For much of my adult life I’ve been shackled by fear. I’ve been afraid to try new things, afraid to meet new people, afraid of doing anything that might lead to failure. This fear confined me to a narrow comfort zone. Recently, however, I made a single small change that has helped me to overcome my fear, and allowed me to get more out of life.
Last fall somebody at Ask Metafilter posted a question looking for books about self-confidence. One person recommended Impro by Keith Johnstone. Intrigued, I borrowed it from the public library. It blew my mind. Though it’s a book about stage-acting, several of the techniques it describes are applicable to everyday life.
I was particularly struck by the need for improvisational actors to accept whatever is offered to them on stage. In order for a scene to flow, an actor must take whatever situation arises and just go with it. (Watch old episodes of Whose Line is It Anyway to see this principle in action.) Johnstone writes:
Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. […] This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.
These ‘offer-block-accept’ games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding.
That passage had a profound effect on me. I thought about it for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “Is there a way I could adapt this to help me overcome my fear?” I began to note the things that I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly — I made excuses not to do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.
I made a resolution. I decided that instead of saying “no” to things because I was afraid of them, I would “just say yes”. That became my working motto: “Just say yes”. Any time anyone asked me to do something, I agreed to do it (as long as it wasn’t illegal and didn’t violate my own personal code of conduct). In the past six months, I’ve put this philosophy into practice in scores of little ways. But the power of “yes” has made larger changes to my life, too, has exposed me to things I never would have done before.
- Soon after I started saying “yes”, a GRS reader offered to provide free wellness coaching. My gut reaction was to say “no”. But I caught my negative thinking. “Just say yes,” I said to myself. So I did. Working with Lauren, my wellness coach, has been an amazingly positive experience.
- Ramit at I Will Teach You to Be Rich asked me to contribute to his eBook. I had all kinds of reasons for saying “no” — none of them good — but I forced myself to say “yes”. As a result, this site gained new readers, and I got to correspond with Ramit about how to produce a PDF book.
- Last winter, Sally shared a guest article about eating vegetarian on the cheap. A few weeks later she wrote that she and her husband would be in town, and asked if Kris and I would like to have dinner. In the past I would have said “no” out of fear of meeting a stranger. I said yes, and I’m glad I did.
- One of my friends works as a career counselor at a nearby university. Recently he asked me to present a talk to graduating seniors about the basics of personal finance. Normally I would refuse out of hand, but only because I am afraid. I said yes. Though the presentation fell through, the copious notes I made will serve as the basis for many future articles.
- A close friend asked me to go see a band I’d never even heard of. On a Thursday. At midnight. This was totally outside my comfort zone, but I said yes. The experience was fantastic. We had a great conversation, and then I got to discover The Black Angels and their wall of sound.
- I don’t know anything about table tennis, but when my former soccer coach stopped by to recruit me for a local club, I agreed to join. It’s been fun learning the sport, and getting re-acquainted with his family. (I was once good friends with his son.)
These things will seem minor to the extroverts here. But for me, these were big steps. These experiences were new, and I wouldn’t have had them if I hadn’t forced myself to just say yes.
Most of my experiences from my “just say yes” campaign have been positive, but not all of them. I’ve had some failures, too. Surprisingly, I’ve learned more from the bad experiences than I have from the good.
In February, for example, a Seattle radio station asked me to do a telephone interview about retirement savings. “I’m not a retirement expert,” I told the woman who contacted me, but then I realized I was making excuses. I was blocking because I was scared. “But I’ll do it,” I said. Ultimately my radio appearance was a disaster. I got stage-fright and became tongue-tied. But you know what? I don’t care. I failed, but at least I tried. After the interview, I e-mailed the woman to apologize and to ask for advice. She was sympathetic, and gave me some great pointers. Next time somebody asks for a radio interview, I’ll do better.
For too long, fear of failure held me back. Failure itself didn’t hold me back — the fear of it did. When I actually try something and fail, I generally get right back up and do it again, but better the second time. I pursue it until I succeed. But often I convince myself that I can’t do something because I’m going to fail at it, so I don’t even bother to try.
Since I’ve learned the power of yes, I’ve begun to act as if I’m not afraid. Whenever I feel fear creep upon me, I act as if I’m somebody else. I act as if I’m somebody stronger and braver. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy says:
If you want to develop courage, then simply act courageously when it’s called for. If you do something over and over again, you develop a habit. Some people develop the habit of courage. Some people develop the habit of non-courage.
Tracy recommends that any time you encounter the fear of failure, you simply tell yourself, “I can do it.” Say it again and again and then do it. What’s more, he says, tell others that they can do the things they’re frightened of. How many times have you seen somebody excited about a new project become totally deflated when others tell them why it won’t work. Don’t be like that. Tell the person, “You can do it.” Be supportive.
Tracy is famous for asking the question: What would you dare to dream if you knew you wouldn’t fail? This is a powerful concept. What could you do if you stopped telling yourself “no” and simply tapped into the power of yes?
Aside from learning the power of yes, there are other ways to fight fear and develop a more courageous attitude.
- Start small. Many people are afraid to make phone calls, or to approach a clerk in a store. Begin by practicing these little habits. A clerk in a book store answers hundreds of questions a month. There’s no reason to be frightened of asking yours.
- Try one new thing each week. It doesn’t have to be big. Learn a new skill, have lunch with an acquaintance, do something for a friend. Once every week, say “yes” where you might have said “no” before.
- Exercise mindfulness. When fear creeps into your head, name it for what it is, and let it pass by. I know this sounds new age and hokey, but it works. When somebody asks you to do something and your gut reaction is “no”, pause to examine that “no” and ask yourself, “Am I saying this simply out of fear? What would happen if I said yes?”
- Act like you’re somebody else. Do you have a friend who is a great negotiator? The next time you negotiate, pretend you’re this person. This is more effective than you probably think!
- Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could happen?” Most of the time when I make this comparison, the upside far outweighs the downside.
- Recognize that failures and mistakes are not the end. Often they’re the beginning. If you can pick yourself up after you do something wrong, and then learn from the experience, you’ll be a better person because of it.
Read more about conquering fear and worry:
- The Instigator Blog offers five reasons to say yes.
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie has a five-star rating on 107 reviews at Amazon, and rightly so. This is a classic book about courage in everyday life. Here’s a summary. (From the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
- Yes Man is a book by Danny Wallace that chronicles his adventures as he says “yes” to everything for an entire year. I haven’t read this, but I’d like to.
- Impro by Keith Johnstone is a book about improvisational acting. Sharp readers will find ways to apply these techniques to everyday life, to boost self-confidence and to overcome fear of failure.
We all have dreams, but most of us make excuses for not pursuing them. Often these excuses aren’t overt. It’s more a matter of inertia, of just ignoring the dreams, of maintaining the comfortable status quo. But you can break out of your comfort zone to get more out of life through the simple power of yes.