Joanna Barsh: Battle the Giant Squid—Fear
This article is part of our series, “Lessons to My Younger Self.”
Recently, I celebrated my 30th business school reunion, and colleagues congratulated me on my 30th year at McKinsey. Thirty is some number. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was a button I had gleefully worn at 13. At my 30th birthday party, I remember how old I felt. And that was a while ago.
But if I was old then, I am younger now. Not physically, of course. But if youth is about openness to discovery, I am younger today than I was then.
It hit me this past Saturday night, as I raised my glass to a roomful of business school classmates who were clowning around at our reunion dinner. In that quick toast, I thanked them for welcoming me into a community I had ignored for 30 years. I laughed at a bawdy joke and added one of my own. I invited them to come to our farm for a visit. This was not the Joanna they had known.
Thirty years ago, that Joanna seemed outspoken and confident, but an outsider. Defining myself as an individual, as someone different, was more important to me than almost anything. I dressed differently, had different thoughts, and marched to a different drummer. I was defiantly different. A proud horse of a different color.
Oh, and alone.
That was a natural leap of logic, and I didn’t question it. I didn’t question my motivations, and I didn’t peer under the surface of the water to explore why it had to be this way. But in the pitch black waters of the deep, something as strange and scary as a giant squid waited for me: fear. For 30 years, I thought I was afraid of being invisible—something most women my age can relate to, because when we went to work, we really were invisible, unrecognized, and unrewarded despite looking and behaving differently from everyone else.
But it turned out that the squid was something entirely different.
Toasting the men and (few) women who graduated from Section A at Harvard Business School in 1981, I saw 30 years wasted not building this community, or any others—at work, at my children’s school, in my building, anywhere and everywhere. And I realized that “different” did not have to mean disconnected.
But fears encourage mindsets that help you avoid getting into situations that’ll provoke them. Over the years, your brain—unbeknownst to you—finds plenty of evidence to reinforce your fear-avoiding behavior until the mindset hides deeper and deeper in your subconscious. My mindset went something like this: “People I don’t know will surely judge me and therefore, I will get hurt.” The easiest way to avoid getting hurt, therefore, was to focus on work—and so I did very, very well there.
Fast forward to 2004, the year I began a new journey to learn from successful women leaders around the world. With colleagues at McKinsey, I shaped a new model of leadership, called Centered Leadership, built on feminine strengths (and written down through stories in my book, How Remarkable Women Lead). In a nutshell, Centered Leadership helps you gain choice: to manage your own thoughts, feelings, and actions even in face of adversity.
This was a “light bulb” moment for me at 50-something. If I assume responsibility for myself, I have can have a choice.
So I made the choice to shift my mindset to something like this: “People bring me belonging and opportunities and insight when I am open to them.” That means learning to avoid judging, learning to accept. Aha! All this time, I was the judge, and I thought I was the person being judged. Imagine that.
Fear serves, and for the most part it serves you well. But fear also limits you. Test this by remembering a moment of great challenge, when you were not at your best. Feel those unpleasant physical sensations—maybe nausea, or a rapid heart beat, or emptiness. These sensations are evidence that you’ve given in to your fear.
To take back the power, give your fear a name. Speak to it, write a letter to it, draw a picture of it—whatever you have to do to appreciate it for what it is. And as weird as this sounds, let your fear know you are in charge.
So this is what I would have liked to tell my younger self: “Joanna, you’re afraid of the people you don’t yet know—and you’re judging them to boot. Remember how great it feels to belong. Get curious about these strangers.”
Go on, explore your fear, explore what holds you back from living life fully. I’m waiting for you on the other side.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
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