An article on ways to overcome fear and achieve your full potential

Image of Todd Herman

I have always been fascinated with the concept of human potential, and how to increase performance to approach – and possibly even achieve – full potential. In the sports and business worlds, a coach is the person who helps an individual or a team perform better. I have worked with coaches for over six years, and can attest to how these talented individuals have helped me increase my performance.

Working with a Coach

While I am not a coach (I do not have the strengths required for this work), I have read numerous books on coaching in a business environment – and believe me, there are a lot of these! Most are written for managers who want to coach their team members to better performance, or for someone who wants to become a coach. Recently, I found a different type of coaching book, one written for the person considering retaining a coach, entitled Coached to Lead: How To Achieve Extraordinary Results with an Executive Coach, by Susan Battley. In fact, the book's web site (see: claims it is the "first consumer's guide to executive coaching."

This book lives up to its promise of helping someone understand how to work with a coach. In particular, "In Praise of Unlearning" (pages 164-167) really spoke to me. In this section, the author shares two key sets of observations on "unlearning":

  • Habits – The essence of coaching is improving performance, either by learning brand-new behaviors or by replacing existing behaviors with more effective ones. In the latter case, the author states "you have to unlearn as well as learn" and then goes on to say "Habits are intransigent by their very nature. The neural networks associated with them are well established in your brain. They resist modification... Even when you're highly motivated, ingrained behaviors take time to eliminate."
  • Trapeze Moments – Dr. Battley likens the unlearning experience to that of a trapeze artist at the circus – "[I]n the course of abandoning old behaviors and acquiring new ones, you can experience one or more trapeze moments: temporary performance gaps caused when you have to let go of the old and familiar but have not yet attained comparable proficiency at the new."

Dr. Battley does a solid job explaining the "tangibles" associated with her observations – the reasons for her insights, and the mechanics underlying them – but only briefly mentions the "intangibles." For changing "habits" she lists "frustration" or "discouragement" as intangibles, while those for "trapeze moments" are "uncomfortable" or "stressed."

Change: Logical or Emotional?

man climbing stairs

Let me assure you, despite Dr. Battley's brevity, the intangibles are always much harder. Why? Because tangibles are associated with the head, while intangibles reside in the realm of the heart. How many times have you said to yourself, "I know I ought to do this, but I just don't feel I'm ready to change yet?" That's the rub – the tug of war between heart and head. While change has to make sense to your logical self, it also has to feel right to your emotional self. And change will never "feel right" until your courage is greater than your fear. Specifically, your courage to let go of the "old habits" trapeze bar and learn new behaviors must trump the fear causing you to keep holding on to the safety of existing behaviors.

While fear is emotional, it most often traces back to your head over-analyzing the situation, causing you to dwell on the possibility of "falling" rather than sense the exhilaration of unlearning, "flying" with new behaviors, and snagging the "new habits" trapeze bar.

The Fear of Unlearning

In over 20 years of being in business for myself, I have had to do plenty of unlearning and have lived through a good number of trapeze moments. As I look back, I am reminded that there is always some flavor of fear associated with a change:

  • When I considered hiring my first staff member, it was scary to imagine not being able to make payroll – until I felt the burdens this person took off my workload.
  • When I had to rely upon myself to be "the sales guy," it was scary since I did not have the outgoing demeanor associated with a typical sales person – until I experienced the sales success stemming from the saying "an interested introvert can be a better sales person than an interesting extrovert."
  • When I made up the rules for my own business, it was scary because the only model I had was from my former employer – until I felt freedom and creativity rush into me, as I constructed a work environment with fewer rules and more meaningful results.
  • When I decided to simplify my service lines and marketing message, it was scary because my inner "tech geek" wanted everything explained "just so," even if prospects and referral sources couldn't fully understand things – until I felt the joy and ease of communicating a simpler set of services and having non-technical decision-makers understand what my firm does.

In each of these examples, once my brain got a whiff of the possible negatives associated with new behaviors, fear and anxiety kicked in. My head held sway longer than it should have, keeping me from having a trapeze moment and releasing my old behaviors. And the bad part of the old behaviors? The old behaviors were generally working – I was comfortable and reasonably successful. Besides, what was so bad about never having an employee, or sitting and waiting for the phone to ring, or re-creating the environment at my former employer, or having a technically-accurate but clarity-challenged set of service descriptions? The problem was the "Achiever" in me always looks for new challenges – and I had to decide to unlearn and give up old behaviors in order to grow and go up in my performance.

Shorten Fear's Timeline

While it is likely impossible to avoid fear entirely while tackling unlearning, a worthy goal is to shorten fear's timeline by immediately acknowledging it, getting support from a coach or a colleague, cranking up your courage, and quickly letting go of the old-behavior trapeze bar. A great amount of performance potential is lost until unlearning occurs – and achieving higher performance and greater results is why unlearning is so very much worthy of praise!

Sincerely yours,


Todd L. Herman