Joe and Brett jump into Brett’s background in extreme sports, business, and relationships to explore a key shift in mindset: from setting out to conquer our fear to welcoming it as a focusing and energizing force.
"The relationships and connections I have now feel much more real and much more robust than they often used to be when I was holding and carrying this belief that I had to hide my fear from the relationship, or it would damage it somehow."
Joe: Hi, everybody. This is Joe Hudson.
Brett: This is Brett Kistler.
Joe: Welcome to our podcast. Today we are going to do things a little bit differently. This is the beginning of a series we have put together, and the series is all about how self-discovery affects the rest of your life. It is particularly around interviewing CEOs who have had a moment of self-discovery that has changed their life and their business. Brett, what’s the self-discovery that you want to talk about? What’s the breakthrough that you feel has changed your life and the way you have done business?
Brett: Like many breakthroughs, this is one I have just had repeatedly over time, over years, but it has been related to my relationship with fear and that fear is something to be welcomed rather than overcome.
Joe: I remember at one point we were talking, and you said I used to think that I wasn’t scared, and now I realize I am scared all the time. What did you mean by that?
Brett: Growing up, I developed this self-concept of being brave and courageous, so I judged the fear in myself, judged the anxiety and judged anxieties in others and just felt I was not an anxious person. Of course, that wasn’t true. Of course, there was anxiety all the time. It was controlling me in a lot of different ways, but where a lot of that went in my life is that I started to do a lot of things to prove that I didn’t feel fear and that I was conquering it. Early on I got really into rock climbing, and then I got into skydiving, base jumping and other air sports, which helped me feel like I was in control of my fear, initially. That was my initial approach to it.
Joe: Awesome. How did it affect your business at the time?
Brett: At the time, I mean even before business, in school, I presented with ADHD, and I had a really hard time concentrating a lot of the time. I now recognize that when that’s occurring to me to this day, it is generally because there is something unfelt, often some form of anxiety that I am just not letting myself feel. The avoidance of that decreases my working memory and makes me go distracted, switching apps left and right or going to the fridge three times in 20 minutes. Those are all really good signs that there is something going on on the surface, and it is usually something fear related.
Joe: That’s an awesome recognition to be able to see what your body does and what your habits do when you are in fear. One of the things I have noticed in fear is that my mind becomes binary. I start thinking of answers as this or that instead of the thousands of answers that are usually available with any issue. What a great tell that is.
So that’s how it was in school. How did the ADHD affect your business? How did the fear and anxiety affect your business before, while you were still trying to overcome it or while you were still conquering it?
Brett: My business started out as I was doing programming, freelance. In order to focus and concentrate on programming, I needed to feel somewhat clear on what I was doing. If I started to fall behind or if there started to be something that just wasn’t going right with a project or something with a timeline or something with scope creep or expectations, I would start to get anxious. I wouldn’t let myself feel that anxiety, and so I wouldn’t recognize that it was affecting me. Suddenly, I just wouldn’t be able to focus on what I was doing. That would snowball the entire process.
I would keep this whole keeping it together attitude of powering through and staying positive and staying task and goal oriented, but that would be a farce because I would actually be doing anything but my work in those states.
Joe: How did it affect your business when you started interacting with people besides yourself, when you started having employees and you started to take on bigger clients? How did the fear that you were trying to overcome find its way in there?
Brett: That’s interesting. The fear, itself, would start to magnify because my problems would become bigger, and failure modes would be harsher, and more money involved, and more people involved. Even more so starting to become a CEO from being freelance started to be like my job is to keep it all together. My job is to make sure that nobody else is afraid. Everybody just believes that everything is going according to plan, and that also didn’t work very well. It definitely blew up in my face a number of times.
Joe: How did it blow up?
