What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Guest Post by: Alexandra Engler, Future Journalist

When I opened Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In for the first time, I knew I was going to enjoy it. The very first chapter is titled: “The Leadership Ambition Gap: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s a question I have ironically been asked many times throughout my life.

See, this quote sits on my father’s desk in his office in Lincoln, Neb. It’s engraved on a little bronze plaque that stares at him from the middle of the desk. And every time I visited him at his office, the little plaque asked me this question, too.

And from an early age, I took it to heart. What would I do if I had no fear? What dreams could I accomplish? If I did not limit myself, what could I achieve?

Engler image

So at the tender age of 10, I set my sights on New York City all the way from the dense cornfields of Nebraska. What I would do there often changed when I was young (lawyer, Broadway actress, ambassador to the United Nations, you name it). But after joining my high school newspaper, I knew it had to be journalism. Since then it has never changed.

It’s understandable to think that I would be fearful of my aspirations—especially in this job climate for aspiring journalists. But my father’s favorite quote always reminded me that I chose this career path with no fear—now it’s time to do it, even if I am fearful.

After reading Sandberg’s book, however, this quote that nearly defined my life took a new shape—which was entirely due to my gender.

Women have the pressure to not only be fearless for our own dreams, but for others. In a commencement address to Barnard College, which she quotes in the book, she states: “And I hope that you—yes, you—have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you.”

Fortunately for me, women in my generation are showing signs of being less afraid to lean in. Sandberg cites a 2012 Pew study that showed young women around my age were more likely than young men of the same age to value “success in a high-paying career or profession” by seven percentage points.

We young women are becoming less afraid of our own power and ambition. We are becoming less afraid to answer the question “what would you do if you were not afraid?” with an honest answer.

And for that lesson, I cannot credit my father’s quote. I must credit my mother’s example.

My mother joined the workforce again after I was a few years old. She is a talented and brilliant woman, and she wanted the challenges of the working world again. She worked at my grade school for a few years. She enjoyed it, but it clearly wasn’t what she really wanted to do.

So she took a risk and started applying for jobs in the business sector. After a few interviews at a few places, she landed a job at a pharmaceutical testing company. She’s been there ever since—rising through the ranks to her current job as a project manager.

Her journey was one of the most fearless things I have seen. She doesn’t have a degree in business, nor had she worked at a company that did anything like her current one. But she had confidence that she could excel—and she did.

She was fearless. And even if she didn’t realize that it was for my benefit, it gave me the confidence to be fearless as well.

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