  Who’s heading up our response?”
  • “I’m sure glad he’s running with that project.  I wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing!”
  • “Who’s next?”
  • “You’re kidding me!  She’s leading our brainstorming session?”
  • “I sure hope they figure this thing out.  We need answers and we need them fast!”
  • “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  Who came up with this idea?”
  • “They’re idiots to think this will matter.”

It’s easy to hide.  Easy to complain.  Easy to snipe from a distance.

It’s easiest to let someone else.

The hard thing is stepping up.

Volunteering.

Risking failure.

Taking charge.

Risking embarrassment.

Choosing to lead.

Risking success.

Turning “anyone but me” into “why not me” is the first step…and the hardest one of all.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Benjamin Child

Solving Interesting Problems and Finding Failure Along the Way

Failure_Target

There I was, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, featuring Seth Godin (a great combination, by the way).

Seth said a lot.  When it came to our education system, he said it’s geared toward making compliant workers to serve the industrial complex.  I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

He said our education system should instead focus on two things:

  1. Teaching our children how to solve interesting problems (where the answers can’t be Googled),

and,

  1. Teaching our children how to lead.

As I listened, I completely agreed.

And then, only one day later, I was presented with an interesting problem.

Kip was telling me about a problem he likes to ask his programming candidates.  He gave me the problem with a look that said, “Surely you’ll be interested in this problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Wrongo!

As he explained the problem, my mind wasn’t looking for a solution.  Instead, I started wondering why I’d spend time on this problem, could I Google it (you can), how long would I have to struggle with it before he’d give me the answer, and what would an HR person say about asking this particular question (ever focused on compliance).

Meanwhile, he stood there expecting me to attack the problem, to ask follow-up questions, to start searching for a solution.  I gave him nothing.

Disappointed, he realized I wasn’t working the problem.  He gave me a hint, trying to get me to engage.  No dice.  I wasn’t tackling the problem.  I wasn’t even curious.  I waited for the answer.  In fact, I noticed I was thinking about something else (probably having to do with where we’d be eating lunch).  I hadn’t even tried.

Here’s the problem (it’s called the three light bulb question):

A windowless room has 3 light bulbs. You are outside the room with 3 switches, each controlling one of the lightbulbs. If you can only enter the room one time, how can you determine which switch controls which light bulb?

An interesting problem.  One I had chosen to not solve.

A problem that a younger version of myself would have loved.  It requires logic, imagination, a willingness to fail, and enough confidence to know, really know, that I can find the solution.

Here’s a small hint.  You’ll need to use all of your senses to find the answer.

For me, the question that’s more interesting than the light bulb problem is why I chose (almost automatically) to give up before trying to solve it.

I can tell myself it’s because I’m not a programming candidate, or that I don’t have to prove myself by solving the puzzle.  But, these aren’t the reasons.

Could be a lack of confidence.  Somewhere, deep in my subconscious (or maybe right on the surface), I didn’t know that I could solve the problem.  Queue the white flag.

That’s not the root cause.  In that same subconscious place, my mind saw an opportunity to fail.

Failure is not an option.

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure exposes our weaknesses.

How could it be that the younger version of myself would have tackled this problem with gusto, but the more experienced version sees an opportunity for failure and runs the other way?

I’ve purposely faced failure countless times in my life.  I remember being the guy who “poked the bear.”  I loved the unsolvable problem.  My job often involved turning around “unsolvable” situations.  Failure lurked around every corner, but it seemed normal to me.

There must be something else happening.

The narrative.  That’s the message we tell ourselves (and others) about our core beliefs.  It describes what makes us tick, our mission, why we do all the crazy things we choose to do.  It doesn’t matter if the narrative is always true.  It’s our narrative, and it drives the way we perceive our place in the world.

Years of status meetings, monthly reports, strategy reviews, and all the rest taught me to avoid failure.  Don’t miss the goal.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Make sure you have buy-in from everyone before launching that new idea.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  Don’t go out on a limb…you might fall.  We have shareholders who expect a return.

Without realizing it, I allowed my narrative to morph.  Failure avoidance found its way in.

What’s the easiest way to avoid failure?

Don’t take up the challenge.  Avoid the risks.  Don’t poke that bear.  Let someone else try.  Say “No.”

But, failures teach us the most valuable lessons in life.  The quickest way to stop learning is to avoid failures.

The truth is, avoiding failure is the biggest failure of all.

Something I’ll remember the next time I’m faced with an interesting problem, or an opportunity to fail (which are often the same things).

Want the answer to the three light bulb question?

Here’s one more hint.  Your sense of touch will come into play.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.  If not, here it is:

Turn on two switches (call them A and B) on and leave them on for a few minutes.  Then turn one of them off (switch B) and enter the room.

I’ll let you figure out the rest.

The Questions We Ask When Someone Dies Are the Wrong Ones!

  • How old was he?
  • How did he die?
  • Did he suffer at the end?
  • Was his family with him?
  • Various versions of:  Who is he leaving behind?  How are they doing?

These are all worthwhile questions.  They show how much we care.

They also provide a small glimpse into our future, and the future of the people we love and care about.  We will each take our final breath someday.  It’s just a question of when and how.

These questions do more to quench the morbid curiosity we have about our own future than to learn about the life of the person who just died.

We used to receive a local monthly newspaper.  I was always fascinated by the stories in the obituary section.  Each person had a story.  An arc through time.  Milestones.  Achievements.  Lives they touched.  But, these were merely stories someone else had written to encapsulate an entire lifetime into a few paragraphs of highlights.

It’s impossible to capture someone’s life in a few paragraphs or even an entire book.

Our lives aren’t just a series of events and milestones.  They’re an almost infinite collection of moments.

Moments that often seem trivial when they happen, but are anything but trivial.  These moments would probably never make the “highlight reel.”  These are the moments that (with the benefit of hindsight) are turning points in our life, and the lives of the people we touch.

Our lives are also a feeling.  An energy.  An impression we leave behind.  It’s not tangible, and it can’t be seen or touched.  But, it touches everyone around us.  It’s something they can only describe with a far-away look in their eyes when we’re gone.

The questions we ask when someone dies miss what really matters.

I’d like to add some new ones:

  • What are the moments you shared with him that you remember most?
  • What stories did he tell you?
  • Which stories had the most impact on you?
  • How did he make you feel when you were around him?
  • How did he impact the direction your life is going?
  • What did you learn from him and the way he lived his life?
  • What type of energy did he bring to your life?
  • What impression did he make on you?
  • What comes to your mind whenever you think about him, now that he’s gone?

And, one final question to consider while we’re still here:

How will those that you love and care about answer these questions after you’re gone?

 

Later…

Later creates room for compromises.

Later lives for tomorrow.

Later keeps lists.

Later allows us to avoid.

Later tells us why we’re preparing.

Later delays forgiveness.

Later is born from hope.

Later connects without really connecting.

Later captures what we imagine.

We often try to create what happens later by our actions today.

Later provides direction.

Later reduces today’s expectations.

Later can hijack the present.

Later is the carrier of our dreams.

Later gains power when it remains vague.

Later simplifies execution.

Later is where many careers will find their stride.

Later is where the craziest ideas go to die.

Later tells us it’s okay to delay.

Later is where big ideas find their future.

Later makes it okay to add complexity.

Later drags us reluctantly forward.

Later makes today easier.

Later makes today harder.

Later isn’t guaranteed.  It can easily turn into never if we allow it.

Later only matters in the present. By the time we get to later, there’s a new later that will once again seem more important than our new present.

There’s more to say on this subject.  I’ll probably get to it later…