From a very young age—maybe 5 or 6—I relished the idea of being a daredevil. Maybe I was just trying to show off, but in my 6- and 10- and 13-year-old brain, doing scary things matched up with the Tomboy persona I had taken on (I played sports, had perpetually skinned knees, and loved getting picked before the boys in kickball). As young as about 5 or 6, I accepted a dare on the playground of my preschool that ended in skin-splitting disaster.
It was a cold day, and the monkey bars were iced over from a quick winter storm the night before, but I agreed to go across anyway, spurred on by the other kids. I took off my mittens, reasoning that I’d get a better grip without them, but the stinging cold and the slippery bars forced me off midway across, and I fell to the icy ground face first. A lower tooth went through my lip, and I wound up at home looking like a preschool boxer, alarming my parents and teachers.
However, that didn’t really deter me, and I charged ahead with an internal desire to do things that I deemed scary or devilish. What started with parallel bar antics eventually extended to zip lining, skydiving, hang gliding, parasailing, and mountain climbing.
I thought at the time I was being brave, but I’ve learned over the years that being daring isn’t the same thing. The bravest things I’ve done often had nothing to do with jumping from great heights. Most often, the scariest things I’ve conquered have been about facing personal demons, and in most every case have ended up being the most rewarding moments and decisions of my life.
Here are my most frightening, stare-down-the-boogie-monster moments. Tell us yours.
1. Testifying in front of a jury.
This was a direct result of the daredevil thing, which ended in a third-degree burn and a gnarly scar that I will wear forever on my right arm. My family and I were vacationing at a small bed and breakfast in Elmira, NY, and my sister and I quickly discovered a lake with a zip line that stretched across it. It looked easy, and I was eager from the ground, but once I climbed the tree and got up on the platform about 25 feet up, I realized my 13-year-old body was not quite tall enough to reach the bar without jumping. When I finally worked up the courage to jump, it was awkward, and as I grabbed the bar, the retrieval rope swung inside my grip. As I went across, I went east and the rope when west, and it badly burned the spot where my arm meets my shoulder. I dropped like a rock into the water. It was gruesome.
I needed surgeries to repair my arm and my family filed a lawsuit to recoup some of the damages for my medical bills. At 15, I had to take the stand in front of a jury, recount the story, and explain what it meant to live with this heinous scar. I shuddered and cried through most of it, and it was embarrassing. But I remember writing about that experience for one of my college essays, and I feel a vague sense of pride whenever I look at my scar.
2. Moving to San Francisco.
People move cross country every day. But for me, at 22, without any real friends or family to speak of, moving to a new city 3,000 miles away from home was terrifying. But it was also the most exhilarating, game-changing experience of my life. I had the chance to completely rewrite the script and redefine myself, and I that’s exactly what I did. I lucked out, moving in to an apartment with best friends Kristi and Michael, who accepted me as instant family, I met my future husband, and I had the dream job (at least until the Silicon Valley dotcoms busted). Moving to a new place (especially an incredible city like SF) and making it my own made me feel like I could conquer anything.
2b. Leaving San Francisco. In 2001, even before 9/11, the dotcoms busted, and tech and supporting industries were decimated across the Bay Area. My boyfriend (now my husband) and I eventually had to pack our things, our dog, and our hearts into a Rider truck and move to Washington, DC. It was painful and frightening, but starting a new life together solidified us as a couple. The difficult times we faced and survived in the wake of that move propelled us into a marriage that was rooted in the confidence that we could make it through tough times together.
3. Giving birth.
This should really be its own category of scary. I know that for many women, having babies is a lifelong dream come true, and giving birth a temporary but painful reality. While I wanted children and love my two sons to the depths of my soul, I was up-at-night, claw-at-the-walls terrified to give birth. And rightfully so. Twenty-seven hours into labor with my first son, Elliot, I was in a kind of pain my brain won’t let me access or recall. But I discovered that all the worry and stress leading up to it was the most useless waste of energy. I’m learning (slowly) to channel my anxiety—let it fuel my passions, not my fears.
I’m not much of a daredevil anymore. The helicopter ride I took from Monte Carlo to the airport in Nice, France last week was probably the most “daring” thing I’d done in many years. Having kids knocked what was left of that need to scare myself silly right out of me. But I do try my best to take on my fears, whether it’s trying something new like a triathlon or moderating a panel at a conference. And I know I’m stronger for it.