I recently attended a weekend retreat in the mountains of Colorado as part of a community leadership program. While I have attended my share of leadership sessions, this one was different in several important ways. One was that the program was for building community contacts and learning about our local community, not about building leadership skills in our organization. At the start of the retreat I knew only one of the other 35 participants.
The other thing that was different for me was that I was one of the older people in the group. I went into this program thinking it was for established leaders in an organization but instead learned that it was now focused more on emerging leaders. There would be much for me to learn about with this unexpected dynamic, but for today I am focusing on the experience of the ropes course.
Facing the Fear
Yes, the dreaded ropes course. Despite my years of experience, I had never done a ropes course. I didn’t know what to expect – which was part of the fear factor for me. Each step of the way, I quickly faced the fact that simply by being more than a few years older than the other participants, I was less able to do some of the harder physical activities. I was frequently faced with the reality that despite my brain’s desire to climb higher or my ego’s desire to show my physical ability, there were some things at which I wouldn’t excel to the same degree as some of the others in the group. So I engaged in the activities as much as I could and encouraged others to reach for literal new heights.
I pushed myself past my comfort limits and was pretty proud of myself by the end of the day. The experience that had the most impact on me was climbing a high telephone pole. Jutting from the top of the pole was a small ledge. Once you made it to the ledge, you were to jump towards a trapeze handle in the distance. In observing the others and talking to them after, I learned that the challenge for each participant was different. Some chose not to climb. Some climbed with speed to the top then needed shouts of encouragement to actually jump. Some chose the higher pole with no ledge, just the smooth circle of the tree on which to balance.
Out of Sight
My challenge was the transition from the pole to the ledge. I climbed with confidence early, then with more deliberation the higher I got. My confidence began to wane as I discovered that the footholds got narrower the higher I climbed. I cursed the worn treads of my old gym shoes with each trepidatious step. Near the top, the handholds also got farther apart, so each step became more of a leap towards each handhold – pushing off from one to the next. My heart pounded as I reached the last handhold and realized I would have to twist my torso to grab the edge of the ledge, which was out of my line of sight, while simultaneously letting go of the handhold and pushing off the foothold. I was frozen.
My new teammates on the ground shouted encouragement while I pondered my next move: Give up and be lowered to the ground in defeat? Leap and miss the ledge, risking injury? Stay here until nightfall? From the ground, a teammate called out, “don’t overthink it!” How true, I thought. That’s what I do, overthink things. “I don’t think I can do it!” I yelled out to no one in particular. “I think you can,” came the voice of the facilitator who held the rope that held me. Well, if he thinks I can, maybe I can, I thought. So with no more thinking, I pushed off the foothold, leapt, reached out, grabbed the ledge, and pulled myself up to a standing position. For a brief moment I took in the breathtaking view of the mountains in the clear Colorado air and then 3,2,1 jumped off the ledge into blue sky with a slow descent controlled by the facilitator.
Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones
I tell this story for a few reasons. One is that by doing something so much out of my comfort zone, I re-learned an important lesson: Taking the final leap to a new project, new job or new skill is something I can do. The hardest part for me is trusting myself when the footholds are narrow, the handholds are farther apart, and the final reach is just out of view.
Other than physical risks that give an adrenaline rush, there are actions that are cerebral risks that open new opportunities and new ways of thinking. Advice I give when I am career coaching is to take a risk and reach out to someone you admire or in a position you want to attain someday. The hardest part is different for each of us. In my effort to reset my thinking about my career and my future I decided to take my own advice and start a journey by stepping off a ledge. I first reached out to a woman whose business card simply said “Consultant.” Meeting with her and being given some homework prompted me to contact another woman who runs her own business doing the kind of consulting I find particularly interesting. Again, meeting with her prompted new thinking as well as created a new contact. My next meeting is with someone she connected me with who runs his own consulting business but with a slightly different focus from hers. My ultimate goal is to see if buying a business is meant for me. These meetings are all steps that will lead me towards a ledge. I know that the hardest part for me won’t be stepping off the ledge, it will be pushing off that last foothold as my foot slips and I reach for something I can’t quite see, pull myself up to stand and gaze at the amazing view of the future in the moment before I leap.
Questions I ask myself when facing unfamiliar or frightening situations: What do I gain by sitting and watching others try something? What am I afraid of in this situation that keeps me from trying it myself? Do I really want to try this hard/scary thing? What is holding me back? What will I gain from trying? When have I been successful when I faced my fears?
Live in Wonder: Quests, Quotes & Questions to Jumpstart Your Journey/Eric Saperston.
We had reached the top of the heart-stopping road to Hana in Maui where I found this book in a gift shop. Each page has a short question or quote to ponder or take action on. Eric Saperson’s personal journey is inspiring in and of itself. It’s a book and a journal all in one.
April 9, 2016 at 12:19 am
This made me wonder… when is that voice inside actually our instinct telling us something is dangerous/should be avoided/isn’t right for us, and when is it a voice stopping us from our greatest achievements? Maybe there isn’t a difference, because there is risk and vulnerability in the unknown. This experience made me think of Ladies Rock Camp, and the ways that I see women step outside of their comfort zones musically. They bring this courage and triumph they experience at camp back into other areas of their lives. Any thoughts on when, as a leader, to push people to take the leap, and when to back off because maybe it isn’t safe for them?
April 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm
Knowing how hard to push ourselves or someone else is a constant learning curve. I recently discovered that I was pushing too hard on someone before they were ready. Some innocent people were caught in the friendly fire. There’s no perfect formula and sometimes we make mistakes. We learn from these mistakes and aim not to cause permanent damage. Hmm. First do no harm?
April 3, 2016 at 9:31 pm
April 3, 2016 at 7:57 pm
This is a compelling narrative of someone overcoming their fear one ledge at a time. Can vulnerability and courage co-exist together? This particular blog entry sure showed how that is quite possible for someone like this blogger who’s willing to push the mental limitations to such a great extent and live and write to show that it is possible. It was not just recounting a dare-devil experience; it was a captivating account of how and why experiences like that serve as the necessary triggers for a much awaited reinvention of yourself. This is a powerful self-motivating blog as it is a very honest account of fear, doubt, belief and faith.