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It doesn’t matter if you’re about to make a presentation, ski down your first black diamond run, or ask someone out on a date.

To your body, it’s all the same. Your  heart does its best to dislodge itself from your chest, your knees go wobbly, and you start to wonder where the nearest bathroom might be.

But to your mind, there’s a difference. There’s fun excitement and scary excitement.

When you’re about to receive your first kiss, your mind views those fluttery butterfly feelings as something desirable.

But when you’re queasy at the thought of putting in your two weeks notice or telling a co-worker that he’s wrong, there’s that voice that screams: abort, abort, abort!

Living is about daring. We want the thrill of being our best, of being truly appreciated for our work, of connecting with others in a deeper way.

So why do we go out of our way to avoid the things we’re scared of? Sure, we need a healthy balance between butterflies and real anxiety, but I think many of us have forgotten that fear has a purpose.

In fact, used correctly, fear might be the secret to your success. Just ask Bruce Springsteen.

Becoming the boss of (stage) fright

In a previous post, I mentioned Roger Love is my voice coach. He’s also the voice coach for many of the top names in the music industry, which means he’s got some awesome stories. Lessons with Roger aren’t just instructive, they’re riveting!

Maybe you won’t find it surprising to hear that even the biggest stars, even the ones who have been performing for decades, deal with stage fright. I mean, who wouldn’t be a bit scared to walk in front of thousands of adoring fans and try to live up to all those expectations?

But what if I told you (or, more accurately, Roger told you), that those stars aren’t working to overcome their fears, they’re trying to enhance them.

Barbara Streisand rants and raves about how she hates live performances until she is thoroughly worked up before stepping on stage. Bruce Springsteen waits until that moment just before he’s about to throw up.

As I’ve said many, many times on this blog, the secret to achieving your wildest dreams is to search for what makes you afraid and then go do it.

All those heart palpitations and sweaty palms that come with being scared also infuse your body with strength and perception (well, okay, not the sweaty palms–that’s just an annoying side effect). You’ll perform better when you’re afraid. You’ll plan more and you’ll work harder.

This is the reason I quit my part-time consulting gig to start my business.  Not because I needed the time, but because I needed the motivation. I knew I’d never perform at my peak until I had to. That’s what fear does to you.

As I demonstrated in this recent video case study, doing what you’re afraid of is also the quickest route to feeling that self-pride, one of the cornerstones of success.

People are starting to embrace the idea that you need to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” as I like to say. But there’s one more nugget to that advice I realized I’ve been leaving out.

One important caveat

When I went to the Air Force Academy, one of the things I was really excited about was jumping out of an airplane (affectionately referred to by students simply as “jump”).

Excited, that is, until the first day of the course. We were watching a motivational video showing former students at the intersection of plane and air. It’s not like I’d never seen videos of sky divers before, but for the first time I pictured myself in their place–and I was gob-smackingly frightened.

So I purposely flunked the fitness test and happily rode back to my dorm with two recently injured students, one with a broken arm and the other a sprained ankle.

You don’t have to be an “adrenaline junky” to put fear to use for you. Clearly, when it comes to physical feats, I’m closer to … ahhh, what to call it … a wimp. And quite proud of it really.

Embracing fear is valuable, but only if it’s holding you back from something you want to do.

Fear has a purpose. It’s meant to keep you alive. But being alive doesn’t mean avoiding risk.  If that were the case, early humans would have starved to death because they were too scared to take down the wildebeest.

If you’re always saying you’d travel the world if you could, or start a business when you have a financial safety net, or pursue your passion when you’re retired, you need to ask yourself one big question:

Is it worth fighting for?

Maybe it isn’t.

I certainly never regretted walking away from jump school (with fully functioning limbs and joints).

But if you have a dream knocking, believe it or not, fear might the only one who can open the door for you.

I applied to exactly 3 colleges: the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, and Westpoint. I’d spent a summer at the Air Force Academy, and felt it was a perfect match.

But to get in, even girls had to do at least one pull-up on the fitness test. I trained for months and months on a home-made pull-up bar, but couldn’t do it.  When my father drove me to the test center an hour and a half away, the car was heavy with anticipation. Like Bruce Springsteen, I thought I might throw up.