Brett: Ways it would blow is people would start to bring fears and concerns to the surface, and those concerns would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. I might even see them as potentially damaging morale or distracting people from the goal of the project. Oftentimes those concerns were very, very valid, and if they weren’t valid, the feeling that somebody had around them was also very valid. If it wasn’t addressed, it led them to feeling disconnected from the project or from the team. In either case, the fears were very important signals that by ignoring them or by trying to change them into some kind of positivity or sometimes even just boldness or courageousness. We are afraid, but we are just going to do this anywhere, stepping on the signal and not listening to it
This occurred over the course of like 15 years in my business at different levels. This is one of those things that I continued to learn on a new level every time the business grows and I jump into a larger version of the same picture, I then have a new layer to feel through this, like welcoming people’s fear and welcoming my own fear and also holding space for it in a way that allows it to be processed and not just resisted and turned into low level anxiety in the team.
Joe: I am going to dig a little bit further here. What specific? Can you give us something really specific? I know a lot of people out there would be very much in understanding of what you are saying. They can resonate with it. My question is if you can give us something really specific so potentially somebody who is still in that place where they don’t think they have the fear might be able to recognize it.
Brett: One good example was on this project where I had been leading this project before, and then one of our heads had been leading the project later. Then the company grew, and we started to get bigger clients. Myself and him started working on bigger projects with the bigger client, and we needed somebody to take over this smaller project. We put together the people that were available and gave them the task of taking over this project, diving into it, understanding it and then meeting the next year’s goals.
Along that process, there were fears that were brought up by a number of people on the team, like I am not sure if I quite have enough handle on this or I am not sure if the time zone is working well between this other team member and myself. I am not sure what exactly milestones we are trying to achieve here, and what it is going to look like. A lot of that stuff I just brushed off a little bit. It’s okay. The team is going to figure out. I know this is a rough beginning, but it will all get sorted out.
As a result of not listening to those things, the project started getting off track, and ultimately the fears were realized. We started to have issues that were starting to be pretty big issues for the client. We corrected course, and the process of correcting course was me just having this breakthrough of everybody has actually been saying very important things all along that I wasn’t listening to and that I wasn’t bringing into the conversation, and I wasn’t permissioning.
Joe: What I am hearing is what they said would bring up a fear in you that you didn’t want to feel and, therefore, I think you said as step on the signal. Before we move on to the next section, which is how you made the discovery and what that process was like, I would love to just understand how your relationship to fear in the past affected your relationships. What did it do with your relationships with lovers or family or friends?
Brett: There are a couple of things I could get into there. One is in relationships with partners. There might be a fear of being engulfed and then just not naming that fear of being engulfed would lead to just putting up walls, and then those walls would lead to lack of connection, lack of charge. Early on, really, in my relationships, I just had a hard time actually having any relationships because I was constantly so afraid of doing something wrong or scaring somebody away or just being weird.
That’s the relationships, but something that’s also really interesting is it is interpersonal but also out of the business context was in air sports and in base jumping. There would be a group of us on top of a cliff at an exit point preparing to jump together, and we are young, early 20s, mostly male. There would be a lot of ego and just signaling and wanting to fit in.
A phenomenon occurred a lot where somebody or even everybody on the exit point would be feeling a particular kind of fear about something, like the conditions really aren’t that great right now. They were great while we were hiking, but now they have deteriorated. I feel uncomfortable about this, but nobody else seems to feel uncomfortable so it must just be me. I don’t want to be the one to suggest that we all go hike four hours back down this mountain. That led to some really uncomfortable situations at best, and at worst led to fatalities.
There is where some of these breakthroughs really come in. I love these people, and here we are together. Because we were trying to be something for one another that was some vision of courageous, because of that, now somebody is injured, and they are in the hospital. It could have been us. It could have been any of us. That was really where this particular kind of breakthrough really started happening for me.
Joe: The first question that comes to mind for me, particularly if I am thinking about the audience, is what the difference is in your mind, your experience and your body between overcoming fear and feeling fear.
Brett: There is a difference between fear and excitement. Both of them show up similarly in the body as cortisol and adrenaline making your body be ready to act swiftly and sharply, but there are different components of it. If you are about to do something dangerous where you have to perform well to survive, there is going to be some component of that that is fear of actual danger. Your body is going to be inhibiting itself from doing something dangerous, and then there is another part that's the excitement of feeling competent, prepared and your body readying itself to perform at its best.
