A Conversation with Michelle Poler, Creator of the 100 Days Without Fear Project and Prospect Development 2019 Keynote Speaker
Does the thought of bungee jumping terrify you? Or maybe your stomach churns at the thought of getting on stage and speaking in front of a crowd. No matter what triggers “fight or flight” mode for you, one thing is certain: Fear is a natural, inevitable emotion.
Michelle Poler, creator of the 100 Days Without Fear Project and Apra’s Prospect Development 2019 keynote speaker, has come to embrace this truth with open arms. After realizing she was missing out on life by avoiding discomfort, she challenged herself to face facts and face fear.
We spoke with Michelle to learn more about her inspiration for the project, advice for facing professional fears, and how courage can open you up to opportunities. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us what inspired you to start the 100 Days Without Fear Project.
Growing up in Venezuela, I was a fearful kid because it was a dangerous country. I used to travel to the U.S. and see the difference. There I could walk everywhere and feel free, whereas in Venezuela, I always had to be in the car with adults. That didn't help with being an anxious kid.
I also have an anxious personality because of my upbringing. My grandparents survived the Holocaust in European concentration camps, then escaped and moved to Venezuela, where I was eventually born. But my grandparents’ fears transferred from generation to generation. I was fearful most of my life until I moved to New York at age 26. I was scared, but it was my dream. I had to make it happen.
I've always been an ambitious person, and fear was limiting my ambition. It was mostly when I came to New York that I felt I was missing out—on friendships, life, opportunities. I kept trying to stay in my comfort zone, and that was not helping me enjoy the city I’d been wanting to live in for the longest time. That's when I realized I had a problem and had to solve it. By staying in my comfort zone, I could only achieve so much—and that was not enough to fulfill my personal ambition.
One day I was listening to a song by One Republic, called "I Live," and as I heard the lyrics, I started crying because I realized I had not lived. I’d never broken a bone, broken my heart—anything. I'd always been so guarded, which was why I hadn’t been "living."
At that same time, I was at School of Visual Arts in New York studying for a master's in branding. We were assigned a 100-day project of our choice, and I thought I would do something related to branding and design. But when that moment happened listening to that song, I knew I had to face my fears.
What’s more, just a few weeks prior, our professor asked us to envision our lives 10 years from now. I was happy with what I thought my life could look like until they asked us to identify one crucial obstacle that could get in the way. I realized fear was the one thing that has always been getting in the way.
All signs were pointing toward facing my fears, so I took advantage of the 100-day project and decided to face my fears repeatedly for 100 days in a row. I told the class and everyone was shocked, because they were doing things like one tweet a day, or one animation a day. I decided to not only face a fear a day, but also to record myself, edit a video and upload it to YouTube so I could share with the word.
At that point, I was also working full-time in advertising and taking masters classes at night. So I’d work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then at 5 or 6 p.m. I'd go to classes until 10 p.m., then go home and face a fear or edit a video. Sometimes I would use my lunch time to face a fear, and during weekends I would try to face more than one fear, so I had something to post if I was too busy during the week.
Fear is a big part of our daily lives, but also at work. How should people approach fear from a professional standpoint?
It goes back to the little things in life. We're in our office and used to doing things a certain way, but approaching change and the unknown can be an opportunity for growth instead of something uncomfortable. Instead of doing things in the same way, start questioning if there are better ways to do a process. Have the courage to suggest change and have difficult conversations.
At the workplace it's hard to disagree with others. Everyone wants to be polite and there's discomfort in disagreeing, so why bother. If you’re too scared to share an idea, it’s easier to say nothing because it's more comfortable to avoid people rejecting your idea. Instead, raise your hand and suggest something people are not expecting.
What we forget to ask ourselves is, “What if this goes right?” Our fear attacks us right before we're about to take action. It reminds us of the risk involved in that little decision. But what if we change our mindset to think about the reward instead of the risk? This can apply to big things, too, like applying for a raise or promotion—things that can impact your career. Most people won’t have those discussions because they're too afraid.
Those who are crazy enough to try are the ones that change the world. They get uncomfortable. Every time we go beyond what we are asked for, the reward is way bigger, so why not just try?
Do you think practicing fearlessness in your personal life is a good way to become fearless in your professional life?
I don't like to use the word fearless, personally. I'd rather use brave or courageous. I don't think anyone is fearless, because we all have fears. The person that is fearless is not admirable or inspiring. To me, they're just doing things that don't scare them. The person that is inspiring is afraid of something and still does that thing that terrifies him or her.
Either way, I do feel it all starts in your personal life. You take that with you wherever you go—at work, with your partner, your kids, or friends and family. But it has to start with you. Every time you realize you can choose comfort or choose growth, even if it’s an extremely small decision, challenge yourself to choose growth. When you do that, you’ll gain confidence and realize that things are never as bad as you imagine them to be. Our mind is cruel and plays games with us—but it’s never as bad as it seems.
Even after facing 100 fears, I found I was not failing enough. I was still doing things that I could control. For example, I went to speak at an event and someone in the audience asked me, "You talk so much about failure. Can you tell us about a time you failed?" And I couldn't even come up with one example, so I started challenging myself to fail more.
What do you do when trying to conquer a fear backfires?
I don't think that ever happens. If fear is the one thing in your way and you still go for it, I don't think anything bad can come out of that. It's a learning experience whether you fail or succeed. Either way you tried and you learned something that will make you a better version of yourself. People that won’t even try and are always in their comfort zone aren’t advancing in any way. Every time you try and you fail, you’re ahead of the person that didn't even try. That's how I perceive failure and courage.
In your opinion, how does a project like this help people open themselves up?
We all have fears, and my fears can be different very different from yours—but that doesn't take away the fact that I am scared. Whenever I show myself in those presentations facing my fears, people get inspired to face their own.
I think courage is contagious. For example, my husband is introverted—he doesn’t like to get exposed emotionally but he’s OK facing physical fears, like going on roller coaster or jumping off a cliff. So if you ask him to sing in public, he wouldn’t do it. He’d rather swim with sharks! I’m an extrovert, but I have a terrible fear of pain and danger—I’m terrified of those things that don’t scare him. By living with a person that is so different from me, I’ve learned so much about fear and human behavior.
And by putting my videos out there, people started facing their own fears that were not even related to mine. That's the message—we all have fears and it's such a taboo topic. We're supposed to hide our fears and pretend we're tough and confident, but we're not. We're all terrified of so many things and that's OK. We just have to be brave.
Want to learn more from Poler on overcoming fear to reach your potential? Be sure to register for Prospect Development 2019, taking place July 31–August 3 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Prospect Development is Apra’s premier annual conference, bringing together more than 1,000 prospect development professionals to learn from the best, connect with their peers, and gain the partnerships and tools to excel in their roles.