#FollowTheFear: Do Things That Scare You


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I used to think that being afraid of everything was a weakness. Then I learned how to use fear to my advantage. Here's how. This is an annotated version of a talk I gave on the Bold Talks stage at Hubspot's Inbound'13 event. See more annhandley.com.

Thanks to:
Doug Kessler
Amy Gahran
Debbie Millman
and Tim Washer for introducing me to the work of improv teacher Del Close, who coined the phrase "Follow the Fear"

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#FollowTheFear: Do Things That Scare You

  1. FOLLOW THE FEAR Ann Handley Author, Speaker, Chief Content Officer AnnHandley.com @marketingprofs
  2. #FollowTheFear This is a talk I gave at Hubspot’s Inbound ‘13. Instead of dumping the slides here and letting you piece together what the heck I talked about, I thought I’d ANN-otate it for you (get it?) in these boxes. Thank you Doug Kessler for the inspiration for this ANN-otation.
  3. NO. #FollowTheFear When Hubspot first asked me to give a talk on its Bold Talks stage – a stage that was to represent an opportunity for attendees to “discover bold and powerful talks from a diverse group of exciting and influential people….” This was my first impulse: Actually, that’s not quite true. My first impulse was…
  4. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. Just Hell, NO. #FollowTheFear
  5. Hi. Ann Handley Author, Speaker, Chief Content Officer AnnHandley.com @marketingprofs This is the story of why NO was my first reaction. And how it came to be that I’m standing here now, giving a bold talk. Or how it came to be that you are reading this as a slide show. As with anything, the content matters more than the medium. (Media? I always get that confused.)
  6. A lot of people say they were shy children. But I took shy to a new depths: I wasn’t just shy. I was whatever is beyond shy. When I was 8 years old I started a running list in my diary of everything I was afraid of. Of things to avoid.
  7. Things that scare me…. It started out with a handful of the pedestrian fears…
  8. Spiders.
  9. The dark.
  10. Being alone in the house.
  11. Stairs that don’t have a back riser. …but then it veered into some pretty broad, open territory.
  12. The smell of the cellar.
  13. Toddlers.
  14. My brother’s teenage friends.
  15. Old people.
  16. People in wheelchairs.
  17. People with foreign accents.
  18. People.
  19. I’d hear the sound of an unfamiliar car engine in the driveway and make a beeline for my room. I’d tuck myself into the small, dark space under my twin bed and stay there, simply wait it out (sometimes for hours), until I heard my parents calling goodbyes from the driveway, and the coast was clear for me to emerge. When my parents had guests over, I would avoid the entire awkward scene.
  20. #FollowTheFear Fourth grade, in particular, terrified me. I was 9. I had a loud, brash, outgoing teacher who believed that children learned best when they had plenty of room to express themselves and engage with the world around them.
  21. #FollowTheFear Our teacher dispatched with the typical classroom seating arrangement – desks in rows, children front-facing – and placed our desks in a large circle, so we could all see each other. We could all see who was talking (and someone always was), because she believed that ideas were worth discussing in an open, engaging forum.
  22. She was a phenomenal teacher.
  23. NO. I hated her.
  24. NO. She messed with my strategy for school, which was to keep my head down and do my worksheets. And during group discussion or class participation, to align yourself perfectly with the silhouette of the student directly in front of you, so you effectively disappeared. For a fear-filled, anxious child, her classroom was hell.
  25. #FollowTheFear So I decided to stop showing up. First, I had to secure the help of an unwitting adult who had the power to keep me out of school – in this case, my mother. I got really great at faking sick so I could stay home. You might think this is no big deal – but remember that I was doing this without the benefit of Google. Which was probably a good thing, considering what disturbing “illness” Google might have suggested for a 9-year-old.
  26. 32 days. #FollowTheFear Over a few months, I missed a LOT of school. My mother never thought too deeply about it. I was doing this in an era before “parenting” was invented. “Self-esteem” hadn’t been invented yet, either.
  27. #FollowTheFear One day that year, our teacher organized a surprise team-building exercise outside, on the field-hockey field. It was to go like this: Half of us got field hockey sticks. When she blew the whistle, those on the field would give their sticks to those on the sidelines, and the sidelined kids would take their positions.
  28. #FollowTheFear I’d like to tell you that I was as graceful as a Princess on the field hockey field.
  29. #FollowTheFear NO.
  30. #FollowTheFear I was slow to claim a stick initially (no surprise there), so I was in the first sidelined group. Only when the whistle blew, instead of claiming my spot, I rushed at the jockiest, most athletic girl in our class, and I told her she could have a double-turn on the field. I knew she’d be thrilled at the prospect – and she was! She enthusiastically trotted back out to claim her (which should’ve been my) spot.
