Fear.less this month

Ishita and Clay’s second edition of Fear.Less came out yesterday.  Inspiration, love, passion, beauty, delivered to you by email for free, once a month, no strings attached.

Read it because you want to be inspired.

Read it because you know, in your heart, that it’s time to lead.

Read it because you know that the voice inside your head, the one that tells you you can’t, is just plain wrong.

Read it because this is what magazines will look like in 10 years (or maybe 5, or maybe 2).

Read it because it helps to be reminded, by conductor Ben Zander, not to look for courage, but to look for love.

Read it because Suzanne Matthiessen is right, we do have a huge amount of control over what we feel.

Read it because it’s motivating to watch Chris Guillebeau live his dream of a different life in which he travels the world and tells stories.

Read it because author Julia Cameron, who has written more than 21 books, speaks from a place of authenticity when she says that she’s come to see fear as a companion.

Read it to because documentary photographer Platon gets right to the heart of the role his own authenticity plays in taking portraits.

Read it because Immaculee Ilibagiza, who hid for 91 days in a bathroom during the Rwandan genocide, has something to teach all of us about fear, faith, and forgiveness.

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School teaches

That expertise is out there and that it is narrowly defined.

That we should narrow our focus and specialize.

That if you, the student, don’t know the answer, that there’s an expert who knows better than you.

It’s a sharpen-your-number-2-pencils mindset.  It’s lessons from last centuries’ economy.  And I worry that as we try to improve education we’re focused on bringing as many people as possible up last centuries’ standard when what we need is 21st century aspirations.

It’s easy for me as a parent to find which schools are most likely to produce high SAT scores and good college admissions – easy to find schools that do a good job of teaching kids to do well on tests and get into other schools.

What if you want to find the schools that are best at fostering creativity, curiosity, and right-brain thinking?  Where do you even begin to look?

Closing thoughts from renowned photographer Platon from fear.less:

I came to realize that it’s actually irrelevant how anybody else does it if you’re looking for a formula to apply to yourself. The truth is, everyone’s journey is different, everyone’s personality is different, and everyone’s talent or weaknesses are different.


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Whence “fear”?

So what’s with all this talk about fear anyhow?

A lot of friends contacted me directly about my last two posts, asking one of two things:

1. Were you writing about me?

2. What are you so afraid of, anyhow?

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction.  First, because it’s a little taboo to admit that you have real fears.  And second, because all of us – but especially us over-schooled folks who have been rewarded throughout our lives for understanding the rules and playing by them – were taught to internalize fear.  Fear can drive you to get good grades.  Fear can get you into the right schools.  Fear can make you a good employee – for a while, at least.

(And I’m not saying that being terrified gets you success.  I’m saying that staying within the lines – first at school, and then at work – works pretty well in most places for at least a while.  And staying within the lines and following all the rules can teach you to be afraid of breaking out, afraid of putting yourself in a situation where there are no lines or rules.)

So why is fear on my mind right now?  It’s because a friend and great supporter of mine has been asking me to look myself in the mirror and figure out what’s keeping me from that next professional breakthrough.

So what’s my answer?  Since I’m pretty good at explaining things (to myself as much as to others) my first reaction is full of explanations: “Well, it’s because…” I begin.

And there are, to be sure, good reasons.  But if I think there’s a kernel of truth in the question I’m being asked, if I think it’s possible that being more fearless would help, isn’t it appropriate to explore:  How much do I believe these explanations?   Do I believe them completely?  Do I believe I’m acting like I really want to break through (which is different from thinking and saying I want to break through)?  And by acting, I mean structuring all my time and all my days around getting there – and being willing to sacrifice the urgent for the important?

Am I doing a good job?  Yes.  Is what I want to accomplish hard? Yes. Important? Yes.  Worth putting myself on the line for? Yes.

So am I doing everything I could?  No, probably not.