Both of them are always present, but the difference that I feel between them is when it is excitement, I am feeling expansive, more aware and sharper. But if it is fear of something that I should not be doing, if I am in over my head or I am not paying attention to a variable consciously that subconsciously I am aware that is going on. There is something wrong with my equipment or conditions have changed, and I am just not letting myself see it. Then the fear will actually feel more constricting and closing in.
The difference between overcoming it and welcoming it is the difference between standing on an edge and feeling the fear closing you down and just pushing through it anyway or feeling the fear and then welcoming it and seeing how it transforms and how much it transforms into excitement. The same thing can be going into a meeting in business. The same thing can be going into a difficult conversation with a partner where it is like I don’t know what’s going to happen in this conversation right now. I may lose my partner and we may have a deeper connection after this. My body is scared, but also I am ready to step into my truth.
Joe: When you feel into your fear in air sports, the signal seems to be whether you should do it, or you should not do it at that moment. What generally do you find the signal to be in the rest of your life?
Brett: The signal isn’t just a do it or don’t do it, a go or no go. It is what to be looking at. The signal is telling me if I listen to and feel into the signal, the signal is telling me what I care about. The signal is telling me what threatens it, or at least what I perceive threatens it. If I don’t listen to that signal and I just want to overcome it, then I may assume that I understand what the signal is and ignore it.
That can be to my detriment, but feeling the signal and then being like I am afraid of this happening. I am afraid of losing this project. I am afraid of losing this client. I am afraid of not being able to support my team. I am afraid of not being able to pay the bills. I am afraid of my business collapsing. I am afraid of being a failure. Then if I let myself actually feel those fears, then I can see what’s on the other side of them. Just letting my body process those unwanted outcomes makes it that if I find myself in the direction of those outcomes, I have already mapped the landscape. My intuition will be more calibrated to lead me in a workable direction.
Joe: It also feels like something that you are saying is that one of the signals in the fear is there is a self-care signal. It means one of my needs might not be getting met, and I need to address that.
Brett: Yeah, absolutely. Then the attempt to overcome the fear is the opposite of self-care. It is like this need of mine doesn’t matter, and I am not listening. Instead, I am going to prioritize this other thing. Sometimes that works, but in the long-time frame, if you do that every time, statistically it just doesn’t work out as well when you are actually paying attention to what all of your needs are even if not all of them can be met at the same time every time.
Joe: That’s something I see all the time with the people is that this generalized anxiety that they have is perpetuated because they are not getting their needs met and they are not seeing the signal of their anxiety of I have needs here that aren’t being met that I can ask for.
Brett: I have come to understand the difference between fear and anxiety in myself is that something that I am afraid of, there is usually something specific. I can point a finger to it. If I am feeling just anxiety, then it is general. I might be confused about what it is, or I might feel like it makes no sense but if I listen to that anxiety, the first step for me is often just to feel my dissociation, to feel my numbness because I have that patterned really deeply. My system just shuts down anxiety so that I don’t feel it so I can continue doing whatever I am doing, rock climbing or whatever. That was patterned in very young.
I feel into that pattern, feel into whatever numbness or dissociation there might be in my body. Slowly, the anxiety will start to rise to the surface. I feel that anxiety. I am like wow, something feels tingly here and butterflies. This feels uncomfortable. Then the more I feel it, the more that anxiety turns into some specific fear or constellation of fears that come with the signal of what it is that I actually need that I am not getting.
Joe: That makes a lot of sense. That story that I started out at the beginning where you told me that I used to think I wasn’t afraid and now I feel like I am afraid all the time, tell me what that transition was like. How did you become aware that there was this constant fear? What was that journey like? How could somebody who is right now thinking to themselves I might be that guy, I might be that woman who feels like I am not scared at all?
Brett: I started to notice it part way through the 18-month course that I did with you. I found that there was a period of a couple of months where I was paying very little attention to my work and to my business and doing a lot of going to authentic relating workshops or circling, just going to the tea house and hanging out with people and talking about all kinds of things that were related to my business, but I wasn’t actually taking action on it. It just started to dawn on me that I was clearly avoiding heavily. What am I actually avoiding?
