I didn’t expect an old woman sitting on a bench to change my life, but hey, sometimes that’s how the universe works.
Last year I was lucky enough to travel to Amsterdam with my family. I had never travelled outside of North America before so I was really excited but I was also a little nervous about being in a new place.
But in the Leadership Minor we have a saying “no growth in the comfort zone” so on the first day my son and I decided to just go explore the city. We headed to the main station in the city where all the local trains departed – bought two tickets and then realized we had no idea how these trains worked.
We saw an older woman sitting on bench by a platform – so we thought – maybe that’s where we go. We stood there – the train came around the corner – stopped in front of us – but the door never opened. There was a big blue button on the door and my son said “do you think we push that button?” and I said “I don’t know.”
We stared at each other. We stared at the blue button.
And then the train left the station.
As it rolled away, the woman sitting on the bench behind us suddenly said
I turned and looked at her and she said again.
“If you want the door to open you need to push the button. Don’t doubt.”
Well that was helpful advice and we got on trains for the rest of our week but what the woman said really stuck with me as an edge that has been present in my life. I don’t know about you but I am a person who hungers for certainty in the world. I want to know the right answers. If I am honest with myself I really struggle with ambiguity and worry about taking risks and making mistakes. I worry that people expect me to be competent and strong and I’m afraid that they will think less of me if I disappoint them
But what has my need for certainty cost me?
What has been the loss because of I didn’t trust myself, or others, or that the world would catch me if I fell, or forgive me if I failed.
There is a meme I saw hanging in a friend’s office that said “Doubt killed more dreams than failure ever did.” Ouch.
Metaphorically, how many trains have left the station on me because I was too afraid to act? What adventures did I perhaps not go on, because before I took that first step I needed to be sure it was right. What communities did I maybe not join, what work in the world did I leave for others to do because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable? As importantly, what lessons was I teaching my son as he watched me take on these issues?
Though upon reflection, maybe doubt isn’t the real problem
Given current times, being too sure of yourself isn’t the kind of leadership I believe in either. My own identity, my masculinity, my whiteness has allowed me to step in and confidently take over spaces when empathy, active listening and holding back would have been better choices for me and the world.
So, yes, it’s okay to doubt. But maybe not to let doubt lead to fear and then to let that fear paralyze me and keep me from acting. I was remembering seeing in Margaret’s Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another this small little quote on a title page –
“Proceed Until Apprehended.”
That sounded like good advice.
So, what did the woman on the bench teach me?
To get out of my comfort zone.
To be adventurous. To trust myself and the world.
To not let the fear of failure and mistakes hold me back – in fact, to redefine what those words actually mean to me.
Here’s the good news.
Another train will no doubt enter the station.
I plan to get on board.
David Hellstrom works at the Leadership Minor, where he both teaches and is taught. He continues to find almost everything and everyone interesting, works to navigate power and privilege and continues to record episodes of his co-authored podcast