Tag Archives: self improvement

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.

Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.

Be Great

Each of us can be great — in our own way.  Great human beings don’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ head like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration.  The trick lies in uncovering, then nurturing its seed.

Thanks to technology (and I include publishing), we’ve no shortage of examples — in business, the arts and politics.  We can read, see and hear the stories of people who discovered their gift and then overcame their circumstances, doubts and fears to be bigger, broader and richer (if that’s what they wanted).

Work at being great -- in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Work at being great — in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Many of us have to dig to find our seed of greatness.  Maybe it’s writing, or developing great relationships or designing gardens.  But believing in ourselves — and our unique greatness — is pivotal.  Otherwise, our hands are tied.  We fail to act.  So we have to look for examples and learn from others.

Take entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are energizers.  They charge us up with their self-confidence and sheer drive.  Last week I sat in on a talk by John Arrow, the brilliant young CEO of Mutual Mobile.  Arrow told about his first entrepreneurial effort, a grammar school newsletter that was shut down for profiling students’ popularity.  (Sounds a little like a Facebook prototype, yes?) While his co-conspirators were punished by their parents, he was praised for his business acumen.  That chutzpah — and vision — has taken him far.

Or statesmen.  Nelson Mandela believed in a cause so great it dwarfed the failure and suffering he endured to become an icon of humanitarianism. Bill Keller‘s coverage drew from a 2007 interview.  Mandela was asked how he kept his hatred in check:  “… his answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders cannot afford to hate.”  My sense is Mandela, although born the son of a tribal chief, was not always so adept a diplomat. I listened to a former colleague describe him as a “head knocker.”  If that’s the case, then Mandela had to master his anger to achieve his goals.

Or musicians.  A quote from the late, great Lou Reed, who as a young man had been through electroshock therapy, and in his music never seemed too concerned about popular opinion.  He followed his muse:

I’ve never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are.  You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful.  And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

As we wind down another year, rushing madly along, let’s go for one thing:  Let’s try for greatness.  Or as Steven Pressfield puts it,  … Follow your unconventional, crazy heart.  Do the work.

Perfectionism as the ultimate fake out

If you feel in need of a good, healthy slap in the face, I recommend Andrew Solomon’s brilliant Far from the Tree, a page turner of a book about those among us who are born different — the deaf, dwarves, homosexuals, children of rape.  It’s required reading for the 21st century, especially for people like me who whine when we fall short of (fill in the blank).

Stop worrying and start making yourself and the world around you better.

Stop worrying about being perfect. Start improving.

Solomon’s Tree gives those us blessed to be born in the middle of the bell curve a benchmark with which to measure our own silly self-preoccupations, among which I must say, perfectionism stands out as a colossal waste of energy.

Fortunately, thanks to Brene Brown, population explosion, social media and the first amendment,  perfectionism has fallen out of favor.  Witness the snarky comments about the talented, drop-dead gorgeous Anne Hathaway.  We don’t like to be shown up.

So, quick, while perfection is not trending, let’s try to figure out how to put all the energy we spend worrying about future outcomes into actually trying to make both ourselves and the future better.  Case in point: public speaking has never been easy for me. I can suffer insomnia, panic attacks and temporary amnesia prior to giving a talk.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that effort into preparing?  Wouldn’t it be logical to just talk about what I care about rather than trying to sound like I have it all together?

Ever listen to “From the Top,” the radio show about young musicians?  These kids spend four and five hours a day practicing their art and seem to thrive on the process. They’re focused, fun and innovative.  They don’t whine. I hope they’re the future.  Out with suffering artists and tortured, overly competitive achievers!

On a community level, here in Austin, which has always been a high-volunteer/low donation city, “I Live Here, I Give Here” program sponsored Amplify Austin, a day-long donation marathon, sort of like “1,000 Points of Light” meets Kickstarter.  The result?  $3 million for non-profits.  What an improvement over whining!

The point is that making things (and oneself) better takes a lot of work, but not necessarily self-torture.  Even moving forward is hard.  But consider the alternative.

The other thought is — and this is a separate post — there’s a trick to weaving a story — about oneself, a client or colleague — that makes the process a lot easier — and more fun.  It worked for Jane Austen (who doesn’t want to be Elizabeth Bennet?) and Scheherazade.  Why not us?

So, let it go.  Take a minute and do a little jig.  Recite “The Owl and the Pussycat.”  Go make something better.