Notes from "How to Live A Life Without Fear"
They had decided to sacrifice a rare evening in the sun for an Escape School talk with the Gary Leboff one of the UK’s leading sports psychologists. The title of the talk? “How to Live A Life Without Fear”.
Gary has worked with 12 international soccer squads and gold medal Olympians as well as TV stars, housewives and teenagers. His work formed the centrepiece of BBC2’s series The Challenge.
Why do we get stuck?
Gary talked us through his own journey from escaping his life as a barrister (“I was damned if I was going to live my life doing something I hated.”), to being a rock critic, and having a near death experience in a faulty elevator in New York. It was this accident that led him to psychology as he sought to cure his own PTSD.
He then asked us to imagine a dreary, rainy town in northern Scotland called Stuck. He used this image to great effect throughout what turned out to be an incredibly honest, truthful and impactful talk and Q&A.
So what’s the answer to the question of why it is so hard to leave Stuck (the attendees had many ideas!)?
- We don’t like change
- We are influenced by other people on Stuck who tell us it is dangerous to leave
- We don’t know what is ‘out there’ and we imagine the worst
Ultimately Gary showed us how we get stuck in Stuck because we are afraid of the unknown.
He also challenged us with the reality that we have all left Stuck at some stage in our lives. We’ve all left relationships, we’ve all left home, we’ve all changed jobs… we’re all capable of change.
Despite this, we’re all scared of the unknown (and we imagine the worst).
We’re scared of failure (which seems almost guaranteed in our imagination).
Why do we want to leave Stuck?
The unknown is scary. It’s a fact for most humans.
The known is our job, our home, our life, our daily routine. We feel safe in the known.
Why should we even want to leave the known? Why shouldn’t we just stay in Stuck?
Because if we’re unhappy or unfulfilled and searching for a solution…
…it’s likely that the solution is in the unknown.
“If you’re going to live a life with any juice in it, the unknown where you want to live.”
I don’t want to live in Stuck.
Gary then reminded us that we are all living in the unknown the whole time, we just prefer to think we aren’t. He pointed out that life is fundamentally chaotic – we can never really control what happens to us (we can simply control our reactions). Economic forces, redundancies, family bereavements – these are all things that have the power to dramatically change our lives in an instance.
This matters because if we wake up to the fact that our lives are in flux, constantly, we realise that deliberately stepping into the unknown is much easier – because we’re already there in many senses.
How do we leave Stuck?
Gary continued with his image of us all stuck in the suffocating, fearful, conservative village of Stuck. He said that there’s a boat that comes once a week which we can get on to leave Stuck. He said that the key is getting on the boat without necessarily having to know where the boat is headed.
Immediately I thought that this seemed like he was advocating resigning without a plan (like he had done when he walked out of his barrister chambers in Middle Temple on a Friday, never to return). He swiftly clarified that getting on the boat is not resigning. Getting on the boat is simply the decision to begin taking new steps in new directions – it’s a commitment to generate the momentum to eventually change our circumstances.
How do we know what to head towards?
We have a choice on the boat leaving Stuck – we can worry about where the boat is going or we can relax about it.
Gary talked to us about how the key to change is that we don’t have to know where we are going.
He gave us three ideas for figuring out which stop (or “port”) we want to get off the boat at.
- Start with our passions (which, he reminded us, are grown through doing different things, not discovered in some moment of truth).
- Find something new to learn (keep improving our skills, learn for learning’s sake, learn widely and voraciously).
- Heed our values (values are signposts for assessing new options and opportunities, we want to live by our values).
Do these three things consistently and bravely and we will eventually find out where we are heading. Following a passion can get us on the boat but we mustn’t be afraid that it might not be “the thing” – it probably won’t, but at least it’ll get us moving.
How do we make decisions?
Gary offered a really simple tool for helping us make decisions in our lives… when faced with any decision are we choosing based on fear or based on love? When faced with the choice Gary takes love every time. We so often make decisions based on fear. What fear? Fear of pain.
Gary lives by his values. Whenever a new career opportunity crosses his path he looks at his four uncompromisable values on the wall in his office and assesses what he is being asked to do through these four criteria…
Will it be an adventure? Will it be fun? Will it require courage? Does it allow him to keep his freedom?
Although it seems simple, Gary also reminded us that identifying four core values requires sacrificing other things which are also important to us.
Can I have it all?
“No” was Gary’s simple and honest answer. Any decisions in life require pursuing some things at the expense of others. Reconciling ourselves to this fact can actually liberate to pursue our core values with purpose and confidence.
What about fear?
Gary reminded us that even those of us who are terrified of public speaking or scared of flying also have a part of ourselves (even a tiny part) that is confident about delivering a speech or getting on a plane. He encouraged us to access that part of ourselves that isn’t scared and actively choose to inhabit that part.
This was the crux of the talk (well, certainly related to the title); “if you’re not leading a courageous life you’re half dead already.”
I relate to them. Everything I’ve ever done that has been worth doing has involved a dose of fear and required at least some courage to do. Literally everything.
So what’s the secret?
The secret is that no one lives a life without fear.
Anyone whose life we admire, anyone who has got right to the top of their chosen field (athletes, footballers, actors, etc) has done it in spite of their fear or even by using their fear to drive them on. They also accessed the part of themselves that wasn’t afraid and carried on.
But what if I’m too afraid…?
Gary challenged us to divide our fear into stuff that was “Scary” and stuff that was “Dangerous”. We’re regularly afraid of things that are just scary (changing jobs, public speaking, starting businesses) but which aren’t actually dangerous.
Dangerous is being in an open field with a lion. Dangerous is (statistically speaking) your cycle journey home. Scary is standing up in front of a group of your peers to deliver a brave message that you believe in. Is it dangerous? No!
There is very little that we are going to do that is genuinely dangerous in the next 6 months. Yet so many of us are so fearful. Our brain is trying to protect us from a danger that we are inventing (fear of failure, fear of the unknown).
Even the gentleman in the audience who said that he is afraid of losing his family and not being able to support them if he pursued his passion admitted that he was imagining a catastrophic outcome that was unlikely to come to pass.
The job is not to stop being afraid – the job is to use our fear.
Getting rid of our fear is impossible.
Acknowledging we are afraid and stepping into the part of ourselves that isn’t afraid.
That’s the key.
But what if I can’t see the next step?
The final “aha!” moment for me was when Gary talked about Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. He talked about the invisible bridge that Harrison Ford had to step out onto before he could know if it was actually a bridge or not.
At first glance this image sounds like he is advocating a blind leap of faith – sack in your job, sacrifice your salary, and charge off into the unknown. However, the reality is much more nuanced than that. The reality is that stepping into the unknown simply requires taking a first step (no matter how modest and certainly well before resigning).
The only question, according to Gary, is are we going to wait or are we going to take that first step…?
[A massive thank you to Gary Leboff for an extremely powerful talk and Q&A. You can contact Gary directly by emailing him. Thank you also to Mark Hosking for organising the evening. You can check out our upcoming talks here.]
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