It was 1998. I was 23 years old, and I was staring at an airport gate at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. I had my carry-on bag, trashy magazines, and salty snacks. I was ready to travel.
But there was a problem.
A gigantic plane, headed to Boulder, Colorado, was boarding 15 feet from me – and I was too scared to get on it.
Let me back up a little.
How exactly did I end up at this airport, on this particular day, with a ticket to Boulder in my hot little hands?
I graduated from Penn State in December 1997, and spent the first six months after graduation trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. I continued living in the Penn State area after graduation, and I cobbled together a weird, directionless post-graduation existence.
I started training to be a restaurant manager, and quit after a month. I did administrative work at the Materials Science department at the University, and waitressed at a 1950’s-style diner to pay the rent.
I considered graduate school, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or if it would actually help me decide on a career.
During this time, I suffered from massive insomnia, so I became friends with a guy who made doughnuts in the middle of the night at a local bakery. I hung out in the shop at 2 AM, trying to figure things out, while he kneaded and fried the dough.
I was wracked with paralyzing indecision, and smelled of pastries and diner grease all the time.
After a few months, I was exhausted, worn down and sick of myself.
Then an idea for a new direction came from an unexpected source.
A friend of mine (who had graduated from Penn State a few years before) called from Boulder, Colorado. He was attending the University of Colorado as a graduate student in engineering, and wanted to catch up.
I told him I felt stuck and wasn’t sure what my next move should be. I was tired of State College but didn’t want to move back to my hometown, either.
“Well,” he said. “Boulder is pretty great. If you’re not sure what you want to do next, why don’t you figure it out here?”
I hesitated. Move across the country, alone? Really?
But he urged me to think about it. A few weeks later, he even bought me a plane ticket to fly out and visit him, so I scope out his shiny city.
Falling in love with a new plan
I left the doughnut baker and the diner job for a few days, and flew to Boulder. It only took me a few days to fall in love with Colorado and decide I wanted to make the move.
It was nutty. It was impulsive. And it was just crazy enough to work.
At this point it was July 1998, and I knew I needed to:
- Find a job in Boulder
- Give away or sell most of my belongings from my State College apartment
- Buy a plane ticket to Boulder
- Get on the plane and start my new life
In the meantime, though, I had some family obligations. My older sister was getting married in Pennsylvania in September, and I was the maid of honor. So I had to build my moving itinerary around the wedding date, too.
The plan – unbelievably – actually came together that August. I landed a job at a school in Boulder, sold or gave away most of my stuff, got fitted for my bridesmaid dress, and geared up for the big move.
So on the night of September 12th, the night of my sister’s wedding, everything was ready to go. I would celebrate with my family, then fly to Boulder the next morning.
I smiled for photos and supported my sister that night, and tried not to think about how I was turning my life upside down by moving across the country. I danced and bonded with extended family and pushed aside my uncertainty.
After the wedding, I went home and packed up my last minute stuff. I stayed up all night getting ready to go, and tried to mentally prepare myself to take the biggest leap of my young life.
The gate is open – but I’m paralyzed by cold feet
By 10 AM the next morning, my parents are I were standing at the gate at the airport, and I was a mess.
The gate agent made the announcement for me to board the plane, and mom and dad looked at me expectantly.
And instead of bravely skipping down the hallway to my seat, I stood there in tears, my feet rooted firmly in place. I was freaking out and completely falling apart.
“I can’t do it, Mom.” I choked out. “I’m too scared.”
Thank God for my mom, who has always had an outstanding ability to read people’s emotions and come up with the perfect thing to say or do to help. She recognized my meltdown for what it really was – a symptom of total exhaustion and overwhelm.
And she didn’t give me a way out.
She didn’t say, “No problem, kiddo – let’s just get in the car and drive home, and you can just live with us.”
She didn’t give me permission to give up on my dream and let the fear win.
She simply handed me tissue, said, “You want to do this, remember?” and reminded me WHY I wanted to get on the plane and go to Boulder. Then she steered me over to the gate, hugged me, took me by the shoulders and pointed me toward the entrance to the walkway.
Her confidence buoyed my spirits and gave me some much-needed perspective. If Mom believed I could do it – and that I was doing the right thing – then I could believe it too.
I took a deep breath, handed my ticket to the gate agent and walked down the bridge to my new life.
So why am I telling you this story?
I’m telling you because this little vignette is a core part of my personal narrative. And it also held me back in my business for a long, long time.
Here’s what I made up about this story:
For many years, I believed that my courage was limited. I believed I could be brave when I was in the planning stages of doing something big, but my bravery was always going to fail me at the last minute.
When the time came to pull the trigger, I thought I would always chicken out.
Because of that conclusion, I avoided taking chances. I said no a lot, and declined opportunities to do high-profile speeches, because I was afraid I would back out at the last minute when my courage inevitably failed.
It took me YEARS to realize that this little airport story – the tale of one exhausted morning in Baltimore when I got cold feet before taking a HUGE step in my life –doesn’t mean I was a coward.
It doesn’t mean I’m not strong or brave. It means that I’m human. And it means I need support and encouragement – just like everyone else.
Because the fact is – I did get on the plane that day. I did move to Boulder. And I’ve been living here quite happily for 16 years.
I’ve been brave and tough at other times over the years, too. Being a single mom takes courage. So does negotiating a huge contract with a big client. So does quitting my corporate job to write a book.
Now when I look over the entire arc of my personal narrative, I can see that I can be brave — even when it’s hard, and even when I’m scared. My conclusion was wrong, and it was interfering with my business decisions.
Here’s why that’s important for you as a business owner –
You probably have a story like this from your past that means something BIG to you. You might have come to a conclusion about what that story means for you as a person, and as a business owner.
And it’s possible your conclusion is completely wrong. Or it was right at the time, but it’s not right anymore.
We all make up interpretations about our past stories. We believe our stories dictate how confident, strong, charming, organized, or financially responsible we are.
And all that stuff we make up can seriously get in our way when we’re trying to run our businesses.
When you think back over your past, are there stories you believe are really, totally, 100% true about who you are and what your skills are? Journal about one of those stories, then write down your old interpretation about what happened (and what it means about who you are).
Then ask yourself – is it possible that interpretation isn’t 100% true? Is it possible that the story doesn’t mean what you think?
Is it possible you’ve changed since then? Do you have more current stories from your life that actually contradict those old conclusions?
Perhaps you’ve actually been charming, financially responsible and intuitive for years, and you haven’t been willing or able to acknowledge it. Or even if the story has been true so far, maybe you’re ready to move past that conclusion and get rid of some bad habits from your past. You might be ready to make that big change.
Journal about those thoughts, and keep pondering these questions over the next few days or weeks.
Our past doesn’t own us
Here’s what you need to remember — your past doesn’t have to continue to dictate who you are and what you can do in this world. Your old stories don’t have to limit what you do and how big you dream.
It may be time to let go of those old legends, or at least shift the stories you tell yourself about those legends.
Sometimes a story is really just that – a story. And you control whether you want to believe that story or not.
It’s completely up to you.