Why we still feel the fear
Twenty-five years after it first hit the shelves, a self-help classic is still changing lives. One devotee explains how it worked for her…
PUBLISHED: 23:35, 15 April 2012 | UPDATED: 03:31, 16 April 2012
The girl behind the bookshop counter has bright pink hair, a nose ring and a tattoo creeping out from under her checked shirt. ‘Can I help you?’ she asks.
Oh dear. I am worried this punky looking creature will laugh in my face when I tell her what I am looking for. ‘Do you have a copy of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway?’ I say. ‘You know, the self-help book?’
I wait for a look of disdain, but instead she hands me a copy and tells me she reads it at least once a year. ‘It’s my bible,’ she says.
Well, I never. I tell her I’m buying it for a friend and I’ve read it half a dozen times, too. The most unlikely of connections is made.
This self-help classic — re-issued to celebrate its 25th anniversary — has sold 15 million copies in 100 countries. Now, with a fresh foreword from the author Susan Jeffers, it looks set to captivate a new generation.
But what makes it so special? Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway is a self-help book for people who would never dream of picking one up — let alone live their lives by it.
Fans include actress Julie Walters, who admitted it helped her get where she is in life. ‘Reading the book was a revelation,’ she said.
It’s popular among powerful women, too, such as Tamara Mellon, former boss of Jimmy Choo, who says the book’s title is her motto.
Its premise is that doing anything new in life is scary — and no one is immune to it. The only way to get through this is to get stuck into the things that terrify you.
The fastest-rising fear in the world is unemployment, according to a BBC World Service survey
The book’s title has made it into common parlance — ‘Go on, feel the fear and do it anyway!’ friends urge when you are procrastinating about asking for a pay rise, changing career or giving it all up to travel the world.
It sums up a no-nonsense ethos that can be applied to just about anything. But can a book with trite slogans really change lives?
A friend gave it to me when I was 22 and in a job I hated. ‘Read this,’ she urged. ‘It’s brilliant. It just makes you want to go out and do stuff.’
I couldn’t see what it had made her go out and do other than drink too much cheap white wine, but her enthusiasm was catching.
I read the book in one sitting. It was a revelation. There was something about its American ‘can-do’ attitude that really appealed to me.
OK, I can’t say I quit my job the next day, but I did two months later, despite not having another job to go to, and, indeed, no clue what I wanted to do with my life.
Two weeks later, I felt the fear and contacted everyone I knew — as well as a few I didn’t — before getting my first job in journalism.
Successful fans: Actress Julie Walters, left, and Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon say they have been inspired by the book
In short, the book taught me that whether it’s public speaking, telling a friend how you feel or leaving the job you hate, you have to do the thing you are terrified of. Now! And then never look back.
Jeffers, a psychologist and mother of two from Pennsylvania, explains that the root of all our fears is basic: we fear we won’t be able to handle the situation if the worst happens. To which she has the simple reply: ‘You’ll handle it!’
Would I have walked out of that job without reading the book? Who knows? What I do know is that the book planted a mantra in my mind that has stayed with me ever since.
FEEL THE FEAR IN A NUTSHELL
TRUTH ONE: The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.
TRUTH TWO: The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.
TRUTH THREE: The only way to feel better about myself is to go out and do it.
TRUTH FOUR: Not only am I going to experience fear when I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.
TRUTH FIVE: Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Now every time I have to call someone I don’t know, go to a party alone or argue my point in a meeting, I simply repeat the phrase in my head. I remind myself that it’s good to be scared because it means I’m living life rather than just hiding in my comfort zone.
I have bought the book as a present for several friends who I felt needed a push in the right direction.
Marie O’Riordan, 36, says the same. Now a successful business consultant, she remembers reading the book as a 16-year-old in rural Ireland.
‘I was a shy teenager growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere when I got hold of the book,’ she says. ‘I read it in my bedroom and it was a like a light went on. I always knew that I wanted more from my life than to live, marry and die in the same village — but it gave me the push.
‘That summer, I applied to volunteer in a French hospital. It was my first time out of the country and on an plane. I was terrified, but I did it — and since then I’ve kept on pushing myself. When I was 19 and doing charity work, I met Mother Teresa and became the last person to interview her.
‘Then I started reporting for CNN before moving into the business world, where I’ve travelled around the globe. I owe a lot of that to reading Susan Jeffers’ book.’
Other self-help books of the time were written by men and told women how to find love, keep love and live their lives. But this book was written by a woman telling other women to stop trying to be perfect and have the confidence to just go out there and do something, anything.
Susan Jeffers’ story was testament to her beliefs. Married at 18, she was a frustrated housewife who went to university when her children were young.
‘Going back to study shocked my mother and others who felt a woman’s place was in the home. I felt this was true only for women who wanted to be there, not for those who didn’t,’ she says.
After Susan got her PhD, she tried for years to get her book published — receiving countless rejection letters including one that claimed: ‘Lady Di could be bicycling down the street giving away this book and nobody would read it.’
When it finally did get published in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was in No 10 and women were beginning to scale the career ladder.
‘Feel The Fear felt real because it was written by a woman,’ says Linda Kelsey, who was the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine at the time.
‘We ran extracts and I stuck the slogan on my office wall. It was a mantra for courage. Every time I have to make a speech or go on the radio or TV, all of which I loathe, I say those famous words…’
But it wasn’t just a slogan aimed at catapulting females up the career ladder — its ruthless advice about relationships emboldened women in their personal lives, too. While dozens of self-help books tell women how to find the perfect love, Jeffers tells you that there’s no such thing until you find your own happiness.
Legend has it that when Jeffers left her husband of 16 years to pursue her career in New York, she called him and said: ‘You know, hon, I think I’m leaving the house today and everything in it is yours.’
But can a self-help book have a real impact on our lives? How relevant is the philosophy to Generation X, who have been brought up not to feel much fear anyway?
‘Some people use self-help books as a substitute to doing anything,’ says psychotherapist Phillip Hodson. ‘They think: “I know how to do it now, so I’ll do it next week.”
‘But even if you don’t make any changes, these books have their value. They can show you life can be lived a different way. It’s up to you whether you use it or not.’
So is Feel The Fear the best self-help book out there? Only you can decide that, depending on how much fear you felt before you read it and what you did when you put it down.
I have not gone on to conquer the world or make a million, but I have done more than I ever thought I would. And in some part, that is down to this book. But perhaps the best thing of all is you don’t really need to buy it: the title says it all.
Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, 25th anniversary edition by Susan Jeffers (Vermilion, £12.99)
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