Dare to Scare

One night having dinner with two of my sons during the last school year, my youngest asked for some help with school. As they age, the asks for help have largely transitioned from school questions to requests for money or a ride. It was a refreshing ask, so I eagerly responded in the affirmative acknowledging my interest in helping. I then asked what subject are we working on. It’s for English. His Grade 9 class is preparing to present a speech. OK, what’s the topic? Have you been assigned a specific question or subject to cover? “Nope. It can be about anything.”

As we talked about the subject and what kinds of content to include, I asked when would be his turn to present. My son confessed that the project was due by the end of the week. However, students didn’t actually have to present. I was confused. I didn’t understand how we could be working on preparing a presentation that wasn’t a presentation. Introducing the assignment the teacher noted that giving talks in front of others can be difficult. The teacher counselled that students who were uncomfortable presenting didn’t have to. They could choose to present just to her, or turn in a video of them giving the talk at home where they may be more comfortable. The teacher wouldn’t then play these videos for the class, but would evaluate alone on her own. Alternately, if this was too difficult the student could just hand in their notes for their “presentation”.

The presentation that didn’t need to be presented was perplexing. What was the point of this approach? Has there been some kind of radical revolution in educational strategies? I went from amused to bemused to confused. I then wanted to refuse this approach. Of course speaking in front of others is difficult. It has been since the beginning of time and always will be. Of course our hearts will flutter a little while our palms will sweat. Yes, it’s perfectly natural to have your voice quiver a little while you feel your throat constricting. There’s no getting around these facts. Force yourself to move forward when feeling a little uncomfortable. The only way you will ever feel more comfortable doing difficult things is if you do the difficult things. This is the point. This, too, isn’t news but fact that has followed all of us since forever. If we cave in to our discomfort and seek security all the time, we’ll be doing very little.

Author John Shedd wrote, “A ship is safe in a harbor, but that is not what ships are built for.” We don’t benefit from safety. We don’t benefit from moving away from challenge. Fulfillment and skill are never achieved by doing less. This seemed like the worst possible message to send to our kids. Yes, you’re scared. Being scared is scary and must be avoided. Don’t do things that scare you. What? No. This can’t be true. These kids aren’t in kindergarten anymore. They are well in to their teenage years. They are only a few years away from graduating. This must be some kind of joke I thought.

What kind of education is this? Shouldn’t the lesson be that yes, things are scary. However, with proper preparation you can handle it. Yes, fear is perfectly normal and natural. It reflects an indication that you care about an outcome. This is a good thing. Imagine the feelings of accomplishment you will feel when you face your fear and make progress. Here are some things in your control to work on that will give you the best chance to succeed at performing the task you care about. Isn’t this the lesson we want to lean in to? Isn’t this more empowering?

Granted the guidance offered from the teacher may be intended to help. However, this is help that hurts. We’re creating cowards darting from discomfort while craving comfort. We’re not even trying to cultivate courage. We’re actively discouraging it. Oh, honey, if you feel the slightest bit of discomfort, you don’t have to do this. Focus on your feelings. If it doesn’t feel good it must not be good. Discomfort is to be dreaded not embraced. Avoidance instead of exposure. This message breaks my heart. Fear wins, you’ll lose. Every. Single. Time.

How can you know yourself when you hide from yourself? How can you grow yourself when you shrink from your shadow? We’ve watered down courage. Now it’s brave to talk about being scared. No need to confront it. No need to do something. Just talk about how you feel scared and you’re being brave. The scariest thing we do nowadays is watch a scary movie. This isn’t a good thing. Fleeing from our butterflies makes us less free. We become chained to our fears and at the mercy of bad feelings.

Memorizing things and presentations used to be a larger part of primary education. Presentations remain a part of many university programs and continue to be needed in the real world. Learning things rarely gets easier with time. If you don’t confront a challenge now, you’re likely just deferring when you will be forced to face it at a later date. Shouldn’t we be encouraged to get comfortable with discomfort earlier in our lives than later? It wasn’t long ago I took an insurance sales course in Dallas where the core method was memorization. The program revolved around teaching us a script to use in conversations with prospects. We were taught the script, encouraged to memorize it, and told that we would be called out from the group (over 100 participants), and compelled to present our scripted conversation in front of the group. The threat of this alone heightened every sense we had to pay attention. We were scared into learning. None of it felt good or easy. The emotional intensity associated with having to memorize and perform publicly led to deeper learning. If this was our first exposure to speaking in front of a group, it would have been that much harder. The more we expose ourselves to an experience, the easier the experience becomes.

