Fear & Fail Conference Talk, 24 September 2014 Vienna
Have you ever found yourself telling a friend: “I could serve tables in a coffee shop or sweep the floors, if I had to?”
I hope you have. I hope you have had that feeling, that certainty that who you are is far more than your mere and immediate circumstances at a certain moment in life. That who you are as a person is defined by your innermost beliefs and by the values you guide your life after.
Fear should not hold us back from taking our chances. There are infinite possibilities out there, and there’s great joy in recreating yourself. If you’d only give yourself the time. You can be anything and anyone you want in this life; but most important, you can be(come) who you truly are.
Yes, we become who we are. We grow into who we are. It’s a conscious decision we are to take every single day to get one step closer to what is it that completes us. It is a learning process. It is knowing our limitations and working with them, not against them. It is not having all the answers. It is accepting that we don’t see far down the road, nor should we.
I didn’t see far down the road when I boarded on a plane to Kathmandu exactly 3 years ago. I had left my job with Nokia in Vienna after more than 6 years of working for the company. I knew it was not a break, but a break-up from my career. Luckily, I had some money. Since I’d known myself, I had loved being around children. I packed a 30 kg bag, hold my heart into my chest and I left. To me, the worse it could have happened, would have been that no one from the NGO I had been corresponding with, would wait for me at the airport. And then, I would do what all other tourists would do. I had always found my way – perhaps because I had lost it so many times – and I knew I would find my way there, too.
Two very important things happened right there and then, with that decision. Firstly: I found out there was a life after the corporate career life. My work had been my closest idea to security I had since my mother had died when I was little short of 21. My father had died when I was 10, so I pretty much wrapped up my life around my work to survive. To leave my job felt terrifying, to say at least. The second thing that happened: I got to face my brother. My family thought I was taking the worse decision possible. My brother’s piece of mind was very important to me; we had lost our parents and I knew he would not bear to loose me, too. Somehow I had always managed to do things he would hardly approve of and this one would beat them all. I spent one day with him in Bucharest explaining it all: why I was doing it, why I wanted to go that far and that I really knew what I was doing. Nothing helped. He was against it and he could not possibly understand this one decision of mine. But I had to go, although I left him terribly worried and although his un-acceptance made me so very sad. I would have loved to have received his blessing.
When I did write him a long email from Nepal, letting him know how truly happy I was – the truth was I had never been truly happy and he knew my life had never been quite pink – I got one more bitter, harsh, cynic response. I decided to put an end to it. I had never truly heard him either, I know this now. But then I really needed him not to rain on my parade, not to harm me. So I told him his words still had the strength to make me utterly unhappy, that I would therefore not write another email. I also told him that, if he wanted to know how I was doing, he should read my blog. He was furious! How dared I, to be so disrespectful? I did not write another email for a long time and he did read my blog. It was in January 2012 when I got an email from him that read: “I think you should publish the stories from your blog, and give what you earn by selling the book to the children in Nepal.” I had been carrying this dream inside me, that one day I would publish these stories. I did, because I got that one email from my brother.
I share these with you because you too will not be understood at times. And you too, will have to take very difficult decisions. You will close some relationships down. You will be in doubt. What I know, is that when I returned, I found another person in my brother, and not only in him. And I knew I had lived the time of my life. Decisions and relationships that endure, are the ones you can count on; to know this, you’ll put them at test.
How do I put in words, what has been the experience of my life? We are incredibly strong as human beings, we can be incredibly beautiful, we can still be genuine and sincere. The touch of the heart of another human being, can stay with you forever.
I have been touched by the hearts of nine children and one beautiful woman, who’ve taught me more than all my years of studies have done, all the struggles of a corporate world I’ve lived in, all my 32 years of life before I met them. And how I thought I knew …
I have been eating rice and vegetables for three months. Many times I was hungry, few times I was sick. I wondered if I would make it, in those times when I was so cold and feeling so weak. But then there was the smile of a child appearing at my room door, with a cup of tea and a few slices of white bread … the best they had to offer me. And I knew every time, I had to get up, and give that gesture of care what it deserved: my full gratitude.
I had come from a part of this world where everything was extremely easy. Where running water was not questionable, where one could take ten hot showers a day if one wished to, where we would leave the food untouched on our plates. And this world still is, easy.
Kamala Sharma Adhikari was the care taker of the children’s home. After her son was born and she knew he was haemophiliac, her job as a school teacher got affected. She had to be in the hospital very often with her son. She got fired. She settled at home and started taking care of her son. After 2-3 months, she felt she needed to do more. She began volunteering in one orphanage home, with her son. This was the beginning of her path as social worker. Years later she would decide to discuss with her husband the possibility of starting their own organization, with the purpose of taking care of less fortunate children, left without a family and left without a home. It was in 2007 when she opened her home to the first two children. She started with two rooms and two mattresses, and with the determination to do more. Kamala was the most genuine social worker I knew. I, on the other hand, thought I needed a master in social entrepreneurship from Goldsmiths in London; that would have been my path to success.
Dare to start from somewhere. To start, has proven to be the hardest thing of all. To take that one first step. When you don’t feel ready (you’re never ready, let’s be honest!), when you don’t have all the answers, when you feel you’re back to first grade and that whole world of learning is just ahead of you, Sisyphus’ mountain.
Free your world, but stay realistic. Get to know what you are really, really good at. It won’t come as a surprise, that what you’re best at is what you love. And this love will hold you through, will redeem you, and will save you. Through the years of your life.
