Whatever You Fear, You Must Face

Last night I went to a show of the Las Vegas Improvisational Players. This is the same improv troupe I trained/performed with for a few months in 2006. I love these unscripted shows because they’re different every time. My favorite part was watching them act out the phrase “gelatinous herbivores scurrying” during a game called Debate. Another funny part was when they portrayed the growling monster on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.

During the show I asked myself which I enjoyed more: being in the audience or being one of the performers. In the audience you get to laugh a lot. On the stage you get to make people laugh. I was invited to participate in one of the games as an audience volunteer, posing players while they acted out a scene, so I had the opportunity to enjoy the show from both sides last night. I’m still not sure which is more fun, but it was clear that being on stage is the better growth experience.

After the show I went out to dinner with the players. As you might imagine, this is a very lively group. No one ordered any alcohol, but you’d never have guessed it. ūüôā

While I was enjoying the conversation and lots of laughs, I thought to myself, There’s something unusual about this table. I looked around and saw that people at nearby tables were watching us, wondering why we seemed so happy. Other people, including our waiter, were smiling and laughing at our jokes. Our cheerful, boisterous attitude infected the people around us. By the end of the night, our waiter was actively engaged in our conversation, sharing his own stories and anecdotes with our group. His role as a waiter faded, and he became another friendly human being to connect with.

I noticed that our conversation was very positive. I don’t recall anyone complaining or making negative comments, except maybe as part of a joke. Mostly people were telling stories, discussing parts of the show, and making humorous observations. I probably laughed at least as much during dinner as I did during the show.

I thought to myself, This is how human beings are meant to be — happy, alive, and inviting — but the interesting part is how you get there.

What improv players have in common is that they’re all willing to get up on stage, which is something most people are afraid to do. They’re willing to try to be funny without knowing in advance how they’ll do it. They never know what they’ll say or do until they actually find themselves doing it. They can practice, but they can’t really prepare.

Are these people completely unafraid? Were they simply born with no fear of public speaking? In most cases, no. They have the same fears and anxieties everyone else does. It’s common to feel nervous or anxious before a show. Being nervous isn’t a sign of impending failure — it just means you care about your performance. This fear energy sends most people running, but those who get up on the stage learn that fear isn’t really an obstacle. It’s a challenge to be faced.

The reward for facing fear is that you get to be fully alive. When you turn towards your fear, you feel the breath of life blowing straight at you, and it’s very refreshing. You feel awake and energized. It’s not that you become an adrenaline junky. You simply realize that you can’t let fear stand in your way if you want to live your life consciously. Being afraid of something is no excuse for not doing it.

The first time I saw the improv show, I thought to myself, I wonder if I could do that someday. Then I felt anxious and nervous, and the reply came back, No way! How can you be funny under that much pressure? What if you say something stupid and no one laughs? What if you go totally blank? You’ll look like a complete idiot. That’s when I realized I had to do it. I had to do it because if I ran from that kind of challenge, I’d be giving fear permission to run my life. The truth was that I wanted the experience of doing it, not for a lifetime career — just to experience it and see what it was really like. It didn’t matter whether I succeeded in making people laugh. The more important issue was that I didn’t let fear make my decisions for me.

I saw the benefits of this willingness to face fear in the other players last night. It’s especially noticeable when you contrast it with those who repeatedly run from fear. Facing fear makes you more conscious. Running from fear lowers your consciousness and makes you behave like a drone on autopilot.

What are you allowing fear to stop you from doing? How would you feel about yourself if you actually did it? Regardless of the outcome, do you at least recognize that you’d feel more conscious and alive? Do you think the pattern of facing fear again and again could make a difference in your life?

How would your life be different if you lived by the rule, “Whatever you fear, you must face”?

Think of fear as a homing beacon, not an obstacle.