Michelle Poler: 100 Days Without Fear at TEDxHouston (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of fear facer Michelle Poler’s TEDx Talk: 100 Days Without Fear at TEDxHouston conference. This event took place on October 18, 2015 at Houston, Texas. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

 

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Michelle Poler – Fear Facer and Speaker

Today, right here, right now, I’m facing my 100th fear.

It all started when I was doing my Master’s degree in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. And Debbie Millman, the director and the founder of the program asked the class to look deep into our souls and write an essay about our best possible lives 10 years from now. This exercise was both terrifying and liberating.

We had a free path to dream big. As soon as we were all ready to go after our biggest dreams, we were asked to think of all those possible things that could get in the way of our best possible future. But then we were asked to identify one crucial obstacle.

When I learned and I realized that my whole life was crippled by fear and I was missing on every new experience. Because of it, I was paralyzed. And that’s when the third part of this assignment was unveiled. We were all commissioned to start a 100-day project of our choice. For me, the answer was way too obvious to ignore. I knew that I had to start facing all of my fears one by one.

Since I was a little girl, my life had always been crippled by fear. Like I remember when I was little, and my uncle bought a huge dog for his house and my family dinners went from being happy memories to terrifying nightmares.

Or when I passed in a backpacking trip to Europe with my friends, just because the thought of having to sleep at a hostel or in a train station would make me tremble. And like that I never tried any substance that could mess up with my system. I was comfortable that way, and the easy answer to all of these things was always “no, thanks!”

Being the fearful person that I was, I thought that I had easily 100 fears or more. So I started by accepting the challenge to do this project as my first fear. I went on and held the cat for the first time ever. I tried all kinds of food, I went one day, an entire day, without my cell phone, and I went on and on until Day 39 arrived and something remarkable happened.

I was about to face my fear of donating blood when I realized that I was congratulating myself over and over again for having faced almost 40 different fears, when in reality I was facing the same fears over and over again. I wasn’t scared of needles, I was scared of pain. I wasn’t scared of doing karaoke, I was scared of being embarrassed. And I wasn’t scared of begging for money in the streets of New York, I was scared of being rejected. That’s when I realized I did not have 100 fears; I had 7 fears: Pain, danger, disgust, embarrassment, rejection, loneliness, and control.

For example, to face my fear of pain, I did all sorts of things. From getting a piercing, getting a Brazilian wax, trying spicy food, I did try acupuncture, I jumped off a cliff and all of those things that reassured me that indeed I don’t like pain. But hey, I really love my piercing and my husband loved the Brazilian wax.

As a way to better understand the difference between all of my fears and find their origin, I decided to classify them according to a stack of values. Values that define who we are and why we do the things that we do. And this is something that I learned from my SVA professor Dr. Tom Morello. We’re all born with a set of universal values and little by little we develop cultural and personal ones.

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By categorizing all of my fears this way, I realized that all of the challenges that I was facing related to danger, pain, and disgust fell under the universal stack. If we asked anyone to try oysters for the first time in their lives, the reaction would probably be something like this. Same if we ask them to pet this, to swim around these, or jump from here.

All of the challenges that were related to embarrassment and rejection fell under the cultural stack. Society shapes us and gives us guidelines so one day we all become well-behaved rational adults. We all know that due to symptoms, right? Don’t do this, don’t touch this, and don’t walk around wearing this.

And finally, all of my challenges related to loneliness and control were deep embedded in my personal stack. I come from a family of World War Two survivors where half of my family were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps. My grandparents were lucky and they were able to escape and start a new life from scratch but their fears never went away. In fact, they were carried from generation to generation. My mom was raised with lots of fears, and so was I.

Additionally, I was born and raised in a country full of natural beauty, delicious food and amazing people but as beautiful as Venezuela is, it ranks among the most dangerous countries in the world, where kidnappings, robberies and murders are part of people’s daily conversations. And where having your car taken but your life not, is seen as a blessing. People in these countries face their fears daily.

But if I learned one thing, it’s that we cannot keep blaming our past or our circumstances for our fears. That’s not going to fix our future. What we can do about them is face them and try to change our relationship with them. By doing all of these fears, I learned that there’s a natural sort of predictable process to facing fear.

It all starts in the discovery stage, here’s when we identify that we are scared of something, like I guess I am scared of doing stand-up comedy. Then we immediately move into the denial stage, here’s when we ignore the fact that we are indeed scared of this thing. Most of the people stay in this stage making their lives easy and comfortable.

A few percentages of the people make it to the next stage which is the determination stage. Here’s when we make all the arrangements necessary, we set a date for it and we’re ready, we’re ready to face our fears.

So before getting to the action stage, there’s this hard to avoid stage I like to call the “WTF am I doing stage”. You can’t avoid it. This is when you really overthink your decision to face your fear and you think of every possible outcome turning it into the worst-case scenario. If you make it past this stage, congrats. Because you will end in the action stage, that’s what I’m doing now, action, and here’s when it doesn’t matter how much of a non-believer you are, you turn to God asking him to be with you in that moment and you go for it, you face your fear and that will take you to the celebratory stage, here’s when you want to share with the world what you just did. Hashtag “I did it”. You experience what feeling proud of yourself actually feels like.

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Then, a new feeling creeps in, a feeling of embarrassment because here’s when we really regret our behavior during the “WTF stage”. And I’m telling you, after facing 100 fears, not even a one time the actual challenge was worse than what I had in my head before. So, WTF I was so afraid of?

So these six steps repeat themselves over and over again. It doesn’t matter how many challenges you’ve faced. To go from the WTF stage into the action stage, I built a set of tools for myself.

First, I have some cognitive tools. These are the things I like to tell myself like “it’ll be over in ten seconds”, “what’s the worst that could happen?” “Everybody has a destiny” and all of these things.

I have also some behavioral tools, these are things I do differently, like when I couldn’t jump off this cliff until I decided to count 1, 2, 3, jump. And I did it.

And finally, I have some emotional tools like when I try to put myself in the best mood possible before going on stage, so I can only bring positive energy into the room and really engage with my audience.

These three tools will not necessarily lead you to overcome fear but they will allow you to become intimate with the fear. Actually, we don’t want to eliminate fear. Fear is our ally, and it is there to keep us alive. But when we face our fears, we allow other emotions to jump in. Emotions that I never even experienced before doing this project.

The important thing here is to make sure that fear is in its place and not let it spill over into the other emotions. When we change our approach, when we change our relationship with fear, we will ultimately change our approach to life itself. In my case, I went from “no, thanks!” to “let me try”. For some people, it takes them 100 challenges to get there, like me. For some, 10 will do. And for some people, only one challenge will change their lives.

I don’t believe in absolute fearlessness, but I do believe that we can negotiate with our fears. As a way to pursue our dreams and open ourselves to experiences that we never even considered.

By Day-40, my project was discovered by the media and this is when I realized the power that I had by sharing all these experiences. I started to receive messages from people all over the world thanking me for inspiring them and this is when the goal of my project shifted. It went from becoming a braver person myself to keep inspiring people to leave their comfort zones, face their fears and start living life to the fullest. Who knew facing fears was contagious.

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So I have an assignment for all of you. I want you to think of one thing you would love to face in this upcoming week. Whether it’s asking for a raise at work, asking someone to marry you, or doing something crazy like jumping out of a plane. I want you to face that fear, give it a shot, and then share your experience, inspire someone else.

Thank you very much.