The Other Side of Fear
The other day, I was thinking about the day I jumped off a cliff.
On a whim, and against all advice from my friends, I boarded a bus alone to travel two hours from our hostel to the small mountain town of Grindelwald. To attempt a stunt like this on my own was out of character for me, yet there I was, standing on a metal shelf 28 stories above a snowy canyon in the Swiss Alps with a bungee cord attached to my chest. It wasn’t clear to me if the air seemed to have left my lungs because the thin 20-degree mountain air has stifled my breathing or because of sheer terror. Either way, I vividly remember looking down and feeling as though my heart was beating so fast it was going to explode. I thought to myself: THIS is raw fear.
That fear was all-encompassing but what was most shocking to me is that I forgot about what happened next. The second my feet left the platform I experienced something unexpected in the midst of my fear…pure joy. Somewhere between the free fall and the tug of the cord as I reached the bottom of the canyon, I felt the sensation of flying. The accomplishment of having reached the other side of my fear washed over me and I felt free. I felt alive.
A few years later, I found myself in another heart-pounding situation. The other side of the line went silent as my work supervisor waited for my response. If I can jump off a cliff, I can certainly handle this. My mind raced trying to process what she had just said to me moments before: “Your feedback from the management team is that you fade into the background of this program. How do you plan to differentiate yourself from your peers?” I felt like I had been slapped.
Let me back up. After graduating from business school, I entered the corporate world with an entrepreneurship and marketing degree and an open mind. I accepted a job in a Leadership Development program that was essentially a pipeline designed to cultivate future officers of one of the country’s top insurance companies. The experience provided boundless opportunities for personal growth through mentorship and consistent feedback, but I could not shake the discomfort about my path to climb a corporate ladder.
You should be in a stable job with a steady salary.
You should drive a nice car and live in an expensive apartment in a big new city.
You should strive to be in management at a company with a strong brand, it’s impressive to others.
I checked all the boxes. By all measures, I was on the road to success. My friends and family congratulated me. I found myself among peers who were considered the best and brightest. It felt much like an extension of business school. Surely I was on my way. I worked hard. The management style and methods I learned seemed to make sense, despite feeling awkward, and being young, I expected they would take some time to master.
But in this moment on the phone with my manager something clicked. I was not afraid to answer her question, but afraid of what the answer might mean. I knew I made a critical mistake. Of course I was fading into the background in a company of over 35,000 employees. I was trying to fit a mold rather than operate based on my beliefs and values about success and leadership. What was holding me back from being “successful” by standing out among my peers?
The same heart-racing, blood-pumping, breathtaking, paralyzing fear I felt on the edge of that cliff in Switzerland. Except this time, it was a fear of something completely different: a fear of being my authentic self and choosing to follow my dreams—and failing. I feared being that vulnerable.
I put my dream of starting a business on the backburner in favor of fitting into a “great career” something I never truly identified with. One of the biggest mistakes many of us make in our careers without even realizing it is choosing safety (and discontent) over risk and uncertainty. It took me two years feeling like a fish out of water in my job to recognize that while it was an amazing opportunity, it was not the right opportunity for me.
Following that phone call, I began a quiet journey of deliberate self-awareness by questioning a lot of the supposed beliefs about who I “should” be that I had let guide me in my first post-grad job. What is MY definition of success? What inspires and fulfills ME? What do I value? What is my personal brand?
Eventually I realized that for me the thought of becoming complacent in a corporate job was scarier than the possibility of doing something I love and failing. Taking a hard look at what I found to be great reconnected me with my passion for helping others discover the things that make them great. In the months that followed that phone call I quit my job, started a digital marketing and videography company, booked a trip to the other side of the world, and filled my life with more of the things that bring me joy.
Paying attention to the moments we feel most alive and connected with our true selves helps us identify what’s really important to us and forms our unique individual brand. I felt it the moment I stepped off the edge of that cliff in Switzerland. Getting to the other side of fear means facing uncertainty but also embracing the fact that when everything is unknown, anything is possible.
Falling is inevitable when you step off the edge of a cliff. But the important question is, would you let the fear of falling keep you from a chance to fly?
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