The Voice Of Fear


Until One is Committed


"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back -- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”


- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I believe commitment is the most powerful of the emotional forces because, by its very definition, it transcends fear. True commitment is so absolute that fear does not even exist. It doesn't mean that you are not scared, it just means you cannot be stopped by fear. I experienced this lesson as a young boy, but only fully understood it as a young man.




Walking the Plank



When I was 10 years old, a friend and I were playing at the construction site of a new home being built in our neighborhood. We were making a fort out of some used wood. There was a ditch full of water, approximately four feet deep and eight feet wide, between our fort and the wood pile. A board was also there, bridging the gap, which I had run across some 20 times to gather wood.


The house was in the framing stage and had a detached garage. There was another board bridging an eight-foot gap between the second story of the house and the roof of the garage. My friend spotted a hammer that had been left on top of the garage, and we thought it might help our building efforts.Since he was busy digging holes for the walls of the fort, he asked me to go get it.


At first, it didn’t seem to be a problem and I went right up the stairs of the house. But then I reached the second floor and, standing at the foot of the board, suddenly became scared. I stood there for a minute debating what to do. My friend was busy and had not  noticed I was paralyzed by fear. I stared at the board, acknowledging its length and width were virtually the same as the other board, which I had crossed many times; yet, this information didn’t help. I told myself“I can do this” and took the first step. I froze. I was going no further. 


Before I could come up with an excuse for chickening out, my friend (unaware of my panic) called out, “We don’t need it -- just leave it.” A wave of relief came over me. When we walked home later that day, I had a conversation with myself about why I had been so scared. I told myself I should go back right then and walk the plank, although I knew I never would. It puzzled me how I could run across one board multiple times but couldn’t bring myself to cross the other even once simply because it was higher.


The next day we went back to the construction site to play in our fort. I was nervous the entire time, thinking I might be asked to get the hammer. The night before, I had actually practiced what my excuses would be if asked. As fate would have it, my friend did decide we needed the hammer – but he volunteered to get it. I was relieved, and watched him run up the stairs, walk across the board and grab the hammer. Then called me to come up and check out the view.


I was panic-stricken. I shouted, “That’s okay, I don’t care,” but he kept calling me. Rather than admit I was scared, I walked up the stairs and, from the other side of the board, said “Yeah, the view is great.” I was praying he would not ask me to come over, but of course he did, saying I should see the view from a vantage point where the house was not in the way. I stepped in front of the plank and again felt frozen. I was ready to admit defeat when my friend cried out in pain. He had stepped on a nail, and it quickly became apparent that he would not be able to walk back over the plank. 


I looked around and saw a 12-foot aluminum ladder lying on the roof of the garage, probably placed there so no one would take it. My panic disappeared and I  ran across the plank as easily as I had run over the one bridging the ditch. I grabbed the ladder and placed it near my friend, then climbed down the ladder and held it for him as he made his way to the ground. I helped him home and, on the walk back to my house from his, wondered what had come over me.


Why had crossing the plank gone from being impossible to effortless in an instant?


I didn’t discover the answer until eight years later, during my freshman year of college. I took a physiology class and one lecture focused on fear as the mind’s braking system. The instructor took a piece of chalk and drew a rectangle on the floor about a foot wide and 30 feet long, then told the class to imagine it was a plank of wood. He asked everyone in the class to get up and walk the imaginary plank. Everyone did so and returned to their seats. 


The instructor then told us to imagine that the plank was bridging the twin towers in New York City (sadly ironic now, of course). 


“Who in the room would walk across it now?” he asked. 


Of course, no one raised their hand. I flashed back to my experience as a kid and the board that scared me then, only 10 feet off the ground.


“What if I gave you $10 million to do it?”


A couple of hands went up.


“What if the board is icy and there is a 40-mile-per-hour wind?” 


The hands that were up immediately went down. Then he cut to the chase. 


“What if I’m holding your child in the air and I’m going to let go in 10 seconds unless you cross and save him or her?” 


Like magic, everyone raised their hands. Our instructor then explained that fear is the brain’s braking system; it is there to stop us before we do something potentially dangerous, so as to allow us to analyze whether or not we should take the risk. I remembered

how frozen I had felt as a child, trying to decide if I should cross the plank. I realized that my brakes were locked by fear and I could not unlock them because I had no good reason to take the risk.


Our instructor went on to explain that, in order to unlock those brakes, you have to conclude that what you are going to do is necessary or desirable. Doubt or uncertainty locks the brakes; commitment releases them. 


