What to Do When You’re Scared Shitless

When I got to Georgetown University in the fall of 93, I was scared shitless. 

I was a recently recovering “slacker” who had “suddenly” woken up the summer between my Sophomore and Junior year of high school (you can read about that story here). Believe me when I tell you, I was a mediocre athlete and an even less remarkable student. I was precocious and full of potential, but I was undisciplined, entitled, and I also had a chip on my shoulder.

It hit me one day: “No one is going to do this for you.”

I’m not sure what I thought up to that point; perhaps some mixture of delusion and denial left me half asleep.

But when I woke up, I got really focused, really fast.

I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

I have been transparent elsewhere about my enrollment at Georgetown, which was largely (and by largely, I mean almost entirely) based on being a “legacy” kid.

For those reading between the lines, that means you’ve got deep roots at the university and, often, deep pockets.

I was punching above my weight, and I knew it.

The morning after I first slept in the dorm, my dad showed up and asked me to go for a walk. We strolled the very same campus he had attended decades before.

This remains one of the most important moments I had with my father– I felt deeply connected to him – a feeling that would grow increasingly elusive in the years to come.

“Sarah, I want you to listen very closely; I want to be clear about this,” he tilted his head to look right in my eyes. 

“We aren’t the kind of family that can pay to keep you here. You understand what I am saying?”

My eyes were locked on his; my throat was tight, beating back tears, “Yes.”

“This is what opportunity looks and feels like. It doesn’t matter how you got here now. It only matters in your mind. This is yours to make something of it. You are here. Take up space.

Everyone to your left and right is likely ‘smarter’ than you. But you gotta find a way to swim, and quickly.

You might have gotten in here on legacy, but you’re gonna have to stay on merit. I believe in you.

Now go prove it to yourself.”

That last line broke me open; the levees were breached, and I started to weep.

“But I’m scared shitless.” I said.

He grew emphatic, “Good. That’s a start. Use it. It’s okay to be running scared, but you gotta be running, cuz everyone around you is. Sarah, you’re going to have to earn this one.” He placed emphasis on earn.

I’ve gone back to this “pep” talk a lot in my mind, throughout the different chapters in my life. I think there’s sound wisdom in his approach and now, as a parent myself, I think about the gift of transparency and how we pierce our children’s bubbles of delusion and denial in ways that we hope will protect them from avoidable harm down the road.

I could feel that my dad was piercing a protective bubble I had lived in up to this point. This was, in many ways, his way of saying, I can no longer protect you anymore. You are in the big leagues now.

It was also the first time I consciously realized that I couldn’t wait until I wasn’t scared. I was going to have to do this one afraid and terrified.

All of this to say, if you are scared, I get it. 
If you are punching above your weight, I get it.
If you are running on fear, I get it.
If you are out-running your past, I get it.
If you are carrying a chip on your shoulder, I get it.

Use it.
This is (sometimes) what opportunity looks and feels like.
You are here. Take up space.

I root for you.

P.S. Thanks, Dad.

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Further Reading...

How will you choose to use your voice? What is it you are trying to communicate? Find your voice and use it!

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