If You’re Scared To Death, You’re Doing It Right

If you’re scared to death, you’re doing it right.

I was talking to a friend the other day. They’re in their senior year of college and enjoying things mostly. I asked them what they were going to do after college, and they really had no idea. After a few more minutes of prodding, my friend admitted,

I really don’t know, but I’m scared to death.

Good! I told them. If you’re scared to death, you’re doing it right.

I think everyone starts out scared. Scared they’re doing it wrong, scared they’re going to make a mistake, scared they’re going to fail. Over time, we’re taught, that you should take the safe way, do things you’re qualified for. Be nice, stay comfortable and in return, you won’t have to scared. We gravitate towards comfort, and are lulled in by it’s but over time that comfort zone we’re lulled into turns into a sort of apathy. Every once in a while you need a good scare to get you jolted back on the right path (but that’s always much easier to say than do).

A Good Scare

A month ago, I really scared myself for the first time in a long time.  I went skiing.

Every year a bunch of friends from college get together and catch up. This time we went skiing. I’m moderately coordinated, but I’m not a big cold-weather fan and usually do what I can to avoid it (like going to an island). I had been skiing before, but it was a while ago – as in at least 15 years. Since then, my only experience with skiing was avoiding the Yeti on SkiFree. But, since I hadn’t seen some of my friends in a while, I went against my better judgment and decided to give it a shot.

We jumped on a blue square and the first few runs I went down very slow. Angling side to side, mostly hoping that I wouldn’t run into anyone (I could handle wiping out, but I didn’t want to be that guy running old people and young children off the slopes). After a few runs, I still hadn’t managed to make it down in one run without wiping out.

My buddies were all much more advanced at “not dying” than me, and decided that the black diamond hill would be “fun” to go down. I didn’t even know what black diamond meant, other than that it sounded scary. Before I knew it, I was on the lift, heading to the top – knowing full well that I hadn’t yet made it down the beginner hill.

Once we got to the top, you could go down like 50 feet pretty simply before the main section fo the hill got steep. We went down the 50 feet or so and took a photo as a group (I’m in the yellow).


After we took the photo, they all went down one by one, as if it was no big deal. Still not having made it down the blue hill without wiping out, I watched everyone else zip down the hill, and felt my stomach creep up into my throat somewhere.

I was scared.

I still hadn’t made it down the other hill and now I was going to try to go down this one? Am I stupid? I am going to go down this hill, fall immediately and roll down the entire thing, most likely breaking multiple bones in my body.

After watching the last guy in our group head down, I turned around and was going to head towards the other, smaller hill. I was going to give up. I wasn’t ready. I was too scared. Not this hill. Not yet…I’d come back to it later…It was the smart thing to do.

I took about three steps away from the hill and I got really, really mad at myself. Two lessons came to mind that keep showing up over and over and over and over again:

So I turned around, and muttered some curse words to myself under my breath.

Screw it. Let’s do it.

I’m either gonna make it down this hill or I’m going to make it to the hospital. Either way, I’m not going home without trying this thing.

So I tipped over the hill and started to go.

I picked up speed quick. According to the spedometer in my head I was going at least 60mph (I have no idea how fast I was actually going, but it felt like 60mph). It was all I could do to focus on one thing:

Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

What am I doing?

All of a sudden, I came right into the path of a snow machine – partially blinding me.

Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

I came out, regained my bearings just enough to realize that I was going faster than ever.

My feet bounced around but I somehow managed to stay on top of my skis.

Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

I hit another snow machine.

Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.

I emerged from the second snow machine and could see my friends at the bottom of the hill yelling at me – but I was moving fast and still hadn’t figured out what “pizza” meant. Slowing down meant potentially biting it hard, so I focused on not falling down and zipped right by them.

I kept going another 100 yards after the hill leveled out and I slowed down enough to turn around and make my way back to them.

I made it. I took the hill and I didn’t die.

I really didn’t believe I made it. I was certain I was going to be in some sort of cast at the bottom fo the hill.

