My Son, My Fear, My Friend



Almost every leader’s biggest challenge is unleashing initiative.  If it’s not getting people to initiate and generate, then it’s getting people to initiate work with others.  Parents, bosses, presidents, principals? They’re all trying to light fires and increase people’s capacity to work together and work out problems.

What’s THE biggest obstacle to people initiating, taking on challenges, advancing?  Fear – in one form or another.  Fear of: getting fired, offending someone, being wrong, looking foolish, etc.  The fear is primal, operates beneath the surface.  Let’s uncover it a little. And seek a strategy.

For Jack’s 14th birthday I took him on a rock climb, a 300-foot guided ascent near Lake Tahoe.  I say: I took him.  But he’s the climber, and he loved every minute of it. It was different for me.  As I vice-gripped the ledge at the top of the first 120-foot pitch, I worked to slow my pounding breath of fear and nervousness.  A great writer once said:  “Do I like writing? No, I don’t like writing. I like having written.”  I absolutely loved “having climbed” and being on top – I felt accomplished, safe, relieved, and loved the view we had earned. The climb itself? A mindless blur of emotion and tension that I literally compelled to escape. That’s no way to write or to climb!

A couple days later Jack and I were sitting in a jacuzzi at a local pool.  I gasped as the water seared the cuts from my frantic scamper up that rock face. I speculated out loud that maybe my pain wasn’t “real,” but just a thought-mechanism in the brain, an ancient warning alarm that need not command my attention or action.  I was challenging Jack  with the idea that maybe you can reorient your thinking toward pain or other thoughts or feelings.  He rejected the idea out of hand.  “Pain is real,” he said, “Just like that wall behind you is real.”  “Maybe,” I said, “but what about the fear I had on the rock? Couldn’t I change my orientation towards it?”  I pointed out that there was no rational basis for my intense level of fear.  After all, I was securely cabled in, and our guide, Petch, was careful, licensed, and very experienced.  I insisted it was possible for me to change my perspective . . . my challenge for next time.

A week after that (which was a week ago today), I was driving him to his first day of high school orientation in a new school and a whole new type of school, in a new city and state.  This was his rock to climb.  His fear, his wanting the day to be over, like I wanted to be done with that climb. So, I ask you: What would you have told (or asked) him?  Can one reorient to fear? How?  What could he do?  And what can a boss, parent, coach do when fear is at play in someone they lead (about classes, extra-curriculars, girls; or in our adult worlds: a new assignment, a possible layoff, the economy, big workloads, an imperiled marriage, etc.)? How do you manage the fear?

Here’s the best advice I had:  Notice it. Befriend it. Say hello to it. “It” – the voice, the fearful thought, the fearful child within – name it what you will.  Maybe respect it.  Let it along for the ride.  And climb anyway. . .

To lead with your best self,


  • Perhaps, the greatest emotional fear of most people is “the fear of death” and this causes them to make choices that might protect them from dying.

    With this fear in mind, emotional decisions in life govern why we vote for the politician who promises to protect us from the fear of terrorism…or…we choose to practice a religion that promises us life after death…or…buy the big SUV with the front and side airbags that could save us from death in an accidental crash.

    At least 15 million American adults say they have had a near-death experience, according to a 1997 survey—and the number is thought to be rising with increasingly sophisticated resuscitation techniques.

    The once-taboo topic is generating a lot of talk these days. In the new movie “Hereafter,” directed by Clint Eastwood, a French journalist is haunted by what she experienced while nearly drowning in a tsunami. A spate of new books details other cases and variations on the theme.

    Reading near-death experience reports, recognizing that the “hereafter” is spiritual (not a mirror image of this physical life) and talking to people who have experienced near-death encounters can help us all understand that death is a peaceful and pleasant ending to this physical life experience.

  • Great article Dan. Reminds me of the song, “Climb Every Mountain”…which ends in “…’til you find your Dream.” All the best to you and family.

