Three kinds of fear

I’m not talking about the real threats – safety and shelter, for example – but the perceived threats that are largely in your head.

When are you afraid? How often do you feel that way and what do you do about it?

I routinely experience three kinds of fear. By sharing them, I thought I might help those of you who face them too.

Fear of the uncomfortable and unknown

Trying something new

“I’m surprised you were nervous,” she said. This Tuesday in my Working Out Loud circle I was describing a presentation I gave to a few hundred people, something I’m usually comfortable doing. This one, though, was in front of a camera instead of an audience. I was anxious for days beforehand, my nervousness peaking when the director said “30 seconds before broadcast.”

I have this same feeling whenever I’m trying anything I’m not comfortable with, and I’ve learned two tricks to deal with it. One is preparation. With practice comes familiarity and that reduces the anxiety. The other trick is to frame things as a learning goal, to focus on the process and not the outcome. I’m not good or bad at it, I’m just getting better. This growth mindset defuses my fear and can help me improve at anything.

Being vulnerable

I’m the kind of person, I realize, who wants to be liked, who wants people to say nice things. “Good talk, John!” “I liked the book!” Of course that feels good.

Yet it’s the critical feedback that makes me and my work better, and this presents a conflict. My aversion to negative feedback can make me avoid doing things that will help me improve.

Here again, I’ve learned two tricks. One is to separate feedback about my work from feedback about me, the human being. So when my wife read my final draft and said “I don’t like it,” she wasn’t saying “I don’t like you.” (It felt that way at the time, but I’m slowly learning that her candor is a gift.)

The other trick is to have a “lean startup” mindset. You frame your work as a series of experiments, share them early for the purpose of getting feedback – before you’ve invested heavily in them – and adapt. That way, rejections and negative feedback aren’t hurtful, they’re helping me find a better path sooner.

Seeking meaning and fulfillment

This third fear is the toughest for me to deal with. It’s a fear of not trying to do something more with my life. In writing today’s post, I found something I wrote more than 3 years ago titled “When are the best years of your life?”

“If I have a hero, it’s W. Edwards Deming. Born on a chicken farm in 1900, he was a statistician who worked with the census bureau into his 40s. At 47, he travelled to Japan to help with the first census after the war. While there, he met with people about statistics and quality control. And his subsequent fieldwork with factory managers in Japan marked the beginning of the Japanese quality movement.

His efforts unlocked tremendous commercial value while also helping individual workers regain their pride of workmanship. In 1950, Japan awarded the first Deming Prize. Still, for decades, Deming was largely unknown in the US, where he lived and worked. It was only after he was mentioned on a television show (“If Japan can, why can’t we?”) that his consulting business took off. He was 80. At 82, he published his most popular book.”

That’s the kind of fulfilling, meaningful work I want to do. But I’m afraid to try. I’ve worked in big companies for 30 years and changed jobs only twice. While helping people and companies as Deming did is inspiring, it’s also daunting. The prospect of such a shift in my work and life makes me afraid.

I don’t have any tricks for this one. If you do, please let me know. For now, I just focus on one step at a time. I figure if I keep taking steps, getting feedback and getting better along the way, it will lead me somewhere I want to be.

“What are you doing right now?”

Every moment is a choice, and I’ve been choosing poorly.

Here’s an example, and a practice that’s making a difference.

Dinner for six

I went to dinner with my five children this week. They range in ages from 5 to 20, so you can imagine what’s going on at the table. The youngest one is complaining he doesn’t like the food there. Two of them are on their phone. There are minor arguments about seating.

So…what would you guess I’m thinking about during dinner?

  1. Things the kid should/shouldn’t be doing.
  2. What happened at work during the day.
  3. Things I need to do.
  4. The taste of the food.
  5. The people around me.

What would you be thinking about?

A simple practice

I’m slowly learning that I have a choice. I could focus on what’s wrong. I could distract myself by letting my mind wander. Or I could try to shift my attention to the miracles that are right in front of me, savoring what I’m doing and who I’m with.

