To get from Reno to Lake Tahoe School in Incline
Village, Nevada, a school official had to drive me up
6,500 feet of steep, narrow roads lined with snow
banks. The air thinned as we ascended above the
clouds, so she handed me two Advil as soon as we
arrived. I needed to be able to present throughout the
day and couldn’t afford to get a migraine.
“Altitude sickness—that’s a new one,” I told
Bob Graves, the head of school, as we chatted that
morning in his office. “I’m used to worrying about the
talking part. Until recently, public speaking terrified
me.” If Bob was alarmed, he hid it well. “Really? What
changed for you?” he asked.
The short answer was that I was tired of getting in
my own way, and I felt inauthentic prodding students
to stretch while I played it safe. I had interviewed
dozens of experts on risk-taking over the years and
decided it was time to apply their advice to myself.
We’re all works in progress, and the start of a new
decade is a good time to relinquish a few fears and
chase long-shelved goals. As educators, we can spend
so much time helping students realize their potential
that we neglect our own growth. That's a mistake. If
we want students to lean into discomfort, we have to
take risks, too.
No matter where you are or what you hope to
accomplish, here are four strategies that can help you
summon the courage to fail.
Forget about yourself.
At my last school, I had to present to a small group of
parents in the school library. You would have thought
I had to give a TED talk to thousands. I couldn’t sleep
for days before the event and was thoroughly depleted
by the time it was over. I never wanted to feel that
way again. I knew that small exposures extinguish
phobias, so I resolved to accept every speaking
invitation that came my way.
Fast forward a few years. I was about to deliver
my first keynote address but got cold feet when I
realized 600 educators would be in the audience. I
retreated to the booth above the auditorium to pull
myself together. After I took a few deep breaths, I
texted Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. She
not only is one of the few people I know who presents
all the time, she’s the type of person who will stop
whatever she’s doing to help a friend. I prayed that
she could get me back in working order.
“I can’t do this,” I told her. “I feel sick. There are
too many people here, and they’re all going to be
staring at me.” She kindly but firmly told me that no
one cared about me. At all. “They want to know if you
can help them help kids," she said. “That’s it.” She
then suggested I play “You Will Be Found,” from the
musical DEAR EVAN HANSEN. I listened to the lyrics,
which describe a teen boy in emotional pain who
desperately wants to be seen. Once I took myself out
of the equation, I was good to go.
Start with the end goal.
Everyone defines risk differently. You might think it’s
no big deal to apply for a promotion, but shy away
from social risks. An educator might not apply for a
team leader position because they don’t want to step
on the toes of a friend who wants the position. Or a
teacher might hesitate to express a contrary view at a
faculty meeting because they worry they'll alienate or
Many years ago, I initiated the screening process
for a vulnerable student who needed academic
interventions. A couple members of the special
education team told me in advance that they opposed
giving the child an IEP, so the tension was thick even
before the first meeting. I anticipated a battle and did
my homework but was stunned when the team cast
protocol aside and hastily voted against services.
I never questioned whether I should report the
infraction, but that meant calling out a couple of my own
colleagues. I was scared that I’d permanently damage
already-strained relationships. To deal with my fear, I
shifted my focus to the end goal. I reminded myself that
the student’s right to a fair process mattered far more
than my discomfort. I shared my concerns with the
principal, who determined that the child’s rights had
been violated and instructed us to start over.
Take starter risks.
Risk-taking is like building muscle—it’s a slow,
incremental process. To boost your confidence, take
starter risks. If you don’t feel ready to present at a
national conference, consider a local conference. If
that’s too big a risk, try asking a question at the end
of someone else’s presentation. If you aspire to write a
book, start by submitting an article or contributing to
a blog. If you’re not ready to share your ideas publicly,
keep a journal, take a writing seminar, or post
comments in a closed Facebook group.
The categories of risk don’t have to match. For
example, if you want to change jobs but resist change,
practice flexibility by trying a different gym or
running route. Or join a recreational basketball team
with players you don't know.
Capture the underdog effect.
Perhaps someone told you that you’re the wrong
person to lead a new initiative, or run a staff meeting,
or present at a conference. Or maybe you applied for
a job and were told you don’t have what it takes to be
successful. Instead of letting others define your limits,
leverage the underdog effect. A recent study found
that people who believe that others do not expect
them to do well are more likely to receive higher
performance evaluations from their supervisors. They
work extra hard to prove others wrong. If there’s no
setback, there can be no comeback.
It took me a long time to submit my first article
to The Washington Post. I not only questioned
whether my ideas were worth sharing, I worried
that others would judge me for thinking I had ideas
worth sharing. And then my first piece ran, and my
worst fears came to life. A colleague called me a self-promoter and told me I had no business writing
anything. I already was plagued by self-doubt, and
the criticism nearly derailed me. But it also was a gift
in disguise. No way was I going to stop writing and
validate that person’s off-base assumptions about me.
Frustration kept me moving forward.
Use negativity to your advantage. In fact, take
special note of whatever trait most irritates your
critics. If you amplify it, you might discover it’s your
secret superpower. Stubbornness can morph into
determination. Intensity can generate laser focus.
Distractibility can lead to sudden bursts of insight.
It's not easy to take risks. All sorts of things can
get in the way. But when we lean into discomfort and
act with intentionality, we get to narrate our own
story. And isn't that what we want to be modeling for
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.