  • Jack, WELCOME FEAR…It’s a great reminder that you’re alive! I had to keep telling myself that this past week while scuba diving with my girls. I could not wait for the “having scuba dived” part (eloquently stated Dan:). But, I tried to stay present and BE with the fish, coral and my FEARLESS daughters. I pushed my limits of comfort, explored, and felt ALIVE. That’s exhilarating! We’re only given ONE LIFE…LIVE IT!

  • Dan, I can relate to your fear story. Nearly a year ago, we set sail for an ocean passage from Annapolis, MD to Tortola, British Virgin Islands to test our future retirement dream. Neither of us had ever made an ocean passage and we are relatively novice sailors. Of course, we did the necessary preparation and planned for a safe passage. On the tail of Hurricane Tomas, we began our adventure with the Caribbean 1500 Rally (safety in numbers!).

    It was a beautiful experience even with 20 foot swells and 30+ knot winds. I was never afraid. I trusted our boat and crew – and myself. I released my anxiety to the adventure and thoroughly enjoyed the passage (except for 24 hours of sea sickness). I grew more in those eight days than I could have ever imagined.

    My friends and colleagues wanted to know: Why? Why did I put myself in such a situation? As a leadership trainer and executive coach, I needed to challenge myself. I needed to put myself in a “fearful” situation to refresh my nerves as to how my clients may feel in some of their situations. I needed the exhilaration of achieve another high goal!

    I firmly believe we need to challenge ourselves by setting high goals and overcoming our fears and blockages to action to reach them. As leaders, we need to make sure we have challenged ourselves as much as we are challenging others.

    Thanks for continuing to share your leadership insights!

    Lead with the wind in your sails,
    Sherry G. Day, MS
    Executive Resources-Human Potential Consultants, L.C.

    • Sherry,
      So…what happened to your “future retirement dream?” Sounds like you fell in love with the open water.
      And where is the fear now? How, if at all, does it operate?

      • Dan, the only fear is outliving the retirement funds! We are planning our next adventure and will leave shore at the end of October (depending on the hurricane season).

    • Sherry, this is inspiring, but you sound a little more like Jack climbing the mountain rather than Dan climbing (or Jack facing a new school). By saying you were never afraid, you sound like EITHER this wasn’t a major source of fear for you (you had little or no irrational fear of sailing) OR you didn’t really grasp the point of Dan’s column. You didn’t say hello to your fear, because you had none (or you do not acknowledge any). I’m not trying to be critical but to make the point that some of us who have real fears are not inspired by such stories but disheartened because it sounds like you have a kind of courage we don’t. Is there some other experience in your life that perhaps others wouldn’t find frightening but you do? Visiting a dying parent in the hospital? Speaking up when you witness racism? How do you handle them? Of course I could be misinterpreting your experience, but the point of Dan’s column (in my opinion) is that pretending not to be afraid is not all that effective – better to say hello to it and then of course DO IT ANYWAY. Someone famous said something like courage is not the absence of fear – it’s acknowledging fear and doing the feared thing anyway. I hope you take this in the spirit it is intended.

  • Good advice Dan. What I frequently tell myself is: “Do it afraid.”
    I’m not sure one can talk oneself out of fear. It frequently has no basis in reason and so does not respond to rational persuasion. One can, however, talk oneself into doing the very thing that one fears, to “do it afraid”. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is proceeding in spite of the fear.
    I would have competed in not a single triathlon if i had given into my fear of swimming in open water (where there is no black line running down the middle of the lake and no edge to grab on to). Rock-climbing would have induced a similar fear!

  • Of course you can reorient fear. Ever woman in labor faces this choice. The breathing classes are merely a tool to convince you that there IS something you can do about fear and pain. The rest of the trick is seeing yourself going through, not sticking in place.

  • LOVE the advice to “say hello to fear”, befriend it, and do what is scaring the bejeezus out of you anyway. Fear is a messenger, and we can choose to ignore it, or we can listen intently to what it has to say. There are circumstances when fear tells us to get out of here…fast! At other times, fear tells us that our imaginations have run amuck – and if we listen to fear, we can let it stop us from having some amazing experiences.

