Lessons on Fear and Change from Mark Twain and My 10-Year-Old Twins

lessons fear

When I was 16, I decided to leave my small hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, where I’d lived since birth, to go overseas and study in New Zealand.   I have no idea how I made this decision, or why I wanted to leave home, but the idea quickly got legs and before I knew it, there I was, boarding a plane and madly hugging goodbye my friends, family and my high-school sweetheart. I got on the plane, walked down the aisle to my window seat, sat down…and promptly burst into tears. Crying quickly escalated into hysterical sobbing, much to the alarm of the poor man in the next seat.  He tried to calm me down and asked the flight attendant for a cup of water.

I tried to take a sip, but I was crying too hard to even choke it down. Right then, I made another big decision – I hurried off the plane, and ran screaming after my taken aback parents. They were having none of it. They reminded me I had made a decision to which I was now committed and sent me right back to my allocated seat to follow through on it.

After this dramatic start, the rest of the journey was uneventful. Well, to be honest, I can’t remember much of the rest of my journey.  Just a quick phone call from a pay phone in L.A. to let my parents know I got there safely, and then, my next clear memory was walking into arrivals and looking around, though unsure as to what I was looking for. Then I saw the sign, ‘Welcome to New Zealand Tracy’ – and there they were, my Kiwi family! My host Mum, Dad, Sister and Brother.  They took me home and settled me in my new room.   They gave me a quick tour, I met the neighbours – one of whom was the principal of the school I was to attend –  and we ate.

I’d like to report that at this point I was wondering what all my pre-departure hysteria had been about, but no, I wasn’t done with the crying. Not even nearly. All I remember of those first few weeks were the endless tears and aching homesickness – oh, and the beating myself for not ‘thinking it through’. Surely if I had have thought this through, I’d be back home now instead of sobbing down the line on my once a week, very expensive phone-call home?

My host Dad gave me some very specific advice: ‘Stop blubbering’. Easier said than done. One evening, lying on my bed, sobbing and trying to make sense of it all, I reached out for a small book of quotes my mom had sent along with me – clearly for just such an occasion! Flicking through, this one grabbed me:

Explore Dream Discover

I ripped it from the book, jumped out of bed and pasted it on my mirror.

I wouldn’t say I was any less homesick after reading it, but I did get a wake-up call about the opportunity I was missing by focusing on what I’d left behind rather than what I now had in front of me. I knew I needed to embrace this big change that I had, after all, brought upon myself. I was going to start looking for the positives in it and most of all, stop the exhausting slog of fearing it.

And, yes, you’ve guessed it – New Zealand turned out to be a complete blast.

This quote served me well then and many times over the years since. It’s been a reference point for many life-changing decisions – more travel, new directions in my career, relationships…

As I work with clients, fear of change comes up constantly – a simple but profound and often paralyzing fear of moving forward into the unknown.

Even when people know that they need to do something different and that staying the same will come at a great personal cost, the barrier of fear seems impassable.

Even when people know exactly what they want to do and actually believe they could be successful doing it, still they hold back in the face of the great unknown.

Of course, fear has been a major asset to mankind. We wouldn’t be here now if our ancestors hadn’t responded to it and so taken precautions to steer clear of all the giant sabretooth tigers roaming around. It’s the same fear, still hard-wired in us today, that keeps us on the lookout for threats to our safety and well-being. Any sense of our ‘being under attack’ will bring out our innate fight or flight responses.

The challenge is identifying what it is that we are actually scared of.

If we do this we can begin to get some perspective on what we’re up against. Are we talking sabre-tooth tigers or not making the same income in the first year of a career change? Are we talking about telling our parents we’re over studying law and want to open a café? Are we talking about a threat that’s not even real e.g. thinking you could never afford to work part-time to spend more time on a creative interest when you haven’t even done the math? Get pinning that fear down – know your enemy!

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my twin daughters about the topic of fear of change. One daughter, in particular, had recently made a very significant change – to stop gymnastics. Even at the young age of ten, she’d already dedicated 5 years of physical work, mental effort and sheer determination to participate in a sport she’d loved. So much of her young identity was wrapped up in ‘being a gymnast.’ She knew it was time to move on, but she wrestled with the decision, and even more so, with the idea of change. She worried about what the rest of the group would think. She worried about missing her twin sister who would continue to go to the gym every week without her. She worried that it was the wrong decision even though she knew it was absolutely the right one. She was living proof of something I see all the time – knowing a change is RIGHT for you frequently isn’t enough to make following through on it any easier.

My conversation with the girls got us to brainstorming motivational quotes that would help people face their fears and move through change.

Later that night, after I had put them to bed, one of them came back out, with a journal where she’d written down her own sayings – all straight from the heart and Google-free!

