Being Fierce

I’m amazed at how much fear is a part of my life.  Even more startling is how clearly I see that grip when the fear loosens its hold and I’m lighter, less-burdened.

I’m also amazed at how well my unconscious feeds me what I need to hear, especially in times of deep transition and fear. It’s like when that mysterious woman speaks to you in a dream, telling you the thing you need to hear most. Or when the right words whisper to you as the breeze shakes the aspens in a walk outside of Bozeman.

These two observations came to me as I thought about the notion of being fierce. Months ago I was asked to give a brief talk and, after getting over the initial shock of being asked to speak briefly, I zeroed in on one aspect of leading which I found most difficult: having difficult conversations.

At the time, I didn’t want to admit to myself that the difficulty isn’t merely for my clients but for myself as well. In that talk (embedded below), I spoke of our tendency to avoid fierce conversation…with others, of course, but with ourselves as well. But as teachings tend to do, the notion–what I called “Being Fierce”–began to work on me.

In the first variation of the talk, I expressed the wisdom I’d learned from my therapist; as a way to cope with my migraines–something that had plagued me my entire life–she taught me to ask myself, “What are you not saying that needs to be said?” Identifying that and, importantly, saying it, freed me from the worst of my headaches (to say nothing of releasing me from back and stomach problems).

After the talk, though, it was clear the universe wasn’t done with me. I was asked to speak at the Wanderlust festival in Aspen. (Yes, me, a former VC, a former employee of JP Morgan Chase, talking to a bunch of yoginis at a festival celebrating so many things that my former JP Morgan-self would have found challenging.) As I was reviewing my notes for that talk, I had to admit there were other questions worthy of exploring. To that talk, I added two additional questions: “What are you saying that’s not being heard?” and “What’s being said that you’re not hearing?”

When I shared those three “magic Ninja move” questions, I could feel their correctness. Eyes grew wide. Bodies settled into place. And we, as a group, connected deeply enough that one woman was able to cut through my “I’m-the-presenter” persona/screen to ask me a question that made me cry (see, I’m not the only person with the superpower that calls forth tears): How do I react when I encounter a fierce woman? I said, “It depends. If the fierce woman reminds me of my mother, I have one reaction. But if the fierce woman reminds me of one of my sisters, than I have another.” I broke down when I thought of one sister in particular.

I’ve been walking a bit here in Bozeman. Big Sky is having at me with abandon. I came here from Boulder where I’ve been spending most of the summer, on sabbatical, prepping myself for the next transitions in my life: personal as well as professional. 2014-07-28 18.39.26 I came here to sit in the grass and, eventually, came to another observation. My late obsession of teaching about being fierce hasn’t merely been for my clients or those others who’d share a few hours with me. (Or, as some hardy souls have already done, share a few days with me at one of my bootcamps.) It’s been for me as well.

Sitting on a hill, staring off into the endless horizon, I recounted the half dozen or so fierce conversations I’ve had to have over the last month or so; each more frightening than the last. Each months, sometimes years, overdue. I suppose you know you’ve discovered the truest teachings when they rip you apart as surely as they rip apart the other. When the distinction between “teacher” and “student” is torn and we stand together, broken open by the fearful act of being fierce–when it’s as hard for you to say as it is for the other to hear–you know you’re speaking truth.

Thanks Bijan Sabet and Danya Cheskis-Gold for inspiring this talk and creating the goodness around supporting deep important dialogue.

  • Nancy Raulston

    thanks for reminding us that we are most effective in “teaching” when we do it through engaging in our own learning

    • jerrycolonna

      I wish my “engagement” wasn’t so damn hard. I wish I could deliver the “teachings” without actually having had to learn them myself.

      • Nancy Raulston

        I’m not sure I buy that — you seem like someone who isn’t put off by “hard”. But I will hope that the pain will lighten soon

        • jerrycolonna

          :) Why does “everyone” say that?
          Thanks. That means a lot coming from you.

  • bijan

    I have learned so much from all of our conversations

    it was a very a good day when we were introduced

    • jerrycolonna

      A great day for me as well. You’re one of a good souls out there my friend.

  • Jay Shirley

    Our last talk, you used the word “converge” and it echoed again through my head as I read this.

    The path of the student and teacher converges, internally and externally.

