Steer into the Fear

I’ve had a remarkable couple of weeks starting with DevLearn 2011. I’ve had the opportunity to dwell at length with my heroes in the eLearning community. The response from hundreds of attendees at DevLearn to the causes I’ve championed, namely the revolution needed in learning technologies, has been humbling and validating as it became clear that not only do so many get what I’ve been talking about with things like Activity Streams, but that the organization I’ve come to represent is truly on the path to meeting the needs of the broader community. It makes me very proud to serve the community in this way; it makes me prouder of the very talented team of engineers, researchers and policy-makers to give me a platform that brings so many people some hope.

Since returning from DevLearn, I’ve begun focusing on building more relationships with outstanding people I’ve met over the last year. I’m taking on challenges professionally and personally that feel beyond me. I will have to grow as a person, as a professional and as a leader to take on the kinds of responsibilities I’ve both wanted and now have been granted. It’s entirely scary to me… and entirely exciting.

That’s what I want to write about: steering into the fear.

I began co-working this week for the first time, which means I’m now renting a chair and desk in an office with other self-starting, entrepreneurial spirits who dwell together to share an office space. In doing so, they create an interesting community of people who work in the same place by their own choice. In the two days I’ve done this, I’ve been more focused and more productive at a task-level than most of the days I’ve spent working at home, straddling between spurts of being “on” and allowing myself very pleasant distractions of family.

I worked extra late today because developer friends Ron De Las Alas (@delasare) and Dustin Updyke (@dustinupdyke) happened to be headed to Chicago for a small conference focusing attention on the craft of coding. As I waited (forever) for them to show up, I took up some time after leaving my new office at the nearby Starbucks, where I pulled out my Dot Grid notebook and continued to tweak my sketched agenda for one of my new big tasks: a Next Generation SCORM summit occurring in the beginning of February. As I was sitting there, pleasantly about my business at 7:30 on a Thursday evening, a young man walked into Starbucks and just plopped down his stuff at my table. He seemed very comfortable and chatty and I took a moment to engage with him. He had with him a few different law books, a CISCO certification manual and what seemed to be some kind of psychology book.

This guy described to me that he was taking two classes from University of Phoenix, another class from a community college and yet another class from some training provider for the CISCO certification. I asked him what he was planning to do with all of these and his answer was a bit disconcerting to me.

He said, “I want to make a trillion dollars.”

The designer (and the provocateur) in me asked him, “How?”

“By changing the world.”


“To make it better.”


“I don’t know how to put it into words.”

And this is where I started to have some fun. I asked him to give me a sheet of his notebook paper so I could write down three books for him. He resisted a bit and then I told him that not only would I list some books for him to help him put those ideas into words, but I would tell him what he’d get out of the books. The first book I recommended was “Connecting Inner Power with Global Change: The Fractal Ladder” by Pravir Malik (@pravirmalik). I sensed that he was looking to make a number of connections he observed in the world, but lacked the dexterity to thread whatever his ideas are together. This is a book that opened gateways in my mind on how paradigms map in fractal ways — the kind of thing Kurt Hanks describes in terms of relational thinking. That’s when this young man stopped resisting and I could tell that not only did I melt his brain, but that I read him like an open book with large font.

The second book I recommended to him was Roger Martin’s “The Design of Business.” While many bemoan “design thinking” I continue to find an incredible amount of value in the process of taking complex wicked problems and discovery heuristics, supported by algorithms which can be supported by tiny bits of code. Break a problem into its components and the components into its parts. Focus on making each part awesome and as you put the pieces back together, making small bets, you can create incredible positive change. Now this young man was starting to freak out because this information was all new to him and it clearly was resonating in a primal way.

The third book I recommended to him was Dave Gray (@davegray) and Sunni Brown’s “GameStorming” because Dave (and his book) opened my eyes completely to a whole other vision made possible by embracing sketching. This guy I was talking to clearly wanted to “see” things differently. I found tears in his eyes as I handed this sheet of paper back to him and packed up my things to have dinner with my friends. He had many questions, most of them he could barely articulate and I simply reminded him that what he needed was to learn how to articulate what’s in his head… then the questions will be easier to ask and the answers more profound. He asked me what comes next. I gave him my twitter handle and told him that what comes next is he reads and applies what he’s learning to every situation he’s in until he builds some fluency, and when he can articulate his ideas to start tweeting me.

Then I went to dinner with Ron and Dustin. We talked about their CodeCraft conference, and they debated the offer made by people at the conference to “parrot code” which basically means that a developer teams up with another developer. One does all the actual typing. The other one drives, telling the dev who’s typing what they should do. This raised a number of concerns about, “but what if I find out that all the code I’ve done in the last 13 years is *wrong*?”

I replied, “isn’t that the whole point of doing this conference is to get better?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that statement. A vast majority of people are risk-averse. There are many reasons why people are so risk-averse. Most people have pretty good senses for risk, and thousands of years of cultural evolution have forged us as people to be mindful of risk and avoid it.

I’m going to tell you to stop avoiding what’s scary to you as a professional and encourage you to steer right into your fears and concerns. I don’t know how I got conditioned to steer into fear, but over the last couple of years I’ve encountered a lot of professional and personal challenges, met them head-on and even with my failures, I’ve gained so much from doing so.

I’ve never planned a conference-like event before. I’ve never designed a socially-driven *movement* before. I’m now about to lead four such efforts, two on behalf of the Learning Registry and ADL; another two for communities outside of my work whom I value so much that in doing them, I will become a better person. I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. Yet I know I will be successful precisely because what I’m taking on is scaring the hell out of me… and I love it.

The thing about steering into fear one must understand is that the scary places are what will forge you into a hero. Many people don’t want to be heroes, and they avoid scary situations as much as they can. There are adrenaline junkies who like things that can actually make them jump. For me, I just know that avoiding what’s scary rarely makes it go away. Turning into that scary stuff, tackling it head on, I understand its strengths, weaknesses and it forges me to think and act differently than I do cowering in front of it.

If we’re going to make our neighborhoods and communities better, if we’re going to improve the places we dwell… we need to be the heroes we’re seeking. You only become a hero by doing something brave, which requires you to have fear.

My advice to everyone: steer into the fear… and grow.

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