“What are you afraid of?”

I had an opportunity last week. Instead of embracing it, though, my first reaction was fear. So I held back.

The Icarus Sessions

A reminder to keep shipping

A reminder to keep shipping

The opportunity was to speak at an event hosted by Seth Godin. He offered the chance to people who’d registered for his upcoming Icarus Session in NY. Since I value his daily blog, his talks, and his philosophy – yes, I even own a Seth Godin action figure – I was thrilled to have at a chance to finally meet him and share my ideas.

A presentation at an Icarus Session is 140 seconds long. You can go shorter, but not a second longer. You can use slides, or handouts, or even better, just bring your enthusiasm. The assignment: Tell the group about your art. What have you created? What frightened you? What matters?

Not a pitch. An act of brave vulnerability.

Holding back

Icarus application

Icarus application

All I had to do was write 100 words in a simple form. Since I’ve written 150,000 words worth of blog posts over the last 3 years (I write an internal corporate blog, too), this should have been easy. Yet the blinking cursor in that text box filled me with dread.

Why would 100 words phase me? Or a 2 1/2 minute talk?

This is just one small example of a recurring problem. The same fear grips me whenever I aim to do something bigger or bolder, whenever I think of doing something I really care about. And each time, I ask myself the same question:

“What are you afraid of?”

My 100 words

That question used to be a taunt. A self-criticism. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that fear is a natural defense mechanism to something new and potentially threatening. So instead of trying to make it go away, I see it as a signal that I’m doing something interesting and important.

A week after he invited people to apply, I finally submitted my 100 words:

I needed a new job, either at the large bank where I worked or somewhere else.

So I started writing. Every week, I’d write about how social tools and practices could make work more effective and more fulfilling.

That was 3 years ago. Those weekly posts led to a role I love (at the same firm), a social platform used by 50,000 people, and the start of a cultural shift.

My art – my calling? – is helping people shape their reputation, control their career, and make work better.

I’ve started with a few thousand people. I want to help millions more.

I may not have a chance to give my 2 1/2 minute talk, but I’ll be damned if I won’t take my shot. I’d rather be Icarus and fail in the attempt than stand safely on the ground, looking up at what might have been.

Is there something you want to do but you’re holding back? What are you afraid of?

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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11 Responses to “What are you afraid of?”

  1. kittywooley says:

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. John, I’ve been sitting at breakfast reading Liz Clarke’s Washington Post article about Redskins rookie Alfred Morris, wondering how to entice my colleagues to find out their true work and pursue it with everything they’ve got. Your post may be the match that lights the fire for some. As Morris says about the way he runs, “It pumps up those around you and makes ’em want to play harder. So I thought, ‘Let’s keep doing it!’ ”

    Here’s to a truly inspired year in 2013 for everyone.

    > >

  2. Totally agree John. Go for the brass ring whenever you can!

    I had a similar thing recently where I was asked to speak about rolling out Agile in an environment hostile to change at an event in NYC.

    My initial reaction was not to do it and I used all of the usual techniques to convince myself (e.g. my company wouldn’t like it, I’ll have to shlep into the city, I have something else that night etc.).

    In the end I decided to go ahead as there other people out there struggling with this and perhaps I can help them avoid some of the pain and pitfalls I endured. I’ll be speaking on the 23rd 🙂

  3. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    A wonderful post and one of my favourite Greek myths….

    Icarus and his father Daedalus were prisoners who needed to escape captivity – Icarus had every reason to be brazen with the freedom the new wings gave him, and ignore his father’s advice. For the short time he flew higher and higher he tasted the exhilaration of that freedom – freedom to choose his own destiny – or so he thought. His biggest fear was remaining where he was, not flying forward in to the unknown. The trouble is he ignored advice along the way. And much more important -he lacked judgement. Do you think that is the same thing as bowing to “conformity” or “obedience” had he not gone/held back?
    For every Icarus who does not wish to hold back, meet every challenge head long and taste that freedom to go forward without fear – should they perhaps still fly far enough away to break loose – but near enough to be helped should they fall? To use their “judgement” first , just as you have in your challenge?

    You don’t need to be Icarus – just yourself.

    Thanks for posting and I hope you get your chance!

  4. John – I’ll be at the Icarus session in New York City too, will hopefully see you there. As for the 140 seconds, I am glad you shared it here (in case you don’t get to be one of the ones who speak at the session). Nicely put and probably echoes the sentiments of many!

  5. Rob Caldera says:

    John – great post as usual. Inspiring, as always. I love Seth Godin and use to follow his stuff religiously but kind of lost that habit a year or more ago, so I wasn’t aware of this. I’m thinking of going if I can swing it. It sounds like a great way to kick off the New Year. Not sure if I could figure out my 100 words and 140 second speech in two days (and admittedly have that same initial fear) but would love to hear yours and the others.

  6. Often, I’m afraid of people’s expectations. I’m afraid to disappoint people. I’m afraid of people’s eyes on my back. That’s why I’m just so shy. Great post!

  7. M says:

    That’s a really great question, that made me thinking. I’m afraid that people will get wrong image of me, and more importantly – I’ll look worse to myself that I think I am. Holding something to myself might not allow to embrace the opportunity, but at least I’d know that I don’t look silly and ‘ordinary’ just because of lack of time to explain myself..

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