Of course, I’m biased, I love them all, but here are my favourites:

  • If you let fear take over, you will stay in the same place, but if you take chances and risks, you will always move ahead.
  • Change is a new opportunity for greatness.
  • When you’re scared to change something in your life, remember that when you take challenges and risks, it will move you forward to your next destination.
  • When your fear takes over you have to break through. Be brave, and always remember you can’t let fear take over the change you need to make.   

And the best till last…

  • Change is like a roller-coaster. A mix of emotions. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. But the ride always stops and you’re always glad you did it.

Wow, the 16-year-old me on the plane to New Zealand could have done with such wisdom – let alone the grown-up version of me! So, next time there’s a change you need – or just desperately want – to make, a change you know is right but you’re still hitting a wall of fear, take note of Mark Twain…or my 10-year-old daughters.

Be brave. You got this!

13 thoughts on “Lessons on Fear and Change from Mark Twain and My 10-Year-Old Twins”

  1. Amazing read as usual :D I already follow some of the tips you suggested but man you never stop learning in this niche ha! Again thanks for the post.

  2. Hello,

    I am really enjoying reading your articles! I started taking my mental and physical health really seriously about 6 months ago, and i find your blog a really positive resource as I try to improve myself. I think the affirmations you have given here, are really affective, particularly: ‘when your fear takes over you have to break through. Be brave, and always remeber, you cant let fear take over the change you wish to make.’ I am definately going to be adding this to my tool box of affirmations! It’s really great to see other people sharing ideas online about how to improve their health, much love xx

  3. Tracy, I enjoyed your article, especially the part about your daughter ending her 5-year career in gymnastics. In my life, sometimes it seems like I get on a path and so I must continue down it because I committed myself to it. It’s so important to stop along the way and reassess, “Is this still right for me?” And if it isn’t, to have the courage to make changes (like your daughter did). Thanks for the article!

  4. I could totally relate to your feelings of homesickness when you lived abroad. I love the takeaway you received from that book of quotes, though, and applaud your daughter for making a difficult decision despite the fears it gave her.

  5. I love this;

    ‘Change is like a roller-coaster. A mix of emotions. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. But the ride always stops and you’re always glad you did it.’

    Fear is definitely something that we all live with, some have more if it than others.

    But once we learn there is greatness on the other side of fears and struggles, it becomes easier.

    Another thing to realize is that nothing ever changes when we are comfortable, the fear of missing out on something if you leave it is just and illusion.

    Thanks for this post, I’m glad you enjoyed your stay in New Zealand too, that’s where I’m from.

    Where about’s did you live in NZ?

    Also, you have two very emotionally intelligent girls, you should be proud!

    Thanks again.


  6. Thank you for sharing with us this inspiring post. Truly, everything you want is on the other side of fear. The best comes after it and this is something I’ve personally hold believe in whenever fear comes in my way. Courage is what we need.

  7. Ah, this reminds me of when I arrived in my tiny studio in London, a very inconvenient suitcase as my sole company. I hadn’t had that much sleep (when do you ever the night before a big trip?), and sat down on the floor, tears starting to fall down those poor, lonely cheeks. It was just a bit too much. There was no cutlery (it was student accommodation), the internet wouldn’t work, and I was all alone in a foreign country – only for around three months, but still. I decided to go for a walk. Get something that I could use for a cup of tea (no mugs either), and some food, and I wanted to check out the place. And man, did I feel better, straight away. It’s LONDON, damnit! Of course it was gonna be awesome. I also struck up a conversation with a kind Finnish girl (I wasn’t very confident back then), and got some plastic forks and knives. After that, I remembered that people usually want to help out, if they can. And that everything works out, and never is as bad as it seems. Fear is paralysing. Don’t let it get to you.

  8. Very great post! I think everyone has gone through similar emotions. I “decided” to leave my home country at a very early age as well, and even though this was a hard step, it was a step away from fear, into confidence and independence. Doing what feels right is always a good choice.

  9. “Change is like a roller-coaster. A mix of emotions. The ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. But the ride always stops and you’re always glad you did it.” This quote made my day!

    I woke up to very sad mood today that this phase I am living through will never going to pass and then I saw this quote in your lovely post. A big thanks to this!

  10. that mark twain quote is amazing. always love his work haven’t read that one! thanks for sharing. I am working on taking my steps to not regret the next 20!

  11. Very well said, fear is an asset, when taken with a right spirit. Fear can make or break you depends on how we take it.

    All new challenges and even changes in life pose some sort of fear. Unless we take over that and take next step, we will be staying where we are.
    Glad to hear your story and it is inspiring in deed.

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