Michelle Poler jumped off the stage and shimmied between the packed tables. The crowd was cheering along to her dancing and the blaring reggaetón, but stayed seated. She got back on stage when the song was over. Not your typical Saturday morning breakfast.
“Raise your hands if you thought that was a little bit awkward,” she said. Half the room’s hands went up.
100 DAYS WITHOUT FEAR
Michelle said she committed to starting her presentation that way as part of a dare from her husband. “It would be crazy of me to do that!” she said. But then he reminded her of the point of her talk.
Michelle has dedicated her life to showing people how to live beyond their fear. After a professor challenged her students to commit to something for 100 days, Michelle’s ears perked up. A friend committed to 100 days without wearing makeup; another sketched an invention every day. Michelle decided to live 100 days without fear.
Michelle shared the lessons she learned in the 100 days with a room full of Latinx youth attending the 2018 UnidosUS Annual Conference. She talked about her lifelong fear of leaving her comfort zone, what motivations lie behind fear, and how to use it to make huge changes in your life.
A LIFE DEFINED BY FEAR
It’s not groundbreaking to say that fear holds a lot of us back, but it was defining Michelle’s life. After a childhood of never wanting to leave her comfort zone, she was intimidated by anything new. Fear was encouraging her to only stick to what she knows. “My whole life was about saying ‘yes’ to comfort, and not to life,” she said.
“My life felt like a checklist I had to go through that society had prescribed for me,” Michelle said. “But after a while I had to wonder who I was checking the boxes for.”
Then she asked the audience what checklist they would make if they didn’t have to worry about what society expected of them.
Pressure from the world around you is one of the causes of fear that Michelle fought against during her 100 days, and it’s the most dangerous, she says. Some fears are tied to biology, and are embedded in you for survival, like fear of snakes or heights. Other fears are personal and related to keeping your self-image from being threatened. But cultural fears stem from a need to belong.
It was that threat of standing out that was holding Michelle back even more than she thought. She was monitoring every aspect of her life, and her friends and family had no idea. “I couldn’t be around big dogs. I ended up choosing my friends by the pets they had,” she said.
So it was a natural choice for her to focus on overcoming fears for her 100-day challenge.
WHAT’S THE BEST THAT CAN HAPPEN?
Through the 100 days, Michelle faced all kinds of fears, from getting pierced to holding a tarantula to dancing alone in Times Square.
One of the biggest lessons she learned was the difference between fearlessness and being brave. There’s nothing at stake when you have no fear. Bravery means taking action despite fear.
It turned out that living without fear wasn’t the point. The goal, rather, is to acknowledge the fear and move past it to discover something new. That realization changed Michelle’s life, and passing the knowledge forward has become her mission.
“I don’t even believe in fearless leadership,” Michelle said. “Leaders have to be vulnerable because they care so much about their cause. And when you care that much, there has to be fear attached.”
Finding the possibilities beyond fear feels impossible when fear is all you know. Michelle’s trick is to flip an old adage on its head. “‘What’s the worst that can happen’ is the worst thing you can ask!” she says. “Instead, ask ‘What’s the best that can happen?’” When you focus on that, she says, fear turns into excitement.
— UnidosUS (@WeAreUnidosUS) July 7, 2018
MAKING CHANGE, NOT FEARING IT
Michelle’s talk was part of a breakfast to kick off the Future Changemakers workshop series at the 2018 UnidosUS Annual Conference in Washington, DC. The series covers a range of topics targeted at Latinxs 18–23 who want to better understand their power as advocates in politically charged times. The workshops are designed to give future changemakers the skills and knowledge they need to inform their own powerful decisions and carve their own path forward.
The breakfast was a strong start to the series, giving the audience a leg up on lessons some of us take a lifetime to learn. And Michelle’s story was a great way to get this started.
Michelle recalled how after her 100 days were up, she figured she’d go back to her old job. But she was different now, and the idea of using her experience to build a movement felt like the right path to take, even though it was scarier.
She realized that fear wanted her to make a choice based on comfort, rather than on growth. So on day 101, she decided to build a movement.
The same could be said for the young people in the room.
“You didn’t choose to stay home with your friends and family on a Saturday,” Michelle said. “You came here. You chose growth.”
By John Marth, UnidosUS Senior Content Specialist