Fear is a Good Thing

Fear is part of life. We learn this early on and spend (in many ways) the rest of our lives learning to overcome our fears in order to do the things we wish to. As equestrians in particular we have to address the issue of fear early and often – though admittedly, for kids who have a wonderful childhood riding experience, the fear factor usually doesn’t kick in until sometime later on. Usually this occurs sometime around the time we begin to realize that coming off a horse hurts more than it used to and that serious injuries mean lost wages, longer recovery periods, and potentially permanent disability. (That I’m typing this with an ice pack on my foot, having been on the receiving end of my two-year-old’s most recent “Save me, Mom!” leaps into the air shows my current mental state on this issue.)

Still, one of the most rewarding experiences we can have in the saddle is to face our fears and succeed.

Tackling higher jumps, riding more challenging horses, and taking instruction from big name (and more demanding!) trainers can all be fear-inducing circumstances – and yet it isn’t unusual for us to learn that, if we face push the fear aside, the rewards far outweigh the risks we take in order to earn them. The famous and demanding trainer gives us the lesson of our lifetime; the more challenging horse proves that our skills are really up to the task after all; the higher jumps don’t seem all that high once we’ve cleared them a few times without incident.

By overcoming fear, we grow as riders and as people.

Selecting a college also tends to incite a great deal of fear for high school students (and their parents) – and for good reason! College is the first place where most students move officially toward adulthood, the place that will give them the skills and connections to move them into the career field they choose. It’s also a substantial investment of money, time, and emotional capital.

Summary: It’s quite literally a life-altering decision.

Needless to say, I understand the fear component that accompanies college selection. I’ve witnessed it take many forms over the course of my years in higher education. But what I don’t understand – and what I’ve seen happen more and more in the most recent admission cycles – is how students with big goals for the future can allow the fear to influence their college choice so strongly that they wind up at what might well turn out to be the wrong school. Or else they get to school and never take the steps they need to in order to fulfill their lofty goals; fear keeps them from capitalizing on opportunities.

Need an example?

Let’s use a student who is the valedictorian of her high school graduating class; she has a perfect GPA, honors and AP courses on her transcript, top scores on either the SAT or ACT, and an extracurricular resume that’s not only filled with her riding activities, but also shows that she’s had some volunteer and/or shadowing experiences in her chosen major or career field. And for the sake of this imaginary student, let’s say she wants to become a large animal veterinarian and will need a college to prepare her for post-graduate entrance exams and that can help her successfully navigate the very tricky admission process to vet school.

From this profile, one can easily assume that this is a student who has learned to overcome fear in order to succeed – but perhaps this isn’t the case. Perhaps instead, this student (who is clearly quite intelligent) has instead used her intelligence to navigate the high school game with great success, never needing to step outside of her comfort zone in order to so.

Until now.

Now the student faces a situation where she’s about to step onto an unfamiliar campus with unfamiliar people and be expected to put that intelligence to work in new and different ways. She’s going to meet other students whose school and activity records (and possibly riding resumes as well) are equally as impressive as her own and she’s going to be taking the first steps toward the future she’s envisioned since she first decided she wanted to become a veterinarian at the age of eight or so.

Sounds pretty scary to me. I don’t blame her for being afraid.

Now let’s say the student has two solid college options before her when it comes time to make her final selection: she can either attend a medium or large university with a specific pre-veterinary program and an average of 80 students in it where she’ll blend in as she goes through the steps she needs to take on her way to vet school or she can attend a liberal arts college without a specific track for pre-veterinary but has a really in-depth research program that would allow her to conduct her own independent scientific studies (and potentially publish them) during her undergraduate years while she forges her own unique path to vet school under the guidance of appropriate faculty and staff members.

True confession, readers – there is no right or wrong scenario for the imaginary student here. Both options present their own unique fears but both are also 100 percent viable paths to get her to her ultimate goal.

In the larger program, she’ll need to put herself out there if she’s going to stand out among her peers and get selected for important opportunities to list on her resume when it comes time for vet school applications. She can’t be afraid to stand out in a crowd and she won’t be able to go with the flow – she’ll need to swim hard against the current to make sure she is the first one thought of when faculty members have unique opportunities for just one or two students to seize. The competition will be fierce and she’ll need to stare it squarely in the face.

Meanwhile, in the smaller program, she’ll have to carve out her own experience because there won’t necessarily be a concrete path already in place for her to follow. She’ll have to ask herself what areas of research are of most interest to her and then find the right faculty members to support her inquiries; she’ll have to work with the career and internship center on campus to find extracurricular experiences to supplement the work she does in the classroom; and she’ll be in classes that will be too small for her to hide in. (If she’s afraid of being called on, she’ll have to address that fear early on at the small school!) She also can’t be afraid to be without the structure of a formalized program; she’ll need to gain the confidence to blaze her own trail.

At the end of the day, then, this imaginary student won’t be able to avoid a choice that frightens her. Both directions come with their own unique, inherent fears but the only way she’ll succeed is to overcome them – and if she achieves her goals, the rewards for doing so are great! And even if she fails, she’ll have learned something – as the late Jack Lemmon once said: “Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure.” And I suspect that, would this student give in to her fears and never try at all, she’ll feel worse and have greater regrets than which school she chose to attend in the first place.

Need help navigating the scary path to an undergraduate degree? (Need advice about the sturdiest paddock boots to protect your feet in case a two-year-old tries unsuccessfully to leap into your arms?) Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to help guide your search.

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