What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A (literally) breathtaking moment in Yakushima, JapanFor most of my career, I’ve been afraid. As I approach 50, though, that fear is being replaced by something else. Not quite confidence and certainly not peace. It’s more a sense of fuck-it-I-need-to-do-something-that-matters-now.

Here are 3 stories about fears I’ve had at work and how I learned to deal with them.

Afraid of speaking up

In the first investment bank I worked in, the head of our division was a fearsome character, the kind of guy you’ve seen in movies about Wall Street. One day, after he had just given a talk to all the officers in his division, he asked for questions. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.  A minute. When it was clear no one was going to raise their hand, he lit into the audience with an expletive-filled tirade questioning our right to be in the firm. Ouch.

That was 17 years ago. But from that day on, at every meeting and event I attended, I always made sure to have something to contribute. Not to promote myself, but because I learned to be more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up at all. 

Afraid of my boss

It seems obvious that you should do what the boss expects. And for most of my career, that’s what I did. It was my own version of the Tiara Syndrome that Sheryl Sandberg referenced in Lean In: you keep doing your job well expecting someone will notice and recognize you for it.

It’s a trap. Over time, I saw people doing exactly what they were told only to have the boss hire a leader precisely because they wanted someone who’d do things differently. Or, even more common, bosses keep changing. Each time management changes, so do the objectives and the expectations. And, each time, the people who do only what the boss wants become un-moored, unsure of themselves until a new boss tells them what to do.

After a string of such changes, I finally learned to focus less on the boss and more on work that mattered. And, to provide career insurance, I made my work visible and built a network of people who also cared about that work so I had options if and when I needed them.

Afraid of myself

For much of my career I worked on technology for traders, spending much of my time on trading floors. I still twitch when I go near one. The demands of the traders combined with the stress of anything going wrong at any given moment made for an unpleasant day. There are worse jobs, certainly. It’s just that this kind of job was particularly unsuitable for me. 

I felt trapped. I remember thinking: “I can’t do this for 15 more years. Nobody does this for that long.” But I was too afraid to look in the mirror and ask “What do you want to do? If this doesn’t make you happy, what will?” 

So I just kept at it, stuck in a prison I’d built myself, until somebody else made a decision for me and forced a career change. Once confronted with the need to do something different, I felt liberated. And I learned to think more deeply and more often about what would make work fulfilling for me as well as for others.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a lovely story about fear in The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. A student of Zander’s from Spain was applying to be an associate principal cellist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. The first time he played the piece for Zander, it was “of an absolutely professional standard.” But though he played all the notes correctly, Zander thought he “lacked flair and the characteristics of true leadership.” 

They worked and worked until they experienced a breakthrough. And before the student  traveled for the audition, Zander said “Remember, Marius, play it the second way!”

Marius didn’t get the job. “What happened?” asked Zander and Marius confided, “I played it the first way.” So Zander tried to console his young student.

“But you haven’t heard the whole story,” he said. “I was so peesed off, I said ‘Fock it, I’m going to Madrid to play for the principal cellist in the orchestra there!’ – and I won it, at twice the salary of the other job.”

In amazement, Zander again asked “What happened?” Marius laughed: “I played it the second way!” And so BTFI – Beyond The Fuck It – became part of the folklore of Zander’s classes.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to take a big leap to experience BTFI. You just need to take a step. For me, I started to write more. I started looking for people and projects I cared about. I played more offense and less defense. 

If I’m not afraid, I’ll write Working Out Loud to help people change how they work, building better networks, careers, and lives. I’ll build a movement so people can help each other in small groups and we can, collectively, scale that change. And in the process, I’ll raise money for public education so kids will have the basic tools they’ll need to work out loud when they get older.

I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people? I’m going to find out. Because, now, my biggest fear is a tombstone that says “He was too afraid to try.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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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31 Responses to What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

  1. Christy Conklin says:

    Loved this post. I can really relate to wanting to do something that matters NOW.

  2. Louisvdv says:

    Everything exists in the ‘now’. Don’t live in the past and do not only dream about the future. Take action now, because this is the only moment that matters… 🙂

  3. David G says:

    Can you change the way big companies work? I think you have already John! I know it’s not wholesale yet, but you should be proud of what’s been achieved so far and I know there’s more to come…

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, David. I am proud but not satisfied if that makes sense. You’ve done great work in influencing some very conservative people to think and work differently. Now we both still have a lot to do and a lot to look forward to. Fantastic! 🙂

    • Sharon Jurkovich says:

      I would like to echo David G. You have made a material difference. I see the massive increase in employee engagement across different areas. As an internal communications practitioner, your contribution has not only provided an effective option I can recommend to internal clients, but it’s broadened my personal awareness of how to leverage social media to share and to learn. Vielen Dank!

  4. Abigail Hunt says:

    Thanks John – I’m a big fan of your “working out loud” focus and your very valuable commentary. How we collaborate, overcome our fears, speak out, take action and change our mindsets must be key to working and living in different and better ways. To encourage myself towards more risk taking and action I “try to fail” (even if just on a small scale) at least once a week but your article has dared me to raise my target to at least once a day!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Abigail and thank you.