You know the ending. I did that pull-up and nearly another. My fear made me stronger. My fear pushed me higher than I thought possible.

And it can do the same for you, if you trust in it and yourself.

You’re looking up at that bar day after day, just like I was, and thinking it looks awfully far away.

You’re afraid to fight.

Which is terrific. Because it means when you do step up to your dream, you’re a lot more likely to get it.

And you’ll never feel more alive.

Editor’s note:  Need help embracing your fear & winning the prize of a dream career? The No Regrets Career Academy can help. See for yourself!

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38 Responses to Think Fight, Not Flight

    • On
    • September 13, 2011 at 10:21 am
    • Atif Agha
    • Said...

    Hi Jennifer,
    I ran into your website through zenhabits and I am instantly impressed. I really like the concept. Everyday bright, sunshine and hope. Beautiful, simple and pure ideas. Your treasure hunt for career change was very interesting. Keep up the good work!

    Thank you.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Atif. I’ve always been impressed by the readers of Zen Habits. Welcome and I look forward to our future discussions. :)

    • On
    • September 13, 2011 at 11:29 am
    • Garry Stafford
    • Said...

    Jennifer, excellent framing of fear! I love this:

    “Fear has a purpose. It’s meant to keep you alive. But being alive doesn’t mean avoiding risk. If that were the case, early humans would have starved to death because they were too scared to take down the wildebeest.”

    So true. But sometimes I find myself avoiding, making excuses, procrastinating (all fear) until that point of acting. It’s once you get REALLY hungry that you look at the wildebeest and say, “You’re dinner dude!”

    This is timely for me. I’ve some life modifying things coming up that, to a degree, I’ve avoided. Time’s up though, and I get that I-think-I’m-gonna-throw-up-feeling once in a while. But I’m getting really hungry. So it’s time to sharpen the spear and do some hunting.

    Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Not sure who said that but it too found a place in my heart.

    Thank you for the word picture and the encouragement.

    • Garry,
      It’s absolutely time for you to go get your dinner. No more excuses. Your stomach won’t take no for an answer.

      Report back when you’ve taken that first step. It’s always the hardest…but also the (al)most satisfying (let’s face it, the last step is pretty satisfying too!).

  1. So glad you’re back, Jen! I’ve missed you (& posts like this one).
    It makes me think of a favorite Martha Beck quote: “The criterion by which you should decide which dangers to face, and which to avoid, is not your chance of succeeding but the depth of your desire.”

    • Thanks, Caroline. I really like that Martha Beck quote too. So true!

    • On
    • September 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm
    • Erica
    • Said...

    An interesting book on fear is Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear. While it deals with life or death situations, mostly, it also tells you that most people ignore their fear and do nothing. The ones who survive listen to their fear and use it to propel them to do something. I’ve never applied it to just life, though, before now. I’ve been struggling with fear as I try to live life the way I want, and I have to remind myself constantly that it’s worth fighting though the jelly-legged I-want-to-go-home-now feeling.

    • Great point, Erica. The only way to survive is to stop ignoring your fear and use it to your advantage. Early humans knew that instinctively, but as our society has grown safer but also more risk adverse, I think it’s really put a disconnect between our natural and rational responses to fear.

      Are you doing the Everyday Courage challenges? I think they really help. I still regularly do them myself, and even my husband has started doing them as well! (but don’t tell anyone, I’m pretty sure it would ruin his 6’5″ reputation!)

  2. Hi Jen – Good to see you back! I love London! wonderful city! I am in Seattle for the week speaking at a conference. It’s great! I used to be very afraid of public speaking, but I have done it so much now that I am just not anymore…it’s fun and I love to connect!

    take care, Kathy

    • Absolutely true, Kathy. The more you do what you’re afraid of, the less scary it becomes. Takes the teeth right out of the tiger!

    • On
    • September 15, 2011 at 11:16 am
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    Great to have you back Jen!

    I’m finding I was braver earlier in my life and now I tend to hold back more. Maybe I’m just getting tired, or have enough experience to stop for a moment and really examine what it is I’m considering.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting wimpy just a bit more thoughtful about the consequences than I’ve been in the past.

    By the way… I couldn’t do a pull up if you had a gun to my head. 😉

    • It’s wonderful to be back, Barbara. I honestly missed it.