The trick is, to have enough trust in yourself and in what you do, to keep on going through the dark days and months. Of course these will be there, too. And what saved me through the dark times, was undoubtedly the belief that what I was doing, was fully meaningful. To me. To my life.
“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself”, Viktor Frankl used to teach his students.
Do what you love. The future might as well take care of itself.
What these years taught me, is that to confess is one of the hardest things. To admit, to share, to face – is what to confess is to me. Because this act in itself peels off all layers of protection we’ve wrapped around us, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously. It exposes so much vulnerability, so much love and so many dreams, that we do not dare to confess. And if and when we do, it may paralyze us. It’s an act that requires love and caress equally for your faults and virtues, for your failures and successes.
These years taught me that unless we start facing our fears, we’ll be living a circus all our lives though. Without realizing what a fool’s game it all is. Without ever really getting to the bottom of who we are or who we could become. Without understanding that the past is not to be hidden under the doormat just because it hurts; without ever daring to wish for what we really, truly, deeply want for ourselves and our lives.
So whatever your fears are, confess, understand and embrace them. From a fear of flights to a messed up childhood, they all awake just when you need them the least. Let them in, invite them sit at the table, make them a cup of tea if you must, and start talking. “Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there”, wrote Chuck Palahniuk. It may take you months or it may take you a lifetime, but it might be the only honest and worth way to live.
Is this too complicated? Who has time for this?! Why would you put yourselves through all this… pain? “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” wrote C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed”. Well, if you picture yourselves at the end of your life with no looking back, then you may as well skip it. But if you close your eyes for a moment now, take a few deep breaths and imagine they may be the very last ones (pause), then you might as well decide you want to understand and know why is it that you’re living the life you’re living. You may decide to take responsibility.
Last but not least: your confession may change the lives of the ones you love the most. For the better, I believe. For they will start looking differently at themselves, through you.
I was in between lives, in between continents, in between families, in between responsibilities. I didn’t know how my life is going to look like. But I knew one thing: I would build this program and I would try to help these children. And if I were to do this, I would have done my part. To turn blind and deaf, it was not an option for me.
Let me indulge you… I too enjoyed my shallow companionship with my fears. It was comfortable, it was the contradiction of a state of fear in fact. Every time I realized the world I was living in was not MY world, the path I was walking on was not my way, the circumstances I was obeying to were not of any of my choices… something died inside me. I was wallowing in a state of semi-consciousness. “The combination of fear and ignorance (two sides of the same coin) can be paralyzing”, Seth Godin says. But then again, I was so “comfortably numb”. Was I free, though?
To free yourself from all the preconditioning of the society at large and from all the patterns of a life that is NOT YOURS, you must be desperate to understand that fear is a fraud, a bad humored clown. It doesn’t care substance under its costume. Wrap the cloth, break the patterns, understand the preconditioning, and you’re free.
The more I advance in this new life of mine, one full of changes and constant need for adaptation, the more I am convinced nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same, there are no eternities and for sure there are no certainties.
Why is it so hard that we take today for what it really means and ourselves for who we really are? Why is it so hard to stand up and say “This is my life today, love it or deny it, it’s mine. This is who I am, rather than judging me, envying me or pitting me, try walk a few blocks in my shoes? That’s all and the best you can do for me.”
Relationships evolve, loves consume, businesses transform – it all happens every day, under our eyes. It is that easy. We just need to get off the hook of eternity, in its best and worst of expectations. The present, today, is all we have for sure. Don’t wait for the past experiences to vanish completely because they never will. Don’t wait for the future to come for you to start living the life that you want. The future might never be the way you think of it now. Just bring yourselves to this very moment: to hear and now. What do you feel?
Be here, with you, fully. Decide to leave the past where it belongs, without rejecting all the sorrow and all the joy you feel at times when you remember past moments or recall people who left your life; or when they recall you… Choose to dream of a future greater than you and me, if you wish, and dear to start making it happen.
The future is not ours to tell. Tomorrow onward is a twist of fate. We should learn to let the future show us what we do.
We think that a decision we take today shall weight upon the course of our lives for years to come. It is only true in the essence of our choices. I am talking about how carefully we look after our dear ones, how much we want to give love a chance or how we stand behind our innermost believes. The practical steps, the way a dream will build, the paths, the projects, the jobs, the people, the opportunities, the failures and the success, in the details they all shall manifest into our lives from tomorrow onward – these are pieces of the puzzle we don’t yet have.
Let us understand that the decision of today shall remain the best decision for today. And that’s all to it. Don’t try so hard on projecting how your whole future will look like. Don’t make the mistake to put immense weight on your shoulders, when faced with taking a decision today, from believing that your life will be drastically affected by what you chose.
It shall not be. Just bring your mind down into your heart, let it rest there, and decide from that place where you don’t lie to yourself. From that place where there’s no fear, and there’s no worry about the future.
It is only from one day to another, that we get the answers. It is by resting and observing how some courses of action develop almost effortlessly, how some people just catch out minds and hearts instantly and passionately, in what feels almost like a fraction of a second, when looking at the large scale of time. It is by allowing ourselves to be absorbed by actions which respond to our inner calls, that we know, ultimately, where we belong, and whom we belong with.
And I wish to close with a few words from Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Found, whose 2007 TEDx talk on “Inspiring a life of immersion”, gave me the strength to take my chance.
“Focus on being interested, not on being interesting. Don’t make decisions according to title or status or position. Pursue opportunities where you will learn about the world, and build the disciplines and practices you need to contribute. Follow incredible leaders. Focus more on listening and learning. The rest will come.”
Fear and Fail Conference & My talk, Vienna, 24 September 2014. Thank you, Jose.
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