I bet you’re in the same situation: you’re doing a good enough job too.   You want to accomplish hard, important things that are worth putting yourself on the line for.  And you too could do more than you are right now, you could commit and re-commit yourself, and doing so would help you get there.

And if I can pass along the nudge that I’m getting to all of you…    Well then I’ve done my part to give a gift as valuable as the one I’ve received.

So that’s what all the talk about fear is about.  It’s a gift.

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The fear reels

Buddhists have a name for the constant chatter in our minds, the reel that keeps playing, pretending to be in the background, talking through our fears – they call it the “monkey mind.”

The monkey mind is the stream from one thought to the next to the next (“what did she mean by that email?…what does she think of me anyway?…I’m not sure I can pull this off…what if we don’t, then what…?…).  But it’s a treadmill – you never get anywhere, never reach any conclusions.

It’s pernicious because it’s pervasive and passive – so you may never confront it head on, and never understand how much it is holding you back.

I’ve found two pieces of advice helpful in taking this on.  The first was suggested by a yoga teacher years ago.  He said, at the start of class,“Take all the things that are worrying you, that are troubling and stressful and on your mind, and leave them outside of class – on the sidewalk.  Just for the duration of class.  I promise you they’ll be there waiting for you when class is over.”

I love this because it’s so practical and it’s actually asking less of us, so it feels possible: don’t stop worrying forever, don’t pretend that you will simply rise above.  Just commit to leaving the worries aside for 90 minutes. By promising yourself that you get to go back to your worries, you discover that it is easier to let go of them.  And sometimes, leaving them aside temporarily can free you from them permanently.

There’s another approach, equally deliberate, which is the opposite of letting go of the chatter: go straight towards the chatter, address the thoughts and take them all the way to resolution.  Instead of letting go of the loop, you break through by moving forward and making a commitment to a resolution.  The circle is broken, and the next time the thoughts start, you have broken the reel, and you’re free.

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Fear-less training

What if you decided that the one thing you care most about is being less fearful?  If this mattered more than anything else, what would you do?

(I don’t mean fear of real things, like jumping out of planes or off of cliffs or in front of tigers.  I mean fear of doing things you know you want to do and can do and should do…but don’t do).

How many times would you commit to confronting the fearful situation this month?  This year?

How much time would you spend articulating, to people you trust (mentors, friends, spouses, supervisors, your dog), the thing you’re fearful of and why?

Would you write out what you’re afraid of somewhere?  Would you put it down on paper so you could look it square in the eyes, try it on for size, and see how mean and scary it really is (or isn’t)?

Would you start more things?  Would you send them out more quickly?  Would you figure out where you sabotage yourself just when you’re getting off the ground?  Would you discover that you’re the only one who’s convinced you can’t do it?

The first thing, I think, is deciding – really deciding – that you want to be less fearful.

Once you’ve decided that, what would you do?

(For example, would you say, “Yeah, that’s interesting,” and then go on to the next blog you read or the next email?)

I know I would, and will, do more than I’m doing now.


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The toothless monster

Speaking of fear, just recently something exceptional just happened to me:  I had the absolutely worst fundraising meeting I’ve had since starting my job at Acumen Fund three years ago.  It’s not worth going into the specifics…suffice it to say it was unpleasant and transactional in the worst way.  Paint your worst picture of what a fundraising meeting could be, and that was this meeting.

I admit, I was a little shaken for a little while.  I had to vent some to a couple of folks to clear the air.

And then, almost right away, it was done.  The feeling was gone, the meeting was in the past.   And no real harm was done.  The actual experience of the thing I feared – the thing that can keep me and you from picking up the phone or putting yourself out there or standing in front of an audience or pitching a new, crazy idea or going with your gut – was exposed.  And it was so much less powerful or meaningful than the picture I’d drawn over time.

There’s the lurking monster I imagined, and the reality that it had no teeth.

