Do the Thing You Think You Cannot Do

Fear is an interesting motivator.  You’ve probably heard the famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  These words were spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his first inaugural address in 1933, in the middle of a banking crisis and other types of turmoil causing great fear among Americans at the time.  His advice was comforting and eased some of the fear.

This morning I heard another interesting ‘fear’ quote: 

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

This longer, but equally simple and powerful suggestion, comes from a book first published in 1960 … written by FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt.  The full title of her book is “You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.”  Being a history enthusiast, I find it interesting that two such powerful quotes about fear come from a President and his wife.  A First Lady didn’t usually get credit for much beyond fashion, even as recently as 1960.  Fortunately the four most recent Presidential spouses have gone beyond that stereotype.

The short part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote that resonates with me is this:  “… stop to look fear in the face. … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Have you ever been in that position yourself?  Have you feared trying to do something you wanted to do because you thought you couldn’t do it?  Did that fear come from the overwhelming odds against taking up the challenge or was it a loud inner voice from your youth shouting someone else’s assessment of your situation?

Some fears are a bit obvious: skydiving, for example.  Two friends have done that recently, one around her 30th birthday, the other around her 60th.  They each had fears but they each also wanted to do that. You can see their fear at the beginning of their respective skydiving videos and you can see the elation upon landing.  They looked their fears in the face and did the thing they thought they could not do.  Or maybe it was just something others told them they could not or should not do.

Some fears we face are less exciting but just as important in living a fulfilling life.  They involve our working lives.  Some of us know what we want to do for a living but are reluctant to pursue that goal because we think we cannot do it.

I know someone who in her youth was considered borderline ‘mentally disadvantaged’, even by her parents, one of whom was a teacher.  Eventually she was diagnosed as dyslexic and was able to work through the issue and go on to complete college.  The fear of not being able to succeed in life continued, however, and the not-so-subtle message from her not-so-encouraging parents haunted her through a not-so-satisfying decade as a legal secretary.  She wanted to do what the lawyers were doing but fear kept her back.  Finally one of her employers encourages her to go for it.  A few years later she looked her fear in the face, gained strength from it, went to law school and in her 30s became an attorney.

Another person I know had an interest in the medical field at some point in her youth but for a variety of reasons did not pursue it.  She held bartending jobs for many years but still had an interest in nursing.  I don’t know all the details, but it seems a voice of fear deep in her brain held her back.  She eventually looked that fear in the face and against many obstacles began a nursing school program.  She continued to struggle with fear and self-doubt but an inner determination kept her going and now, in her forties, she is about to graduate and is about to take the leap into living a more fulfilling life by overcoming fear and doing what at times she felt she could not do. 

You must do the thing you think you cannot do might have been very helpful to me in my youth.  My parents were encouraging up to a point.  They made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to do, but then they put subtle and not-so-subtle restrictions on my dreams.  I knew when I was a kid that I wanted to be in radio.  Dad found a way for me to visit a radio station and see what it was like but he didn’t really think that was any way to make a living.  It didn’t help that I was very shy as a kid.  The thought of standing in front of a group of people to give a speech scared the hell out of me.  I hated even standing up to speak in a classroom.  Fear of public speaking, fear of people looking at me, fear of making a mistake … name it and I was afraid of it.

I did not think I could do it, so I studied mostly English and math in high school and marketing, sociology, urban studies and history in college.  All I ever talked about was wanting to be on the radio but it was the last thing I tried to do for a living.  I worked in a warehouse for a month in college, answered the switchboard on weekends at a TV station (getting a little closer to my dream, in an odd way), worked part time at Sears, left college and went in the Army, came back and worked full time at Sears, went back to college.  Somebody finally challenged me to face my fears and try to do the thing I thought I could not do.  I gained strength, courage and confidence by facing my fears, just like the quote says, and after more than thirty years I am still doing the thing I thought I could not do.  I’ve stumbled, changed directions, got out and got back in, tried new things, learned new parts of my business; each time involved facing the fear. 

Each stumble and each success moved me forward.  I have had people encourage me and mentor me, but I mostly have done this on my own.  I am not bragging about this, I am suggesting that if I can get my dream, anybody can get theirs.  I laugh when I think that this once shy kid narrated a sky-diving show in front of 30 thousand people at a Texas Rangers game and again in front of 40 thousand people at a motocross event in Cotton Bowl Stadium, hosted a nightly radio show that was heard in fifty countries around the word and now produces and often voices audio things that play on 105 radio stations across the country.  I am still shy, by the way, but I face the fear.

The two friend examples I mentioned, as well as my own, are mere grains of sand on the beach of examples of people who have done the very thing Eleanor Roosevelt suggested.  I’ll quote it one more time … it’s simple but powerful:

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”