I Hope You Dance…With Fear

A few months ago, I ate brunch with two friends at a local cafe and was immediately smitten with our waiter. He was friendly and charming, with a refreshing sense of humor and a great smile.

As soon as we left the restaurant, I immediately regretted not saying something. So, no more than a few feet out the door, I borrowed an old receipt from my friend’s purse, wrote down my number, and decided to go back into the restaurant and give it to the server.

Unfortunately for me, it was the end of brunch service, and when I walked back in the door, the manager of the restaurant was standing there, stern-faced, and clearly concerned that I’d returned with a complaint. The waiter was standing behind him.

Fight or flight kicked in — I frantically scurried up to the server, shoved the crumpled receipt in his hand, squeaked “This is for you!”, and ran out of the restaurant. I don’t think I’ve walked three blocks faster in my entire life.

Was the experience terrifyingly embarrassing? Yes.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.

Recently, I completed Seth Godin’s altMBA, which is a four-week course about learning to leap, asking why, and pushing yourself. As part of the course we read a book called The Art of Possibility in which the author, Benjamin Zander, talks about the power of giving yourself permission, or what he calls “giving yourself an A.”

Zander asserts that automatically assuming the best and “giving yourself an A” breaks barriers, removes the fear of failure, and lets you speak and act freely.

I’ve gotten A’s from other people all my life. My resume is full of A’s. But they mean little to me compared to times when I gave myself permission to take risks — when I gave myself A’s. The more I’ve allowed myself to do things that make me uncomfortable, the more I’ve been able to maximize and accelerate my personal growth.

If you read successful people’s advice, particularly entrepreneurs, you’ll hear many variations on this theme: “Fail fast, fail often;” “Just do it;” “Live so you’ll die with no regrets.” But, my favorite iteration I’ve heard recently is from the altMBA, and that is “dance with fear.”

I think it’s such a beautiful metaphor. Godin didn’t write “conquer fear.” Rather he advises us to grab it by the hand, spin it around, and let it lead. Let it do the hard work of teaching us how to move to the rhythm and put one foot in front of the other. Dancing and conquering both require trust — particularly trust in yourself; but dancing necessitates a sense of vulnerability that conquering does not.

People often tell me, “You’re brave, but I could never do that.” But, we all tell ourselves stories about our lives and about the kind of people we want to be. Brave isn’t an inherent trait. It’s a choice that I make every day when I wake up. And, every time I have a question of whether or not I should just go for something, I let the little voice inside myself say, “What’s the worst that can happen if I let myself be vulnerable?”

What’s the worst that can happen when you give someone your number or ask them on a date?
They say no.
What’s the worst that can happen when you apply for a job you are unqualified for? Or that raise you want?
You don’t get it.
What’s the worst that can happen when you stand on stage and make that joke?
No one laughs.

So you turn red, and you move on.

But, more importantly, you reflect on what you learned from the experience. If you commit to doing one thing every day that scares you, you’ll look back after a few months amazed at what you’ve been able to accomplish. It doesn’t have to meet anyone else’s definition of scary. For me, graphic design was scary. Email automation was daunting. Giving my number to a random waiter on a sleepy Sunday morning was frightening. And I feel infinitely better as a person for having leaned into those uncomfortable things. The more you start checking off smaller scary things, the more confidence you’ll have in yourself to take bigger, bolder risks when the opportunities arise. Or, even better, when you seek them out.

Courage is it’s own kind of crack, and once you’re hooked, you’ll be constantly looking for that high. Maybe you too will decide to move to a foreign country where you don’t know the language or take a position in a field where you have no previous experience. Maybe you’ll do something even bolder, and I’ll get to learn from you.

I have one of those cheesy quotes up on my bedroom mirror that says “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” My answer is simple: dance. Dance with fear. Find the things that scare you most and extend your hand.

And, just in case you were wondering, that guy from the cafe texted me three days later and said “Hey Caroline. That was a bold move giving me your number in front of my boss. We should grab coffee sometime if you’re up for it.”