“Yeah, you seem pretty damn fearless.”
Someone in a supervisory position at the hospital said that to me last week in the middle of a meeting as we discussed a challenging patient situation.
I had nothing eloquent to say in response, and in fact, I’m pretty sure my initial response was to smile down at the table and briefly shake my head in disbelief.
After a moment I pulled my head out of my ass, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Thank you. That’s a huge compliment and it really means a lot to me.”
And that was an understatement – it was truly one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given, and I doubt I will ever forget that moment. But as much as it meant to hear such a huge compliment come from someone I really respect and admire, those words meant the world to me for another reason. They haven’t always been true.
In fact, for a lot of my life, those words would have described the opposite of who I was. Because as much as I may come across as “fearless” these days, I spent most of my 27 years on earth being afraid of almost everything.
First, I was afraid of dogs.
Then I was afraid of germs, and illness, and death.
Of talking to my peers and making friends.
Of speaking my mind.
Of driving on freeways.
Of being around people I don’t know well.
Of being alone.
Of being different.
Of being too much.
Of not being enough.
Of being inexperienced.
Of making mistakes.
Of branching out too far.
Of putting down roots.
Of feeling pain.
Of being imperfect.
Whether or not it was always obvious, there was almost always something that scared me out of my mind. I knew how to challenge those fears, and some of them – like the abject terror I felt as a kid when I was around dogs – I overcame pretty quickly. But other fears always came in to take their place. It wasn’t until in my early twenties, around the time I finished my bachelor’s, that something started to change. I started to realize how fear was holding me back from doing what I wanted to do and becoming the woman I wanted to be. It wasn’t so much the individual fears as it was the fact that FEAR was a theme in my life and it was something I allowed to dominate the narrative I was writing for myself. I had been allowing fear to drive my decision-making processes. At some point, I started challenging that narrative and treating fear as a passenger who was along for the ride rather than the one who was driving the car.
Fear became an emotion I felt rather than a rule that I obeyed.
And with a lot of time, a lot of practice, and a lot of mistakes, I found that fear had shifted from the shotgun seat all the way back to the trunk. It wasn’t a linear process – there were plenty of times that I gave in to my fears and had to fight my way back into the driver’s seat – and it isn’t that I don’t ever feel afraid of anything. There are plenty of things that scare the living daylights out of me. But I don’t make my decisions based on fear, and I don’t let my fears dictate how I live. My narrative is absent of fear because I have chosen to be defined by other things – my faith, my passion, my work ethic, my ambition, my creativity, my skills, and the things I love. The only fear I let drive me is the fear of holding back and not living the life for which I was created.
For the first couple decades of my life, fear often ruled me, until I decided to ignite a mutiny against fear and fight back. Now, as William Ernest Henley said, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” My compass is set not on fear but on the values by which I want to live, the virtues for which I want to be known, and the legacy I want my life to leave.
In that sense, I reckon you could say I’m pretty damn fearless.
Even five years ago I would have laughed if someone said that to me, because it would have been so absurdly untrue. But I’m not the same woman I was five years ago. Today, I am fearless, because I choose to live bravely no matter how loudly fear calls my name. And if I can do that, so can you. Whatever your fear, it can be conquered, and whatever the obstacle, it can be overcome. Don’t you dare let your feelings tell you otherwise, and don’t let yourself hold back from making changes to be the person you want to be.
Because if a scared little girl from Tennessee can grow up to be a woman who is called “fearless,” anything is possible.
Whoever it is you want to be, whatever it is you want to achieve, and however it is you need to change, I hope that you will make the choice today to start taking steps in the direction.
Maybe that means having a hard conversation.
Maybe that means letting go of a stagnant relationship.
Maybe that means taking a stand publicly for something unpopular.
Maybe that means rearranging your financial priorities.
Maybe that means learning a new skill and being a beginner.
Maybe that means exercising discipline over comfortable areas of your life.
Whatever it is you need to do, I hope you’ll take those first steps today, even if it’s terrifying. You don’t have to feel fearless to live fearlessly.
Feelings – and especially fear – don’t get to captain your ship, my friend.
So be a captain.
Chart your course.
Steer your ship.
Face the waves.