    Skydiving was that experience for me….some little voice dep inside always told me that going skydiving was important for me to do. And a much larger voice would visualize myself leaping out of that plane, and stop me cold in my tracks. Then, my partner gave me a gift certificate for a skydive, and before I knew it, I was kneeling at the doorway of the plane, staring out at 14,000 feet below. Despite the fear that gripped me as I leaned – heart-first – into the thin air, I felt a pride and a sense of accomplishing this “thing” I had always wanted to do.

    Jack can choose to allow his fears to stay small, stay isolated, stay “protected”, or he can let his fears tell him that what he’s feeling is normal, that he’s not alone in these fears, and use the energy of the fear to connect with others in his class. Let his fear open the door to an amazing four years, so that he looks back and says “What was I so afraid of?”

    So, yes! Notice the fear. Befriend it. Say hello to it. Respect it. Let it along for the ride. It has a lot to say!

    • Linda,
      Another great comment. In addition to your story, I love the line, “use the energy of the fear.”
      Thanks for contributing!

  • Great article this morning! I would like to add one tip I often share with others when discussing fear. After you have identified and embraced your fear, think of a time you conquered any past fear(s) and focus on how it was conquered. Knowing you have conquered past fears can provide great confidence in conquering current fears.


  • It behooves us to make friends with our dark side: fear, anger, jealousy , greed. Only in that way will it lose its stranglehold upon us, and we may then have control over it, instead of it over us

    You ask a number of ‘existential’ questions. Here is one reasonable simple response: Life IS an adventure. Don’t deny experiences or fear them. Experience them for what they are. When I was dying two and a half years ago, I had the CHOICE of succumbing to the remarkably undesirable experiences, or to experience them and to move ahead. My family helped with love, encouragement, humor, and respect for what I was experiencing.
    “How did I deal with it?” I went deeper into the experience as something to feel and as an adventure of sorts. In the book “The Gift of Pain”, it notes that pain provides an essential life-preserving function: to cause you to react to and respond to the cause of pain. Similarly, fear is a “normal” response to new &/or unsettling experiences. By analyzing what I was experiencing, it allowed me to focus positive energy on those sources of discomfort (pain). While western medicine (through Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit) and traditional Chinese medicine (through The Dao of Health in Boyne City) were essential to my survival, attitude and focus on the experience were critical to my mental/emotional/spiritual well-being. Coming so close to death and coming back gave me increased gratitude and a sense of peace.
    “What’s the biggest obstacle to people initiating or taking on challenges?” (fear? pain?). Overcoming insecurity about what will happen is critical lifelong. Understand that new adventures are exactly that: adventures. Accept what you are experiencing and go through it. Don’t fight it or deny it. When I was 14 years old (Jack), I moved from Petoskey to Royal Oak (from a town of 6000 people to Kimbal High School with 3000 students). I met a few good friends and found a few teachers that I really liked. That gave me a safe base for moving ahead in the adventure. No matter what your experience, there are (usually) some other people who can be supportive and give you a sense of being safe and valued. When you don’t have others, your self-confidence from earlier experiences or your faith may be your source of comfort. The challenge of each new adventure is one to be experienced, not feared. I’m not sure this for me is so much a matter of trying to change my orientation, but one of accepting what I’m experiencing and moving through it with interest and grace. When people asked what it was like when I was experiencing extreme things and dying, my response was that it was “interesting.” Your interest in experiencing life should transcend having to label a new experience as frightening or painful. Deal with what you need to deal through with interest and a positive spirit.
    So Jack (and Dan), how COOL with your going climbing. Jack, you and The Old Man should have more adventures. They build our confidence and help us to more fully enjoy this life we are going through. So many people experience so many different things. Don’t fear them. Understand them. Understand what a ‘normal’ response is to these experiences and then decide what response you want to have. You can still be in charge (as mush as any human is).
    Be well.
    Have fun.
    Work hard.
    Enjoy every day and be grateful for good things (and people).

