Have you ever felt your heartbeat so fast and hard that you can literally hear it? It’s that level of fear where your body kicks into fight or flight mode and starts pumping blood uncontrollably.
This is your body’s way of preparing you to either run or fight when you’re facing a dangerous situation. But our modern bodies still have primitive minds. We respond to things that aren’t physically dangerous as if they were.
This is how I felt when I faced my fear, achieved one of my most valued accomplishments, and experienced a level of euphoria I’d never felt before.
Here’s the story.
To face your fears, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable
I’d been in a Toastmaster’s club for about six months or so.
I always had a natural talent for speaking and I did pretty well when I gave talks to the group. A couple of members suggested I try out for a local TEDx event in our town.
I didn’t have much experience with public speaking, but by then I was heavily involved in self-improvement and understood the power of taking leaps of faith, so I submitted my pitch. I thought nothing of it. I didn’t think I’d get a response back but I did.
The organizers invited me to “pitch night.” Twenty-four speakers were chosen to give short elevator pitches for their talk ideas. I remember walking into the venue and I was so nervous I couldn’t even make small talk with the other speakers before the show started.
I just sat there, running the talk through my head over and over again, my heart pounding out of my chest. The showcase started. I was in the middle of the lineup, so a few other speakers went ahead of me. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what any of their speeches were about because I was so nervous and locked in my own head.
Eventually, they called my name. I got up on stage and started speaking.
I don’t know what it is about public speaking that’s so terrifying. Maybe it’s the fact that the spotlight is entirely on you. If you fumble, everyone witnesses it at the same time. All of their perceived judgment of your failures comes pouring out, like acid rain from the sky.
I gave the talk. If you watched the video, you’d see me visibly shaking. I did a good job, but I was petrified. After the show was over, lots of people came up to me and told me they loved my talk. One person even said my nervousness was endearing.
The talk was about impostor syndrome—feeling like a fraud—so the fact I got up there and spoke despite my feelings won over some members of the audience. It felt good. My nervousness went away and it was replaced with pride. I really went on stage and did that.
Regardless of the results, I was happy I tried. Out of the 24 speakers that night, two would be chosen by the audience for the main event. It would be a mixture of local speakers and internationally-renowned experts—quite the opportunity.
My name was not called. Many people liked my pitch, but apparently not enough.
There was a glimmer of hope, though. The event organizers would handpick a few other speakers to join the main event. Eventually, they’d notify all the speakers about whether or not they made the cut.
Sometimes it’s a waiting game
A bunch of members from my club had attended the show. At the next meeting, everyone came up to me with handshakes and hugs and told me how proud they were that I gave it a shot.
“Did you hear anything about the final selection yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“You never know, they might pick you.”
Weeks went by and I mostly forgot about the whole thing. One day I received an email from the organizers. They invited me to meet with them and prove my idea was good. It wasn’t a guarantee that I’d be in the show, but it was something.
We had multiple meetings where I went through my draft of the talk. They’d ruthlessly pick it apart, give me feedback for improvement, and continue to tell me that I may have a shot at making the show, but still no promises.
Eventually, they gave me the green light.
I’d be speaking at our local TEDx event with more than 1,000 attendees. The event would be held at Autumn Ridge, one of those large mega-churches.
It had a library in it and I even worked out a deal: They’d buy a bunch of copies of my books, sell them to attendees, and have me sign autographs.
If things went well, I’d be in a position to experience one of the best moments of my life. If they didn’t go well, I’d have egg on my face in front of a massive group of people.
Putting yourself out there isn’t easy (but practice makes better)
During last year’s event, one of the speakers stumbled on their words and lost track of where they were in their talk. You’re taught to ad-lib and just keep going because the audience doesn’t know whether or not you’re giving your talking points correctly.
If you can ad-lib for a few seconds, you usually find your footing and get back to smooth sailing. But if you freeze, it gets harder and harder. That’s exactly what happened to the man who gave the talk.
He lived out everyone’s public speaking nightmare scenario: stuck on stage, with a cat the size of a panther clutching his tongue. Awful. Apparently, he stood still without saying a word for several minutes. I can only imagine how he felt.
Eventually, the audience had to encourage him and rally together to get him to finish. Of course, they’d tell him he did a good job after so as not to hurt his feelings, but deep down, he messed up and he knew it.
With the rumblings of that story in mind, I went to the church to face my fears and give a practice run-through of my talk. The show was a week away. I’d drilled the speech into the recesses of my brain. I practiced it over and over again, taped myself, tried to memorize every last syllable.
