Cowards die many times before their deaths,
the valiant never taste of death but once.
My Greatest Fear
Here is my admission of my greatest fear: putting up my hand to ask a question at the end of a lecture. I have struggled with this all my life – even at high school when I found it very difficult to ask the teacher questions in class.
Connected to this, was a general fear of public speaking. It is well known from surveys that public speaking often comes up as peoples’ number one fear, above even death, and so Jerry Seinfeld quipped that at a funeral most people would therefore prefer to be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.
You might or might not relate to the above, but if you don’t then I guess you probably have some other fear – which you may even know to be irrational and embarrassing – that you struggle with.
I believe that it is a good thing to regularly try and overcome fears. I also believe that one of the best ways to overcome fears is to face them.
The Back Story
I think, whether consciously, or subconsciously, I have been trying to overcome my fear of public speaking all my life.
When I was a student, I took a summer holiday job as a door-to-door salesman in California. Knocking on the doors of thousands of strangers’ doors and trying to sell them kids’ books was a good start facing my fear. After I left university, I became a high-school geography teacher. Facing rooms full of distracted and mischievous teenagers certainly forced me to face my fear.
After a couple of years’ teaching I set off on a bicycle to explore the world for a few years, now facing other fears – such as the fear of death (riding across Afghanistan), the fear of nature (winter in Siberia), and more fear of people (learning to trust strangers when I needed a place to stay).
This led, somewhat by accident, to a new career in which I have presented two TV series for National Geographic, and given motivational speeches to over 50,000 people. After all that, it might sound like I should have overcome my fear of public speaking.
To an extent, yes. At least when I am the one on the stage with the microphone. But I have to admit that my fear of asking questions, when I am not the one on the stage, continues to haunt me.
And so recently, when a favourite author was in town, giving a public lecture, I knew I had to attend, and I had to somehow try and ask a question at the end. And I have come to believe that to overcome fears, it is not just a matter of summoning up some superhuman willpower on the spur of the moment. We have to be strategic, and highly disciplined.
So as the lecture date approached, this was my strategy. First I would tell a couple of people about what I intended to do – accountability is a huge help when it comes to staying on task. I told my wife Christine (who is enormously wise and helpful and encouraging), and also a close friend who was helping to organise the lecture. “That’s great Rob”, he said, “I’ll reserve your seat in the front row!” I was committed.
The second part of my strategy, was to prepare the question beforehand – as I knew I will be feeling too flustered at the event itself to be thinking clearly. So I wrote it out, and checked it with Christine the night before. So far so good. But I was starting to feel nervous.
And then the date arrived. I had butterflies all day. As I walked up to the lecture venue in the evening, the butterflies became more manic, with a whole host of worst case scenarios pouring through my brain – such as everyone in the room laughing at me for asking such a ridiculous question. My fears were heightened when I arrived, and saw it was going to be a full house, with an overflow room and a total of over 600 people. “Maybe I should just forget it,” I thought, “it’s such a silly fear anyway, I don’t really need to overcome it.”
“Rob!” My friend had spotted me. “Hey, I’ve got that seat for you. I’m really looking forward to your question!”
I found my seat, and as I sat silently as the crowds arrived. My heart beat loudly, and then the famous author took the stage and quiet settled over the whole room, and he began to speak.
It was an excellent lecture. But at the same time, my thoughts kept trying to spin into desperate excuses to back out of the challenge I had set myself. In response, I had to vigorously reason with myself that if I did back out I would feel awful, and what was the worst that could happen? In my sweaty hands I held a piece of folded paper with my question written on it. Several times during the lecture, I looked at the question, and scrawled some revisions, suddenly now doubting that it was it was a worthy question at all. I was aware of my watch, and the minute hand turning towards my moment of doom.
Suddenly it was clear that the author was drawing to a close. My mind span faster. And then those terror-inspiring words: “Okay, who wants to ask the first question?”
I knew from experience that my resolve in overcoming fears often plummets if I do not seize the moment immediately. And then miraculously, irretrievably, terrifyingly, I realised that I had thrust up my hand. My memory is now a haze. All I remember is that a microphone was placed into my hands, and the famous author tilted his head towards me and raised his eyebrows.
“Great, go ahead” he said.
I blurted it out. Well actually I don’t know if I was blurting, mumbling, shouting or stammering, but the question came out.
“Now you’re meddling,” the author said with a smile, in recognition that it was a slightly edgy question, “it’s a good question.” But he did not mock me, nor did rest of the audience stand and jeer at me. The author answered the question well, and then he looked out into the audience and said “next question?”
And I felt happy. I felt relieved. I had passed the test of the day.
If you do not relate to any of the above, because you are one of those people who does not fear, then you may think me a fool for making such a big deal of all this. But if you have an irrational fear of some sort, then you might relate.
I said I believe that we overcome fears first by facing then. I wonder now if it will be easier the next time I have to ask a question at a lecture. A little, I hope. But I’ll have to keep facing it for quite some time before there is no fear at all. And it’s the process of learning to overcome a fear which is as important as the fear itself.
Finally, Five Good Things That Come Out of Facing Fear
1. You will feel great after you have faced it
2. It will be easier to face other fears in future – which might be holding you back
3. When you are unafraid, it is easier to be creative
4. You get to do some things which you always wanted to do, but before were too afraid to do
5. It makes life an adventure
Feel the fear and do it anyway.