Giving Up Fear: A life of work, advice, and Crohn’s
This article also appears on medium.com
During the pandemic many people had to make life-altering decisions about managing their jobs, schooling their children, caring for aging or ill parents, and deciding whether they should relocate. My wife and I haven’t had to make any big changes this year, but we’ve certainly been dealing with several difficult issues that were amplified greatly by Covid. Still, the other day as we were taking a walk, my wife, the planner in our relationship, asked me, “What are you ready to give up?”
I typically hate those types of questions because I’m not a fan of change. But her question wasn’t really about selling our home and moving to a new town or throwing out my beloved ceramic pieces I’ve acquired over years of global business travel. Her questions was more like, “What are you holding inside that you’re ready to throw away?” And the answer to that question was an easy one for me. I’m ready to give up fear.
Fear is a strong force for many of our decisions or lack of decisions. Behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, George Lowenstein, and others have recognized that fear impedes our ability to assess risk and immobilizes us during the times when we need clear thinking.
Our fears, which may seem irrational to others, are very real to us. I fear that I won’t be good at something, which sometimes prevents me from exploring opportunities. I fear that I’ll get negative feedback, which is why I stopped working for other people over 30 years ago and eventually created a professional life as communication consultant where my strong reputation kept me motivated. I fear that I’ll be considered a lightweight, which is why I do a lot of research on the companies I work for so I can understand what drives their businesses. And I fear showing negative emotion, which is why, though I can be very empathetic, I diffuse many situations with humor and self-deprecation.
After living through the pandemic and suffering some setbacks I’m ready to give up fear.
As an adviser and coach to many professionals I’ve noticed how so many struggle with being assertive about making a recommendation at work, asking for feedback, and even asking for clients to renew contracts. The fear of being humiliated or rejected often causes them to stop in their tracks.
I thought about my experiences as a young professional and how fear got in the way of my making what I think now was a bad decision. In my case I realize only now that I didn’t fear being rejected- I was always pretty assertive about what I wanted — but rather I feared acknowledging accepting who I was and what my limitations were.
My first post-MBA job was just what I thought I wanted. At age 27 I was hired as an associate at a corporate real estate investment firm. It was the first time I’d worked in a really fancy New York office, and I enjoyed being a part of a smart team of seasoned investors and wearing Brooks Brothers suits and 1980s suspenders (sorry, “braces”) to work every day. We associates worked with three owners/principals on sourcing and investing in a variety of real estate deals on behalf of our pension fund clients. Most of our daily work, however, revolved around managing and maintaining the properties the principals had already invested in, or as they called it, “doing asset management.”
I was assigned the portfolio of “troubled assets,” or the set of shopping centers and office buildings the principals initially thought would perform well, but for various reasons had not managed to shed their crummy non-paying tenants or bring in any tenants at all. My job was to travel around the country to visit the sites and work with, set goals for, and give incentives to the local property managers and leasing agents to help reverse bleeding cash flows.
The stress level was brutal. The principals, who invested in these dog properties would come down hard on me as things didn’t improve, but would then happily tell our clients on whose behalf we invested in these properties that the slow lease-up was all part of the original investment plan, which ultimately would result in sky-high IRRs. Our early Monday morning asset review meetings became a free-for-all for the three principals, who would challenge, interrupt, berate, and make life miserable for the associate assigned that week to present a specific property’s status. Since I had the crap houses I’d walk to my desk afterward deflated, but not strong enough to fight back.
I didn’t tell anyone at work I had Crohn’s disease. When I started this first big-time corporate job I had already suffered from Crohn’s disease for 17 years. I’d been hospitalized several times for complications when I was a teenager and finally had major surgery when I was 23. I also had stopped growing during adolescence, so by the time I reached college I looked about seven years younger than my actual age, leading me to always see myself as the young guy that people wouldn’t take seriously. I became afraid of speaking up and of calling attention to myself to avoid being hurt by a comment about how I looked. I protected myself by being extremely nice and helpful to others, by doing intensive research before meeting people so I could appear intelligent and interested, and by being funny and ever ready to do a killer imitation of someone.
After my surgery my body played a lot of catch-up and my disease became relatively under control, with typical ups-and-downs that I managed by quickly upping and lowering my daily prednisone (the only drug that really worked well in the 1980s) dosage. Stressful situations had at times exacerbated a flare-up, but I never was able to make a direct link between any physical or emotional stress and an onset.
About six months into my corporate job I was newly and happily married, had a nice level of self-confidence, and played the role of a typical young business guy. I was also doing weekly day trips to Miami, DC, and Boston. On a flight home one evening I started to bleed a bit. I convinced myself that it was a one-time thing, so I went to work the next day. That afternoon my boss invited me to go with him that night to the New York Boat Show. Even though I was a bit nervous about the bleeding, which had continued during the day, I was so flattered to be asked to go out with the boss, so I said yes. By the time we got to the Javits Center I started feeling weak, so I discreetly looked for places to sit while my boss went off to explore a bunch of big sailboats. I managed to get home, then just as my wife walked in the door after a very long day at her office I started to hemorrhage. We rushed to the ER where I was admitted to the hospital for a full week.
I explained to my boss over the phone that even though I had a chronic illness, it never really affected my life that much. The entire team was very understanding and let me take it easy for about a month, then I was back on the road.
