The Only Thing to Fear

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By Sara Veltkamp, Minerva Strategies —

I’m not a particularly fearful person. I’ve been accused of being the opposite – doing things just for the sake of doing them without enough fear of the consequences. But a recent run-in with award-winning journalist Ira Glass revealed how fear has played a role in my decision-making, and what people can accomplish when they abandon fear to go after what they want.


I am not talking about abandoning healthy, rational fears. Fear of things like inattentive drivers keeps bikers safe. Fear of not understanding tax laws motivates business owners to learn – and comply with rules. I’m talking about different types of fear. I’m talking about the fear of not being “good enough” or making the “wrong” choice. Or, for the over-achievers out there, the fear of not being perfect or making a perfect choice.


But what FDR said so long ago is still true. The only thing to fear is fear itself.


In September, I saw Ira Glass speak in Vancouver. Glass is the host of This American Life and one of the best communicators around, and the title of his talk was “Seven Things I’ve Learned.” He made it clear that these aren’t the seven most important things he’s learned or, God forbid, the ONLY seven things he’s learned in decades of public radio. They are just seven things.


One lesson stood out as a case study of what can be accomplished when a person is fearless. The lesson was, “It’s normal to be bad before you’re good.” To intro this lesson, Glass launched into a story about the time he first felt he’d “made it” in public radio, after eight years of dedicated work. He was covering a story about the Oreo Cookie factory and a recent anniversary the Oreo was celebrating.


Ira Glass on stage
Ira Glass of This American Life on Stage at Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, BC for his “Seven Things I Have Learned” show.


He played clips of his younger self reporting the Oreo story, interspersed with his current day commentary. The reporting was not good. It was flat, capturing none of the color a report like this should include. Glass ruefully shook his head, saying that medical students learn how to perform major surgery in eight years, and yet this report was the best he could do in the same amount of time. But he kept doing it.


And now he’s Ira Glass, a legend in narrative journalism. He’s been an inspiration to so many people, including me. He was an average reporter who believed in what he was doing and worked hard to become great. I’m a recovering perfectionist and often hesitate to do anything that I don’t do well from the outset. But I’ve realized that my perfectionism is just a manifestation of my fear, and it’s designed to keep me “safe.” What kept Ira going in his 20s and 30s was his love for what he was doing and his drive to be better. He inspires me to do the same, and leave fear behind.


People and organizations who are inspired can make any number of choices about the work they want to focus on, the change they want to create, or how boldly they want to communicate with others. We may not make the perfect choice, but in making bold decisions, we adapt and grow.


In contrast, fear influences many to make safe choices, to not go too far, to not buck the status quo. Fear helps people stay in the middle of the pack and not stand out. My fear offends me because it is boring. It activates an unthinking reaction in my brain and body that is exactly the same as everyone else’s reaction. Reacting to fear is the opposite of creativity.


This year, I’ve resolved to take stock of the big and small things I’m afraid of. Once I identify these fears, I have the power to decide where my fear is warranted, and where I’m just letting these boring fears – of not being good enough, looking stupid, making the “wrong” choices, standing out, or failing – keep me from being bold.


I don’t want to be Ira Glass, but I would like to see who I can be beyond the limits of fear.


I suspect that you’ve experienced fears like these as well. I invite you to join me in deciding that you’ve had enough of being afraid. Do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, take on a cause you’ve always wanted to fight for, or learn that skill that will move your career forward.


The world is full of fear, but what it needs are our bold, fearless actions.

About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.