How to conquer fear

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I will never forget the time that I sang solo in front of 3,000 people.

It was at the company talent show. All of the new employees had to perform in a group skit. We banded together to rehearse as an ensemble cast. A script was written for our group’s performance, in which the theme had something to do with a young man joining the work force, finding true love, and living happily ever after.

A director was hired to oversee our production and to squeeze the best performances out of us. We practiced for weeks leading up to the show, with countless late nights and infinite wracked nerves. We were tech workers being asked to perform professionally, with zero room for error.

My teammates enacted their parts on stage as actors in a silent film. One coworker played the intrepid protagonist. Another played his love interest. Others moved props around and acted in various roles. The conceit of the performance was that it would be an elaborate light show, with the projected outlines of shadows creating the sense of narrative. All of them could stand behind a screen, and nobody would see the faces of the performers.

Except me. I would be highlighted front and center. I had the unenviable task of going out on stage alone, while a spotlight shined on me. As the music played in the background, I would sing Coldplay’s hit song “Yellow” in a pivotal sequence.

How the hell did this happen?

It was one part irrational confidence, and one part cruel joke. My boss believed that my karaoke skills would transfer to the big stage. I believed so at first, too. That’s why he signed me up for the part and I agreed to do it. I’ve always enjoyed taking on new challenges.

It was only in the weeks leading up to the event that I realized I was not cut out for the job. For one, I had picked the wrong song. It was easy to sing along to “Yellow” in a karaoke room, with Chris Martin’s vocals backing me. It became quite another task altogether in a high-pressure environment.

I bombed my rehearsal performances hard and everybody knew it. During rehearsals, I realized that the song’s key was too high for my voice. I strained to hit the same notes as Mr. Martin. I heard how bad I sounded, and repeated attempts didn’t make things any better. My voice strained and cracked. It was a nightmare unfolding in real-time.

We couldn’t find a decent instrumental recording of the song, which meant that lowering the song’s key would render it unrecognizable. I also exhibited a case of singer’s block, in which I failed to think of a single song to replace “Yellow” with. The director took me aside and asked me to work on my vocals. He told me to practice as if my life depended on it.

And so I did. Every day, I sang in the shower. I played the song over and over again and recorded my practices alone at home. Even in front of no one, I sounded terrible. And I started to psych myself out.

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Fast forward to game day. Now I was sweating all over as the opening notes of “Yellow” played in the hall’s loudspeakers. I could feel the eyes of 3,000 people looking at me with a combination of wonder and bemusement.

I stepped out on the stage. I placed myself in the moment. I told myself that I had done this a thousand times, and that no matter what happened, I would give it my all.

The spotlight blinded me, and I started to sing the opening verse.

Look at the stars

Look how they shine for you…

I could feel my voice cracking as I sang. But it didn’t matter. I envisioned myself five minutes from now, smiling happily as the burden of the live performance ended. I imagined the cheers of the audience, and my teammates high-fiving me as I exited the stage.

I also replayed something in my mind that I brought out just for this occasion. I imagined the absolute worst-case scenario. In my imagination, I had just bombed the performance and the hall was completely silent. People stopped eating to whisper snide remarks to one another. As boos erupted, I left the stage in a state of disarray and shock.

Best case or worst-case scenario, I realized that they were the same. What mattered was that I finished the song and left all my cards on the table. All I had to do was finish the damn performance, and I would cease to care about the outcome. The only thing that mattered was finishing.

Before I knew it, I was done. I made my way to the final verse of the song. Time lost meaning as I experienced the joy of finishing. In the heat of the moment, I improvised a kneeling motion to coincide with the ending of the song. This move was unrehearsed but felt right. I had just left everything on the stage, and it felt wrong to stay standing. I was in a different place now.

As I picked myself up to leave the stage, I heard the audience’s applause. My team greeted me with high-fives. After sitting back down at the reception area, a coworker asked me for a photo. I felt relieved.

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This happened only a year ago. Since then, I have become a changed man. I have become more confident at work. I have eliminated my tendency to get nervous before presentations and speaking engagements. I have taken control of my life, and written my first book.

I have no more jitters. After singing solo in front of 3,000 people, nothing feels tough or insurmountable anymore.

Had I not stared fear right in the face, I would not be fearless right now. Had I not visualized both the good and bad outcomes, I would not have been prepared. I practiced my heart out so that my instincts could take over.

Singing that pop song was one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I realized that the age-old cliché was right – I had nothing to fear but fear itself. All I had to do was visualize my outcome and live in the moment. And that’s what I will continue to do.

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