On golf, sharks, and the nature of fear.

Until recently I’ve never loved to golf.  I never even really liked to golf.  Too much pressure.  Too many rules.  Too much can go wrong.  Staring at a ball on a tee–hundreds of feet of fairway staring me in the face.  People snickering as my slice floats in to the adjoining fairway.  The thousands of variables that have to come together for a great shot: my stance, addressing the ball, distance from the ball, head position, foot position, grip, balance, club choice, concentration…all before the absolute chaos of the stroke occurs.  And god knows what anarchy occurs from the beginning of my swing until I actually strike, slap, chip, skull, dig the ball into the air (or, more likely, spitting limply along the grass in front of me…stopping just slightly in front of the women’s tee box).  

How can a person enjoy a game when the likelihood of disaster is nearly guaranteed?There’s just so much that can go wrong that it prevented me from enjoying it whatsoever.  I used to rationalize my distaste to the game’s stereotypes: it’s for fat cats (Jack Welch loves golf, proof positive) or people who were raised on the game (which doesn’t really hold water because my dad used to be a scratch golfer and is still a damn fine player).  I looked for ways to avoid playing by attributing my decision not to play to things that made me look either hipper (I ain’t no fat cat) or independent.  But if I’m totally honest with myself I have to look inward at the real nature of my feelings: the fear of shanking a shot, lots of them.  The fear of not knowing how to ‘do’ golf or the fear of all of the aforementioned golf catastrophes coming together so consistently in a single round that I’d be having a Hulk meltdown on the third hole.  Better not to play–to spurn it from afar–rather than dig in to it and try and figure it out.  

I should say that I do love surfing.  Absolutely love it.  And when a friend and I decided to take a day trip to Bells Beach in Australia a couple of years ago it was simply impossible to resist.  You know Bells Beach.  At least if you’ve watched Pointe Break.  It’s where the final scene was shot.  Where the bad guy paddles out to catch The Hundred Year Wave.  It’s also home to some of the world’s best surfers.  Myself not included.  

We put on our wet suits and rented a couple of long boards.  The break was beautiful–regular and smooth.  The line-up was pretty thin that day, but it was the middle of the week. So I started to paddle out–tasting the salt water, feeling the sun, submitting myself to the impossible vastness that was staring me in the face.  I paddled out through the break and toward the line up, and then a bit beyond.  Then even further.  I paddled towards a buoy, reached it, and stopped.  There was chain link fence attached to it.  The fence was old and green and plummeted in to the blackness.  It was also attached to another buoy a good distance away.  It was a shark fence.  I’d heard about them before–designed to (ideally) keep the great whites away from the beaches.  Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that shark populations are threatened around the world–in some cases to the point of near extinction–I was afraid.  I felt it crawl up my back and into my skull.  I felt it tighten up my guts and muscles.  I felt adrenaline, for no reason at all, quicken in my body.  I was too far out.  And I was alone.  One good bite and I’d bleed out alone, on a rented surfboard, floating towards the South Pole.  It was time to paddle in.  Carefully, I told myself, turn around.  Quietly, I told myself, paddle back.  Don’t disturb the deep.  Get back.  Get back.  Get back.  Which I did, filled with a sickly mixture of regret and resignation.

Why do we fear the things we fear?  What causes such a violent reaction in certain situations?  What’s the nature of it?  

Here’s what I’ve concluded: it’s not the golf shot–it’s the uncertainty that surrounds the shot.  It’s not the shark–it’s the uncertainty that it may or may not eat you.  Fear is rooted in uncertainty.  Uncertainty causes fear, fear causes inaction, and inaction prevents you or me or anyone from taking the chances that we’d all like to take–that we all deserve to take–in our lives.  Golf is a very small example in my life.  Being eaten by a fish is a little bigger if not substantially more irrational.  But the more I think about the nature of fear on any scale–in life, in relationships, in business–the more I’m convinced that confronting uncertainty while admitting it’s part of doing something new is the only way to actually erase fear (or limit its effect on you ability to be truly happy).

For the last couple of years I’ve been starting my coaching classes with a question: “What would you try if you had no fear?”  It’s intended to be an icebreaker and usually gets a couple replies or comments.  But that’s going to change.  The real question isn’t about fearlessness.  The real question is about uncertainty.  What things are people uncertain about in their lives and careers?  And why does that uncertainty exist?  More importantly, how is uncertainty preventing new, fresh, bold, exciting action?  We all have uncertainty in our lives.  And we all have things we’re afraid of.  So I’m suggesting that by tackling it head on and peeling it all the way back to its causal factors that massive positive growth and emboldened new behavior can happen.

My dad straightened out my swing, by the way.  I choked up on the club.  Nothing more.  Just the willingness to listen on my part.  I probably missed hundreds of beautiful waves that day–half way around the world with a best friend.  Still kicking myself for that.  It’ll never happen again.

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