I get on stage to give the talk. There’s no one else there except for myself, the other speakers, and the speech coaches. I’m giving my talk, and in the middle of it, I freeze. I looked around at what seemed like infinite rows of chairs, an abyss of judgment and abject humiliation.
I imagined what it would feel like to fumble just like that poor gentlemen did a year earlier. I stumbled through the talk and that was that. The show was next week and I was out of practice runs.
Prepping for a talk on imposter syndrome, surrounded by world-renowned speakers (gulp)
I arrive at the venue a few hours before the show. “The practice run was a fluke,” I tell myself.
They feed us lunch and we speakers get to know each other and chat during our downtime. Some weren’t at the practice run—they’re internationally-known public figures who hop on planes and give talks all the time.
There was a silicon valley super entrepreneur fresh off the plane from Palo Alto. There was a world-renowned psychologist. Speaking of doctors, one of the speakers was one of the world’s most sought-after brain surgeons. He’d be giving a talk about how he saved the life of a child with his breakthrough brain surgery technique.
Oh, did I mention that I was right behind him in the speaking order?
Awesome. Here I am set to give a talk about impostor syndrome with a room full of people who made me feel like an absolute phony. Still, I was there and I was ready to go.
Close to the start of the show, most of us separate to practice a few times. I’m sitting in an area of the building where no one can see me, drilling away. I run through it once, perfection. I do it again, every syllable accounted for. I must have run through it a half-dozen times flawlessly.
T-minus 10 minutes until we have to go to the green room and start the show. I give it one last run-through.
I fumble my words. No, the words came cascading down in a scrambled hail storm until I choked on them. I freeze. I contemplate the absolute train wreck that’s about to occur in a mere matter of minutes. I had nowhere to run or hide.
This was it.
The sheer terror of facing your fears
I’m standing behind the stage “on deck” while Mr. Brain Surgeon Extraordinaire gives a talk about extracting a malignant brain tumor from a child. To boot, he’s an extremely polished public speaker with that special sort of confidence that radiates off his body like a supernova.
People in the audience are literally weeping. He finishes the talk, standing ovation.
I don’t even think he walked off stage, I’m pretty sure he levitated a few inches off the ground and glided back behind the curtain.
“Next up, we have Ayodeji Awosika.”
My heart is beating so hard and fast it feels like I’m having a legitimate cardiac episode.
I walk out and hear the sound of applause. I remember the lights themselves feeling abnormally bright. My armpits are sweating, but fortunately, I’m wearing a suit jacket and no one can see.
The applause subsides. It is now so silent you can hear a pin drop. I take a deep breath and start talking.
The first few sentences come out just fine. I’m not bombing, cool.
I get a big laugh from the crowd. My nervousness fades away.
I remember that seeing a room full of faces had a counterintuitive calming effect because I couldn’t read the expression of each individual. It was impossible to tell what they were thinking or if they were judging me. I give the whole talk to perfection, plus or minus a syllable. I receive roaring applause.
The host brings the neurosurgeon back on stage and does a quick little Q&A with both of us. I make an off-the-cuff remark about the fact that they had me give a talk about impostor syndrome immediately after one of the most qualified and well-credentialed people on planet earth.
The crowd bursts with laughter. We both walk off stage. Handshakes and hugs in the green room. I feel a mixture of euphoria and relief. The show finishes. I did it.
This is what’s on the other side of fear
I remember walking around the venue, talking to different people—my wife and mother-in-law, friends who’d come to the show, fellow members of my speech club. I can’t even really remember what they said because I was overwhelmed with this chemical cocktail percolating in my mind.
Every happiness-inducing neurotransmitter known to man was firing off in my brain like fireworks on the fourth of July. No thoughts, no mental chatter, a worry-free state fueled by the adrenaline-charged satisfaction of conquering fear.
That’s what’s on the other side of fear.
A rare moment in your life where you feel like you’re floating. An emotional payoff that’s impossible to replicate any other way except for facing your fear. Here’s the best way to describe how I felt: pure and unadulterated joy.
I sign some autographs, more handshakes, more hugs. Several people tell me my talk was their favorite because it showed them that normal people are capable of being extraordinary by putting themselves out there. By showing courage.
It resonated in a way the professionally-polished doctor couldn’t because I had every reason to be afraid and doubt myself—but I went through the wringer anyway.
Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s being scared but not allowing your emotions to control you or keep you from living the life you know you want to live. It’s knowing that it’s okay to act, even if you’re not one hundred percent sure of yourself.
Fear makes the process rewarding.
As much as you think you want to avoid it, you’re much better off running straight in its direction.