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Welcome to the Leader's Campfire!

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Welcome to the first newsletter from the Leader's Campfire! This area is now much more than just a blog. It's access to all the free resources Inquiring Minds offers, with the feeling of sitting around a campfire at the end of a long day. Feel free to jump ahead to whatever catches your fancy! Each month will feature these four sections:


STORY: What's on the other side of fear? Everyone loves a great story told by the fireside.

READ MORE: Additional resources related to the article. Explore three of my favorite articles, videos, or resources.

BOOK STUFF: What we're reading in Book Club & Updates on Irene's book. Book club meets (usually) the last Thursday of the month at 4 pm PST. If you love nonfiction and great conversation, please join us.

GOING FURTHER: Upcoming programs, workshops, and events. There's always a ton of things happening at Inquiring Minds. Find out what's happening here!

 

STORY: What's on the other side of fear?


Mike Selby tells the story of Molly to nearly every team he facilitates at Project Discovery. A vibrant three year old girl walks up to him while sitting in a secret hot spring. Molly boldly walks up to Mike, a complete stranger, and asks, “What’s on the other side of fear?”


Now, at first glance, Mike might look like your everyday middle aged guy, but one look into his eyes and you'll find deep wisdom and vast experience that goes far beyond expectations. For 25 years he has led teams through a ropes course that winds from the forest floor up 60 feet into the canopy near Lake Tahoe. Mike has worked with girl scouts and corporate execs, men just out of prison and army elites. He’s seen fear. So, when a three year old asks him out of the blue what’s on the other side, it’s an electric moment. And yet, Mike doesn't have a ready answer. "I don't know. What?"


Molly looks Mike in the eye and says, “Freedom.”


I experimented with my own fear at Project Discovery alongside other alumni from Leadership Redding, a nationwide program that helps Chambers of Commerce and other municipal entities catalyze community improvement by investing in tomorrow’s leaders. Their mission is to ignite civic engagement and cultivate future leaders in our region. I’d never had the time to participate before, but made the time last year. Now, as an alumnus of the Best Class Ever 2023, I was invited to join this year’s ropes course adventure.


At the beginning of the day, while both feet remained firmly planted on solid ground within a circle of cut logs, Mike asked us each to declare our intention for the day. Mine: to explore the edges of my fear.


Now you know me. I’m a pretty brave lady — skydiving, jumping off buildings, quitting a job I loved with a good paycheck and wonderful pension. What you might not know is that I worked on ropes courses throughout high school, college, and grad school. My favorite spot on the high school course was fifty feet in the air at the transfer perch where climbers would arrive from across wires or up ladders, limbs trembling, breath heaving. I would gently coach them along step by step towards me, hug them until their legs stopped trembling, transfer them to the zip line, and then send them flying over a gorge.


Well, when I went to Project Discovery with Leadership Redding alumni, I found my fear, huge and snarling, up on the high Y. The element really didn’t look that bad from the ground. It was three wires strung in a Y shape 60 feet in the air. I would climb one tree, and my partner Tenessa would climb another. Our teammates would keep us safe on belay. We would make our way towards each other along the arms of the Y using ropes hanging from above like Donkey Kong. At the junction, we would help one another onto the single wire that leads us to the tree at the end. How hard could it be?


Well, around twenty feet up my tree, the handholds began to vanish. Apparently, as the tree grows, the bark literally grows around the handholds. What used to be nice, healthy loops of metal sticking out of the tree at regular intervals got smaller and smaller until there was nothing left at all.


“Mike!” I called. “Why did you send me up this tree? There are no handholds!”


He called back, “You got this Irene. When I put new handholds in, I’ll write your name on one of them.” Harumph! I had to use sap-covered branches to pick my way up. On one of those branches, my foot slipped on the smooth bark. My heart leaped but my hands caught my weight. Best not to look down.


Finally, I reached the wire and maneuvered my feet into place, hands clenched with white knuckles on a branch that was way too floppy for my taste. The wire swung and sagged as I stepped onto it. When I looked over my shoulder towards the first dangling rope, I realized it was eight feet from my tree.


“No way.” I called down to my belay team. “I can’t do it.”


“You can do it Irene!” They shouted up to me.


“Nuh uh. My arms are not long enough.” My knees started to tremble.

“Just reach.”


Seriously?!? Me and my five foot two Chinese frame? Reach an extra three feet beyond my fingertips? I’m not Elasti-Girl. There are no handholds besides this crappy branch. No. Eff-ing. Way.


And there she was. My fear. She appeared as a slavering dire wolf with its hackles raised, growling, drool dripping off bloody fangs, hovering directly between me and that first rope. It wasn’t the height that scared me. It was the sure knowledge that if I were to go for that rope, I would have to let go of the safety of the tree. My palms were sweaty. My legs began the sewing machine shudder, something I knew from experience was really really hard to stop once it started.


The tree seemed like the only safe, solid thing around. I held tight to the tree and breathed. I had to get past the fear. I went to my go-to brain break: box breathing.


Navy SEAL, Mark Divine teaches box breathing to special forces military to move through their fear. If it works for troops in combat, it darn well better work for me. Breathe in slowly over a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Breathe out nice and steady for four. Hold for four. Repeat.


I stared at a solid tree in the distance. In, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. The dire wolf was still there in my peripheral vision, but hazy now. My legs stopped shaking.