After another month I was hospitalized for another week — this time for some other bizarre Crohn’s side effect. Again I came back to an understanding team, and I said how freakish it was for me to have two very intense flare-ups within such a short time frame.
A week or so later one of the principals asked if he could speak with me in his office. He told me how much he and the other two principals valued me and my work, and how they wanted to make sure that I wasn’t putting my health at risk by traveling so much and managing such a difficult portfolio. He asked whether I would like to have a different role on the team- maybe one that would be lead to a better work/life balance.
I was afraid of showing weakness. I thanked him profusely for thinking about me and for being so concerned. Without thinking at all about his offer, I quickly said I thought I could easily handle the work and that they could trust my commitment to my position and to the firm. I went right back to the same schedule I had before. One year later, miserable and angry as I returned to my desk after a brutal early Monday morning meeting I saw a message for me from a corporate recruiter assessing my interest in a different job. I interviewed, got an offer, and accepted it without doing a lot of research on the role or the company. I gave my two-weeks’ notice and then joined the new company, where my experience was in many ways much worse than the one I’d had at the previous company. The new firm went bankrupt about 18 months later.
I thought of choices as black or white. I don’t believe regretting years-old decisions, and I don’t play the game of “If I Had Only…” But here’s where my mind was:
I thought that a “different role” would automatically mean second-rate. Since there was no specific role on the table I automatically assumed that whatever they came up with would take me off my career track, reduce my salary, and make me appear as a lesser person in the organization.
I didn’t know about setting limits. I worked very hard through adolescence and in early adulthood to overcome my physical limitations because of my illness, and I never wanted to have special dispensations, which I felt would bring more unwanted attention to me.
I didn’t give myself any time to think about me. The pressure I faced was insane, and if I had been honest with myself I would have admitted that I didn’t really like my job that much. I enjoyed the camaraderie of spending time with the other associates and my reputation as the team’s funny guy and best writer and presenter (though I cringed whenever my bosses made me include in my client presentations those crazy IRR estimates). But I realized by then that I didn’t aspire to be a big-time real estate investor like my bosses, and I certainly didn’t emulate them. I was following the motions of what I thought I should be though I hadn’t a clue about what I really should be.
Fear trumped all other emotions. Ultimately fear was responsible for my not taking time to think about the offer of a different role on the team. I was fearful that I’d be considered physically and mentally weak, that I’d be considered not smart enough to do the job I’d been hired for, that I’d be shunted aside, and that I’d never be again worthy of being invited to the boat show. And the fear of being perceived as the young looking guy people wouldn’t take seriously was constantly ringing in my brain.
If I had known myself better, or had paid attention to what I enjoyed I might have recognized that I really liked making people feel comfortable, listening and responding to client concerns, and communicating with audiences’ interests in mind. (Very interesting traits to notice even then because I eventually became a successful corporate communication consultant and coach.) But at that I age I had no idea that those characteristics could lead to a different career path.
A different approach might have led to a different outcome. So instead of playing “If I Had Only…” let’s play “What I Might Have Done Instead.” I might have looked at the offer from my boss as a gift rather than as a road to demotion. I might have said to my boss, “Thanks very much for the offer. I’d like to talk to my wife and other people on the team to see what another role might look like.” Then I would have had to force myself to be brutally honest about what I liked and didn’t like about my job, the people, and the firm, and not to be afraid to admit what I truly wanted rather than what I thought I wanted or what other people might have wanted for me.
I might have made a list of pros and cons of my feelings about:
what the company did and whether I was proud to represent it
whether I felt the corporate culture was accurately stated and whether everyone followed a set of proscribed behavioral guidelines
what I offered the company and its clients based on my specific functional and behavioral skills
whether I felt that I see myself growing as professional given the firm’s infrastructure
how I could keep my stress level at a manageable level
I have no idea where this exercise might have led. Perhaps I could have presented a business plan to create a role as a dedicated senior client account manager or a group marketing director. But my fear of coming across as the little guy asking to do something that no one had considered was too strong a force for me to even attempt it.
Fear leads to binary choices. When clients tell me they are afraid of speaking in public, I never tell them, “Oh please, that’s ridiculous. Just shut up and do it.” Instead, I’ll say, “I can’t tell you not to be afraid, but I’ll coach you so you’ll do a great job.” The point is that they can be afraid or nervous AND give a great talk; it’s not one or the other.
My consulting career has kept my work and life in a nice balance. I have felt absolutely true to myself. And interestingly, though I was hospitalized those two times for Crohn’s-related issues during the first year of my working at that company, I haven’t had any similar hospitalizations in the 35 years since.
Now that I said I want to give up fear, I have to prove it. After making excuses about why I shouldn’t take a class in something that I knew I’d probably fail at (stay tuned), I filled out an application, got an acceptance email, and charged my credit card. My palms may be sweating on day one (and on days two, three, etc.), but it won’t be the end of the world if I fall on my face.
Aside from being the planner in our marriage, my wife also frequently says something that challenges the binary thinking that many of us have: “There’s always another choice you haven’t immediately thought of.” That’s a scary statement for people like me who want to make a choice quickly and move on. But I use those words a lot now with my clients and remind them to take time to figure out what that other choice is and to be true to themselves, especially since the pandemic has made us all consider how we want to live our lives. And try not to let fear take over.