Getting Off Your Stump

Imagine being at a ski area, watching the skiers. They’re swooping down the mountainside in elegant sweeping curves, having a wonderful time.

But then add something else to the picture: off to one side, there is a person sitting on a stump, not having a wonderful time at all. That was me, on my first attempt at downhill skiing.

My husband, the only one in the family who could ski, was busy helping five kids get their boots and skis on and get started. So I headed off to the beginner’s slope by myself. I managed to get onto the tow rope, get to the top, and get off without falling. I worked my way over to the top of the run.

From the bottom it had looked like a gentle little slope. From the top, it looked like a precipice.

I froze. I didn’t know how to start down. I didn’t have a clue how to stop. I was afraid I would fall, and if I fell I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to get up. We talk about being “petrified with fear” or "paralyzed with fear." That's exactly what I was.

Eventually, I got over to one side and sat down on a tree stump. I sat there for at least an hour, watching other people skiing. Some of them did it easily, some of them fell down a lot. But they all seemed to be having fun.

Not me. All I wanted to do was quit—but I couldn’t even do that, because in order to quit I had to get down the hill, and I was too scared to get down the hill so I could quit.

Finally, after he had gotten the kids started, my husband came to my rescue. With his help, I managed to make it down the hill. With his encouragement, I even went back up and tried it again, and then again.

The next time we went skiing, I did something radical—I took a lesson. The instructor didn’t laugh at me for being scared or tell me I shouldn’t be scared. He acknowledged my fear, but he didn’t treat it as a reason for me not to learn to ski. What he said, by his actions more than his words, was, “Yep, you’re scared. Now watch me and do this.”

I was paying for the lesson, after all—so I watched him and did that. And by the end of the lesson, I was learning to ski. I knew how to stop, I could more or less make my skis go where I wanted them to go, and I knew how to get up when I fell down. I was still scared, but I was no longer petrified with fear.

By the end of the season, I was one of those people swooping down the slopes in—mostly—graceful curves. Once I overcame my fear. I had gotten up off my stump and become a skier, and I was having a wonderful time.

As I look back on that experience now, I can see there were three factors that helped me conquer the fear.

One was the fact that I could see something I wanted at the other side of the fear. As I sat there on my stump, watching other people having fun, I wanted what they had. I wanted to learn to ski so I could enjoy myself with my family.

Second, I asked for help and support. I got encouragement from my husband, and I invested in myself by taking a lesson from someone who knew what I wanted to learn.

Third, I learned to separate the fear from the goal. Instead of thinking, “I want to learn to ski, but I’m afraid,” I learned to think, “I want to learn to ski, and I’m afraid.” Simply changing one word—from “but” to “and” makes those two separate facts. Yes, I want to learn something new. Yes, I’m afraid. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I can be afraid, and I can still move forward, one small step at a time.

Those same three factors can help us conquer fear of anything that’s new and frightening—such as public speaking. Toastmasters, for example, uses all of them with great effectiveness. When we listen to more experienced members, we can see what’s on the other side of the fear of speaking in public. We get support from other members at every meeting, with encouraging evaluations, warm applause, and useful suggestions for improvement.

And finally, Toastmasters can help us separate the fear of public speaking from the goal of wanting to learn how to do it. Older members will say, “Of course you’re scared. I was, too. Almost everyone is.” Then they’ll put you on the schedule for next week, or call on you for Table Topics. Because what we’ve all learned is that speaking, like skiing and many other things, can only be learned by doing it—one small step at a time.

If you’re facing something that threatens to leave you paralyzed with fear, try using these three steps: Focus on your goal so you can clearly see what’s waiting for you on the other side of the fear. Ask for help and support. And recognize that your fear is real, but that it isn’t a reason not to take action toward your goal.

Before you know it, you’ll be swooping gracefully down your particular mountain. You may even discover it isn’t nearly as steep as it looked in the beginning. And you’ll probably be having a wonderful time.

(With this speech for the spring 2009 Toastmasters competition, I placed first in the area contest and second at the division level.)

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