“… they were not really afraid. They were just afraid of being afraid.”
—Malcolm Gladwell
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

When I moved to the U.S. as an international student, I was an engineering major. That’s what was expected of me; it’s what many immigrants were doing at the time. I never wanted to be an engineering major. I just did it because I thought it was the only way I could make a good living and have a decent life in America. Plus, I was afraid to try anything else. Afraid of failing, afraid of making the wrong choice, afraid of disappointing my parents, friends, relatives. You know the story…

As I immersed myself in engineering courseworkwhich I hated, by the wayI forgot why I made the choice to study it in the first place. But perhaps more baffling, I forgot what I was afraid of. I knew that the unknownsuch as pursuing a degree in business, humanities, or artwas scary. I just didn’t remember what was scary about it. I was afraid of making that change because I didn’t want to feel afraid. I was so well-acquainted with the feeling of fear that I failed to look into this more deeply for a long time. I simply accepted my choice.

Questioning the Fear
As happens in college, I grew up. Maybe it was the mediocre grades or maybe it was the misery I felt when studying, but I started to question my choice to study engineering. I became a Resident Advisor (RA) during my second year at school, and this experience sparked something in me. The sense of fulfillment and self worth I felt as a result of helping my classmates and developing relationships as their RA was a stark contrast to the isolation and lack of success I felt in my engineering coursework. It became clear: I was made for something altogether different.

This got me started looking into career paths that were more relational than engineering, eventually leading me toward business. I acknowledged that I loved my psychology and communications courses and started to build off of that. Eventually, my excitement over these courses won over my fear of breaking out of the engineering mold and I switched majors to psychology.

Embracing the Fear
If it were not for the positive experience I had as an RA, I may never have overcome the original fear that guided my decision to major in engineering. I might still be suppressing it to this day.

It’s a common problem for most of us, this fear that drives our decisions and eventually becomes a part of us. My college major decision is just one example from a lifetime of fears, and is the one that most perfectly exemplifies that fear of being afraid. Learning to dismantle the fear (because it’s not real), rather than ignoring that it exists, is the key to overcoming it. It’s a struggle every day, but now that I have knowledge of how my fears could play out, I am aware of what’s influencing me and how I show up as a leader.

What’s Scaring You?
Often our fears are hard-wired deep down, under layers and layers of life.  Often, we are not aware of our fears, or we try to pretend that our fears do not exist. Many times, we just step over or around them, but they are always there. Here are some questions to help you find that hidden, unnamed fear guiding your decisions.

  1. What keeps you up at night?
  2. Have you ever shut down at work? Been unable to finish something or speak up? Can you remember why?
  3. What sorts of things really set you off? Have you ever asked yourself why? Are they tied to a deeper fear, perhaps?
  4. Think back to an early memory of being afraid. It doesn’t have to be a Halloween memory, it could be from early social situations or an experience with a strict teacher. Have you ever gotten over that fear, or do you still carry it with you?
  5. Do certain situations make you very uncomfortable?

Only through identifying and being at peace with those areas that cause us fear, pain, and distress will we be able to effectively deal with life’s reality. What’s been your experience with fears in your own life journey?

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