It was a beautiful sunny day. A light breeze was blowing and I was walking along a sidewalk. What conditions could make it better?
Well for one, it would have been great to have some safety equipment. My walk wasn’t exactly on a sidewalk. I was about 140 forty feet in the air (fourteen stories) walking on an 8″ I-beam with no safety equipment. To further hamper the situation, for those who know me, you already know that I’m extremely knock-kneed. When my knees are tightly together, the inside of my feet are still 5″ apart. This makes it even more difficult when you walking on a “sidewalk” that is only 8 inches wide.
I was just out of engineering school and this was in the day prior to safety equipment. No belt tied off to anything. No net to catch me if I fell. If I missed a step, it was 140′ straight down to a concrete slab.
Encouraged to Overcome Fears
At the end of that first day, I went to see the chief engineer and said I just couldn’t do that job. I spent the whole day terrified. His come back was “Give it three weeks. If at the end of that time you still can’t do it I’ll give you another assignment.”
I’m sure he had worked with other “rookies” through his career and had learned about facing your fears and then overcoming them. Who knows, he may have gone through the same experience in his early career.
Facing my fears
So the next day I was back in the structural steel doing my job the best that I could while dealing with my fears.
While I was up 140′, the Ironworkers were another 20 feet above me continuing to put the entire structure together. We topped out at about 200 feet. These Ironworkers ran around grabbing beams being lifted to them by cranes and loosely bolting them together. They were running around as if they were on that sidewalk on a breezy, sunny day. I could tell they were watching me with amusement as I carefully picked my way through steel 20 feet below them.
Discipline and Focus to Overcome Fears
I began to learn a technique that worked for me and helped me move across that 8″ I-beam approximately 40′ in distance. I would stand at one column with my back wedged in as tight as possible so that I felt secure and then I would begin focusing on the column 40′ away that I had to walk to. As I focused more and more, a flaw or mark in the structural steel began to become visible to me. It was something I could look at and keep my focus on.
The next move was to step out on the beam, never losing my focus on my spot, and begin walking. If I looked down I would fall. If I moved my focus left or right, I would step off the I-beam.
I stayed focused and disciplined to keep walking forward. Eventually, I reached the other side and the “safety” of another column.
Distractions Throw Off your Focus and Discipline
After a couple of weeks, the Ironworkers thought I had become more than a curiosity to watch and was now something to be played with.
After slowing my breathing, locking in my focus, and stepping out to walk my next I-beam, I was nearly halfway across when an Ironworker slid down the column where my focus spot was and began walking toward me.
One of the first things they teach you before going into the steel was the technique for passing someone in the middle of a beam. You were to stand toe-to-toe with the other person, grasp each other’s wrists tightly, and then lean back until your weight was balanced. Then you would slowly swivel 180 degrees, keeping your toes on the beam and your weight balanced. After the swivel was completed, you turned and continued walking the other way.
After we completed our little dance, the Ironworker turned and walked away from me chuckling. I was left standing in the middle of the beam trying to settle my brain, my fear, and regain a focus point. I finally captured a focus point on the column I had just come from and walked to it. It took me several minutes to calm my heart and breathing to get the fear in my brain to subside while clinging to the column —the one I had just come from.
All the while there was a chorus of laughter coming from the ironworkers overhead. On the way down in the construction elevator that night one of the Ironworkers said quietly how proud he was of me for handling such a scary situation.
Distractions: Outside and Inside.
Distractions will come at you from anywhere. The outside world is constantly throwing distractions at you. I really don’t like the word “busy” because it indicates to me that you’re letting those outside distractions rule your life and are not facing the fears and difficult situations that you need to face to be successful.
The inside distractions are maybe even worse. They’re excuses! Seemly valid reasons for not facing your fears or developing the focus and discipline to overcome them.
Fears are natural and they are powerful. But they are just fears.
One definition says that fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that something is dangerous, likely to cause pain.” Notice that it’s based on a “belief”. Just because you fear something doesn’t make it a real threat.
Get focused. Be disciplined. Make the decision to face your fears and overcome them.
I was fortunate to have that fearful experience just a few weeks into my work career. It set the tone for a lifetime of facing my fears directly. You may not have had that early experience but it doesn’t make any difference. Starting to face your fears at any point in your life will make the rest of your life much better.