In my teenage years, going to the arcade was great fun. Having a handful of quarters offered a heap of happiness. My favorite game was Robotron 2084. Robotron presented players the opportunity to go against bad guys while trying to rescue humans. It was set up as a series of levels called waves. Each wave offered greater challenge than the prior. The number of bad guys grew. The capabilities of bad guys increased. And, the speed of the bad guys sped up, too. Your capabilities also improved. You had better guns and speed. However, you remained one against many. Making progress advancing through the waves was the objective and met with feelings of accomplishment. All of the challenges the foes brought forth were welcomed. Yes, it may be frustrating to get beat down by bigger, faster, and more bad guys. But, no, it wasn’t a turn off. To the contrary, it bred deeper commitment. Confronting the challenge was the appeal. Threats that were viewed as real fuelled zeal. So many games that capture our attention and pull us in share the element of increasing challenge. We want to work to improve. That’s the fun.

A fact of life is that fear is a precursor to progress. Yes, we should vet the threat. But there’s no need to sweat or fret the threat. Respect it, review it, craft a plan, and get after it. If you have any ambition and want any hope at achieving you will benefit by getting better at confronting challenges. Facing fear is an essential element of progress. If you want to improve you need to seek struggle. This applies to anything. In learning, deliberate practice is the term coined by researcher Anders Ericsson as the type of practice required for improving any skill. It is practice that must be done at the edges of our abilities. We don’t improve by doing what we already know how to do. We have to stretch and enter new terrain in order to stimulate our brain for further gain. Learning is best when uncomfortable. So, too, it is with gaining strength. If you want to get stronger, you’ve got to push more than you are used to. Strength gains follow application of the progressive overload. It is by increasing resistance that results ensue. Achievement depends on adversity. If these aren’t obvious, consider how we become immune to some illnesses. What’s the COVID carrot for which we’re now clamoring? Vaccines offer a way to eliminate or reduce the risk of exposure to a disease. It is through exposure to small doses of the disease that we build resistance to it. Vaccines introduce a small amount of the problem into our life with the intent to make us stronger against it. Exposing ourselves to problems is the precise way to develop strength. The only vaccine to toughen us up against challenges in life isn’t a pill, it’s a choice. A choice to face the thing that scares you.

Revisiting my son’s English class, only one member opted to present. One. 1 out of 25. That’s it. This young lady that spoke to the class had suffered a form of cancer as a young child which resulted in her having one of her legs amputated around the knee. Her courage has been tested on a far deeper level than most from the earliest years of her life. She’s seen much deeper difficulty over the years. She has learned firsthand that struggle is an inevitable part of life. Resilience isn’t born from retreat. We don’t develop callouses from doing nothing. Our internal strength only follows our willingness to confront challenge. For her any discomfort associated with talking in front of a group pales in comparison to the challenges she’s faced in her past.

Isn’t pain and struggle an inevitable part of life? Don’t we owe our kids and each other the duty of introducing this fact sooner than later? Those of us lucky enough to hit their 40s and further know that it isn’t done without encountering a few aches and pains along the way.  The silver lining in this cloud is if you’re willing to stand up, you more likely to stand out. If you’re willing to do what others won’t (W2D WOW), you will distinguish yourself. When others choose no, that’s a sure sign to say go. As we approach Halloween, instead of wondering what scary costume to wear, consider giving some thought instead to what scary things could I confront that will make me better? Is there a course you could take? Could you offer to lead a presentation? What would you do if you weren’t afraid isn’t the question. A better one to ask yourself is what is so important to you that you’re willing to take steps towards it even if you’re afraid? Or what fear could you face? Let’s learn from our stand out student and step forward to try something tough.