Harnessing Fear

I can still feel the butterflies beating rapidly in my belly…


Fear is a basic human survival instinct. Without fear we would surely all be dead. Fear drives us to think about what the worst possible outcome might be. Unfortunately, this can cause us to fixate on that outcome and by doing that we can actually call it into being. This way we can prove ourselves right and reinforce why we should continue to be afraid.


I use fear differently. I use fear as a tool to drive myself, to transform my beliefs and to continue growing and evolving. If I lived in fear, then I would still be living in Cedar Rapids, IA, working as a manager or by now, possibly a Senior Manager. Instead, I used my fear to propel me on a life long journey of exploring new places, meeting interesting people and generally pushing my boundaries of comfort and familiarity. 


I once delivered a presentation on public-private-partnerships. I was asked to present it to the French national Assembly. Being fairly new to life in Europe, I had no idea what I was signing up for or to who I was delivering the presentation. I had been living in England for a little over a year and wasn’t very familiar with European politics or the government structures. After I created my presentation and learned enough French to open my speech in their native language (albeit horribly butchered), I was practicing my presentation when my fiancé said to me with such pride in his eyes, “Wow, I think it’s so great that you’re presenting to the French National Assembly. What a great achievement.”


Innocently, I asked him why he thought it was such a big deal. When he then told me that it was the equivalent to presenting to the House of Congress or something similar, I can tell you the bottom dropped out of my stomach and that liquid cold feeling ran through my veins. The fear began to set in and my mind raced to think about how I could possibly get out of this mess. How had I let myself be so naïve in thinking this was something I could do? I was nearly paralyzed into withdrawing from the event. I phoned my dear friend, Nicole, who lived in Paris at the time and asked her what she thought I should do. She confirmed that the Assembly is the policy arm of the French government and went on to tell me how fantastic she thought it was that I was actually presenting to them. She offered to help me with my French as she speaks several languages fluently. Together we recrafted my opening and polished my presentation to reflect a more French appeal.


I stayed with her for a few days prior to the event and she helped me navigate the Parisian transportation network so I could easily find my way on the day of the presentation. She even escorted me to the Assembly House and encouraged me all the way. Then I was on my own sitting on the stage while the attendees filed into the hall. There were representatives from the main industry operators and Assembly officials all sitting in the front row. I was certain they were ready to pounce on me and make me into fois gras to be served as a snack after the event.


I can still feel the butterflies beating rapidly in my belly and the sweat slicking my palms almost smearing the ink on my presentation notes gripped so tightly in my hands. I was one of several presenters / industry experts that day. We all sat on chairs aligned on the stage with a moderator to facilitate the order and the questions.  The moderator welcomed the audience, queued up the first presenter and my mind drifted listening to him and thinking about my own presentation. How his was so much better and mine was so juvenile and lacked so much depth. His graphics were so incredibly good and mine looked like my son had drawn them. Then the moment came and my name was called as the next to present. I swallowed….hard….stood up…wobbled a little as I took my place behind the podium. Gripping the sides of the stand, I looked out at the audience and said, “Bonjour, je suis es …….”. The rest was a bit of a blur. I remember getting a chuckle during my opening at the expected moment and then I relaxed a bit. I released the death grip of the podium and sailed through the rest of the presentation with grace.


Following my delivery there was period of questions and answers. I artfully responded either directly or through the moderator who also acted as the translator for those who were not adept in English. I noticed there were headsets, much like the ones in Geneva when I had presented there, and a booth of translators located at the back of the room. I was able to answer the questions with ease and many of the participants came up to me following the presentation sessions to congratulate me and tell me how brave I was to open in French. They appreciated my attempt at their language although they also told me I needed to keep practicing.


It was an amazing experience. One that I never would have had if I had allowed fear to rule me. I had to dig deep and reach out to my friend to help me through it. When the realization of what I had taken on had first hit me, I had two choices:


  • Withdraw: people do it all the time. Some family or business emergency comes up and the presenter has to withdraw. I was certain I could come up with a plausible reason to NOT present. The excuses ran the gambit of my son is ill, my company needs me on a major project with critical deadlines, I’m ill with some mysterious disease, my dog sat on my laptop and broke it (oh, wait, I didn’t have a dog at that time).




  • Go through with it: push my boundaries, learn from the experience it would look great on my resume.


I asked myself “What’s the worst that could happen”? They might not like me. They won’t laugh at my joke. They won’t like me butchering their language. My presentation will be laughed at. I could have played it safe and withdrawn from presenting. I didn’t. I decided I would not let fear rule me and even if they didn’t laugh at my joke or like me – so what? As long as I don’t start a riot, then what does it matter that I’m presenting to politicians and industry leaders. I chose to use my fear to spur me into digging deep, asking for assistance and expanding my comfort zone.


I was at a gathering of friends recently when I said to a friend who was telling me about something she was debating about doing. I asked her “What’s the worst that could happen?” Over hearing my comment, another guest interjected with “Oh no, never say that. If you ask that question, then it will happen.” I looked at her for a minute, a little taken aback by her adamant response. I realized in that moment that she was coming from a place of fear. I diplomatically let her know that I didn’t agree with this view because unless we understand what the parameters are we will not be able to make a rational decision. I explained that I believe we can chose to focus on the negative (ie. The worst possible outcome) or we can acknowledge it, then decide how we feel about it and make an informed decision. She listened intently and told me she had never thought about in those terms. 


When making a decision that can have potentially major consequences, I ask myself two questions:


  • What’s the best possible outcome?
  • What’s the worst possible outcome?


This gives me a spectrum within which I can then operate. I’m sure my years of project management and risk mitigation have a lot to do with how I handle fear. Instead of letting it rule me, I use it to drive me towards the best possible outcome. And I put mitigation strategies in place to address any potential detours that may come up along the way. I also ask myself if the worst possible outcome is something I could live with. If not, then I know that I need to do something differently. What I don’t do is allow it to paralyze me.


I encourage you to use fear to explore new and exciting opportunities. Work with it to drive yourself forward. Learn how to harness the energy and channel it to enable you to live an extraordinary life full of wonder.