Turning Fear Into Fuel

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Back in April, I had the great pleasure of presenting at the TEDx conference at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. And, maybe the only thing that made it cooler was that I got to be there with a really good friend, Chris Guillebeau, who was also taking the stage.

I have mixed feelings about speaking. I’m terrified before I go on. But, once I find my groove, I absolutely love it. And, I plan to grow the public speaking aspect of my “renegade biz-plan” fairly aggressively over the next year and a half (conference bookers, call me, lol).

The theme of TEDxCMU was “fearless.”

That was it. Just one word. And, that was all the guidance we got. Create a compelling talk having something to do with being fearless and deliver it in precisely 18 minutes, not a second longer. Those are the rules.

The venue was a beautiful 500 person lecture hall. The late CMU professor, Randy Pausch, gave his famed Last Lecture entitled Achieving Your Childhood Dreams in the very same hall. That presentation blew me away (as it did millions of others). So I felt an even deeper sense of responsibility to those who’d shown up. I was the lead-off speaker, which meant I was done first, but I also had the job of warming up the audience, made up predominantly of 500 college students…at 9am…on a Sunday morning.

The video was just posted, so, for those who’ve been asking (mom, sis and the guy at the deli)…

Whenever I look at footage of me speaking now, I tend to go immediately into critique mode and look at how much I did wrong or how many opportunities to connect I missed. At first I wondered if this was healthy, but my sense is that if you really want to become great at something, you’ve got to be willing to examine where you are now, deconstruct it, learn from it, then integrate what you’ve learned into future opportunities.

Interestingly, too, in the short months since I gave this talk, my ideas about fear and how to not only work with, but harness it have evolved in a number of ways. More to come on that.

Chris followed a bit later in the day. His talk was framed around the idea of fear and permission. And he shared some amazing stories that brought his ideas to life through his travels and volunteer work all over the world.


All in all, it was a wonderful day filled with many other great people and presenters. Special thanks to the volunteer team who organized the event and congrats to those who graduated! Be sure to check out the other sessions as they’re posted.

And, as always, I’d love to know your thoughts on the exploration of being fearless…

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68 responses

68 responses to “Turning Fear Into Fuel”

  1. It’s interesting – I’ve met great speakers who watch their own videos in close detail to critique themselves…. and I’ve also met great speakers who NEVER watch themselves.

    Seems like there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat….

    However, I’ll settle in to watch these now and provide some external validation shall I? 😉

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Definitely at least two ways. I don’t necessarily love the learning process, but I’d rather meet it head on, and grow faster.

  2. ryan says:

    Once a year I make it a point to listen to myself speaking in public. I keep a bottle of Jameson at hand and use it liberally on that day. It takes great courage to watch a video of oneself speaking; more than I’ve ever been able to muster. I’m afraid of what I might do with a rope if I ever put myself through that scrutiny. More so to post a video of yourself speaking in public.

    Kudos to you for your willingness to improve through, if you are anything like me, self-torture. The honesty is appreciated. From the perspective of a public speaker, this whole posts seems to be an exercise in defeating fear.

    PS: Is Chris really that skinny?

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haaha, we all have our “styles!” And, nope, Chris actually weights about 275, but for some reason the camera made me look bigger, but him look leaner! 😉

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, SarahRobinson, Annemarie Dooling, Lisa Oram, Derek Halpern and others. Derek Halpern said: How to Turn Fear Into Fuel – http://bit.ly/94LExm [good stuff from @jonathanfields] […]

  4. Thank you for sharing – you always provide great content and advice!

    • I was in NYC that day as well, working in midtown… while my dad was in the towers. The 2nd one to be exact. I tried to get down there but couldn’t… I even went as far as borrowing someone’s rollerblades to get down there because the City stopped. He is ok, but I didn’t know that until almost an entire day later. He was lucky to get out while the 1st tower was collapsing, he got on a boat and was brought to NJ where I went and picked him up the next day with my family…. watching the plumes of smoke still emulating (while crossing the GW bridge) from where the towers once stood. Very Surreal… I am getting choked up just writing this… and he was ok…

      Great quote from Jobs…. I still am trying to figure out a way to do what makes me “come alive” full time… but need to work a job, I don’t hate but don’t love to care for my family…. Any other tips or advice. I always feel I need to take calculated risks… I just started a very basic (in my opinion weak website) to try and branch out a little.

      I want to help people, bottom line, like you are doing but money always seems to get in the way of my 100% commitment

      • Jonathan Fields says:

        Yeah, it was a very surreal time to be in the city, hard to truly explain to folks who weren’t there. Jobs’ quote is one I revisit on a regular basis, keeps me focused and action-oriented

  5. You guys are both awesome – Jonathan… did you notice your nerves disappear from your voice when you talk about stuff that you’re real passionate/care about?