Through the tools I learned in the program, I started to recognize that there was fear there. I was like huh, that’s strange. I had never thought of myself as being fearful. I had the exact opposite self-concept, building a life around being somebody who is in a deeply healthful relationship with my fear or at least aspiring to be. This idea that I was living with low level or maybe even high level but not felt anxiety in just my day-to-day life in San Francisco where I had all of my basic needs met just broke my brain to realize.
When I started to feel it, I realized of course, I have always been feeling this kind of fear. This is why I used to be really awkward around women when I was really young, and why over time I have been working through discomfort and fear in business scenarios and with boundaries. This fear, this anxiety would be the thing that I wouldn’t recognize that I was feeling that would make me walk away from an opportunity because I was afraid of failing at it.
Joe: What were some of the tools? What were the tools that helped you in this process? You speak about this 18-month course, but if I am listening to this thing, I am going what tool, what can I do.
Brett: A lot of what we did in the course was exercises that brought us into feeling different emotions and witnessing each other feeling those emotions. This alongside recognizing that the world is a project, and that the judgments that we have of others is something that we are judging in ourselves. With those two things superimposed, when I would see somebody in fear, I noticed that I judged it. Huh, interesting.
Joe: Yeah, that’s such a great hack in general is when you really notice that all of your judgments are just a way for you to stop feeling something or to resist feeling something. It is a cool hack because it lets you know everything you are avoiding. That’s awesome. It’s great to hear that from your perspective. I have one perspective going through the course. It’s cool to hear the other perspective.
You are going through this journey of understanding your fear. You have this recognition that actually the fear is always here, and then you have a recognition that there is a signal to the fear that’s really important. At some point, there must be some transition from taking that information and acting on it instead of taking that information and trying to overcome it. Can you tell me about that process? Can you tell me about the process of learning to act on the signal of fear?
Brett: There are a lot of little moments this occurred. An example in air sports is I would be preparing to do a jump of some kind. I would have this fear that was sort of abnormal, not just a normal level of elevation but like something else going on but logically everything seems to be fine. I would ignore it. Then we are about to jump and then somebody points out something that I had completely missed that was dangerous, and I am like oh, yeah, that was the fear. That was what the fear was pointing to, so having that little recognition.
This is something I need to be listening to more and it is a fine line between those different signals of fear and excitement. You never find the exact edge between them, and I don’t know if there is a binary edge. Having these close call experiences, and also in business, too, also in personal relationships, but just recognizing how much the cost is of not listening to it, not listening to the fear, not feeling it, how much the cost of trying to overcome it is.
Also, another thing in flow sports with your body is that if you are second guessing your body while your body is doing something, then it takes it out of flow. To be feeling fear and then suppressing that fear is just a way of fighting yourself. It decreases your connection to what you are doing.
Joe: What I notice is that oftentimes when people start to recognize I have this fear, and it is telling me I am not taking care of myself. It tells me that I have a need that’s not met. There’s another thing they have to jump over, and that thing seems to be asking for their needs. You might be sitting on the top of the mountain, and you might say I have that fear and probably nobody is saying anything. Maybe other people have it. It is really important to say it. Then there is the actual act of saying it.
In something like air sports, it makes sense to say it pretty quickly because it could be your death. It is a high consequence. But in a business environment, oftentimes people really hesitate to ask for their needs to be met when they realize the fear is indicating there is something not being met. How do you do that? How did you learn that? Have you learnt that?
Brett: You would be surprised how long it can go in air sports without learning this or continually learning it. Also, in business, I have a client who is also a very good friend. We worked on a project with them for 8 years. Over time, it started to grow old and stale. The tech was growing stale. There wasn’t really money to be putting into it, and so it started to just reach this point where it was we really need to be rebuilding this from scratch. It is also going to cost a lot of money. I don’t know if you guys have that kind of money. I am really scared to tell you that I don’t know that we can continue to work on this project without resources I don’t know that you actually have. I really want to do well by you. I don’t want to leave you abandoned, and I am scared. What are we going to do?
