Monday, March 14, 2011

Finding Fearlessness

Every winter I interview high school seniors who are applying for acceptance to the Freshman class at my East Coast alma mater. The kids I meet are mature, accomplished (I have to tell you, if you haven’t built an orphanage in South America, you could probably qualify as a minority student,) and whip-smart. I genuinely enjoy getting to know what motivates these young people, and then doing my best to boil those discussions into four persuasive paragraphs for the Admissions Office. I try to find something about the kid that is noteworthy, that will make them rise above the sea of 4.1 GPAs and school newspaper editors and student body presidents.

This year I met a young man who was, by his own description, swimming in a somewhat murkier end of the pool. Without giving specifics, he faced some learning disabilities that make it difficult to thrive in a traditional academic environment and his grades have suffered as a result. Frustrated at the labels being applied to their son in elementary school, his parents suggested that computers might help him cope. Of course he turned out to be a whack-a-dooey computer genius.

At 17, his high school principal has given him budgetary and management oversight for a major school computer initiative, and he is also busy at the helm a high-tech startup. He recently went with his two co-founders – if you add up all their ages, they don’t quite equal 60 – to meet with VCs and ended up gaining an entire advisory board of interested graybeards.

None of that was what impressed me – I’m jaded after all these college interviews with superstars. You wrote a bestselling novel? WhatEVER. Is it in French?

What made him stand out was his utter fearlessness. “I told my co-founders that there is simply no way we can fail,” he said. “Everything we’ve done – figured out what the product is, wrote the business plan, got the meetings with the VC – even if we don’t get one step farther, we’ve still succeeded. Because we’ve learned something each step of the way. I told them that they should be so proud of what we’ve done just to get this far.” Here's a kid who is not discouraged by the fact that his school grades and SAT scores don't properly reflect his promise. He understands that lessons learned in the process are as important as the outcome, and embraces every moment of it. 

I have been thinking about his fearlessness – and why my own is so hard to coax out of hibernation.

Of course, once you get older and have a family depending on you, the notion of trying something risky without a net loses a great degree of appeal. I’d go live in a cave and eat beans from a can if it meant better writing, but I’ll be damned if my husband and kids have to suffer.

But even when the stakes are lower, I take the sure shot too easily. Apply to speak at a conference when I haven’t done public speaking for a few years? Not unless I’m forced to. Submit an essay to a magazine that draws household-name authors to its pages? Sorry, I’m not in that league yet (and at this rate never will be.) Respond to the "Room of Your Own" challenge and offer to organize a panel for the upcoming BlogHer conference? Maybe I should spend my first-ever trip to the conference by just observing. 

I spent a college semester in Vienna. When I returned for my senior year and people asked what I would do after graduation, I told everyone with complete sincerity, “I’m getting a job in Germany.” I hadn’t applied for any, and as my classmates got snapped up by the Manny Hannys and the Solly Bros (it was the '80s, it was business school, and we were all on a nickname basis with the big banks,) I just bided my time and entertained not a single shred of self doubt.

A month before graduation, a tiny German company came to campus, and three weeks after wearing my mortarboard I headed off to Munich to spend two years as an IT consultant. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't move to Germany.

So how, when, and why did I relinquish that faith in myself? And what would you do today, if you weren't afraid to fail?


  1. Thank you for sharing this Nancy. Sounds like he believes "the lessons are in the failures" instead of "failure is not an option"...All the best to that wonderful young man :)

  2. well said, Maureen - indeed I think he was as proud of the failures as the successes since they each taught him something different. It's so easy to grade yourself by the "wins" only...

  3. Does not being afraid to fail exclude financial and real-world constraints, or can I dream big here?

  4. "Dream small" just has a weird ring to it. Here in Normalarkeyland, real world constraints exist only to be smashed.

  5. As a mom of a boy with some pretty random LDs, I shed a little tear of hope. Thanks for this one, Nancy. Always a pleasure, but sometimes you hit the nail right on the head. With regards to him, I will attempt to dream huge. xox


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