And as scared as I was, I was a little less scared afterwards. Sure, there was still fear, but fear mixed with a confidence that I knew I could do that hill again if I wanted to and that I could take on a bigger one if I wanted to. I’m still not a great skier, but I’m a lot better one than I was at the top of the hill.

How Scared Are You?

I have that same experience, every time I try something new. Every time I do something I’m bad at. Every time I knock something off the Impossible List. Every time I do something I’m scared to do.

Like I told my friend, if you’re scared, you’re doing it right. It’s easy to say. It’s a lot harder to do.

There’s not a much better feeling than being terrified of something, doing it anyways and coming out on the other side better and stronger and more confident than you were before.

So if you’re scared to death – congratulations. You’re doing something right.

Keep doing it.


What are you doing that scares you?

Holy Ski Patrol Batman! Do I need to clarify this? This is not an endorsement of skiing off cliffs if you’ve never seen snow before. It’s a story and an example of a lesson I learned by doing something scary. I’m not a skiing expert – that’s sort of the point of the story. Take everything you read with a grain of salt and make decisions for yourself, including stories from a certain blogger you might read.

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  1. says

    Great article–really resonated with me! I’m going to be self-publishing my travel memoirs in a couple months…am making some huge decisions right now re: the title, cover, etc…and I’m finding it a tiny bit scary for a multitude of reasons.

    But I’m not letting that get in my way…I’m moving ahead!

    Thanks for the inspiration to keep going…

  2. says

    Great stuff Joel. Impressed that you made it down a black diamond without falling.

    There’s a great quote I like by Emerson. The lesson is that in life, sometimes fears are really not so big as they seem:

    “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson


  3. says

    Nice Joel!
    You captured this wonderfully!

    I also think it is imperative to understand that some opportunities are not right if you are not scared, or if they are too easy. That is currently going on for me right now. I knew that if I was to stay true to myself and remember my big purpose, I should not take a leadership position I would be “perfect” for. The position would be too easy. It would not scare me or challenge me. I would do it flawlessly, but it might actually stunt my growth. While the position is pretty powerful at school, I know I cannot possibly take it as it lacks the fear factor. I know I will better use my time doing something challenging, innovative and scary.

    Thanks for the post Joel. I think it may have just confirmed my decision :) PS- Happy Generosity Day!

  4. says

    Ha, you’re skiing experience sounds exactly like my own! I have friends who have been on skis since they were toddlers, I’ve been on maybe twice. The third time was at Killington with said friends, who did the same thing, went right to the blue squares. I had no idea what I was doing and flung myself down the mountain. I rolled like a snowball I’d say a good 37% of it – this pizza wedge phenomenon does not work. But I know the feeling of thinking you are going 60mph, skiing is scary! But, once you’re at the bottom there are rewards of beer and hot coco in the lodge (I find the lodge to be the best part of skiing), and I guess a pretty good story.

  5. says

    Joel I know exactly what you mean. This past summer I decided to quit my job as a teacher and moved from New York City to Boston. New job. New city. No friends. I was scared as hell. But I never question for a single moment that it was the right move. You’re absolutely right in saying that when we are the most terrified we are doing something that stretches us and grows us. And that might not always “feel” good, but it’s the best thing for us.

    Thanks for your insights and your story.

  6. Paul says

    Excellent Joel!

    I plan to ski for the first time sometime soon. This weekend it was -30degrees!!!!!!!!!!! I cannot describe what freezes at that temperature. Good to see you are not perfect :-)

    • says

      Paul–PLEASE be brave enough to stand up to whoever you are going skiing with and sign up for a lesson. As both a long-time skier and as a member of National Ski Patrol, I unfortunately know far too many people who don’t bother with the time or cost of one lesson and who only ski once and never return. I’d love to see you really enjoy your day and return over and over again to an awesome sport!

  7. Nikolai says

    I remember the first time I went skydiving. Petrified would be the right word as it was my turn to go out the door. You reach that point, say screw it, what ever happens, happens, and let fly. Now I am a master rated skydiver, divemaster rated scuba diver, spent five years traveling all over the United States, and can say I had the greatest adventures I will ever remember.