I don’t want to be working the way we have with the resources we have had. I apologize for continually trying to make more and more happen under the same budget constraints when my assumption is that can’t increase. That’s one example of a conversation that’s happened a number of times in business. I’ve done a lot of business with friends. With or without friends, there is often a caretaking aspect. Now that I am working on this project with you, it is my responsibility to make sure it is going well. If you have business needs otherwise, then you should tend to those. I will just make do with what we can. That very often did not serve the clients in the end.
Joe: What I heard you say is one of the ways in which you have learned to ask for your needs to be met is by being really vulnerable and speaking out, saying I am scared here and just owning the fear and then seeing how that lands. What other ways have you found to be able to speak your need or speak the fear that’s happening in a way that can be handled by people or in a way that feels really true and authentic to you?
Brett: Just drawing a boundary. I have a need that I am afraid it’s not going to be met, and it is going to be difficult for me to be moving forward with this uncertainty of not knowing if this need is going to be met, so what I really need is this. I need not to have this be happening.
Joe: What, if anything, was your way of becoming comfortable with drawing these boundaries that have potentially these huge consequences, losing lovers, losing business, losing friends?
Brett: Feeling the thing I am afraid of happening and then grieving that occurrence. Pre-grieving the loss, recognizing that maybe I am in a codependent relationship with a partner or a client, and that the moment I draw a boundary to make sure that my needs are met, they will attack me. That can actually really happen. They might even leave and then badmouth to everybody. That could actually happen. That’s the situation I have gotten myself into through avoiding fear.
Now is the time to feel it, and be ready for the consequences, which in the short term may hurt a lot and in the long term the result is living more authentically and having better relationships as a result even if it is not the same relationships.
Joe: That’s a great transition for focusing on the third part of this interview, which is how life is now. If you were to ask the people in your life, whether it be business or your air sports friends or your relationships or your family, how would they describe the difference? They might not describe the difference as he seems like he is really in touch with his fear. They might not even notice that. What do you think they do notice?
Brett: I’ve heard people describe me as being more confident. I am not sure that is quite the right word for it, but my internal experience is being more willing to feel afraid of whatever it is I am stepping into. Externally, people see it as having courage.
Joe: How about the dissociation? You talked a bit earlier about your dissociation being one of the first things that happens in fear. What are people’s reflections about your dissociation compared to before?
Brett: I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback from people on my dissociation or lack thereof. Sometimes I do. People are like where are you right now. There is a way that I am not defensive about that. I don’t have as much shame around being distracted or preoccupied by a fear, and so if somebody points something out to me. They are like where are you right now, what are you thinking about. It used to be the case that I would come up with a bullshit excuse, not an excuse but something that wasn’t really what I was afraid of, and I hide the fear.
Now I am much more likely to share vulnerably what it is that I am feeling. It often just evaporates the moment I do that.
Joe: What is all of that doing to your sense of connection with your friends, relations and their sense of connection to you?
Brett: I feel much more loved for who I actually am, and I feel like my fear is much more permissioned and welcome. Others feel that their fear is welcome with me. That deeply increases connection and also leads to a lot more difficult conversations that are had earlier rather than later, finding what’s actually real. The relationships and the connections I have now feel much more real and much more robust than they often used to be when I was holding and carrying this belief that I had to hide my fear from the relationship, or it would damage it somehow.
Joe: How does that look in a business meeting? What did a business meeting look like before you were feeling your fear and after you were feeling your fear?
Brett: An extreme example, before feeling my fear, I would overpromise, underdeliver, speak to the positives that are going on in the project and be afraid of sharing anything negative. That went predictably poorly every time. Now there is just a much deeper sense of trust. Clients and I feel much more comfortable that neither of us are going to move forward into something that really doesn’t work for us or that doesn’t set us up for success. There is also trust that if anything changes course as something always does, that we will be able to have the conversations to correct course and flow with reality as it is coming at us, which leads to a much deeper sense of safety.
Joe: My experience of that is it is not just safety; it is trust, which I think you just mentioned. As you feel the fear, instead of overcome it, what is your sense of trust in life? How has that changed at all, if at all?