      That’s really interesting that you find you hold back more, especially considering all the trials and tribulations you’ve successfully navigated! I do know (from personal experience) that constantly challenging yourself, either on purpose or due to fate, gets tiring. The key is taking those sabbaticals, and while I took a break from blogging, moving to another continent certainly wasn’t a break from fear! So I hear you. A break is good every now and then, at any age!

  3. Loved the story about the pull up. I can relate. I’m training for my black belt test in November and I’m a long way from being able to meet all the fitness requirements, like 200 sit ups. I can usually do about 60-80. One night at the end of class, the teacher had us all pair up and do sit ups. No one was paired with me, so Master Dan plopped down and we locked ankles. Well, I did 120 sit ups that night! I kept going till he told everyone to stop. (By that time, he and I were the only ones still going.) There was no way I was going to quit with him as my partner! I think I could have done 200 that night!

    By the way, I wrote something on my blog today about thanking people who have helped you. Months ago, I had a technical question about my blog, and you very graciously helped me work through the steps I needed to take. I remember how quickly and generously you responded to my request for help. You were already a very successful blogger and I was just starting. You made a big impression on me that I haven’t forgotten. So thank you!

    • Oh Galen, that’s a wonderful story about how fear works for you, not against you! It’s one of the reasons I think having a coach or trainer, not just in sports but for all sorts of goals and challenges, works so well. Who wants to look weak/dumb/scared/whatever in front of their coach?!

      Thanks for the compliment in return. Helping people is honestly a joy, especially ones as nice and thoughtful as you. It was my pleasure!

  4. Hi Jen,

    You always know how to write like you are right there inside of my head. You know my thoughts perfectly.

    I remember when I finally had my current job lined up and I was finally going to be able to leave my previous job that I was finding less than fulfilling.

    Even though everything about the new job was positive and the right thing, I still was scared to death of telling my manager I was putting my two weeks in.

    I never regretted my decision, and I’m so glad I chose to fight.

    Great post.

    Congrats once again on the Versatile Blogger Award.

    Keep up the top notch work.


    • Bryce,

      This: You always know how to write like you are right there inside of my head.

      is honestly the nicest thing you can say to a writer. So thank you for that, and Versatile Blogger Award. It means a lot to keep such good company. :)

    • On
    • September 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm
    • Grady Pruitt
    • Said...

    I like this post! Seems like everyone is trying to avoid or get rid of fear, but it really can be a powerful motivator. When I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo, I know I feel fear about if my writing was good enough or whether anyone would read my work. As a cub scout leader, I’ve felt fear when it was time to get up and lead a ceremony. Fear can be useful in helping you to get the most of yourself.

    I forget where I heard it, but I recently heard someone say that fear and excitement were the same emotion, just labeled differently. So frame your fear as excitement, and see where it takes you!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Exactly, fear and emotion are the same emotion (at least to our bodies). We just have to get over the negative mental image we’ve put on fear and instead put it to good use. I love that you’re teaching this lesson to your “cubs”!

    • On
    • September 16, 2011 at 2:18 am
    • Linda
    • Said...

    I was initially wondering why you chose that image…:).

    I love that you included the importance of listening to/measuring your fear. It’s all well and good to be badass, but don’t we all want to escape with our limbs intact?

    This reminded me of being a competitive gymnast, many moons ago. Occasionally our team would work out at a rival’s gym (for the life of me I can’t remember why? Exposure, breaking up monotony, facing fears???). Anyway, there was this girl named Stacy who was absolutely, gob-smackingly fearless. She would throw tricks that only Olympians mastered. One day I overheard my coach whisper to another coach that she had nerves of steel but the skill set of an amateur.

    Perhaps there’s varying degrees of feeling alive…

    In the end, I believe the definitive barometer is to decide if it’s worth fighting for, as you mentioned.

    You’re so Seth Godin, Jen:).

    • Oh Linda, you honor me too much. If I were Seth Godin, my posts would packs their punch about 800 words shorter. LOL

    • On
    • September 16, 2011 at 11:00 am
    • Cat Alford
    • Said...