      I’d say most of my own failures are not quite so purposeful as your’s! But writing leads to reflection leads to making sense of mistakes of made and lessons I’ve learned. It’s turning that learning into new habits that is relatively new for me.

  5. You have changed one big company. It’s amazing to see the difference when I went to a new company. They have a site for collaboration, but it is far away from the technology, culture and attitude you created as it just started. I hope to help them catch up and perhaps become the ” John Stepper” of my new firm

    • John Stepper says:

      And I hope to be the “Rob Jeffers” of my firm. 🙂

      You were a very big part of creating our firm’s online culture (which I do love). As one of the most active executives, you taught thousands of people that it was okay to be authentic, helpful, engaged, and even vulnerable. We miss you but your influence is still widely felt.

      p.s. If you ever need help, call me! Or maybe you can be a guest speaker at our place. Us practitioners need to stick together!

  6. mumslashtownplanner says:

    The Art of Possibility sounds like something I need to read! Great post.
    I can definitely read your passion in this post. I like your ambitions, I have some similar ones myself. Leading By example, I just want other young women to push themselves further and aim for leadership roles.
    Good luck with your goals, looking forward to following your journey

  7. that fearsome character… almost 20 years now. there was a lot to be learned there and then — a guide to things real leaders should never do. age has a way of enabling this way of thinking. the older you get, the less you care. by the way, the great thing about a tombstone is that you never get to read your own. thanks for posting!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Josh. A lot’s happened in 20 years. 🙂

      The older I get the less I care and somehow the more I care. Maybe it’s just “don’t sweat the small stuff” but it feels deeper than that. More like I’m gradually accepting the impermanence of everything while embracing the need to reduce people’s suffering. (Clearly, my new meditation habit is having an effect!)

      • more likely, you’ve mastered those little things so you can move on to the big ones. back then, it was hard to decide which cut was a scratch and which needed stitches. hence, “if you knew then what you know know…”

  8. Prasad Pooppully says:

    John, Great story! It has made me think what I would do if I am not afraid. And while I am thinking, there is a lot of FEAR (False evidence appearing Real) that blocks my thought, which I need to overcome. Thanks for the story.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Prasad! I like your FEAR acronym. Time and again I see how the stories I tell myself are just that – stories. And I’m slowly learning to ask “Is it true?”

      Are you still in India? I hope to return and see our offices there. I love the people, the culture, the energy…and the food! Would be nice to collaborate with you and further empower all the great people there.

  9. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    What would I do if I weren’t afraid?
    Extreme sports – no doubt about it! Speed, thrill, danger!
    Run an organisation.
    Be a world authority on (xx) and speak publicly regularly!

    But if I then looked at myself in the mirror would that actually be me?

    I have put myself in some fear inducing situations e.g agreeing to give talks to audiences I know know far more than I do; being invited to change my career completely – late in life – and saying “yes”. Going in to meetings where I know most people have done their jobs ten more years than I have. Going down a black run when I had only just learnt to ski (a mistake).

    Is fear sometimes a way of assessing your strengths and limitations? Being completely focussed on what you want? What would be right for you – not someone else’s view of you?

    And the biggest fear of all? – that makes people fear themselves, their boss, afraid to speak up, afraid to try – and even afraid of working out loud?
    Fear of not succeeding.

    Thanks for your candid and really enjoyable post John – I never cease to enjoy them!

  10. Sue Mastroianni says:

    WOW great posts. I’m reading a few of these back to back and am very impressed. And I’m your sister!!! LOL Love you.

  11. Working out load and open has taken a further meaning thanks to this post! The BTFI approach and perception and related questions will be added to my list of quirky questions
    (Do you know the power of the BTFI approach?
    Can you tell me of an experience when you experienced this?
    What step would take you into a BTFI experience? What’s holding you back?
    What does BTFI courage look like in your (life/work) setting?

  12. claudio says:

    and please keep on going ….<:o))

  13. Karyn Romeis says:

    Having passed the fiftieth birthday milestone, I can relate to that pre-birthday stocktake and the sense of wanting to do something that mattered.

    I have also been in situations where I have been afraid of my boss, and – possibly – afraid of myself.

    But is the combination of my readiness to speak up and the tendency to do everything out loud (those who know me in person will attest to this) that has got me into trouble. All. My. Life. It has seen me ousted from both jobs and relationships. I suspect my career would have been a lot more successful, and I would have retained a great many more friends, had I been a little more circumspect about what I said and to whom I said it. I’m not sure how I would have slept at night, though.

    I’m not saying you should not venture down this path, if you feel it would be the way to look your reflection squarely in the eye every morning, with head held high. What I am saying is that there are likely to be consequences. Gird your loins.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Karyn and thank you for commenting. Two things have helped me gird my loins 🙂 The first is to frame my out loud-ness as a contribution. When I frame my work, my complaint, my thoughts & observations as genuine gifts, then it defuses the defensiveness, fear, jealousy or other negative response I’d otherwise attract. It takes thought and practice to frame things as contributions by anyone can learn how to do it.

