One of my clients—I'll call her Paige—was a tall, gorgeous, intelligent athlete preparing to try out for a professional team. The pressure triggered a host of fears Paige had suffered since childhood. She began to replace training with eating binges, and she started gaining weight while losing strength and speed. We spent some time discussing Paige's history of physical and sexual abuse. This lessened her fear, but didn't eliminate it entirely. Why? Because Paige really cared about making that particular team, and there was a good chance she'd fail, and that was scary to her. Period. To get unstuck, we have to take this kind of risk, fear or no fear. Waiting to feel brave so that you can act brave? Sorry. The only way to develop courage is to act brave until you feel brave.
In Paige's case, this meant doing two things every day: nurturing the scared little girl inside her, and getting that scared little girl to the damn gym. We called it the soft-heart, hard-ass approach. If you're stuck, I'd advise you to adopt it. Care for your heart by soothing it, but follow your dreams even when you're scared. Make friends with the fear that tells you you're doing something real and important, that you're breaking out of your comfort zone.
Once she adopted this new approach, Paige realized that it was getting her in good enough shape to be a model as well as an athlete. Suddenly, making the team wasn't her only way forward. By feeling the fear and doing something anyway, you do risk failure—but you will still get unstuck, often in ways you never expected.
In the ancient classical world when mariners launched a ship in rough weather, the captain would shout to his crew, “To sail is necessary, to live is not.” If you never leave the Isle of Yeah-but, if you don’t attend to your fatigue, embrace forbidden hopes, and act in spite of fear, this statement will always be Greek to you. But once you have come unstuck and begun to live passionately, once you feel what it is to ride that wild, gorgeous ocean, the cry of the seafarer will come to make perfect sense.
More Martha Beck Advice On Finding Your Passion
- Four-Step plan to get your life on track
- Why you need wildly improbable dreams
- Are you on the right career path?
From the September 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.