As a French major in college, I had the opportunity to work as a nanny for a wealthy French family. I don't remember the details exactly, but I do remember that they lived in what seemed like a palatial townhouse in Manhattan, had several homes in Europe, and planned to spend the summer traveling, child—and nanny—in tow. Whatever the difficulties or challenges of accompanying this particular family might have been, the chance to travel widely throughout Europe was not only exciting but also unavailable to me any other way at the time. Plus I adored kids, and was planning to teach. It seemed a great fit. And yet I was afraid to take the job, afraid the family wouldn't like me, afraid I would be lonely, afraid I wouldn't be able to care for the child well, afraid I'd miss my boyfriend and my family. So I stayed home that summer, living in my parents' house and working in an office at a perfectly nice, decently paying, perfectly boring job. To keep myself amused, I read novels set in Paris and Venice, wondering what it would be like to go there. Time after time in the years that followed, various opportunities shined on me, lighting the way to potential adventure, but my fearfulness stretched out before me like a shadow, dimming the prospects.
The strange thing is, if I were thrown into a situation in which there might actually be something to be afraid of—a sinking canoe, to choose a random example, or a building fire—I know that I would deal with it well, not lose my head or become paralyzed with anxiety but take care of business, be effective in the moment. I've handled things that prompted people to say, "That must have been incredibly scary," though I didn't feel overwhelmingly afraid at all. What, then, is the nature of my fearfulness? If I had to give it a name, I would call it "What if...," because it derives all its power from the possibilities of what might happen at some point in the future and not what's happening right now.
I can see how What if... might have been more useful a long time ago. In fact, I remember considering the idea of sliding down a banister in the house where I grew up—I must've been around 3, because the banister seemed very high off the ground—and thinking, "Fun! Long ride! Fast! New!" Then: "But what if when I get to the bottom, I fall off the end?" Which I certainly would have done had I followed through, with painful and injurious results. The trouble is that somehow as I matured, asking What if... became a way of introducing every possible disaster that could happen, no matter how unlikely. Falling off the end became, in my mind, a probable result even when it wasn't. And thinking about that, I began to want to avoid asking the question because it evoked so much anxiety. So I sought the comfortable and the familiar rather than the exciting and the exotic. It was easy, it was even joyful and delightful (as the comfortable and familiar can be), but it was rarely challenging in a way that leads you to live your fullest life.
A while back, I was offered a job. Supported contentedly by my freelance writing work, very cozily ensconced in my flexible schedule, I didn't think I'd be interested in a full-time position that would require me to show up at an office every day. But: I was an avid reader of the magazine (the one you're reading) where the position was available; I had deeply admired the talent and integrity of the staff; and the job required that I learn about a field—the beauty industry—about which I knew very little. All positives. And yet. I was afraid to take it, afraid the staff wouldn't like me, afraid I would be lonely, afraid I wouldn't be able to do the job well, afraid I'd miss the ease and familiarity of my freelance life. I recognized it as the same fearfulness I'd felt more than 50 years ago, playing out in a different way. When I thought of the possibilities that might come with the job—Fun! A long ride! Fast-paced! New!—my heart leapt. But of course, then: What if...? The leaping turned to pounding. This time, through the racket, I simply said yes, I'll do it. It finally seemed more painful not to take the risk than to take it. If I fell off the end? I'm a big girl now; I thought I could handle it. I imagined my fearfulness as a scrim fluttering between me and the unknown. I would try walking through it.
On my first day at the office (after a sleepless night), I expressed my anxiety to one of my new colleagues. "I'm really scared I'm not going to be able to do this job," I told her. "I feel as if I don't know anything about anything."
"And if you can't do it?" she said.
"Then," I said, "I guess I'll slink out of here in shame." She seemed to understand the depth of my unease without making me feel that it was justified. Then she patted me on the arm. "It's always good to have a plan," she said.
When I submitted my first shot at a photo caption (just a caption!), it was quickly returned to me with "cliché" scrawled across the top of the page. Yikes! I had my plan, of course. But slink out in shame? I didn't think so. At least not without another try. And—damn!—another. Finally: "perfect." In 30 years, I've never had a job I've enjoyed more, that has pushed me more or offered richer opportunity. The possibilities I thought might materialize are even more interesting, more exciting than I'd imagined. I'm still butting up against fearfulness at almost every turn. But now, when it feels right, to the din of my pounding heart, I walk through it.
More Ways to Be Fearless