Lessons on Fear and Change from Mark Twain and My 10-Year-Old Twins

When I was 16, I decided to leave my small hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, where I’d lived since birth, to go overseas and study in New Zealand.   I have no idea how I made this decision, or why I wanted to leave home, but the idea quickly got legs and before I knew it, there I was, boarding a plane and madly hugging goodbye my friends, family and my high-school sweetheart. I got on the plane, walked down the aisle to my window seat, sat down…and promptly burst into tears. Crying quickly escalated into hysterical sobbing, much to the alarm of the poor man in the next seat.  He tried to calm me down and asked the flight attendant for a cup of water.

I tried to take a sip, but I was crying too hard to even choke it down. Right then, I made another big decision – I hurried off the plane, and ran screaming after my taken aback parents. They were having none of it. They reminded me I had made a decision to which I was now committed and sent me right back to my allocated seat to follow through on it.

After this dramatic start, the rest of the journey was uneventful. Well, to be honest, I can’t remember much of the rest of my journey.  Just a quick phone call from a pay phone in L.A. to let my parents know I got there safely, and then, my next clear memory was walking into arrivals and looking around, though unsure as to what I was looking for. Then I saw the sign, ‘Welcome to New Zealand Tracy’ – and there they were, my Kiwi family! My host Mum, Dad, Sister and Brother.  They took me home and settled me in my new room.   They gave me a quick tour, I met the neighbours – one of whom was the principal of the school I was to attend –  and we ate.

I’d like to report that at this point I was wondering what all my pre-departure hysteria had been about, but no, I wasn’t done with the crying. Not even nearly. All I remember of those first few weeks were the endless tears and aching homesickness – oh, and the beating myself for not ‘thinking it through’. Surely if I had have thought this through, I’d be back home now instead of sobbing down the line on my once a week, very expensive phone-call home?

My host Dad gave me some very specific advice: ‘Stop blubbering’. Easier said than done. One evening, lying on my bed, sobbing and trying to make sense of it all, I reached out for a small book of quotes my mom had sent along with me – clearly for just such an occasion! Flicking through, this one grabbed me:

I ripped it from the book, jumped out of bed and pasted it on my mirror.

I wouldn’t say I was any less homesick after reading it, but I did get a wake-up call about the opportunity I was missing by focusing on what I’d left behind rather than what I now had in front of me. I knew I needed to embrace this big change that I had, after all, brought upon myself. I was going to start looking for the positives in it and most of all, stop the exhausting slog of fearing it.

And, yes, you’ve guessed it – New Zealand turned out to be a complete blast.

This quote served me well then and many times over the years since. It’s been a reference point for many life-changing decisions – more travel, new directions in my career, relationships…

As I work with clients, fear of change comes up constantly – a simple but profound and often paralyzing fear of moving forward into the unknown.

Even when people know that they need to do something different and that staying the same will come at a great personal cost, the barrier of fear seems impassable.

Even when people know exactly what they want to do and actually believe they could be successful doing it, still they hold back in the face of the great unknown.

Of course, fear has been a major asset to mankind. We wouldn’t be here now if our ancestors hadn’t responded to it and so taken precautions to steer clear of all the giant sabretooth tigers roaming around. It’s the same fear, still hard-wired in us today, that keeps us on the lookout for threats to our safety and well-being. Any sense of our ‘being under attack’ will bring out our innate fight or flight responses.

The challenge is identifying what it is that we are actually scared of.

If we do this we can begin to get some perspective on what we’re up against. Are we talking sabre-tooth tigers or not making the same income in the first year of a career change? Are we talking about telling our parents we’re over studying law and want to open a café? Are we talking about a threat that’s not even real e.g. thinking you could never afford to work part-time to spend more time on a creative interest when you haven’t even done the math? Get pinning that fear down – know your enemy!

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my twin daughters about the topic of fear of change. One daughter, in particular, had recently made a very significant change – to stop gymnastics. Even at the young age of ten, she’d already dedicated 5 years of physical work, mental effort and sheer determination to participate in a sport she’d loved. So much of her young identity was wrapped up in ‘being a gymnast.’ She knew it was time to move on, but she wrestled with the decision, and even more so, with the idea of change. She worried about what the rest of the group would think. She worried about missing her twin sister who would continue to go to the gym every week without her. She worried that it was the wrong decision even though she knew it was absolutely the right one. She was living proof of something I see all the time – knowing a change is RIGHT for you frequently isn’t enough to make following through on it any easier.

My conversation with the girls got us to brainstorming motivational quotes that would help people face their fears and move through change.

Later that night, after I had put them to bed, one of them came back out, with a journal where she’d written down her own sayings – all straight from the heart and Google-free!

Of course, I’m biased, I love them all, but here are my favourites:

  • If you let fear take over, you will stay in the same place, but if you take chances and risks, you will always move ahead.
  • Change is a new opportunity for greatness.
  • When you’re scared to change something in your life, remember that when you take challenges and risks, it will move you forward to your next destination.
  • When your fear takes over you have to break through. Be brave, and always remember you can’t let fear take over the change you need to make.   

And the best till last…

  • Change is like a roller-coaster. A mix of emotions. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. But the ride always stops and you’re always glad you did it.

Wow, the 16-year-old me on the plane to New Zealand could have done with such wisdom – let alone the grown-up version of me! So, next time there’s a change you need – or just desperately want – to make, a change you know is right but you’re still hitting a wall of fear, take note of Mark Twain…or my 10-year-old daughters.

Be brave. You got this!

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