I carry one (fairly) huge and utterly irrational fear in my life: my fear of flying.
While I’ve spent a good chunk of my past and present on planes without incident, my fear is always with me; like a heavy weight rattling around inside the well-loved duffle bag of my soul.
As you might imagine, being the steward of a lifelong anxiety like this comes with a colorful spread of trials and tribulations.
One example: I’m the woman doing a shot of whiskey and slamming a beer at the airport bar — if I have time, and if there’s no client work to be done en route.
Another: I absolutely cannot sleep on planes, even on 10+ hour flights, which meant the one time I tried Ambien to welcome the sandman at 30,000 feet, gravity turned inside out for a few hours.
And yet another: For years I’ve had to explain to well-meaning to partners, friends, family members, and colleagues that while yes, I understand pilots are highly trained, and yes I’m more likely to die in the car on the way to the airport, and yes it’s a 1 in 3 million+ chance I’ll ever be involved in a fatal plane crash… that this is the problem with irrational fear: It makes 0 sense.
(Besides, in the age of the internet we should all realize humans are largely emotional creatures. Logical thought rarely slices through the tethers of illogical patterns — and no human being is without a wild superstition, fear, or a nearly-incomprehensible view or two.)
However: This fear of mine is not without its intellectually interesting attributes— namely, the way it’s aged with me in order to stay “alive”.
Much like the organism it’s tethered to (me!), my fear of flying has evolved. It’s heavy but it’s damn wily. It shifts. It adapts. It finds new bends in reasoning to sustain itself.
When the fear found me as a kid, it was simple: I was scared I would die. I didn’t want to die!
So my fear amplified into nightmares — and a big reason why I still cover my eyes during a certain scene in the movie Flight Club.
Then, as a teenager (during my brief and eager dance with Christianity), I began pursuing solutions and turned to God. I’d wear my cross necklace and pray before every flight for protection.
Unperturbed by Jesus, my fear promptly evolved: If I died? It now meant God was displeased with me and was taking me out of the human race. My fear even inflated itself by reminding me that if I wanted God’s favor? I’d better make sure I didn’t do anything too sinful right before a flight.
Then I entered my 20’s… and things got really interesting.
By then, I’d been on and off enough flights for my logical brain to suggest, “Hey you know what? Maybe we should chill out.”
Not to be outdone, my fear evolved again.
I remember it so clearly.
As I stared nervously down at the clouds on a flight from JFK to Fort Lauderdale, wondering why I couldn’t just relax, my heavy, clunky Fear Brain turned slowly around and said clearly:
“In every flight we’ve survived, you’ve been afraid. Fear has now become part of our routine. So clearly: If I allow us to relax? The plane will surely crash.”
Fear had managed to convince me, in some sneaky way, that my anxiety was, in fact, keeping the plane in the air.
Nope, it wasn’t the engines, or the highly trained pilots, or the crew that kept the flight safe. It was me, with my magical powers of terror levitation, doing it.
Joan Didion calls this “magical thinking” — the act of believing impossible things as your brain attempts to comprehend and navigate seemingly-impossible events.
In her case, this “magical thinking” was sparked by the sudden death of her husband while her daughter was in a coma. In my case, it was sparked by the stark reality of my fragile mortality a few miles above solid ground.
Are brains weird or what?
Now here’s the strangest part of all this (and my whole reason for telling you this story):
I realized recently that this type of thinking isn’t limited to my airline experiences. In fact, I’d been applying this adaptively unhinged thought pattern to my business every damn day.
It all clicked when a teacher of mine said something unexpected, but startlingly accurate on a group coaching call I was on:
“Heaviness, stress, fear, worry, and anxiety do not equal money.
You can make just as much money with lightness — enjoying the process of your work and business building, having fun, and doing what interests you.”
It sounds innocuous at first blush… but once the words really clicked, it was like my world froze for a second.
I’ve spent a fair amount of writing time unpacking my own relationship to heaviness, a.k.a. workaholism and stress. I’ve talked about it here,here, and here, and about a million other places on various social platforms.
Make no mistake: I still think/know that having a powerful work ethic and deep stamina for the hustle is a fine, and relatively rare thing.
I still think/know if you can pick ONE superpower for yourself in this life, it should be an ability to out-work anyone.
I still think/know being a little scared of not being smart or good enough can be useful.
I still think/know if you want to run a business, you have to work hard, long, and often for a while.
What happens when the ball gets rolling? What happens when you’ve already outworked most of your competitors and are making money and doing OK after all?
Where does that fear go?