Such a choice was captured in a short essay by the buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh titled “What are you doing?”

“One day as I walked through the kitchen, I saw someone cleaning vegetables and I asked, “What are you doing?” I was playing the role of a spiritual friend. Even though it was obvious that they were washing vegetables, I asked the question to wake the person up to how happy they could be just washing the vegetables. If we aren’t doing something with joy, that moment is wasted.”

What are you doing right now?

The number of choices each day

The buddhist Shōbōgenzō text from the 13th century described just how many moments we have each day.

“There are sixty-five moments within the time it takes for someone to snap his fingers…in the passing of a single day and night there are sixty-four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments.”

I am not mindful of almost all of these moments. But I’m trying to change that. I know that if I can be present for more moments each day, my life can be fuller, and I can experience more joy.

Throughout the day, you can be your own spiritual friend by asking yourself, “What am I doing right now?”

Wake up to how happy you could be.



What will you do when they lay you off?

“I wasted 18 years of my life,” she said. The HR person had just contacted her, and my friend was clearly shaken. She felt all her years of effort should have added up to something more than a meeting in a conference room with people reading from a script.

This was a few years ago, and her reaction stuck with me. It made me think of what my own reaction would be.

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Even the mere prospect of being laid off – or “RIF’d” referring to a reduction in force – brings up strong emotions: fear, shame, anger, denial. But what good does any of that do?

Most firms run like machines. They don’t want to lay people off. It’s wasteful and expensive. But they’ll do it to ensure the survival of the machine. It’s the epitome of what we mean when we say “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” For the person being laid off, though, it is intensely personal.

So think for a moment about what you would do when you get that call: “Can you step into the conference room for a minute?” Think of what will you say to your spouse, your friends, and to prosepctive employers. Think of what you will do that day and that week.

Will you only then start to reach out to contacts, or document what you’ve been working on, or update your LinkedIn profile? Will you regret not having invested in relationships that could have helped you now?

Put yourself in that moment and let yourself feel what it would feel like. Now, channel the disappointment and anxiety into constructive steps you can take to build your network, into a practice that will help you feel better and take control of your career.

What will you do when they lay you off?

Why don’t you do that today?

Planting my piano tree

Planting my piano tree

Twenty years ago, my friend Dave was in his thirties and mentioned he started taking piano lessons. It was a casual remark, but I still remember the envy I felt.

Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to music, short of listening to Kiss or Led Zeppelin on 8-track tapes. Learning to play an instrument seemed like something reserved for other people, not for me.

Times changed, and I changed. When I started taking piano lessons recently, I thought of my friend, and wondered what happened to him.

Early progress

My first few months of learning have been liberating, allowing me to shed limits I had placed on myself. I’m able to do things much sooner than I had expected, including playing a few simple songs and reading simple music. I surprised myself.

On Tuesdays, I take my lesson right after my daughter takes hers.  My young son even practices a bit. Then our teacher and a friend join us for dinner and wine, and they’ll play some more. I mentioned that someday I wanted to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” as Nina Simone played it. We found it on YouTube and my teacher started to play it by ear. One night my cousin and my daughter played a duet.

We have music in our house, I thought. It’s a miracle.

Early struggles

The failures still sting. The worst ones are when I fail to try. The lack of a strict practice schedule means I missed 5 days this week.

Comparing myself to someone else presents a different kind of struggle. Below, for example, are the pieces my daughter and I are learning to play. Mine is on the left and hers on the right. I’m fifty-one and she’s seven (“almost eight,” she reminds me).

Planting my piano tree

Attempting to play my simple piece, I realize how stupid and stubborn my hands can be, refusing to carry out even the simplest of independent instructions.

I can feel my inner critic telling me, Give up. You’ll never be as good as them anyway.

The best time to start learning piano

Perhaps if I had started playing twenty years ago, I would have given up. But not now. I’ve come to know that learning almost anything includes learning how to deal with setbacks, learning about discipline, learning about yourself.

