Fearlessness is Bullshit

“A rejection is just a re-direction in life.” – Jill Shapiro

The next time someone tells me they admire me because I’m fearless, I’m going to vomit. Don’t worry, it will be figurative, not literal. 🙂 It’s frustrating because many people seem to use it as an excuse. They are open to be inspired by someone they consider to be fearless, but they won’t apply that inspiration to their own personal situations. “Oh, he/she’s fearless, I couldn’t do that. I’m too afraid.”

There are truly few people who are actually fearless, and I would posit that they should NOT be admired. What’s so inspiring about someone doing something scary if they are devoid of fear???

I know how full of fear I am in all areas of my life. If I create a perception of being fearless, yet trying to convince others that “If I can do it, so can you!”, then I have completely failed. It’s difficult to identify with fearlessness. Why? Because fear is completely normal and human!

It’s precisely because I feel fear intensely, assess the risk, and then find a way to work through the fear that I can feel satisfaction and reward. When I was in college, I entered every single classroom assuming I was going to fail due to my lack of self-confidence, support network, and financial resources. However, I would focus on doing my very best at every assignment/test/paper, and I surprised myself by graduating first in my class.

When I first started rock climbing, both indoors and outdoors, I would tie in (connect the rope to my harness) and feel an intense wave of anxiety as I would walk up to a climb. That lasted for several YEARS, and sometimes I questioned why I kept coming back when the anxiety was so strong, but the sense of accomplishment of working through the fear to get to the top of a route far outweighed the discomfort of feeling that fear. Now that fear is completely gone as I was successful at desensitizing myself to it. However, I can still get “gripped” while lead climbing outdoors and am working on that primarily by controlling my breathing. So, no, I am still not fearless while climbing.


There are a couple of tricks to working through fear and keep it from holding you back from your dreams. The first trick is to find the peace of mind to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and say, “Wait, is this danger real or perceived?” You’ll often find it’s perceived. We are the ones that are paralyzed by fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of suffering. And if we work through it, things often work out just fine. When they don’t, such as when you bomb that presentation or don’t get that second date, no one else remembers it a year later.

When the danger is real, respect it. Fear can keep you alive. As the mountaineer/speaker/author Alison Levine says, “Fear is normal, it’s complacency that will kill you.” Fear is a totally valid human reaction to real danger.

Real danger - there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Real danger – there were avalanches crashing down around me at 21k ft

Follow your intuition that that stranger might really mean you harm or that prospective work environment really could be toxic. I can’t even count how many times I’ve listed to my intuition in the mountains. Others around me might have thought I was wussing out, but my intuition told me the danger was real and I listened when the consequences were high. One such time was on Mt Whitney’s Mountaineers Route where I got the heebie jeebies on a slope and decided to turn around 700 ft from the top because I was concerned about avalanche danger when the temps rose later in the day. As we crossed that slope the second time on our retreat a little lower, I saw an extended crack in the snow. We practically ran across the rest of the slope. That’s REAL danger.

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney

Heebie jeebies on Mt Whitney


The second trick is to do the mental exercise of determining different scenarios. What’s the best thing that can happen if you take this risk? What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you continue to climb despite the fact that your toes are already numb and the temps are dropping, worse case is frostbite…maybe far worse. Best case is summitting your objective. Not an acceptable risk for me.

If you are afraid of telling that special person in your life how you feel about them, the worse case may be that you scare them off. Best case is that the feeling is mutual. How awesome would that be to find out that the feeling is mutual versus the prospect of finding out the hard truth that it is not? You’ll find the latter out sooner or later!

If you are worried about taking that new job, pitching to that new client, making the case for a promotion to your boss, what’s the best thing that can happen? You get the new job, client, promotion and have a chance in hell at being successful. Worst case is you have to work through rejection and focus on your next opportunity. Seems like a no brainer when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it?


The third trick is to tell others and create accountability. Simply naming the fear makes it tangible and creates power to address it. Afraid of public speaking? Announce on Facebook that you are joining Toastmasters and want some partners in crime. Tell your friends that you are starting that new job search and they will keep asking you for progress reports. Make that standing weekly date at the climbing gym with a supportive partner. If you keep your fears locked away in your own head, it’s REALLY difficult. I always tell my climbing partners when I’m getting gripped on a route – they are well trained to shout encouragement and remind me to breathe.

Everyone has their own individual Achilles’ heels. I’m no longer really afraid of heights, of asking for what I want, of leading others in the backcountry, of delivering keynotes to large audiences, of taking risks with my career, but NOT because I’m fearless…because I’ve worked extensively through those fears consistently over YEARS. All of these things used to be REALLY tough and they are no longer.

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska?  Vulnerability

What can be harder than carrying a pack and dragging a sled in the middle of the night in Alaska? Vulnerability

BUT I’m still working my fear of vulnerability and rejection. I’m confident in my skills, my abilities, and my potential to have positive impact on this world, especially in group situations. However, I am a really open, transparent, and giving person, and when I feel rejected or betrayed one on one, it can paralyze me with fear and a major gut reaction to pull back. Vulnerability and emotional pain to me is far more painful than any subzero temps I’ve endured, more draining than carrying the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried, and more intense that any unprepared bivy I’ve survived.

“Remember, we are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter, because we’re so deeply interconnected with one another. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is the supreme creative act.” -Ram Dass

There are some good reasons for this based on my wacky family situation that cause me to continually seek ways of validating my self-worth and take things too personally. I’ve come to realize that’s my next frontier of fear. But just as with my history with heights, public speaking, career moves, guiding, I can chose let the fear rule me, to close down and protect myself…or I can continue to take risks, stay vulnerable, and potentially reap great rewards.

Even writing this publicly is the first step to naming the fear publicly and forcing accountability…I chose to consciously embrace vulnerability with other individuals.  Let the pain begin!  😉

What’s your Achilles heel? And what are you going to do about it?