Much like my in-flight worry-wartism: fear likes having a welcoming host. So it evolves to make sure we still carry it with us.
Years ago, I had accepted fears as part of the constant process of running a business. And so, fear had stuck around where I’d made a home for it.
Exactly the same way my flying fear had evolved, as time went on and my traditional newbie-business-owner anxiety around stuff like pitching clients, speaking in public, or delivering drafts wasn’t necessary anymore — my fear adapted.
My anxiety, fear, and stress became more than symptoms. They became litmus tests for how hard I was working, or how much I cared about something.
(This is also partly why, regardless of situation or location, I put my hands up every time I hear that line from Post Malone’s Congratulations : “Worked so hard forgot how to vacation.”)
If I wasn’t doing some stuff I kinda hated, or pushing myself a little too hard, was I actually working?
If I wasn’t stressed out and uncomfortable, was I actually making things happen for myself?
Though I didn’t realize it at the time: The answer, to my heavy, illogical fear brain, was a resounding NO.
In my mind, if I let up my guard down for even a second, my life as an entrepreneur was over. If I wasn’t constantly afraid, the plane would crash.
On the flip side of the coin: When stuff feels good and is going smoothly to the point I catch myself feeling positive — I worry I’m slacking.
And whether you realize it or not? The same might be true for you.
I hear it all the time from both entrepreneurs, and friends from the traditional 9-to-5 world:
“Work? Yeah, things are going well, but…”
“I’m having a great time, but…”
“Money’s been awesome and it feels like stuff is really starting to flow finally, but…”
And all those conversations end with some variation of:
“… I’m just sitting here terrified, waiting for something to go wrong.”
At the outset, it feels like that makes complete sense. And there’s almost a delicious drama to it.
I’m so realistic I believe all of my hard work, everything I’ve built from my relationships to my skill set, can and will collapse on top of me in an instant.
I’m so realistic I believe disaster is constantly imminent and the only way to combat it is to act like it’s already happening.
So you can imagine why I swirled my teacher’s words around in my head for weeks:
“Stress, fear, and anxiety do not equal money.”
God damnit she was right.
So why did it feel like she was wrong?
Why did this concept of “lightness” feel as clunky in my mind as another language?
I think I have an idea.
As business owners, we feel we should be mentally prepared or anything, right? For disappointment, for frustration, for everything melting down.
Rarely are we told to expect, or even prepare for ease.
Because business is not easy.
So we train ourselves to assume it’s all part of the grind, and turn ourselves into good peacetime soldiers, standing at attention in the sprawling fields of existence with our armor still on and our guns drawn, ready for anything.
We train ourselves to assume that without our heaviness, our stress, and our fear, we cannot — and perhaps don’t deserve to — succeed. That if we’re not constantly on high alert, the enemy (a.k.a. failure) will smell our complacency and ambush us in the night.
But, just like lingering terror of air disaster after hundreds of successful flights, after a certain point — you have to face that your fear may not be closely tied to reality.
The more I think this over, the more I realize that after a certain point, we need to learn to take a deep breath and say:
“I’m OK now… I’m allowed to feel good.
What else do I actually want that won’t feel painful to create?”
Surely, after all this stress and hard work, we owe ourselves more than just a moment of smiles and celebration? Maybe even more than a day, or a week?
Surely, after grinding to build our reputations and make money, we can have fun and relax into what we’ve built and earned for a bit? Maybe even for a lifetime?
So imagine with me, for a moment:
What would change in our lives, industries, and hearts if, instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop, we stayed on high alert for lightness, joy, and happiness?
What if we sought that every day with our work, instead of scrambling and surviving, and steeling ourselves for when it all goes wrong?
What would running businesses feel like if our “I’m doing great but…” sentences stopped before the “but”, and ended with a confident smile?
What if we treated pleasure and fun, genuine interest, and enjoyment as our litmus test for financial and personal success, instead of glorifying what we’ve managed to pull off as the result of our long suffering?
So far, I don’t have an answer for you.
I’m still a squalling infant in the school of welcoming lightness.
But I challenge you to consider, as we wander wide-eyed into 2018:
What could that kind of thinking change for you?
Who would you become if you prioritized fun over fanaticism, or genuine interest and excitement over heaviness and stress and constant fear?
What if, instead of fearing a touch of long-term relaxation will cause everything you’ve built to float away, you just laid your burden down and… allowed yourself to float instead?
Think it over.
Your fear is not keeping your business afloat.
Try something different.
See where it goes.
Watch what happens.
And report back.
I will too.
Stay light. Float on. And good luck.