“If You’re Afraid, You Just Do It Afraid.”
If you’re about to step out of a moving airplane and fall over 14,000 feet back to earth at speeds of 200 mph, the last thing you’d want to hear is that your instructor — the man strapped to your back, the man in charge of deploying your parachute, the man with your life in his hands — is afraid.
I. Acting in the face of fear
Ward Hessig’s résumé makes him out to be the most fearless man on Earth: After serving in the U.S. Army for five years, he came home and joined a local police force. When he later decided he wanted to go back to college — and then continued on to get his postgraduate degree in criminal justice — he paid his tuition by keeping his day job. To reiterate: his time was spent alternating between attending his Civil Procedures lectures and working police beats out on the street — both cops and lawyers everywhere would be impressed.
So after serving in the military, joining the police force, and sitting for the dreaded LSAT, it seemed like the last thing left on earth that still possessed the power to scare Ward was, quite literally, jumping out of a plane…obviously he was itching to give it a go. In 1996, he took his first 14,000-foot leap.
For 15 years, our company, Roadtrip Nation, has been sending students and young adults on road trips across the country. Every summer, a big green RV launches from our home base in Orange County, California, and meanders its way to the opposite coast, periodically stopping so that the team onboard (the road-trippers, as we like to call them) can interview leaders and influencers from all industries and all walks of life.
Our small film crew tags along to document the entire experience, and the footage is made into themed documentaries or incorporated into our eponymous public-television show. The goal is to collect advice from people who have built careers around doing the things that they love, and then transmit their wisdom to anyone who needs it, namely high school students, recent grads, and anyone else who feels like their life is at a crossroads.
Even though we send new groups of interviewers out on the road every year, and even though the road-trippers talk to people as divergent as professional surfers and nuclear engineers, certain questions have a habit of resurfacing — among them, “How do you define ‘success’?” and “What is one piece of advice you would give to the next generation?”
Another one of these go-to questions has traditionally been:
“How did you get over your fears?”
For a fairly standard question, it has perhaps yielded the most consistent, yet simultaneously surprising results of any we’ve asked over the past 15 years.
Case in point: When we sat down with Ward in 2012, he’d worked his way up from a casual skydiving enthusiast to a certified skydiving instructor, completing over 11,000 jumps in the interim. And in a perfect world, we’d all like to imagine that after someone has done something 11,000 times, they’ve become pretty comfortable with their work — or, at the very least, that they’ve moved beyond the realm of fear. But when our team of three road-trippers posed the usual question to Ward, he threw them quite the curve ball:
“Oh, I’m still afraid.”
(Of note: the road-trippers were going skydiving directly after their interview; Ward would be strapped to one of their backs. Yikes.)
Luckily, Ward continued, and explained that it’s not so much getting over your fears, but instead, realizing that they’re there, and deciding to take action anyway:
“It’s now a manageable fear. After all, courage is not being fearless — it’s acting in the face of fear.”
Obviously, not every big decision is as “do or die” as, “Should I open this parachute now, or just continue to plummet and see how it goes?” But it can definitely start to feel that way when you’re choosing a college major, or wrestling with the idea of leaving your terrible job. We can’t even begin to tell you how many times we’ve heard, “I hate my job, but what would I do if I quit?” Or, “I really want to become a _________, but how do I know if I’m good enough? How would I even begin to try to break into that industry?”
When you make those kinds of excuses, you’re letting your fears paralyze you, and when you let your fears paralyze you, you’re no longer actively chasing your goals. It’s simple in theory, but acknowledging, and then facing your fears is incredibly difficult in practice.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done…
II. Make a choice not to live in fear
To a military vet/former cop/skydiving instructor, actor Tony Hale’s profession might seem like child’s play. And honestly? Tony Hale would probably be the first to agree (and to gleefully point out that pun):
“My brother played soccer and I would go to his games, but I was always like, the ‘artist freak.’ I was like, ‘Soccer? Hmm, what do you do with that? Let’s do a monologue to it!’”
Even though he’d always had that theatrical side, it took years of him exploring other options — including forays into both writing and waiting tables — before Tony realized he wanted to make acting his career.