  8. Matthew says

    Hey Joel,

    Great post indeed. I totally relate to your experience. Being an Australian from Queensland I love sunny warm weather. But on a trip to Austria a year ago I gave snow boarding a go. I’d seen snow for the first time only a little while, before at the tender age of 34. It was scary taking off down the slope but what a rush!!!

    The same feeling came up recently. I’m moving with my partner to Germany and a bit of a panic attack set in. You know the kind: what am I doing? Am I nuts? I’m not even fluent in German?

    But well, here we go and I give myself till December this year then I’ll reassess whether it was a rational decision or not. One way or another it will be a life changing and personally fulfilling experience.

    All the best to you. I hope there’ll be more pictures from the snow soon enough. Thanks for sharing your experience. It helps me know that others feel the same way.

  9. says

    I completely agree…and the only way to get over fear, is to face it head on.

    I tell my friends all the time…if you’re scared or uncomfortable, it means you’re moving in the right direction.

    Skiing is NOT on my list to do again. Hitting a wall in 8th grade was enough for me!

  10. says

    Your experiences with skiing down that hill, will be my “scared” feeling when I try to catch some bigger waves when I head out to some surf spots in Central America next month. I’ll be thinking the same thing, “Don’t nosedive” into the water, haha.

  11. Michael says

    I read this article with a mixture of irritation and dismay. While I can appreciate your nerve and daring I am completely put off by the lack of respect for the sport of skiing, but most of all for the complete disregard of other skiers and whatever ski mountain you were at, not to mention anyone who cares about you. There is a HUGE difference between bravely taking on a new challenge and just being plain stupid. I took up skiing at the age of 48, and I have worked diligently for the last 7 years to learn how to ski with grace, confidence and control. Now at 55 I am beginning to ski double black diamonds. Very often I am scared but I know what I am doing. You, on the other hand, seem to confuse ignorance with boldness (“I didn’t even know what black diamond meant…”). People get seriously hurt and even killed even on a blue, and if you don’t care about yourself still you have NO BUSINESS on a serious slope if you are not able to ski under control and stop when you need to as you make clear you cannot. When I ski the thing I am most afraid of is people like you — careless, incapable and inconsiderate. You end the article by saying, “I’m still not a great skier, but I’m a lot better one than I was at the top of the hill”. No — you are not better and you are most certainly NOT a skier. You are just a lucky fool.

    • says

      Thanks for the note :). Actually, the one thing I did check before going down was that there wasn’t anyone around I could hit. I said before, I can handle falling, I just didn’t want to hit anyone else.

      Also, I didn’t mention this in the post, but this was in Michigan – so it wasn’t like I was going down the side of the mountain. It was a hill, a steep hill, but still a hill that I could see my ski path and make sure no one (besides myself) was going to get hurt if I bit it hard.

      You should come next time – I’m actually incredibly considerate and you’d probably get a few laughs from watching me bite it :).

      • Michael says

        Joel — I appreciate you taking my comments with good humor! I know I responded pretty strongly but I have a clear idea of what can go wrong on the slopes. Someone very close to me broke their neck snowboarding a few years ago. Wonderfully, they made a full recovery with no lasting impairment, and are not only back on the slopes but have taken up rock-climbing, all with my complete support — so you can see I also believe in getting “back on that horse”. Anyway, I hope you too get back out on the slopes — skiing (or boarding) is an amazing sport and gives you no end of chances to really challenge yourself. If you’re ever in the NE give me a shout — we’ll see who makes who laugh!

  12. says

    Another bang that hits the core. It’s good see you do awesome shit and then writing about it instead the other way around.

    I really need to try stuff with my art that makes me scared shitless – something that blows people away in the process !

    Thanx for setting my ass on fire, Joel.
    It’s burning…

  13. says

    Hi Joel–

    As a long-time skier and a member of National Ski Patrol I must confess that I cringed at the example story you told… Far too often that experience does indeed end in a trip to the hospital.