Brett: My trust in life has deepened immensely. For example, if I go through this fear process of what happens if I lose a client, what happens if I lose the business, what happens if I lose everything, what happens if I break my legs, I have a much deeper trust that whatever happens, I have strong relationships. Even if I lose my relationships, I have an ability to develop connection anywhere, with anybody. Whatever it is I have in my life is less dependent on the thing I am attached to that currently makes me feel safe. I feel that I could approach a much wider range of possible scenarios and situations and unexpected curveballs and be able to navigate it with self-compassion and in connection with whoever is around me and just be much more resourceful than I used to.
Joe: To wrap this up, I would love to hear about a specific example of something that happened in the last year where you had a big oh crap moment, a big fear moment and you felt into it, and what happened afterwards.
Brett: Several months ago, we had a really big client that reduced the team size for our projects. They had to go back to the drawing board and do a bunch of internal rewrites. Our contract with them, which was an ongoing, very large contract for us, was significantly reduced, which brought us from being cash flow positive to cash flow negative. Immediately, I was like this is Covid times, things are crazy. What are we going to do? I just let myself feel that fear, like oh no, this is the end. Everything is going to collapse. I let myself feel that. I laid down in my bed and just let my body shake, just let my body shake it out a little bit.
Then I came out of that, and I was like this is a really great opportunity for me to get out of the golden handcuffs of having one client bringing in most of the money and to start really leveraging some of the business development we have been doing and go out and find more clients and expand into new areas and upscale. That was a couple months ago. Right now we are in a much better position than we had been. I am really, really grateful for both that challenge and that experience and also for having this relationship with fear that allowed me to just feel it because that could have easily been another multi-month avoidance fest that would have led to collapse in a previous iteration of myself.
Joe: I am just so curious. How did you approach your team with this? This big thing happened. You feel your fear. How did you come to your team? What did you say?
Brett: That’s also interesting. I think a previous way I might have brought that to the team would have been like this happened, but don’t worry. We got this. Then people would have been do we really got this. I don’t know. The way that I approached the team with it and also I just have a really great team, so they were approaching me in the same way when we discovered this information. It was like this has happened. This is good for a lot of reasons. It is also scary, and we are going to flow with this and do what we need to do. There are many reasons we are in a good position right now, and there is also uncertainty. Let’s step into it and see what we can do.
Joe: How did that go as far as people getting nervous and saying I’ve got to leave? The fear that you have that I have to tell everybody I have got it all together and it is all going good, how did people actually respond to that level of openness? There are good things. There are bad things. It is scary. It is uncertain. How did people react to it?
Brett: There was a lot of excitement actually. There were some fears and there was some discomfort, but also there was a lot of excitement. This is awesome. Let’s grow. Let’s expand. Let’s get into new markets. Let’s find new clients. Let’s get out of the comfortable zone we had been in. Of course, there were some who didn’t take that approach. We did have a couple of people end up leaving, and I am not sure entirely what their internal reasons were. I think some of them were just getting a better offer elsewhere or maybe they just felt uncertain, so they left.
But those that are with us are fully onboard. It has led to a lot of really great team cohesion. There has been a number of difficult conversations and there has been a number of celebrations of achievements and small wins leading to bigger wins. Now there is just a bigger potential for what the company can be now. I think that a lot of us are feeling it.
Joe: Just congratulations on a two-month turnaround from losing a huge client or losing a huge portion of your revenue. To turn that around in two months is pretty amazing.
Brett: Thank you. Also, there was pretty good timing with it, too. Q1 is a pretty good time. A lot of hiring happens then. People have been starting to come out of the Coronavirus. Timing worked out well for us. I had just recently hired a VP of Sales to start bringing in leads, so we had a pipeline that was ready and just hadn’t fully been capitalized on yet. But a lot of that came down to listening to early fears of what would happen if we lost a bunch of business. Let’s be ready for that. It was a bunch of stacked fears having been listened to that led us to be in a position that we could turn it around that quickly.
Joe: That’s awesome. Thank you very much for spending time with us. I hope it was as enjoyable for you as it was for me. It was good to share these other aspects of you with the audience and to learn so much of it myself. It is interesting how I’ve known you for years now and there is still so much of your life that is a constant surprise to me. It was a pleasure to get to see these aspects of you. Thanks, Brett.
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