“Do something every day that scares you.” That advice from Eleanor Roosevelt is particularly useful as we get older. When we’re young, we don’t even think about what might go wrong with what we decide to do. We just rush headlong into what looks like fun or seems like the right direction. If you end up with a broken arm, you heal. If you lose money, you get on with making more.
But in maturity, we become more tentative. Maybe the break won’t heal and there’s no way to make more money if we lose what we have and are past the age of being paid to work. Or so we think. In truth, being too timid can cost a lot more than a wise risk. We can second guess ourselves right out of a satisfying life.
It’s easy–and almost expected–to become afraid of pretty much everything as we age. You might waffle about going on vacation to a new place and shy away from a meeting where you won’t know anyone. You may keep wearing the same hairstyle or sports shirt because you know it works. You rely on the same friends and do the same things for fun again and again so that you don’t have to step into that scary unknown beyond the familiar. You read the same kinds of books and watch the same kind of TV shows. With every act of same-and-familiar you build a smaller and smaller world for yourself. Eventually, you will bore yourself to death. Literally.
The truth is, we need to do scary stuff–no matter how old we eventually become. We need to step beyond what’s easy and do something that’s got a challenge. Quite often the challenge–especially after we’ve mastered a significant number of life skills–is in getting past the fear that the new thing engenders.
It’s good for us to do that. It’s the only way to build up the emotional muscle needed to get through the tough spots that come into every life. It’s the door to the new experiences that make life interesting and keep your soul growing and your brain working. It’s also the best way out there for affirming your self worth. When you do what scares you, you’re a conqueror. You’ve faced something that could have stopped you and overcome it.
Notice I’m not saying watch something scary. Going to horror movies isn’t the same as facing a personal fear and getting on with what you’d planned to do anyway. This is a do mandate, an action that you must take on your own behalf. Getting the experience through someone else’s scary situation–be it in a movie, on TV, or in a book, is a really cheap counterfeit to the real thing. It’s not going to give you anything to work with when life gets tough.
Some of us fear speaking in public. Some of us fear going to a different city or part of town. Some of us fear heights or water. (I personally fear heights and water. I get a dose of do-something-that-scares-you every time I have to cross a skinny bridge over a roaring mountain creek on a hike.) We all fear something. Find what you’re afraid of and use it.
A few days ago, there was a TV show about an unusual group of lions who had learned to swim. Those lions are, supposedly (I doubt anyone came by and had them get on a scale), 15% bigger than their more timid land-sworn African counterparts because of the pectoral muscles they’ve developed swimming and hunting in the water. They can access food that most lions can only watch from the shore. They have evolved because they started going in the water–an act that initially had to be scary for them.
The more you do to help yourself keep going in spite of fear, the stronger you’re going to be for whatever comes into your life.
Another of good old Eleanor’s great quotes applies: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Usually the thing that makes us think we can’t do something is fear. Get past that natural inclination to shy away from what makes you afraid and use it as a springboard instead.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and writer and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more, see her website.