    Jen, what a great reminder of the power of a little adrenaline. Fear is completely underrated well, because we’re afraid of it! I felt this most recently when my husband and I moved out of the US a month ago. Everything was great. We were on an adventure. We sold everything, and packed our things. We were awesome. Then, on the plane, we both stared at each other and asked, “Oh my God, what are we DOING?” We were afraid. We kept being afraid when we touched down. But, we pushed ourselves and a month later, we’re enjoying things down here. Your post helped me realize that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt this healthy dose of fear. I’m anxious to see how to use it in other aspects of my life, although I probably will skip the sky diving just like you! 😉 Thanks, Jen!
    Cat Alford

    • That’s so funny you say that, because I had the exact same experience!! Moving to London was a lifelong dream, but while waiting for my final flight out of Chicago, I had to steel myself not to go running out of the airport! Definitely a fight, not flight experience. You’re absolutely right–if practiced enough, this can have huge impacts across your life. It’s hard, no doubt, but well worth the effort!

      Thanks, Cat!

      • Too funny. Glad to know I’m not the only one! Have a great weekend.

    • On
    • September 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm
    • Dawn Lennon
    • Said...


    Another wonderful post on overcoming our fears. “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill is just about my favorite career/business book. Hill was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie to study (over a 20-year period) the most successful men (they were all men)of the day to discover their shared success factors.

    Along the way Hill learned that these men either avoided or conquered “six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another.” Here they are:

    Fear of poverty
    Fear of criticism
    Fear of ill health
    Fear of loss of love of someone
    Fear of old age
    Fear of death

    He reminds us, just as you do here, that “Fears are nothing more than states of mind.”

    What all this means is that overcoming OUR fears is not something unique to us. We have plenty of company.

    Well done, as always. ~Dawn

    • You know, I’m embarrassed to admit that Napoleon Hill’s classic is one book I haven’t read. Your comments will make me pick it up (long overdue!). Categorizing fear is something I’ve always been interested in. I think I would change his statement slightly to say fear is a state of being, one you can cower from or use to your advantage.

      Thanks, Dawn, as always for comments that make me think more deeply about the subject!

    • On
    • September 18, 2011 at 7:47 am
    • Adam Godet
    • Said...

    This is an outstanding post. As someone moonlighting a side business/passion and working in cube farm by day…it’s a big motivator.

    • Awesome, Adam. Don’t give up on the dream. It’s okay to try different paths to get there, but never give up on the dream. High five for embracing your fear!

    • On
    • September 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm
    • Daria
    • Said...

    Fabulous! (as usual) And gave me new insight into why I’m putting myself in a position of fear – I think it’s to motivate myself to do what I really want with full force gusto rather than having a safety net…hmm, will have to think about it a little more.

    • Exactly, Daria. I think your challenge is to not try to do too much at once (it’s my challenge too, so I feel comfortable telling you that). :)

    • On
    • September 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm
    • Tavo
    • Said...

    When you wrote “Living is about daring” I immediately thought of the British Special Air Service (SAS) motto “Who Dares Wins.” Thanks for the “kick in the pants.” I will dare.

    • Excellent! I hope you’ll share some of your daring with us. I always love to hear about everyday courage.

    • On
    • September 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm
    • Alma
    • Said...

    Hi Jennifer. This is my first time visiting your blog I came across it through Zenhabits.com. Thanks for writing about this. I need to take more risks.

    I love the way you said that when you ‘step up to your dream, it makes you feel alive.’

    • It’s absolutely true that when you acknowledge and try to do something deeply meaningful to you, it’s both exhilarating and scary. Kind of like a roller-coaster of your own making, but with much better perks!

      Welcome to Everyday Bright–I hope we’ll be seeing more of you!

    • On
    • September 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm
    • Alma
    • Said...

    Yes. :)

    • On
    • September 26, 2011 at 4:35 pm
    • Arun Iyer
    • Said...

    Hi Jen,

    I came across your site via zenhabits and the first article that i read impressed me and touched me! Great work!


    • Thanks, Arun. Compliments are always appreciated, as are comments. I hope you’ll continue to stick around and participate in the discussion. Welcome! :)

  5. Pingback: JulianSchrader.de | Interesting Links for September 30, 2011

    • On
    • September 21, 2015 at 4:52 am
    • john
    • Said...

    Straight to the point and i found it nice to read up on, i hope to use this in my life to better myself thank you.