Some Days, I Am Brave (Not Fearless)

I remember, several years back, arriving at a spa nestled in a serene resort. I felt a million miles away from my real life, despite only being one and a half hours down the freeway. Work had been intense. I was constantly out of my comfort zone. Stretching my limits every day. Some days to a near breaking point. And this day of ommm was very much needed.

I always like a spa boutique. So beautifully curated and, somehow, channeling both a transcendent, calm enoughness as well as the strong urge to buy all these gorgeous things you can’t afford. I allowed myself one decadent sweep of the room and then focused my eyes on the woman at the register with whom I needed to check in. A massage is pretty much the limit of my splurges and I wanted to re-channel my gratitude for this moment of peace and respite.

As I waited for the woman to pull up my appointment details, my eyes fell on these tiny, smooth oblong rocks with words carved into them. Each word carried forth its own feeling. Inspiration in the form of a mantra, perhaps. I was intrigued but, then, I stopped myself. Certainly, they would be overpriced, and I really didn’t need one. To my surprise, as she rang me up, the woman at the register told me I could take one. Oh, but which one to choose? Ask a lawyer to choose one word and you have a dilemma of epic proportions…

I hemmed and hawed. Each stone held an energy that I wanted to embrace. To bring with me. To carry forth. I was depleted. I needed all the energy! I wanted to do the thing where I just sweep my forearm across the countertop, dumping them all into my bag. But, I maintained my composure and realized I kept coming back to fearless. I don’t know if it was because Taylor Swift had just released a new album or if it was the thing I felt I needed most to help me through my toughest challenges. Maybe both. I put fearless in my pocket, took my locker key and lush robe and went on to enjoy a lovely afternoon of indulgent relaxation.

That stone joined the artifacts I kept on my desk at work for inspiration. Later, I added a handwritten quote on my business card: “The law leaves much room for interpretation but very little for self-doubt.” A powerful reminder from Legally Blonde I find holds true over and over again. But, as I’ve thought about fearlessness, I’ve come to question its virtue as something to seek.

Don’t get me wrong – it sounds great. But I’ve found it’s not realistic. I’ve been on this earth long enough to know I’m never going to be fearless. Despite much self-work and intentionality. There will always be fear. And, I realized, I want to be brave. Brave is not the absence of fear.  Brave is acting in spite of the fear.

Moreover, if I were truly fearless, it would likely mean I was not putting myself in situations where the stakes are high. Bravery is the power to accept the fear and run toward it and make that make you stronger.

No, I don’t want to be fearless. I want to be brave. And, some days, I am.

In fact, once I framed it in this way, it became a lot easier to do scary things. Now, I am brave almost every day. Not naturally so, but intentionally so.

Along my bravery crusade, I’ve developed bravery hacks. I have this thing I do that I think of as walking myself out to the edge of the cliff and then giving myself that last nudge to jump. Emails raising perspectives I don’t know will be well-received. Agreeing to do something that scares me. Doing the thing before I’m ready. Having the hard conversation when I don’t have the words.

And, as I type that, I realize the pandemic has been a master class in bravery. All of those things and more were daily occurrences for the last 18+ months. Leading a team through every kind of uncertainty and fear, tragedy and loss, sickness and health, a reckoning with privilege and racial and social justice, burnout, languishing, anxiety, increased workloads and challenging politics in the office and in the world, just to name a few. All while working remotely. Funny thing is, in this strange virtual world I’ve inhabited, I’ve found that Zoom can actually be a great tool for bravery.  Like bravery training wheels.

In my life, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about whether or not to say something and what exactly I’ll say. And, then, how it will be received, how it was received, and so on. Said overthinking usually led to me trimming my list of meeting contributions by 50-75%, doing the timid half hand raise and hoping no one would see and saving my comment for a later aside to the safest person in the room. Each reflected both a progression on my bravery journey and a woeful falling short of where I wished I was on that journey.

Since we’ve transitioned to Zoom, though, I’ve increasingly found my footing. I am prone to reading my audience and, as a highly empathetic, detail-oriented, observant person, that can make for what Tara Mohr calls a “noisy room”. I can get lost in reading and reacting to reactions. Trouble is, especially in a virtual environment, that reaction could be to anything. Many people are multi-tasking with private chat, email, text, you name it. What the virtual environment offers that the physical environment doesn’t, though, is the ability to have you notes handy. You can even use them to block everyone out. Sometimes, when I have something to say that I’m nervous about, I’ll put my notes over the screen. I just hide people’s faces, ignore who’s in the room and get out what I need to get out. I recognize I will have to adjust when we are back together in person but the important thing is I’m building the bravery muscle now and that will provide a solid foundation for that further evolution to come.

In a similar vein, now, in conversations where I’m not quite sure about taking the floor to say something that kind of feels like it needs to be said, Zoom offers a convenient compromise. I can type it in the chat. I’m putting it out there but it’s a little less scary. I know my voice won’t shake and I can’t chicken out halfway through. Actually, in a way, I guess it is more scary because you can’t take it back once it’s out there but it’s also a bravery tool because all you have to do is convince yourself to hit the button. Then, you have jumped.

Also, there is no timid half hand raise in a Zoom world. It’s either up or down and everyone can see it. Have you ever had that experience when you raise your Zoom hand and then take it down and someone notices and asks what it was you wanted to say? Me too – Zoom has provided this amazing forum for coaxing one another into bravery, perhaps without even realizing we’re doing it.

I’ve also noticed a fascinating phenomenon. When I do this, in the chat or out loud, especially about something tough, it often sparks something in the group. Like a breaking of a vulnerability barrier of sorts. Many times, people will chime in. One by one, gaining momentum with each additional voice. Or they will write me on the side and tell me they are glad I said something. Or they agree. Or they notice something else they really think we should think about. And I can encourage them to speak up too.

Actually, the ability to chat discreetly and anonymously is an amazing tool for bravery. It can be a way to try to build allyship before going out on that ledge alone. Let me be clear, that should not be a prerequisite, but I have seen it as a tremendous tool for rallying.

Zoom can power amplification too. Elevating the underrepresented voices. Encouraging and endorsing bravery. Ensuring credit is given where credit is due. Again, the chat can be a really great feature for this. “Great point, Molly. I’m glad to hear Bob and others agreeing with what you raised.” “Want to underscore Kate’s insight just now. Super important for us to stay focused on.” Sometimes, it will make sense to make the point out loud and take the space and time away from the meeting. The chat offers an alternative if that feels like too much.

All of this has proven what Alex Carter says so well – when you use your voice, you make it okay for others to use theirs. Bravery grows in numbers and with exercise.

Another way I like to think about inspiring bravery is getting to the place of why not. Or, f*ck it, as I sometimes like to say. When I think about being brave, it helps me to think – what is the alternative? Letting the fear win?

I know that is not the way I want to live. And, really, why not? The biggest risk is failure and a little failure here and there in the spirit of growth and self-actualization isn’t a bad thing. It’s how we start stepping into that new self. The brave self. No change happens overnight. You have to start living into it. Being the person you want to become. One leap at a time and, with each leap, leaping gets easier.

So, I say – f*ck it.  Be brave.

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