Outside the Box: a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Do what terrifies you.

The words in the students’ PowerPoint slide flashed on the large screen at the front of the classroom.

In our news writing class, they were sharing their insights from a reading in  “Letters to a Young Journalist’ by Samuel G. Freedman. I had assigned a group of students to present on each of the book’s four sections: temperament, reporting, writing, career.

Freedman’s career advice: do what terrifies you.

“That’s my motto,” I said to myself, out loud. I consider it life advice.

It’s true. I launch myself in the direction of my fear. And I still fall prey to my fears.

For the next several minutes, students voiced their fears, and I realized that we share the same fears, big and small.

Fear of failure. Fear of what others think. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of rejection.

As a young girl, I was a strong swimmer and spent long summer hours at the pool. One day, I decided I wanted to go off the high diving board. I can’t recall why. Perhaps I wanted to impress my father. Or I wanted to be like the older kids leaping with flair and abandon off the springboard and plummeting 25 feet into the deep water below.

My dad granted his permission and exacted a promise: if you go up, you have to jump off. I agreed. No turning back.

I was giddy as I stood in line with the big kids to climb the ladder to the top. As I reached the top, I realized how high I’d climbed and suddenly I was scared.

I walked with trembling legs toward the end of the board, clutching the shiny rails until the midpoint on the plank. I didn’t want to let go and walk to the end. My dad was below, treading water, encouraging me to jump. I’d made a deal. I had to do it

I stood on the end of that board for an eternity. I looked back at the ladder. I wanted to turn back. I saw all the kids waiting in line at the base of the ladder. I saw the entire crowd watching me, waiting for me to jump. And my dad, still treading water.

For at least half an hour, I stood on the edge of that board, feeling it sway under my weight as I curled my toes over the end. I was stuck. I couldn’t break my promise to my dad, who was still treading water. And I was scared to jump.

I jumped.

When I surfaced, I swam to the side, climbed out and got in line to go again.

I discovered something that day: on the other side of fear is fun. Usually.

This past Tuesday in our “We’ve got the Beat” reporting class, a student stood to give a presentation on his job shadow experience over Thanksgiving break.

He had attempted since news writing class last spring to make a connection with people at a sports radio talk show in his hometown.

Earlier this semester, I asked how things were going this time. He had a contact. Someone in his neighborhood. He’d emailed her. Weeks had passed. No response.

Did you call her? No, he said.

Let’s call her now.

I don’t have her number.

Let’s look it up. What’s the name of the station?

One of his classmates looked up the number on her laptop.

I’ll do it later, he said.

We’ll do it now.

No really, I’ll do it later.

I dialed the phone number and handed my phone to him as his classmates watched.

During his presentation, he admitted that he’d been scared to make the phone call in class. Really scared.

In spite of his fear, he jumped.

He told us that he’d spent four hours at the radio station. He met plenty of people and made good connections. One person invited him to do a job shadow on the news side of the station over winter break. He accepted.

He said the experience had taught the importance of persistence. He also left the station with a better understanding of his interests—and himself. “Knowing who I am,” he said.

I learned at an early age, if something makes me nervous or fearful, there’s something in it for me.

Something to learn. Something to gain.

Do what terrifies you.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College. 

copyright 2013