What does it mean to be fearless? This question can be answered in so many different ways. After all, fears come in all shapes and sizes. What’s scary to one person is no big deal to another. Being fearless doesn’t necessarily mean you are never afraid. I would argue that fearlessness simply implies a willingness to face one’s challenges head-on.
I’ve always considered myself to be a fearless person. I run my own business and take responsibility for my company’s growth. I make difficult decisions with potentially large consequences every day. I’m confident speaking in front of a crowd, the bigger the audience, the better. New business pitches energize me. There’s nothing I like doing more than showcasing my professional wares to prospects I’ve never met before. I love taking risks and creating opportunities.
I sound pretty brave, don't I?
Here’s where the story gets complicated. A while back, I paid a visit to the Boston offices of Inphantry to share my company profile and learn more about theirs. The conversation was relaxed and easy and we kept finding interesting synergies between our services. I was feeling optimistic about a potential collaboration down the road.
And then they asked me to walk the plank. Virtually, that is.
Just to explain, Inphantry inhabits a unique niche in the Boston marketing landscape. They create cutting-edge digital experiences for brands that want to stand apart. In layman’s terms, they use technology to craft unique brand experiences. It’s complex and innovative work. Virtual reality is one of their specialties.
OK, back to the plank story.
One minute I was working through my agency presentation, and the next thing I know, I was ushered away from the conference table to another side of the room where one of my hosts handed me a pair of virtual reality goggles. I was shown a five-foot-long piece of plywood lying in front of me on the floor and told that once the experience started, I’d be asked to walk along it. No problem, I thought. I used to do the balance beam. I eagerly donned the goggles.
Immediately I felt myself being whisked to the top floor of a tall building in a glass elevator. Think Willy Wonka when he busted through the chocolate factory ceiling. I saw the Boston cityscape spreading out before my eyes as the elevator lifted me higher and higher. I spotted the Zakim Bridge out in the distance. It was beautiful and I was awestruck. Then the glass doors of the elevator flew open and I was standing at the edge with no barrier between my body and the street 15 floors below. There, sticking out from the base of the elevator was a steel beam, the same length and width as the piece of wood I’d been introduced to before I’d put on my goggles.
Despite all attempts to keep cool, my body lurched into fight or flight mode. I tried desperately to remember that this was only a virtual experience and that I was still standing on solid ground but I was not able to coax my brain into relaxing and trusting that I was safe. Mixed signals kept crossing and I began to sweat. My fear of heights was winning over my usual calm, cool collectedness.
One of my hosts must have sensed my discomfort and offered me his hand. I eagerly grasped it yet even with his steadying touch I couldn’t bring myself to walk out onto the beam. No way. It wasn’t going to happen. “I can’t do it!” I exclaimed.
Feeling simultaneously exhilarated and defeated, I yanked off the goggles. It took me a few more seconds to find my composure, leaving sheer terror behind and shifting back into professional meeting mode. Questions swirled. Would they think less of me for not walking the plank? What could I learn from this experience? Had I failed some sort of test?
Looking back at that moment, it’s clear that a person can be fearless in some arenas and deathly afraid in others. Fearlessness doesn’t guarantee success and it’s entirely possible you can be fearless and still suffer defeat. By the same token, you can be afraid and still achieve your goals. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Time and space have been kind to my ego and as of this writing I’m less embarrassed and more speculative than I was when my plank experience first happened. I’ll be the first to admit that I may not be the best candidate for jobs involving tightropes, roofing or skydiving but that’s okay. I know my way around a media plan like nobody’s business.
I’m still fearless.