      The second thing is to accept that not everyone wants or likes my gifts. As Seth Godin noted, it would be arrogant to think everyone would. So when someone does react negatively, I acknowledge their feedback, accept and incorporate any helpful elements in it, and move on.

      • Irene Johansen says:

        Hi Karyn, and John,

        Karyn, I identify with what you’re saying. I’ve recently lost two opportunities, precisely because the powers that be knew that, when push comes to shove, I will push back for what I feel strongly about, for another person, for “justice”. It’s not my every-day position, but like you, I feel I have to do what is right to be able to look myself in the mirror every day. However, I’ve found that, as John says, the approach matters, because it says something too, and louder than any words can. I had to take a long hard look at myself to see that my approach wasn’t always helping me. I had help from a couple of friends too – thank God for honest friends! A couple of people “girded their loins” and talked to me about it, in a kind and straight-forward way, and I’m grateful. It was a good example, right in my face, of the difference between a confrontation and a contribution. I’m practising it. And practising it… and…. It takes practice, but the difference in the results is very gratifying.

        Thanks, by the way… now I know I’m not the only 50+ in the boat…

  14. Hi John, I too can relate to the dealing room story. As a youngster in banking I used to fear the bearpit and being told to f–k off. I soon worked out that to survive you had to front up.
    I also learned (like you) that its important not to be just part of the crowd at meetings – why be there otherwise?
    We are told that fear stimulates epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline. Being able to handle adrenaline rushes is what sportsmen and performers are good at. Business should be no different. Coaches and mentors have a responsibility to help people channel that fear into positive actions. Its what cricket commentators call battling ‘the corridoor of uncertainty’.
    Finally, how much of ‘fear’ is driven by financial concerns? At school one of the best masters I had used to point out those who were less fortunate and warn us of the consequences. Some went further and took their puplls for a trip down the mine! Each was designed to point out hard work = success.

  15. Pingback: Führung und Tugenden – 3: Tapferkeit | Andreas Tapken

  16. Irene Johansen says:

    What would I do?
    1. Finish the piece of choral music I started a couple of months ago.
    2. Finish reading your draft (I’m afraid to comment – afraid it won’t help, that it will show me up as a fraud – AAGGGHHHH!).
    3. Keep plugging away at management by demonstrating lean thinking.
    4. Paint a picture.
    5. Take better care of myself (If I look good, put myself out there, I’ll have to deal with what comes my way – loonnnggggg story).

    “I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people?…”

    1. I actually started a piece for the first time in 10 years, and I keep plugging away, little by little.
    2. I will finish! I know the silly voice is sabotaging me! At least now I know that! I’m sorry!
    3. I use A3s where ever I can for proposals, reports, analyses. I use 5S, kanban, PDCA, and keep reiterating respect, respect respect, respect… go to the source… I try to be conscious of ways I can incorporate this thinking, this paradigm, into my own work so that it’s visible. And I comment, comment, comment, tweet, tweet, tweet, contribute – and here’s the big one – I STARTED MY OWN DISCUSSION IN A WORLD-WIDE GROUP OF COMPOSERS, AND ANOTHER FOR LEAN THINKERS! The response has been gratifyingly active.
    4. I registered for a 1 day workshop for THIS WEEKEND to paint/dry design a COUPLE of paintings.
    5. I’m registered for a 1 day leadership workshop next week that focuses on self care for leaders. See also #3 above.

    You’ve made a difference for me. I still have a long way to go, but I am taking steps. One at a time, John. “He who saves a single life…”

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Irene, for all your generous support and your comments. Would love to meet you or talk via Skype.

      p.s. Have you read any of the works by 99u? You might find them helpful. Or Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck. I found that, in reading all of these books on self-improvement, some of it actually sunk in. 🙂 With all the interesting work you’ve listed (choral music?!), you’re already doing so much more than most could hope for. The rest is practice executing and keeping the lizard brain at bay which is eminently learnable.

      • Irene Johansen says:

        You’re very welcome. Sorry I haven’t responded sooner – things are a bit weird right now. I would love to meet you too. I haven’t mastered Skype yet – seems I signed up some time ago, but forgot everything I need to sign in again… sigh. I’ll figure it out. Are you on a MAC or iPhone by any chance (i.e., Facetime?). The best… I’m going to be in NYC from May 24-June 1, with a side trip to Raleigh mid-week. Will you be around? I’ll send you my information via Twitter for now… ij

      • Irene Johansen says:

        Ps – I’ll look into 99u – never heard of it, but first glance looked very interesting. I have Martha Beck’s book, I think… time, time, time… I’ll get there. Sound’s like it would do me good right now. Something I am reading right now that helps is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. Very timely. That lizard brain – yes. It rears it’s well-intentioned but interfering head regularly. Just like getting to Carnegie Hall…

  17. Irene Johansen says:

    Kind of tipped my hand there, didn’t I…
    I just re-read the last post, and there it was.

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