The Overwhelming Power of Fear (and how to break it down)

Fear and Opportunity 2Last week I spent close to an hour trying to convince a 17 year old student not to throw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was one of the most intense and honest conversations I’ve had in 16 years of working in higher education. The student is a participant in a six-week residential summer program at the university where I work. The program prepares select incoming freshmen  for the rigors of college academics and acclimates them to campus life. Students must successfully complete it to attend the university. The young man came to my office one evening to tell me he was dropping out of the program and going to community college instead.

As I listened to his litany of reasons, I resisted the urge to systematically shoot down each and every one of them. I knew I had to tread carefully here if I was to convince him that he was potentially making one of the biggest mistakes of his life thus far.

He was so fragile. I could see this as he explained why community college would be a better fit. He wasn’t quite ready to leave home. He had a girlfriend that he loved. His high school hadn’t prepared him well enough for university academics. He was shy about meeting new people. He was scared of student loan debt. What if he graduated with loads of debt and couldn’t find a good job? He said community college was a better place to start and he’d transfer to university later on.

His reasons were valid, but I also knew they were excuses. I could see clearly that this guy was terrified of failing, of not being good enough, of not having what it takes to succeed. His reasons were lumped together into one big ball of fear.

After listening to him without interruption for what seemed an eternity, I took a deep breath and asked him if he was here simply to inform me of his decision or did he also want my feedback. He told me to go ahead, he’d listen to what I had to say.

I began by telling him that I understood his concerns and they were valid. I told him I thought community colleges were terrific and believed he could get a great education at one. I told him I understood that love is a powerful thing. And yes, he had graduated from one of the worst performing high schools in the state and he was correct that it hadn’t adequately prepared him for university academics, which is why he was in the summer program. Student loan debt is scary and there are no guarantees of well-paying employment after graduating.

Then I told him what I really thought. That he was scared to death. That being on campus, taking college courses, immersed in a foreign environment, was bringing out his fight or flight response, and his reaction was to flee to safety, the familiar.

Love is powerful, but true love means wanting the best for one another and supporting each other’s growth and potential. True love would stand the test of being apart and time.

His inner city high school, which I knew had a lovely view of a prison directly across the street, was low-performing, but the admissions office clearly felt he had the potential to succeed here, otherwise they wouldn’t have admitted him.

True, he’d have to take out some student loans, but they were minimal. He’d been offered an amazing financial aid package with lots of grant aid. I asked him to think of people he knew who’d purchased nice cars. Chances are their auto loans were as much or more than what his total student loans would be over four years. This was an investment in himself, in his future earnings and job options.

I agreed that a college education doesn’t guarantee high paying work. Indeed, there are no guarantees in life, period. But at the university, he’d  be able to get involved with clubs and organizations, complete an internship, perhaps study abroad, and build a network of people who might help him out in the future insofar as employment goes. Did he think he’d be able to do all that at the community college, which was located in the same inner city he’d grown up in and would no doubt have some of the same people he’d gone to high school with attending?

Then I pulled out my trump card. I told him that the university had received over 30,000 applications for only 3,500 freshmen spots, that he was one of the chosen few. Was he really willing to throw away this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If he left, there was no guarantee he would be able to transfer back in. Being admitted once was no guarantee he’d be admitted again.

I didn’t stop there. Instead, I said something I never thought I’d say to a student. Fear I was about to make a huge mistake that would come back to bite me made my stomach tighten, but something in me decided to say it anyway. I told him there weren’t enough black males in higher education. We needed more. We needed him. We needed him to complete his degree and get out there working in fields that don’t have enough diversity. Then I held my  breath as I waited for his response.

This is when the real conversation began. He admitted he was scared. As a black male from an inner city who grew up without a father, he had no positive male role models to emulate. He worried that a racist society wouldn’t want to hire him. He worried he’d go to this mostly white university, rack up debt, and then end up right back where he came from, no better off. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his peers from more privileged backgrounds, who had the good fortune of going to much better public or even private schools. He felt like a fraud, like he didn’t belong here, like admissions must have made a mistake.

What does a middle-aged, middle-class white lady say to all that?

