As armchair observers, we all read about people who take on big challenges and succeed in a big way. We envy their courage and fearlessness. But at the same time many of us can’t imagine doing that ourselves. After all, it’s scary as hell to risk leaping into new and unknown territory. What if we fail? And so we sit back in our armchairs.
I recently read an interview with a young, rising-star orchestral conductor named Alan Gilbert. At age 42, he is one of the youngest music directors ever to be appointed to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For those of you who many not be familiar with the classical music world, that’s sort of like being appointed CEO of a major corporation. It’s not just about skill and knowledge, but also about leadership and vision – qualities that usually emerge later in life. So this is a hugely momentous appointment for such a young man.
What goes through the mind of someone starting out on perhaps his biggest challenge ever? I found this exchange particularly revealing:
Q. Are you at all overwhelmed by the Philharmonic directorship?
A. Let’s just say I try not to be. I have a very specific mandate, and the thing that keeps me from going off the deep end or losing my grounding is that I’ve been asked to be myself… What [the orchestra] needs is, obviously, someone who can deliver good performances, but also someone who brings a point of view and a personal taste to the equation. And the best way for me to provide that is to be sincere. The point is not to be right or wrong, or even to be good or bad. It’s to be honest. And that’s what’s keeping me from freaking out.
I was really struck by his frankness in admitting to his fears. Here’s a man who, from a distance, seems to have everything going for him. But he’s scared. Just like you and I would be. You might say he’s supremely gifted, on the fast track, got everything going for him. But he’s human, and has to deal with a very human experience – fear of leaping into the unknown.
What sets him apart in my mind though, is how he faces that fear. He freely acknowledges it’s there, but he’s not allowing it to knock him off his feet. His job isn’t about right or wrong, good or bad, he says. It’s about being himself. And that’s what keeps him from freaking out.
When we really think about it, the challenges we fear the most are the ones where life is inviting us to be more ourselves. Embarking on a new career. Going for that big opportunity. Engaging more openly and honestly with others. But we give in to our fears — our stories of predicted failures, disasters, shame or embarrassment. We allow them to poison our mind, which in turn sets the tone for the future we create for ourselves.
I think the problem is that we fear the fear itself. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant. It makes us anxious. We want it to go away. We want to run and hide. So we try valiantly to fix it by coming up with ways to avoid our imagined failures and disasters – all of which are creations of our minds on overdrive from the fear. But by focusing on the problems, we only make them loom larger in our minds, and ultimately, more real in our experience.
What if we could instead, as Alan Gilbert does, see things as they really are? All life is asking of us is to be more ourselves. What if we acknowledged the fear, accepted that it’s there, but didn’t add fuel to the fire by trying to fight it off? And what if at the same time, we stayed mindfully present with our goal – which ultimately isn’t about right or wrong, good or bad, but simply being sincere and honest?
I’ve learned that courageous people aren’t immune from fear any more than the rest of us. But they don’t cower in the face of the discomfort. They’re not taken for a ride by their thoughts. They recognize that they can be bigger than their fears.
Fear is a universal human experience. And fearlessness is a something we can all cultivate through mindfulness. In fact, fearlessness is said to be one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha – someone who is totally open, unafraid to be unabashedly who he is. And ultimately, isn’t that what we all really want for ourselves?