  • Hello all,
    What a perfectly appropriate topic for me-another in a series of events that have been excited and mostly unplanned. I decided to move out of our family home so my daughter and son-in-law could have a decent place, and so I wouldn’t have so much maintenance. I looked at many apartments, townhomes, rental homes etc. in the area, thinking that this would take a couple of months to even get close to choosing. Zing-apartment found. Wouldn’t it be nice to have my practice be within walking distance of my new place? Zap-office space-affordable office space!-found. So much for wanting to only make one change at a time! Some of the fear is there still, but I look at it as a sort of an incentive to get organized, get the help I need, etc.

  • Great piece.Thank you for all the great imagery and the true tales.
    I have a practice when I’m feeling fear-full where I breathe in love and breath out fear.
    If I can do that several times — breathing in love, breathing out fear — the fear usually dissipates. At the very least, breathing brings me back into the present moment, which is all there really is anyway.

  • Dan,
    I was just thinking of this in regards to working as a veterinarian. Animals really do smell fear. I have never been an overly fearful person but somewhere along the line I figured out how to truly “tame” fear to be able to “fool” animals. When I need to examine a frightened or aggressive animal, I need to make them believe I am not afraid. If not, I will never get near them. The process isn’t conscious, but my heart rate slows, my respiratory rate slows. I relate it to what athletes (at least I did) do before the kick of or tip off. Deep breathing, picturing positive outcomes, etc.
    Sadly, it is hard to teach. Especially to my own kids.

  • Mindfulness is the broader concept that addresses how one can deal with fears by “Notice it. Befriend it. Say hello to it”. Mindfulness based leadership can be applied to the workplace too. One such training resource is the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Learning mindfulness based strategies for daily leaving (addressing fears, being fully present in the present moment, and how to experience your feelings in a helpful way) can lead to positive change in mental and physical well being. These strategies can be learned in a variety of courses, apps, and retreats offered around the country.

  • One correction for you to consider: the term “vice-grip” is incorrect…. the locking plier tool you are comparing your grip to is actually “vise-grip”.

  • I like this re-post. This gives me a chance to read all the comments. Sometimes I do not check back to read them all. Fear and pain are good things. If a person does not have a sense of pain they get hurt more often, and worse. Talk to someone who has diabetes and cannot feel in their feet. Or a psychopath, who has no fear and has gotten into terrible situations; but the problem with psychopaths is that they may never recognize how bad their situation was. They may make excellent airplane test pilots, but I would not want to be int he plane with them.

  • Your column today reminds me of this Buddha story:

    Inviting Mara to Tea

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    Some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!…

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.


    One of my favorite stories of the Buddha shows the power of a wakeful and friendly heart. The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Guatama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

    Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

    Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

    He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

    When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.

    Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.

    Pema Chödron says that through spiritual practice “We are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.” We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.

    From Radical Acceptance (2003)

    For more information go to:

    • Donna,
      What a fantastic pair of stories! Thanks for taking up from where I left off and truly bringing us up to the peak!

  • Dan,
    I started reading books by the late Frank Herbert while I was in college. My favorite was and still is: Dune. In that book (and several that follow) is a Litany Against Fear. The litany is part of a conditioning by a group called the Bene Gesserit. Although it’s part of a novel, the litany has stayed with me and I find it helpful to focus, when facing difficulties (like dying). The visualization is truly helpful. Here is The Litany Against Fear:

    “I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    I have knocked on death’s door three times in the last five years. I no longer fear death, though I am not too fond of the dying process. When I have passed on, hopefully to Heaven, only I will remain…

  • Dan,
    fear of loosing or not getting some thing which one aspires is great source of actions. I , long ago underwent a training program where the participants did fire walk. While i was reading your post I remembered my experience of fire walk and could relate the same to that the fire walk is just a medium to manifest that each one of us do almost daily. with courage to face the fear of losing, one does it and bear the pain.

  • Your thoughts on fear was the best writing I have ever read about it. Then so many comments enriched the reading. Thank you

    I agree the best approach to fear is accepting it and acknowledging the child with in telling her to breath and saying to yourself I can do this.

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