He told our road-trippers about his a-ha moment:
“I heard a speaker say, ‘If you’re afraid, you just do it afraid.’ People think that before you do something, you have to be in a place of complete assurance or peace, but sometimes you really do have to just do it afraid.”
He’d finally learned what every single successful person has to learn at some point or another:
Fear and awkwardness and doubt have been with you your whole life, and they’re not going away — they’ll always be there. And if you decide to wait for the universe to drop the perfect opportunity into your lap, you’ll spend a lifetime waiting.
So Tony took action — he enrolled in acting school, then moved to New York City, where he knew no one. Years later, he has two successful sitcoms and two Emmys under his belt, but he still feels the fear:
“[In acting,] you don’t know when your next gig’s coming along. But you have to make a choice not to live in fear.”
III. Do it with fear anyway
Trelise Cooper grew up with a nuanced role model: her mother was sweet and kind, but she was also so fearful that she refused to drive a car. As a result, Trelise adopted fear as a personal mantra. One prominent example: Throughout her childhood, she loved singing opera, but soloing terrified her to the point that she gave up singing altogether, and decided she’d never pursue a career in music.
However, for as much as Trelise insists that she was “afraid of putting herself out there,” she’s certainly made some bold career moves. At age 23, she realized she wanted to go into the fashion industry. Without a stitch of experience, she decided to open a boutique, somewhere where she could champion other designers’ clothing until she’d learned enough to get her own fashion career off the ground. Of course, when it finally came time for her store to open, she got a classic case of cold feet:
“The night before the opening, I was crying and ironing, crying and ironing, thinking, ‘Who did I think I was, to think that I could do this?’”
Her fears were for naught — when she returned to open the store the next morning, there were already lines forming. Turns out Trelise’s natural eye for style was enough to buoy up the shop, and then some. The inventory she’d hoped to turn over in a week was gone by the end of the day, and the stock she’d hoped to turn over in a month was gone by the end of the week. She used that momentum to start her own label, and her designs were later featured on both “Sex and the City” and on the cover of Vogue — she’d made it to the fashion mecca and back again.
And surely, all of that well-earned, whirlwind success must have quelled those initial fears? Much like Ward and Tony, she laughed off the idea:
“You know, I’ve loved it and I’ve hated it — I’ve had all of my insecurities and fears living constantly as my companions. Fear stays with you, but you can let it stop you, or you can do it with fear anyway. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
IV. Take a deep breath and jump
In our curriculum for high-school and middle-school students, we suggest that the best way to combat the fear of being told “no” is by applying or auditioning for something you’re completely unqualified for. Worst-case scenario: you get turned down — it’s exactly the outcome you were expecting, so the letdown is minimal. But the best-case scenario? You get accepted to take part in an incredible opportunity you never thought possible.
We know what you’re thinking: that’s much easier said than done. How do you find the courage to audition for a play with no theater training, or respond to a job posting that insists candidates have five years of relevant experience?
As actor and musician Christopher Jackson (of Broadway musical “Hamilton”) told us,
“The ability to take that step and go is really just the same decision you make every time you open your mouth. The difference between fear and excitement is just a very, very small idea.”
Think of all of the minuscule, everyday tasks that require you to face your fears: Whether it was borne out of a need to meet a participation quota, or just out of brazen courage, you’ve raised your hand in class without feeling completely sure that you had the correct answer. You’ve initiated a conversation with a stranger. You’ve sent an email to your boss. Seriously, you face far more risk on the daily commute to your current miserable job than you do in applying to that new job that you’d love, and the numbers aren’t even close. The great part is, you’ve figured out how to do these things over and over and over, despite the fact they never actually get any easier — you just get more comfortable with your insecurities.
So next time you feel that “lurching stomach in the middle of the night” kind of fear about a big decision, or a change in your career path, know that all you need to do is push through it until you reach the flip side of the coin — the excitement for what’s to come.
Laura Danly, astronomer and curator of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, said it best in her 2011 interview (and now, very aptly brings everything full circle):