After many years, I had a chance to see Dave recently. We had lunch with some of his colleagues and I told them about my learning to play piano, and about how I felt when Dave said he started taking lessons.

“He plays beautifully”, his colleague said.

I smiled. I was happy for him, and I was happy for me. I thought of this old proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

I’m planting my piano tree now. Maybe twenty years from now, someone will say “he plays beautifully.” Maybe I’ll just enjoy nurturing my new practice and watching myself develop.

What tree could you plant today?

The man singing falsetto in the ladies’ room

The Ladies' Room

Most of what you see and think is a lie.

I started thinking about this when a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that someone I regarded highly was “a real jerk.”

“How do you know?” I asked. She explained that she was at an event and overheard him say something that seemed, well, jerky. There was a pause as I sat there, waiting for more evidence, but that was the only encounter she ever had with him. She hurriedly mentioned that a friend of hers’ had also heard he was a jerk. Noticing the incredulous expression on my face, she said:

“Well, I just know.

Connecting the dots

What my friend was doing was connecting the dots (albeit only two of them in her case). It’s something we all do to make sense of our world. Here are a few famous examples.


From the countless dots in the sky, we select a few, connect them, and almost magically flesh out Orion the Hunter or Pegasus the Flying Horse.

“Do we see reality as it is?”

We’re all wired to connect the dots, but sometimes that wiring can lead to mistakes. There are some wonderful TED talks that describe how we perceive things and show how easily we’re fooled.

In a magician’s talk, he noted how “we are always solving. We are always trying to decode our world.” And he used that impulse to trick his audiences.

In a talk on optical illusions, the founder of an art and science lab showed how we could think of the same information very differently under different conditions.

“The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what’s true for sensory information is true for information generally. There’s no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

So, how do we see? Well, we see by learning to see. The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information, and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world.”

A cognitive scientist explained our (mis)perceptions in slightly more technical terms in his talk “Do we see reality as it is?”

“When you simply open your eyes and look about this room, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are engaged. Now, this is a bit surprising, because…the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. But that doesn’t explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to?

Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It feels like we’re just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we’re constructing everything that we see. We don’t construct the whole world at once. We construct what we need in the moment.”

The man singing falsetto in the ladies room

In short, we take in some bits of information and make up the rest, filling in all the missing pieces.

A story from Loving What Is made me laugh, as it highlighted how ridiculous and misleading our stories can be. It made me think of all the tragicomedies we each write every day, and how our need to make sense of the world can lead us wildly astray.

It also made me think of how simply being mindful of the stories we make up and asking ourselves Is that really true? can help us be happier and more open.

“Once, as I walked into the ladies’ room at a restaurant near my home, a woman came out of the single stall. We smiled at each other, and, as I closed the door, she began to sing and wash her hands. “What a lovely voice!” I thought. Then, as I heard her leave, I noticed that the toilet seat was dripping wet. “How could anyone be so rude?” I thought. “And how did she manage to pee all over the seat? Was she standing on it?”

Then it came to me that she was a man – a transvestite, singing falsetto in the women’s restroom. It crossed my mind to go after her (him) and let him know what a mess he’d made. As I cleaned the toilet seat, I thought about everything I’d say to him. Then I flushed the toilet. The water shot up out of the bowl and flooded the seat. And I just stood there laughing.”

The Ladies' Room


Note: This post was originally titled “The transvestite in the ladies’ room.” Shortly after I posted it, though, my son texted me asking if I knew that “transvestite” was an offensive term. Really? I thought, I’ve never heard that.

I admit my first reaction was to dismiss it, thinking that he was just being funny or provocative. Later, though, we talked about and he sent me a link to a discussion on Quora: Is the term “transvestite” offensive? After reading that, I changed the title – not to be politically correct, but to be respectful. I kept the word in the quoted story because it’s taken directly from another source and was also written several years ago.

HT to my son for looking out for me – and for educating me.