My Greatest Personal Fear

At Sheryl Sandberg’s talk the other week, she asked the audience a question from her book: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

It’s a great question, and one about which I’ve been thinking since. Am I afraid? If so, of what am I afraid?

Coincidentally, a friend of mine, Anne Cooke Mitchell, is a successful VC and has decided to step back and instead pursue a career path in executive coaching. Using a framework and methodology from Harvard, I’m the first beta customer. The point of the sessions is to release someone’s full potential by identifying and then overcoming your greatest personal fears. We’ve only met up twice so far, but it’s been pretty cool.

What’s particularly interesting is that I’m starting to realize that my biggest fear, deep down and which took some unearthing, is to avoid a rough five-year patch in my life starting in 2nd grade.

You see, we had left the U.S. to move back to Indonesia, but shortly thereafter, my mother became very ill and almost died a few times in front of my eyes (her kidneys had failed, which led to numerous complications). My sister and I were living with a childless aunt who didn’t have a clue about parenting and was pretty harsh.

We were enrolled in a local school, where our American accents made us seem foreign. The culture shock was insane: brutal heat and humidity, no air conditioning, insane traffic, and social customs far different from the inner-city world of Brooklyn.

After a few months, we then moved back to the U.S. so that my mother could get better medical care. My parents spent a lot of time away from us while at the hospital, whilst yet another childless-and-harsh aunt took care of me and sister.

So, clearly, our world had changed drastically. My mother was the life of the party, cooked like a fiend and kept the house neat and bright. As she struggled for her life, and later, went through dialysis treatments to keep her alive but depleted and depressed, our home became quiet, we ate a lot of junk food, and the house was a pigsty.

Our lives were in a holding pattern, and disaster always seemed to loom around the corner. My mother frequently went to see her doctors, and you never knew if the latest blood test or examination would show a worsening condition or hint at end-of-life. The uncertainty was pretty constant and dis-comforting.

I remember as a child thinking to myself that I better shape my future. In third grade, for example, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. It sucked. But, I didn’t want to go without, and I thought, “Well, who else is going to cook it if I don’t?” Did I really want take-out, junk food or frozen food for Thanksgiving dinner?

Thankfully, things changed when my mother received a kidney transplant, but since donor kidneys have a limited half-life, she was always worried that her health would go again. Life always felt tense and precarious to me as a child.

I recently spoke to my sister about the old days.  She said, “It seemed like we were breathing in Death wherever we were. It was always so close and around us all the time.”

Perhaps it’s why I work a lot and have a sense of urgency. I’ve seen that bad things can happen to good people. Time is precious.

It’s a good thing that I made friends easily, for that let me play at other people’s houses and see brighter households. I encountered parents who went to their children’s sports games and practices, asked about their grades, and seemed really interested in their kids’ lives.

I saw home-cooked meals and clean homes. I saw stability. I’m sure those families had flaws, too, but to me, they seemed like glimpses from a Norman Rockwell painting, like the one above.

And, all that is what I wanted for my future children.

I’m not sure how else these personal experiences have shaped me, as I’ll find out more in the coming sessions with my friend. And, I know that sharing all of this personal stuff might be TMI for some of you. But, I think a first step in overcoming a fear is to name it and put it out there.

And, I’ve just done that. I’m very grateful to my friend, Anne.

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