    Happens around 2:45 in.

    Having something worth saying beats slicking speaking tactics, every time. Here’s the evidence.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      yeah, that was around the time I moved from my first-speaker ice-breaking shtick into what I really wanted to talk about. Interesting that you (and a few other in the comments sensed it, though)

  6. Amen. Fear, the universal debilitator.

  7. Dave says:

    Thanks for posting this video Jonathan – very inspiring talk! I can relate all too well to how our belief systems can be built up in negative ways over time. The good news is I can now also relate to how feasible it is to change those beliefs — replace them with positive ones. It can be a very powerful experience!

    I’m excited to press my luck yet again…heading back to Colombia in a few weeks to further build my travel blogging business!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Cool, Dave. Keep me in the loop as your Colombian adventure unfolds

  8. MikeTek says:

    I was so afraid of public speaking that I once changed my major in college because the new major didn’t require the public speaking course.

    Now I’ve done it in front of groups of 100 or so, but I still get freaked out beforehand and for the first few minutes – once I hit the stride I don’t want it to end.

    And it helps to talk about something you give a damn about.

    Great talk. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I look at it as a sign that I’m invested. Don’t think I’ll ever actually lose the nerves entirely and that’s probably a good thing.

  9. Tisha Morris says:

    Great speech, Jonathan! I was going to ask if you have any advice for those initial jitters as I (and I’m sure most people) experience the same thing. I think what Peter (above) says is a great point!

    As for your actual speech, I was moved to tears twice. I often think about the “Do Nothing” scenario and ultimately that always gets me moving again. Thanks for putting it so succinctly and timely!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Breathing exercise can really help, in for 3 count, out for 6 count. It drops your physical anxiety response dramatically even if your mind is still spinning a bit

  10. I was just writing about fear! Excellent timing. I can’t stand to watch myself on video and did a talk at a big Microsoft conference and still can’t make it through the whole thing. Here’s to your speaking regenede-ness success!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hehe, and you’ve been doing this for much longer and at a higher level than me. We’re all in it together!

  11. Hank Merkle says:

    That was simply FANTASTIC!
    I Saw that @danwaldschmidt commented on you TEDx talk and I listened to it twice!
    Thank you for 1. Doing it and 2. sharing it
    I hope to see you in Greenville soon for a TEDx event!

  12. Public Speaking used to be something I was fearful of. Let me re-phrase that. Public Speaking used to be something I was completely petrified of. Now, I respect the nervousness that comes along with getting up in front of a class, group, conference hall of people.

    I also want to acknowledge that when Chris Guillebeau pointed out that many people are just waiting for the permission slip to live their life. I totally agree. It is very difficult to allow yourself to “not give a shit” (to quote his friend)and it can be very empowering.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      No doubt, Chris conversation around the idea of permission was so true and he delivered in a way that really drew me in

  13. Matt says:

    This was very timely – I’ve got something I’m working on that would be very cool, but recently the doubts have been getting a bit more noisy. Thanks for posting it!

  14. […] by Jonathan Fields & Chris Guillibeau’s TEDxCMU talks on […]

  15. I just passed this on to my husband. He’s on the brink of a breakthrough and I’m hoping hearing from someone who’s done it will help him choose a path of no regrets. Thank you!

  16. Sachit Gupta says:

    Jonathan – we’re all so happy that you came, we were honored to have you and all the other speakers there. And glad you enjoyed it!

    Here are the rest of the talks: http://bit.ly/TEDxCMU2010

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      You guys put on an incredible event, can’t wait to see where you go with your next big adventure!

  17. _don says:

    As a Canadian, I recall, still with great sadness, September 11. It still chokes me with anger and sadness whenever I think of it, or see those images.

    Very excellent presentation, and so true. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. It always seems to take something like this or another tradgedy to realise one had nothing to lose, really.

  18. Topi says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    I’ve read an article or post of yours previously where you said that you couldn’t fathom not doing the thing that makes you come alive, and you also couldn’t fathom teaching your daughter that (I think I’ve paraphrased??). I just knew you were going to say that about a millisecond before you did in this video, and it’s even more moving to see you say that in person. I’ve recently started a company to do the thing that makes my heart sing, and one of the key motivators that helped me to overcome my many fears around this was that statement of yours, so thanks. I know that you’ve touched many people with your various endeavours, just know that you can now add another person to that list. Thanks

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Topi,

      Those words were actually from the closing paragraph in Career Renegade. to this day, I get choked up when I say them in public, because they ring so true to me. Glad it hit home.

  19. Terry says:

    Before public speaking or any other event that may produce an unrealistic or subconscious fear, I ponder….

    I am on a blue, brown and white planet spinning around in the universe surrounded by a trillion stars. I have the privilege of experiencing this every day, for blip of time in the history of mankind. Everything seems incredibly trivial compared to that thought. Enjoy and find joy in every moment.