Something inside me welled up. I felt a sudden fierce protectiveness over this vulnerable young man. Though I couldn’t understand first-hand how he truly felt, I could empathize.  I desperately wanted him not to throw away this opportunity. We talked for a while longer, and then I offered a compromise. What if he completed the summer program and then started at a regional branch of the university? This way he could commute from home, yet still be within the university, and be guaranteed a spot if he wanted to transfer up to the main campus at some point.

He seemed interested in this option. Asked a bunch of questions. I told him not to decide right then, to think about it overnight and come by my office in the morning to let me know his decision. He agreed, thanked me, and left.

A group of my female colleagues was gathered in one of the offices, in what looked like an intense discussion of their own. They waved me over. We’d had a head’s up about my student wanting to leave the program from the residential staff earlier that day, so they knew what my meeting with him was about. They ushered me in, closed the door, and asked how it went. I burst out crying. Thank God for the comfort of these women, who knew first-hand the intensity of what I’d just gone through, who’d had enough of their own intense conversations with students to understand. It was close to 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night and we were all still at work, having arrived early that morning for a staff meeting. We were exhausted, but we stayed a while longer and talked.

A few years before, I’d completed motivational interviewing training. It taught me the importance of being invested in the intervention with students, but not the outcome. I knew I’d done all I could to help my student understand the opportunity he’d been given, and the ramifications if he chose to throw it away. It was time to let it go, and to go home.

The student didn’t come by my office the next day, as I’d instructed him to. I ran into him later in the afternoon. His demeanor was nonchalant. He said he thought we were supposed to meet at 9:00 p.m. (huh?). He said that he was going to stay in the summer program and go to the regional campus in the fall.

It was as if the clouds parted and the heavens opened up. My mind screamed hallelujah! I wanted to throw my arms around him. Instead, I simply said that I felt he’d made a good decision and to come by my office later that week so we could schedule his courses at the regional campus.

We parted and went about our day, me a little lighter, him a little braver.

Don’t Be a Dream Drifter

About two years ago, a middle-aged higher education colleague did something that shocked many of us. He left a secure, well-paying, prestigious job to fulfill a childhood dream of owning a candy store.

Those of us he left behind were either shaking our heads, wondering if he’d gone mad, or were in a state of inspired awe that he would “give it all up” to chase a dream. I fell into this latter category. Not only did I admire his courage, I admit that I was a little envious. I wanted my own candy store dream.

I’ve spent most of my adult life drifting as it relates to my dreams. Part of the problem is that I have so many. I want to publish a novel. I want to own a holistic center. I want to spend a summer in Europe.  I want to get my real estate license so I can fix up rundown houses and flip them. I want to sell antiques that I refinish myself out of our garage. The list goes on.

Dreams are amazing. They can inspire, motivate, and keep us going when life is less than dreamy. They are the starting point for nurturing our deepest passions, desires, and goals. But as Antoine de-Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” The same goes for dreams.

I’ve made some attempts over the years to turn my dreams into reality, with varying degrees of success.

There was the little yoga room I rented to teach classes in after completing teaching training, which I ditched after six months. At the time it seemed like too much work combined with my job at a community college. Plus, I hadn’t intended to open a yoga room. I fell into it by accident. But that’s a story for another day.

I made it to Ireland after falling in love with Irish literature while in college, my husband, toddler, and mother-in-law in tow.

I completed a historical romance novella and submitted it to Harlequin’s Undone e-book line. Two years later, I finally received an email from them apologizing for not getting back to me sooner. They’d closed down the line and only now realized that the email linked with it was still active.  Though they encouraged me to send a new manuscript to another line, I haven’t bothered.

Then there’s the sad state of my career. On the outside it appears perfectly fine. Inside, it’s killing me slowly.

Until six years ago, I worked mostly part-time, sometimes piecing together several jobs at once. I never saw this as a problem because the arrangement worked out great. It gave me flexibility and plenty of time to spend with family, tend to home, and pursue personal interests and passions.

When my husband began having job issues it became necessary, or so I thought, for me to pursue full-time work. Since I’d worked in higher education part-time for years and enjoyed it, I decided to stick with this field. I left the community college I loved and went to work full-time at a large university.