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100% of the time

A while back I wrote about the “125% rule,” the idea that having more on your plate than you can really get done as a good thing, because it forces you constantly to triage, to work better and faster and smarter, and to say ‘no’ to things that you shouldn’t really be spending time on.

That post was about work, and this one is about life.  A perfect life is one in which at every moment you are doing exactly what you should be doing.  Whether at work or at home or somewhere in between, you are fully engaged, fully energized, fully yourself.

I’ve never much liked the term “work/life balance” because of the dichotomy it implies – one is good (life), the other is bad (work), and somehow the idea that “work” is anything but “life” is confused at a pretty fundamental level (plus the phrase really is just corporate-speak for “let’s not make people work nights and weekends.”)

I’m much more interested in “balance,” and to me that means living your life in a way that is aligned with your own priorities, beliefs, who you are today, what you value, and who you want to be in the future.

Pulling “balance” off is tricky.  If I break my life up into its component parts – work, spouse, family, friends, time for myself, etc. – it often feels like all of them could use more time.  And if I run that idea over in my head enough times, I flip from a sense of fullness and energy into a perpetual cycle of “I’m not doing enough” in every phase of my life.

Which has led me to ask: if at (nearly) every moment I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, am I even allowed to be stressed about what I’m not getting done?   Because if I’m doing what I need to do at every moment, yet I still have a never-ending list of incomplete “to do’s” in every aspect of my life, it seems like this means one of two things: either I’m spending my time in the right way but have the wrong attitude about what’s possible – and I need to change my aspirations– or I’m not really spending my time in a way that aligns with my priorities.

Or maybe this is just what life feels like in your 30s?

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I’m not much of a glass-breaker, usually.  My natural tendency is to build consensus, get buy-in.  And I’ve kind of had it with this approach.

I’m not planning to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I’m realizing that sometimes I need to get the heck out of my own way.

Before you say to someone, “I thought you might want to know that I’m planning to…” make sure you know why you’re saying it.  Do you need input and approval, or are you really just saying “I’m telling you this because this way you have a chance to say ‘no,’ and if you don’t, it means that you’ve OKed what I’m about to do.”

Nice to have the approval but what happens when:

  1. Folks say no; or
  2. They weigh in with a different opinion, and you need to do something with their advice?

One way to tell why you’re asking: if someone were to say, “no way,” would you do it anyway?  If so, then what are you gaining by asking?

Go ahead, break something.

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Of diving boards and backflips

I was lucky enough to spend some time on vacation last week near a beautiful lake in France.  Crystalline, cool waters, looming mountains all around, and kids everywhere jumping and diving into the water with abandon.

I watched the scene from a floating platform 50 feet out in the lake.  I noticed that the two lifeguards on duty, responsible for more than 100 swimmers, mostly talked to each other.  Parents stayed on the grass, relaxing and chatting.  No one hovered.  And all the while kids from 4 to 14 (and a few who were 44 and 64) bounded off of a high diving board, doing backflip after backflip into the water (often almost landing on one another).  It felt like another era.

Contrast this with the public pools in NY, where I go with my kids, and the constant cacophony of lifeguard whistles, nearly nonstop, telling each and every kid all the rules they are breaking.  No diving, no rollicking, no horseplay, no running. No, no, no, no, no.

It may well be that kids are safer at the public pools in NY, that there are fewer accidents.  But it may also be that all the whistle-blowing and intensive supervision doesn’t do anything at all for safety, but takes a lot of the fun out of childhood.

We often act – especially in the U.S. – as if there’s no harm done in being just a little bit safer, having just a few more precautions.  But it feels a little like the proliferation of low-fat and diet-conscious food while obesity rates soar — somehow we may be barking up the wrong tree, attacking obvious symptoms that have little to do with the real problem.

Sitting on the dock, watching those kids in France bombing into the water, it reminded me of what childhood used to be.  And it made me worry that what we’re really teaching a generation of kids is fear — this at a time when what we need more than ever is audacity and fearlessness.

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