How Facing Fear Makes Us Better

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By: Ashley Mackowiak, Senior Manager, People Resources

Have you ever asked yourself, “What could I accomplish if I weren’t afraid to fail?”

At Enova, we strive to be game-changers and to push the boundaries of what is possible in our industry. We have a set of core values ingrained in our everyday culture. We challenge each other to relentlessly seek out the ‘Best Answer’ and then execute on it. We are fearless. However, last summer I was faced with the unpleasant reality that I wasn’t quite as fearless as I liked to imagine.

This incredible, life-altering experience began on a sunny August afternoon in a small town in Ohio. I was staying at my sister’s house for an informal family reunion. Spontaneity is a trend some have noticed for those in my gene pool — you could even go so far as to say we have a strong allergy to advance planning in general. In the midst of this particular spontaneous get-together, my little brother, who was at the time a pilot with a local skydiving outfit, turns to my grandma and asks casually, “Hey Grandma, want to go skydiving while you’re in town? I can get you a good deal.”

While we all laughed at the silly notion of my 82-year-old grandmother voluntarily jumping out of an airplane at 16,000 feet, I noticed Grandma wasn’t laughing at what had seemed an obvious joke. Rather, I saw her quietly contemplating the proposal. Within a few seconds came the flippant response: “Well, I’ve never thought of that before, but sure, why not?”

Come again???

To say I was shocked would be an understatement, and my shock doubled when she challenged the rest of the family to skydive with her. Now would be a good time to disclose that I have a lifelong fear of heights. Hate them. Never liked them. Won’t even ride rollercoasters. EVER. Seeing Grandma react so bravely to this challenge was a moment that I will never forget. In an instant I found myself questioning the way I have been approaching my entire life. Perhaps I have missed out on grand adventures or great opportunities simply because of a fear! I realized I didn’t want to live my life that way. So with immense hesitation I accepted her challenge to go skydiving. It was decided we would go the following day. (Gulp!)

I didn’t sleep that night, and got up a ball of anxious energy, compulsive thoughts flashing through my mind that I may not live to tell this tale. In this case, thinking “What’s the worst that could happen?” wasn’t especially helpful. I could die. The worst thing that could happen is that I could voluntarily plummet to my death in a free fall. Oh…is that all? And if I don’t accept this challenge, I’ll have to live the rest of my life with the shame of being the lame granddaughter of an 82-year-old woman that jumped out of a plane. (Did I also mention that I have a bit of a competitive side?) At this point, I am willing to choose the possibility of death over being a lame granddaughter. Hey, if we die, I figure I can spend eternity teasing Grandma about how bad an idea skydiving was. We’ll call this the bright side.

It’s Jump Day. Grandma doesn’t seem nervous, and keeps making disconcerting comments like “I’ve lived a long life.” Not helping! They strap me into the jumpsuit, and I am attached via handfuls of locking mechanisms to a strange man that jumps out of airplanes for a living — he’s clearly unstable. I am expected to entrust my life to this person? They tell me his name is Matt. Then they film a short interview and ask me questions that I don’t know how to answer, like, “Why would you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” and, “Do you realize it is too late to back out?” There is way too much smiling going on for what feels like the beginning of some kind of Dateline episode about daredevil stunts gone wrong.

They ask who wants to jump first. No surprise here, Grandma volunteers. We begin our long ascent to 16,000 feet. I remember at some point in this journey looking out the window and realizing how high we had climbed in such a short period of time. I nervously ask the stranger strapped to my back, ”Are we jumping soon?” He quickly checks his wrist gauge that is measuring altitude and responds casually, “No, we’re only halfway there.”

We arrive to the designated altitude a few minutes later and the cargo door is opened, with everyone taking their positions. Grandma approaches the door with the strange man attached to her back (another weirdo that jumps out of planes for a living). I swear I see a slight smile as she gracefully falls out of the plane. One by one we drop out of the plane like little lemmings over the edge of a cliff. I am second to last. We approach the door. Strange Man gives me a 3–2–1 countdown before he throws our bodies from the plane, and suddenly, I find myself falling through the sky.

Above the clouds the view is UN – BE – LIEVBLE. The adrenaline is so intense that there’s not a single remnant of fear lingering. My heart is racing as I take in the beautiful scene unfolding before me. Now we’re falling through the clouds, and I can feel on my skin the subtle differences in air temperature — colder in the clouds and warmer in the sun. The free fall is over much too soon, and we are under canopy slowly and gracefully floating down to our resting spot. I left my heart somewhere on Cloud Nine, but I have a permanent smile plastered on my face as I take the parachute controls from Matt, twisting and turning us as we make our descent.

Once on the ground, I’m amazed at what I’ve just experienced. There are congratulations and hugs exchanged with the fellow jumpers, and of course, with Grandma and family. I feel indestructible and fearless, and I am wondering how quickly I can do that again.

Driving home at the end of the weekend I realize my perspective on life and my leadership style is forever changed. I can either continue to play it safe, allow fear to keep me from doing scary things (chasing promotions, moving to an unknown city, making a BIG pitch at work, etc.), OR, I can face my fears, take a leap of faith and find that the experience has forced me to grow and has enriched my life more than I could have imagined.

This perspective is peppered throughout the culture at Enova. We encourage each other to take risks, challenge the status quo, dream bigger and go farther. It’s the kind of environment that leverages passion and intelligence by cultivating creativity for unique solutions in our industry.

Now, my inspirational mantra for myself and my team is, What could you accomplish today if you weren’t afraid?”

Turns out, the sky’s the limit.