    That said, I also confess that your point about pressing into and through the fear is a very powerful one. Our family lives in a remote area of Navajoland working with at risk young people and their families. Far too often we hesitate to attempt something new because of fear of failure. We are working to push through that and actually try to implement some radical new ideas (since the years and years of history here have shown that doing the same-old, same-old has accomplished very very little).

    Thanks for your encouragement! (And next time you go skiing, gather your friends and take a “bumps” class or a freestyle class together to get some thrills and face your fears in a safer way!!)

  14. says

    Joel, great story and extremely inspirational. I appreciate the comments you’ve had regarding foolhardiness, etc. but the over-riding point that we shouldn’t stay on our comfy sofas because we’re frightened is an important lesson for all, if we are going to achieve what we were created for!
    It’s often the case that we imagine the worst but in reality nothing that bad actually happens such that we can end up being bound by our fears.
    I’m with you – let’s go for it!!

  15. says

    Where did you get permission to use that picture?

    And seriously, Skiing is dangerous Joel…whoever was with you should have been ashamed they let you go down that mountain…

  16. says

    Okay – I will not repeat all the chastisement you (deservedly) received from ski instructors, ski patrol, etc. I have been a snowboard instructor for MANY years and know enough to stop on the hill where your type can’t take me out… Really? Black diamond run with no knowledge of the PIZZA!?! Thank GOD you were in Michigan!!!

    That said, today I had a “stomach in throat” moment contemplating NOT going back to my beloved (former home) Denver until – gasp! – July. And then getting on a plane in August for a – gasp! – one-way trip back to Bali.

    Admittedly, I miss the creature comforts of Denver. I miss my neighborhood, the ease of life, my friends, prime rib, fast internet, wine, street people…

    The second I go back into that comfortable life is the second I start dying again. And I’m too young to die.

    But you, my friend, if you pull a skiing stunt like that again?!? The grim reaper WILL be waiting for you! Or I will be at the bottom of the hill ready to kick your ass.

  17. says

    I’ve often heard the comment, “Do something that scares you everyday”. That day, you were the embodiment of that idea. Glad you didn’t break anything.

    I really like this line from the end of your post

    “So if you’re scared to death – congratulations. You’re doing something right.”

    I feel that I am doing something right with my new business. Thanks for the encouragement

  18. says

    Awesome post! I like the way the article encourages people to turn that feeling of fear from a negative to a positive. For me this does not just mean activity challenges but also situations from areas of my life – like public speaking – something that has always terrified me!!
    The article really fits in with what I am trying to do with my own life…. I am trying to be a fit, healthy being and that is not just about doing lots of exercise but always challenging yourself!

  19. says

    that title nails it! i might even quote you on that.

    i just read another today that i dug… and it’s fitting:

    “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

    great post joel!

  20. says

    I loved reading this Joel although it did remind me of a similar tale except I came down the hill on my backside, crying my eyes out and blaming the better skiers for what had been my decision.

  21. Samantha says

    I’m a med student and I have to give a presentation to senior surgeons at my academy about my research project to improve healthcare. I’ve been told by one of the chief surgeons that I should be prepared of getting grilled, toasted and whatnot, since I’m just a student telling them what they should / shouldn’t do. Obviously, surgeons have a reputation of being arrogant and make newcomers feel miserable. I’m really scared to death, and it makes me feel anxious just thinking about it. But I’m going to dive in for the fall anyway.. Your story truly inspired me. :) Thanks for writing it.


  1. […] If You’re Scared To Death, You’re Doing It Right I think everyone starts out scared. Scared they’re doing it wrong, scared they’re going to make a mistake, scared they’re going to fail. Over time, we’re taught, that you should take the safe way, do things you’re qualified for. Be nice, stay comfortable and in return, you won’t have to scared. We gravitate towards comfort, and are lulled in by it’s but over time that comfort zone we’re lulled into turns into a sort of apathy. Every once in a while you need a good scare to get you jolted back on the right path (but that’s always much easier to say than do). ~Joel Runyon at Blog of Impossible Things […]

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