  20. Marc Winitz says:


    This is a very inspiring story and your reflection on fear and how to turn it into something useful is very powerful. Don’t over critique yourself. This message was strong and useful and you delivered it well.


  21. Jonathan:
    This talk is great. Because it’s you, it’s honest, it’s story telling. You don’t lecture or admonish. You share, yet educate in the process. I’ve done a fair amount of speaking lately. Agree with the fear thing, but you have nothing to fear. Great stuff.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks for the insights and kind words, Edward. Coming from a masterful presenter like you, that means a lot.

  22. Susan Milligan says:

    Really glad I watched your video on fear. There was an article on facing and overcoming your fears on Aish.com a couple months ago by Lori Palatnik. You have answered my last question to her ‘about what is the worst that can happen.

    “Fear of falling. Fear of deep water. Fear of wild animals. Fear of strangers. All of these are rational fears. Imminent danger. We could actually get hurt or killed. ———– There are also the irrational Fears of speaking on stage. Fear of being alone. Fear of changing jobs. Fear of telling someone no. These irrational fears have consequences but there is no imminent danger.

    We should keep our rational fears, cause our life could depend on them. I have a healthy fear of riding a motorcycle, so I don’t ride one. Rational fear. But….I have a fear of failing in a new venture, so I don’t start one. Irrational fear. What is the worst that can happen?”

    Thanks for the answer, Jonathan. I’m not afraid to fail. I’m afraid of success. Success would be the worst that could happen.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting way to split out different types of fear, gonna ponder this. Thanks!

  23. […] friend Jonathan Fields says if you really want to become great at something, you’ve got to be willing to examine where […]

  24. […] anchor speaker for the whole event, and you can see why they chose him for the honor—check out his video here. If you can only watch one of our talks, watch […]

  25. Jonathan, your message is gorgeous. Your stories of your own experience weave beautifully into your point. And you do one of the best jobs I’ve seen of integrating GREAT presentation slides with your talk so that they genuinely amplify your presentation, making it better, instead of distract from it (as is often the case.) Speak as often as you can. You are a powerful messenger.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks, Michelle. Funny this is, I usually don’t use slides, because I’ve so rarely seen them used well. But, I wanted to give it a try here, so I just tried to make sure I took more of a Presentation Zen approach, using them only to highlight and focus emotion, rather than serve as a set of bullets that lull audiences to sleep

  26. David says:

    You know, I’ve been finding all possible ways to excuse myself from not trying to achieve something outside of my day job that could make me infinitely happier with life in 5 years time. Even in 6 months’ time.

    I won’t be good enough. I don’t know enough yet.

    I don’t have the time (this one is usually followed by sitting down and watching something ultimately pointless on TV)

    What if I fail? What will such-and-such-a-person think of me?

    So thanks to both you and Chris for these videos 🙂

    It’s time I took a leap.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Cool, like Chris said, nobody’s gonna give you permission but you.

  27. Lisa Evans says:


    much to take away from your presentation. and peter shallard was right; when you began sharing your story, a story that brought up emotions and feelings for me, you had me until the very end. this was brilliant. YOU were brilliant.

    do what you love.
    what if you succeed?
    hit spin.
    yeah, baby. 🙂


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks, interesting to know you guys can sense when I move into the “real” stuff. Putting that into the hopper. : )

  28. Pamela Miles says:

    Jonathan & Chris,

    Well done! Really enjoyed your talks, thanks for sharing.

    Here’s a quote you might appreciate from Elizabeth Lesser “It takes a fearless spirit to live in the mystery…”

    Looking forward!

  29. Kelli says:

    I am not sure at all how I ended up on your blog, but am so glad I did. Great talk and very true.

    I think it’s easy to forget this life is not a dress rehearsal and that this is it. Thanks for addressing that as well as your thoughts that there is no moving sideways (doing nothing). I have never thought of it that way, but so glad you did.

    I’ve forwarded this talk onto a friend. thank you.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Wonderful to have you here, Kelli. And, thanks for sharing the post with your friend.

  30. emma says:

    Came by via Chris’ post, and so glad I did. Really powerful messages, Jonathan. “Repetition breeds belief.” That’s going where I can see it. Thank you.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Emma, that was a huge eye-opener for me, it’s amazing how easily we can persuade ourselves to adopt a “truth” that’s grown entirely out of fiction

  31. Wow – Jonathan, you have SUCH a gift for public speaking. What a powerful & moving talk. You had me glued to my screen from your first sentence to your last – rare indeed in these ADD days of ours. Every time I see a two year old or flannel pajamas I’m going to ask myself “what are you not doing?” Have a feeling your talk will inspire so many others to ask the same. Randy Pausch was so totally high-fiving you from above for carrying on where he left off in encouraging people not to move sideways in their lives. Bravo!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey M, thanks so much for the kind words. I think about Randy’s talk often, it had a powerful effect on me. Would love to think anything I’ve shared has impacted even a few people in some meaningful way. : )

  32. […] you can imagine I really enjoyed this recent video by Jonathan Fields called “Turning Fear Into Fuel”.  As a general  rule I enjoy his thoughtful, edgy, and spot-on posts.  Yet, this one really hit […]

  33. Luke says:

    Thanks for this. I came from Chris Guillebeau’s site and I’m really glad.