  31. #FollowTheFear I was counting on the teacher not noticing – in the chaos of the switch – that I was the only 4th grader to sit out the field hockey game. It was a tragic miscalculation on my part. Actually, the teacher didn’t notice me. But she noticed that the jock was back in the game, and she asked her why. The girl ratted me out. Next year’s Bold Talk at Hubspot is going to be on my historical distrust of female athletes. (Ha. I’m kidding.) Or am I…?
  32. F. My opt-out was a huge deal for a teacher who was trying to teach accountability, openness, discourse. My parents were hauled in. The principal was involved. For someone attempting to stay under the radar, it was a fail on an epic scale. At my next report card carried something I’d never seen before attached to my name…
  33. F. It hit me hard. If there was anything I valued more than going unnoticed, it was my grades. My grades were how I defined myself: I was someone who got As. If I got an F, who was I?
  34. #FollowTheFear I was 9 years old. It would be years before I would read The Scarlett Letter. But when I did read it I thought back to that F and thought, “I know exactly how Hester Prynne feels!”
  35. What opting out means. #FollowTheFear In the weeks and months and year that followed… it slowly dawned on me that opting out of things – whether it’s a field hockey game or something more important than that – means failure on a scale larger than an F on a report card.
  36. If you stay under your bed… if you stay off the field… if you say no before you consider a yes… you limit yourself. You pen yourself in. Opting out because you are scared, or awkward, or insecure, or unsure of the outcome earns you an F not just on a report card, but in life.
  37. So what? Can’t we live a perfectly happy life unfilled? Under the radar? Isn’t that spot under the bed quiet and cozy? Does it matter?
  38. I think it does, because to be loved means to be seen for who you are. And to be who you are means to explore the possibilities of what’s possible. It means to think about what’s possible for you, right now, before you define what’s impossible. So what? Can’t we live a perfectly happy life unfilled, under the radar? Isn’t that spot under the bed quiet and cozy? Does it matter?
  39. “The computer will do anything within its abilities. “But it will do nothing, unless commanded to do so.” – John Madea #FollowTheFear
  40. “The computer will do anything within its abilities. “But it will do nothing, unless commanded to do so.” – John Madea #FollowTheFear The artist and essayist Debbie Millman says that people are the same. We like to operate within our abilities. We like to stay in our comfort zones. But whereas the computer has fixed capacity -- based on its operating system or memory or programs or whatever – you and I don’t. “Our abilities are limited only by our perceptions,” Millman says.
  41. Years later after that day on the field hockey field, I can now articulate it, thanks to a quote I read by Amy Gahran: “Your comfort zone is your dead zone.” I limited my perception that day. I did for most of my childhood. But I don’t anymore.
  42. Except when I do. Because the truth is I still fight it. I still want to give someone instead of me a double- turn on the field hockey field. I still want to say NO. I still want to opt out. But instead of letting it derail me, I instead try to use the resistance to fuel my momentum – much the way that a sailboat uses the wind to power its effort toward where it wants to go.
  43. 1. Ask: So what? #FollowTheFear So here’s what helps. There are three things:
  44. 1. Ask: So what? #FollowTheFear What’s the worst that happen? I make a fool of myself on the field hockey field. So what? I embarrass myself here today, in front of all of you. So what? You go back to your offices and talks about how weird Ann Handley was as a child. So what?
  45. 1. Ask: So what? #FollowTheFear What’s the real power of that? I’ll survive. I’ll be ok. I’ll still have friends, family, people who love me. I’ll suffer some slight embarrassment at the hands of some, maybe. But at the same time, others will appreciate my message.
  46. 2. Assume people love you. If they don’t, assume they just don’t know you well enough yet. #FollowTheFear
  47. #FollowTheFea I learned this from my dog Simon, who passed away recently. Simon was a glorious optimist who greeted everyone he met with an unembarrassed enthusiasm.
  48. #FollowTheFea Simon assumed everyone loved him. And if you didn’t love him, he assumed you just needed to invest a little more time getting to know him. Because in his mind, he was worth knowing. Putting yourself out there means being vulnerable. If you assume that people love you and want you to succeed… well, that makes stepping out of your comfort zone that much easier. The room feels warmer somehow. You’ve got this.
  49. 3. #FollowYourFear And finally… (And this is the biggest thing of all.)
  50. Because very often when something SCARES you, it’s the very thing worth doing.
  51. Thank you. Ann Handley Author, Speaker & Chief Content Officer AnnHandley.com @marketingprofs