Mentally, I surveyed what else besides the tree was solid. My belay team below. The tree in the distance. Just then, my partner Tenessa made it to her wire. When she stepped onto it, I felt my wire stiffen. Why was it that her first rope was within easy reach of her tree? Grumble. But at least the wire below my feet was more taut now. I could find safety in these things—my breath, the connection to my belay team, my eyes fixed on the tree over there, the wire. I heard the growl of the wolf, but didn’t look her way.


I called down to my team, “Fine, I’m going to go for it. Hold me.” I took a deep breath. My left hand reached out towards the first rope. My right hand let go of the branch and grabbed my belay line. And I started to move.


Brené Brown says, “The more we’re willing to embrace the suck and try new things, the more new things we’re willing to try. And it’s not because being new gets comfortable, it’s because we learn how to normalize discomfort. If there’s one thing I know for sure, normalizing discomfort, learning how to stay standing in the midst of feeling unsure and uncertain, that’s the foundation of courage.”


That first step, letting go of the tree, was the hardest. As soon as I started moving, the wolf vanished. Yes, I found freedom on the other side of fear, just like Molly says. But to me, freedom feels like the state of flow.


Flow is being in “the zone”. It’s the effortless physicality of a great basketball player dribbling a ball down the court. It’s the focused concentration of a composer when a new symphony crescendos in his head, and he eagerly captures the music on paper. It’s the weird bending of time a mathematician feels when she’s so engrossed in a problem that she looks up to find that the sun has set and suppertime has long since passed, but she doesn’t mind in the slightest. It’s how I feel swing dancing as the lights, music, movement, crowd, my partner, and I blur into a single swirling moment in time. Flow is what Alex Honnold describes in the movie Free Solo about climbing El Capitan without a belay line: “I'm not thinking about anything when I'm climbing, which is part of the appeal. I'm focused on executing what's in front of me.”


As I began to move, my body knew what to do next. Step with my left foot. Step with my right. Breathe. Step. Step. Breathe. And the first rope was in my hand. Then the second. Then the third. I’ve done this before. My body remembered even if my fear made me forget.


Soon, Tenessa and I were near the junction of the wires, but it was clearly too far for either of us to reach alone. “Tenessa, take my hand.” She did. Her hand, like mine was sweaty, but solid and warm. I directed her, “Now step your left foot across to my wire.”


“What?!?”


“Yes. On the count of three, let go of your rope and step to my wire. You can do it. Just move. I’ve got you.” I tightened my grip on her hand. I was right back to being a high school senior, sitting on the transfer perch, coaching a peer on her next steps. I was in my office, coaching a client through a terrifying business decision. Though I myself was in a precarious position, right on the edge of my own fear, I knew what to do.



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the founding father of the study of flow, describes it this way in his TED talk:


“There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and the sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”


Flow is only possible when you start to move. Fear fixes you in place. I just had to find the few things that were safe and solid and take the first step.


“One. Two. Three.” Tenessa stepped over. Eventually we made it to the tree. I kissed my hand before I slapped the tree.


So what’s on the other side of fear?


Freedom…and flow.


You just gotta take the first step.


I'm going to need to remember that tomorrow when I take the stage in Barcelona at the GOAT Summit. I've lectured hundreds of times. This one is different. There's millionaires in the audience. And three videographers. The event takes place in one of the world's most esteemed art museums. Yes, I'm afraid. It's really uncomfortable. I was physically shaking during today's rehearsal. But I know to breathe and find a few safe and solid things (in this case, the eyes of my friends in the audience) to keep me grounded. And as soon as the first sentence leaves my lips, I know I will find flow and freedom.


I just gotta take the first step.


You can too.


 

READ MORE: Additional resources


There's lots of different kinds of fear. Fear of heights. Letting go of safety. Here's resources for three common types of fears:


If it's a fear of doing things for the first time, this might be my favorite Brené Brown podcast of all time: On FFTs.


Sometimes it's uncertainty and risk that causes the fear. In that case, here's a blog post of mine on how to navigate uncertain times


And then of course, there's the fear of failure, my old familiar friend. This collection of positive psychology resources is ever so useful!


 


BOOK STUFF: The new book is Joy Is My Justice by Tanmeet Sethi, MD


We'll be exploring my friend Tanmeet's claim that "joy is your birthright... This is about you taking justice into your own hands, into your own body. This is about finding your own path to joy, not through platitudes or contrived positivity, but instead through settling more peacefully in your skin. That is revolutionary justice. Finding your own sense of safety when the world has denied it to you."


We will discuss Joy Is My Justice at 4 pm PST on Thursday, September 28, 2023 and on Thursday, October 26, 2023. Learn more about and sign up for Book Club here. Or send an email to irene@irenesalter.com and I'll add you to the calendar invite.


PS. In case you're curious about my own book on the science of why we love to travel... I'm hoping to have edits complete on chapters 1-5 + the concluding chapter by the end of October. From there it's off to my agent and then to publishers! Woo hoo!


 

GOING FURTHER: Upcoming programs


There's just three weeks left to enroll for the Heroine's Circle, a women's leadership circle designed specifically for female leaders with a really big challenge, goal, or role ahead of them. It's tough to walk that path alone. Let me, Tutti Taygerly, and a custom curated group of brave, experienced women walk with you on the journey. The goal is to sustain your hard won confidence, skill, grace, connection, and spark even as you tackle the big things ahead. Best of all, we end with an all inclusive retreat in Hawaii. Reach out ASAP if you wish to find out if this might be the right fit for you.


And if perhaps an online course is more your style, the Leader's Lighthouse is designed to get you out of survival mode and into a place of thriving with 20 minute videos delivered to your inbox over six months. A new cohort of leaders just joined and I'd love to have you! The first 2 months are FREE!

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