From the start I knew it wasn’t a good fit. Not the work itself, but the rest of it. The culture felt cold and corporate compared to the community college. Working nine-to five with little flexibility was akin to torture. I hated being away from my home and family 10 hours a day (commute included), five days a week, at the nonstop beck and call of others.

The symbolism of my dying soul came in the form of my vegetable garden. It was during the first summer at this job. Summers require working 10-12 hour days. My garden withered and died, choked by the weeds I didn’t have time to pull. I haven’t bothered with one since. That was over five years ago.

Even worse, I was making choices based on what was expected of me, not on what I truly wanted. For example, I expended tremendous energy pursuing a master’s degree that meant almost nothing to me. I earned it because, well, that’s what one does when working in higher education.

Then there were my husband’s job issues, which were causing financial stress and overall wrecking my life, as I liked to tell him often and quite loudly at times.

I felt trapped, stuck, and unable to see the light.

I was no longer in charge of my life. My dreams were just ideas and possibilities stuck in my head with seemingly little hope of ever becoming reality. Topping it off was the realization that I had no one to blame but myself. For too long I’d allowed myself to be swept along in life. I’d let necessity, fear, negative thinking, and other people’s expectations, problems, and demands become my masters.

I made a conscious decision to take action. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed one day regretting my life choices. My first action was to stop blaming circumstances (and my husband) for my perceived stuckness and start putting my energy into creating a life I loved.

The bottom line is that our circumstances will never be perfect. We must take action in spite of them. There is simply no other way.

Now when I catch myself falling into a negative mindset, such as fear or blame, I immediately stop and say a prayer. I ask a higher power to replace all fear and negativity with faith and love. This has helped tremendously. It is retraining my brain to see the positive aspects of life.

I’m committed to living life on my own terms, no matter how long it takes, though the sooner the better. To accomplish this, I needed  to get clear about my core values. These include:

  1. Satisfactory work/life balance, including being home for my children before and after school, and having time to tend to my family, friends, home, gardens, and self.
  2. Freedom to create my own work schedule and call the shots in my own life.
  3. Creative work that lets me be authentically me, that serves a higher purpose, that energizes and excites me, and provides a generous income.
  4. Time and energy to help my husband either start his own business or make a complete career shift, which in the end will benefit us all as a family.

To this end, I recently applied for a part-time position at the university that would allow me to utilize my creativity more . It would also provide me with more balance while I work on my dreams. To my surprise and delight, I was offered an interview, which went better than I expected. I’m now waiting to hear back.

Though I’m a little afraid about the possibility of a salary cut, and certainly I may not get the job, I’m convinced that taking this step was necessary.  It’s telling the universe that I’m serious about creating change in my life and making room to pursue dreams.

Change one thing, change everything.

I’ve thought long and hard about what I would do if I won the lottery. How would I spend my money and time? I realized that once I remodeled my kitchen, bought a condo in Florida, did some serious traveling, and immersed myself in everything yoga, I would want to open that holistic center.

I’m passionate about helping people live happier, healthier, more balanced lives. I do this now to a certain degree as a college counselor, but I want to do it differently, on my own terms, without sacrificing my values.

I’ve decided the best approach is to start by opening a small office/studio that offers one-on-one yoga sessions, Reiki energywork, and workshops and series classes.  To prepare for this, I’ve taken the following action steps:

  1. I wrote down an opening date of January 2017.
  2. I started a daily home yoga practice again; no excuses that I’m too busy or tired.
  3. I enrolled in a class with the woman I completed my Reiki training with to refresh my skills and deepen my knowledge of the energy body.
  4. I’m researching advanced teacher trainings at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health website  to refresh my skills and learn some new ones.
  5. I started writing copy for the future website that will represent my business online.

I am coming to understand that the way to manifest your dreams is through strategic and sustained action. The dream alone is not enough.

If I can earn a master’s degree that I didn’t even want while working full-time, caring for a family and home, and dealing with my husband’s midlife crisis, I sure as hell can make my dream of owning a small holistic business come true.

As for the Ph.D. turned entrepreneur, his risk seems to have paid off. With over 400 candy varieties, an online store, gift baskets, kids’ birthday parties, and specialty products such as a PMS Rescue Pack, he is living the dream.