“When I offered $10 million, a couple of you released your brakes, but once I added it was icy and windy, the brakes went back on,” he said. “Then I gave you a scenario that released everyone's brakes because you all concluded that saving your child was more important than your own safety and that any risk was worth taking.”


Fear disappears when you conclude that a risk is worth taking, leaving only a complete commitment to the task. This is how the Marine Corps works. The training is designed to remove any thought of you as an individual and make the commitment to the Marine Corps supreme, thus preventing hesitation in following orders that might get you killed. You can’t be an effective military force with soldiers who are hitting their brakes at different times. 


Everyone in my class had the skills to walk across the plank, but that ability was relative to the individual’s commitment to use it. Our skills can only be truly utilized and our performance maximized when the fear brakes are completely off and we have a full commitment to the task at hand. That class allowed me to understand what had happened to me eight years earlier. I had no commitment to cross the plank when it was just about getting a hammer, but as soon as my friend was injured and I needed to get the ladder to help him down, my brakes released. 

This information had a profound effect on me. From that point on I realized that my performance and success at anything I attempted was determined by how effectively I released my fear brakes. When I subsequently wanted to master a skill or achieve a task, I evaluated where my fear brakes would come on and what commitment I would need to release them. If I came to the conclusion that I could not release my fear brakes because the skill or task was not important enough to do so, then I went no further. I have put a "fear brake test" at the end of this book for you to find out when your brakes come on and how to release them. 


Sometimes when there is no physical danger present, fear doesn't hit the brakes; instead, it makes us feel powerless. The overwhelming feeling that we can't change what is happening causes us to become emotionally frozen. In this situation, we give our power away when someone tries to emotionally dominate us. In this next story I went from powerless to powerful simply by trusting my heart's understanding of right and wrong.




Will the Person in Plaid Pants Please Stand?



When I was in the seventh grade, the style (if you could call it that) was to have no style at all. All the boys wore jeans with white or plain t-shirts and, if it got really cold outside, maybe a blue jacket. Add tennis shoes of some kind and that was it. My parents were not in tune with the style -- my mother liked to buy me slacks and dress shirts during that period. Despite the clothes she bought, I managed to fly under the radar and avoid too much abuse … until the day of the plaid pants, that is.


She got them for me to wear to Sunday school. For some reason that I can't recall now, I decided to wear the pants to school. This was a big mistake. I dealt with a good deal of ribbing from other students, but it got worse during first period when my teacher started in on me.


My homeroom teacher was a short, stocky man who liked to impress students by tearing phone books in half. He was a very strict and religious man. This made his reaction to my pants even more surprising. As he walked between the desks, handing out our latest assignments, he stopped at my desk and looked down at my pants. He stared at them for a second and then said, “Wow, the whole class needs to see these.”


He then asked me to get up and stand on my chair. I was in shock and did what he asked. The whole class got a big kick out of my demonstration. After a few humiliating moments, he said I could sit back down.


At that moment, something in me snapped. I was fine with abuse from other students but, coming from a teacher? It seemed unthinkable. I had been on autopilot when I initially followed his directions, as the idea of resisting his authority seemed out of the question. But then I realized he had lost my respect the moment he abused his authority and my feeling of powerlessness changed to one of power.


I knew I would have the complete support of my parents when I explained to them what my teacher had done -- absolute trust was one of the great gifts my parents gave me and my brother. We never had a single restriction growing up and we never abused the privilege.


I got down from my chair, reached under my desk, grabbed my books and headed for the door. My teacher asked me what I was doing.


“I'm going to the principal's office to call my parents so we can all talk about what just happened.”


The class was dead silent. My teacher's voice rose as told me to get back in my seat. I knew I would lose support from my parents if I was disrespectful to a teacher, so I politely said no and walked out. I was a few steps down the hall when my teacher caught up with me and grabbed my arm. He told me that I would come back to class and stop this nonsense.


He had the fear now.


I simply asked him to release my arm or I would call out for help. He quickly let go and I continued on my way. As I finished my walk to the principal’s office, my sense of power became even stronger. I had gone from weak and submissive to committed and powerful in an instant. When I reached the principal’s office, he was out, so I asked to see the vice principal. I explained what happened and asked him to call my mother. At first, he tried to resolve the matter, but I told him that was not an option. I was committed to my plan of action -- knowing you are right solidifies the feeling of power. In the end, I was moved to another home room class and received a formal apology from my teacher, and the legend of the plaid pants was born.

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