  34. Nate Dodson says:

    This post was amazing!
    This post was life-changing!

    Thanks Johnathan

  35. Nate Dodson says:

    Jonathan, I meant. Sorry

  36. Sylvie Roy says:

    Wow – thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve been through so many changes; it seems like once you get through one biggie, it inspires you to tackle more fears, but I tell ya, it’s a hell of a tricky adversary! But I’m determined to keep going and hopefully be on stage telling my story soon, too. Thank you for reminding me why it’s all worthwhile – it couldn’t have come at a better time.

  37. Rob says:

    Powerful post – I’m going to check out Randy’s last lecture.

    F.E.A.R. False Evidence Appearing Real

    or is it False Evidence About Reality?

    I like the idea of fear of ‘not doing’ as a powerful personal motivator: I like to reflect on times when I nearly didn’t do something, did, and good unexpected/unplanned consequences for other people being a result. This helps me take more action.

    Thanks for sharing your speech, Jonathan, and Chris.

  38. Annie Stith (@Gr8fulAnnie) says:

    Hey, Jonathan!

    Don’t you just love it when fear rears up, but you go ahead and do what you were going to anyway? I do.

    Doing things in the face of fear is transformative for me. The energy from the fear (and anxiety, for me) turns into excitement and anticipation as I move forward with plans. What is it that I’ll discover about who I am this time? Where will the adventure take me?

    I also appreciate the strength I get from facing fears. It means that I’m building a history of successfully facing them I can lean on next time, regardless of the journey afterwards.

    I got this in a fortune cookie(!) years ago: “Courage is fear which has said its prayers.” I still love it.


  39. […] Turning Fear Into Fuel – Johnathan spoke at TEDx conference at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) back in April to a group of people on the topic of Fearless! Now keep in mind Johnathan clearly states that he was a bit nervous about speaking in-front of the 500+ people in that room – but he adjusts quickly. Check out the 18 minute long video of his time on stage. […]

  40. I love the message that, in a way, we’re already dead and therefore there’s no reason not to follow our hearts. And I loved the way you brought to life your own experience of being just at that point.

    The timing of your signing your yoga studio lease, looked at from one perspective was indeed “crazy”. Who’s going be focusing on yoga in NYC right after 9/11, right? But looked at through the eyes of your passion, what an opportunity to bring your calling to the world. I was not in NYC that day, but from having worked for Amex, who had one of the buildings surrounding the twin towers, I’d often been a visitor to that part of town and regularly stayed in the Millenium on Church Street. I did watch it all unfold on TV, thinking “there but for the grace of God”. Even across the pond, the whole event got people asking what their lives were all about if you could innocently go to meaningless jobs and get killed in the process. There was a big shift to seeking meaning in things beyond the cubicle.

    People had to be there as guiding lights. Allowing your fear to be your fuel allowed you to be one.

  41. […] use this fear to make themselves smarter, stronger and happier are the ones that win. Check out Jonathan Field’s post right here. He and Chris Guillebeau give two excellent talks on […]

  42. […] I just recently watched videos of Chris Guillebeau and Jonathan Fields. They gave talks about Fear.  Each video is about 18 minutes long, and I recommend that you watch them. I would summarize what they talked about but I don’t think I’ll do them any justice.  You’ll just have to watch the videos.  http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/turning-fear-into-fuel/ […]

  43. […] use this fear to make themselves smarter, stronger and happier are the ones that win. Check out Jonathan Field’s post right here. He and Chris Guillebeau give two excellent talks on […]

  44. […] Check out this video of Jonathan Fields at a recent TEDx event. For a lot of us, fear is what holds us back from actively chasing our […]

  45. These are two of the most inspirational talks I heard in a long time! Wow!

    Only last weekend I made a huge decision to leave the life I lived for the last number of years and leap into the unknown (professionally I mean). And you are right guys, you just need to give yourself a permission to do it and it’s easier.

    Brilliant stuff and I really needed it at this point of my life. Many thanks guys!

  46. […] Mellon University (TEDxCMU), including Chris Guillebeau’s talk on Fear and Permission and Jonathan Field’s talk on Turning Fear into Fuel.  Plenty of other speakers as well.  Well worth a look. Posted in: Uncategorized ← Try […]