In the opening chapter of her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg poses a question that most of us are, quite frankly and ironically, afraid to ask—let alone answer:
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
On a Tumblr blog started to document women leaning in, the team at LeanIn.org encourages women to speak the truth of their fears and, in so doing, overcome them. Most women express career ambitions: write a book, ask for more money, register as a non-profit. At the heart of these ambitions lies much deeper fears: fear of people, economic insecurity, and failure. Some of us hold these fears so tightly that we become incapable (sometimes even physically) of moving forward to our next stage of growth.
This week, I met one of my fears head on, leaned in, and let go (not literally, by the way).
As a toddler, I would climb the refrigerator. After reaching the top, I would look down, realize how high I was, and then freeze. Climbing was easy, but reversing the process wasn’t. At that point, I would scream, “MOM!” Her response was simple: “You got yourself up there; you get yourself down.” Slowly, but surely, I would find my way back down to the floor.
When I was seven, I fell from the jungle gym at school, cracked my skull open, and received several stitches. Thus, ended my climbing career and began my lifelong fear of heights. The fear is so intense that I can barely climb a ladder. In college, I had refused to participate in the leadership ropes course purely out of fear of falling.
After we returned from Himachal Pradesh, and began planning our trip to Idaho, I told Brian that I wanted to do something adventurous while in Idaho. Idaho has so many beautiful mountains that outdoor activities are plentiful and popular. He had just seen another friend’s Facebook photos of a trip to Lava Hot Springs that included a zip line tour. After some initial investigation, I agreed.
With my fear of heights, what would possess me to agree to go zipping through the Idaho mountains? Honestly, I am not totally sure. Brian says that after riding on the world’s most dangerous road that a zip line 50 feet off the ground is hardly scary. I have looked down a 2,000-foot high cliff as we travelled about six inches from the edge. What’s 50 feet after that?
We used Lava Zipline Adventure, which is run by the sister of a friend of Brian’s. From Lava, we travelled about 10 miles to the zip line site in a huge, open military transport vehicle. The zip line had two starting points. At the first one, we started on the ground, took a good run, and leapt off a small hill. The height of the line gradually increased as the hill dropped down into the valley below. The best indicator of our height was the two-story storage building used as our assembly point. We passed over the building about halfway through the run. Many people, including my grandson, Siriamma, let go completely of the lanyard and travelled the first zip line upside down. Although I could not bring myself to let go of the lanyard, I did let go of my fear. I realized that once I accepted (and trusted) that the lanyard would hold my weight, I relaxed.
At the second point, we jumped from a six-foot platform and went racing down a longer line. Although the weather was beautiful at our first location, by the time we reached the second one, a cold, hard rain had entered the valley. The garbage bag rain coats provided by the tour company barely covered us. We were soaked to the bone. On the platform, I hesitated. Everyone travelled so fast on the second zip line, and the height looked higher. It was wet; what if I slipped out of the harness? Our guide double-checked my harness and reassured me that the distance off the ground was the same. The pitch made us travel faster—much faster. If I was OK with the first zip line, then I could handle the second one. I asked about techniques that would help slow my velocity, and off I went.
As we travelled back to town in the open-air transport through a driving rain, I leaned in to Brian for warmth. Leaning in is not always about independence and self-reliance. Sometimes, it’s about asking for help keeping warm during a storm.
After my first zip line run, I climbed the hill back to the start point, and I smiled. I smiled because I realized I had done it—and enjoyed it. I smiled because I wanted to do it again. I smiled because I had overcome my fear.
When analysts talk about failure in business lately, they cite Steve Jobs. Jobs was booted from the company he founded and failed dismally in his next project. He later returned to Apple, made it a tech powerhouse, and transformed the way the world communicates. Hardly a failure, right?
It seems that what makes it possible for people like Jobs to move beyond their failures is that they experience the failures, learn from them, and then let them go. They don’t hang on to the failure; they don’t let failure define them. And, why should it? What’s the worst that could happen? If I could stretch myself beyond my fear of heights to have fun, then what else could I do if I stretched myself beyond my other fears? What if I no longer feared failure? What would I do? I am still not sure I have the answer to this question, but I do know that I would go zipping again.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Please leave your answers to this question in the comments section of the blog.