    • jerrycolonna

      Great point. I also think of Parker Palmer’s “co-creation” when describing what happens in the best of our classrooms. When the teacher is willing to teach the questions to which they want answers, and be willing to stand in the “not knowing”, then student/teacher merge.

      • Elizabeth Kraus

        It’s funny because I am going through a similar
        “convergence” experience myself. I’ve been working to launch a startup accelerator to help narrow the gender gap in our startup community. As part of that effort, I’ve been interviewing startup female CEOs to better understand why there are so few women-led startups. As the women I was interviewing continued to bring up the same issues that they’ve struggled with – their comfort-level
        with aggressively pursuing opportunities, confidently advocating for themselves
        and their business, thinking as “big” as possible and asking for strategic support – I started
        to see those same patterns with the women I was mentoring and then in myself. It started me on the path of deep personal transformation with all sorts of difficult conversations, and deep family and personal issues. Dealing with this stuff is
        absolutely exhausting, but also completely liberating. I’m not sure I would have had the energy to do it if I wouldn’t have felt obligated to practice what I preach. I also don’t think I would have been in a position to truly help others if I hadn’t gone through this myself. I guess that’s the power of being a mentor….Didn’t fully understand
        this until now.

        • jerrycolonna

          Thanks for the insightful and thoughtful comment, Elizabeth. I think it’s a function of things arising for us as we need them to.

          Skip the magic if it makes you uncomfortable and chalk it up to the unconscious. (It’s all magical to me, anyway.)

          “Dealing with this stuff is absolutely exhausting, but also completely liberating.”

          You said it.

  • Kevin Friedman

    Great post. Ah, yes, fierce conversations. To use another Jerryism, definitely something I’ve been trying to lean into. Sometimes with hard (but better in the long run) results. As always, thanks for the transparency and the reminder that even the best teachers among us are still learning. As Oppenheimer said, “the best way to learn is to teach.” So true.

    One question I had: when you use the word “fierce” I assume you don’t mean “aggressiveness” but the other definition “showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity”? Leading with heart as well?

    Best wishes on the personal and professional transitions.

    • jerrycolonna

      I think the line I used in the talk was “Fierce, not ferocious.”
      Fierce, to me, is not about aggression (although in the fear it can come up as such). In fact, it takes more courage to be fierce than ferocious.

  • Pete Bruce

    Another great post Jerry. I too battle(d) migraines my entire life. As a child I would describe them to the doctors as “my head feeling blocked up”. But now I know it was my heart. Our bodies are some of the greatest teachers we have. What are we not hearing that our body is trying to tell us? What is our body not hearing that we are trying to tell it? We are having those conversations in our heads the whole time. They get stuck up there, and they need to be let out. Being fierce I think is just releasing them. Thanks again for your teaching. Best of luck in your time of transition.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Peter. I think your little kid self had it right: the feelings were blocked up. Amen.

    • Kevin Friedman

      Great comment Pete. I love “our bodies are some of the greatest teachers we have. ” So true. Amazing how emotional struggles can manifest in our bodies. Sometimes, in an unusual ways. 😉 Your insight into migraines being caused by a “blockage” reminded me of the Chinese medicine concept of Qi. So much to learn from different approaches. Have you found anything particularly helpful in helping in listen to your body and releasing what needs to be released?

      • Pete Bruce

        Thank you for the comment Kevin,glad it helped. I think being fierce (honest) with myself is a big one. “Why do I feel terrible?” I ask myself. Well maybe its that fast food I had, duh! For me personally sleep is a huge one. I rarely get less than 8 hours of sleep now and its a game changer. Also, knowing my stress triggers so I don’t put myself in tough situations. My newest cure is yoga. The deep breathing releases stuff I didn’t even know I had.

        As for the migraines specifically? I had a talk with my dad I should have had years ago. And I haven’t had one since :)

  • Alex Wolf

    Jerry, I enjoyed this talk, and will pass on to my team. So we can do some transparency exercises.

    You “outed” me as a diagrammer, but perhaps not as a visual metaphorist. The many edges and facets of “fierce” – need to say, need to be heard, need to hear – are they perhaps the three mighty lenses and mirrors of Radical Self Awareness? A bit like a trifecta of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter ( )

    One of your coaching talents is nudging your fledgling out of safety, challenging your chicks to see those looking glasses to achieve their fierce-ness, to leap to the unknown holding, mitigating their fears.

    Internalizing what I saw in the mirror is captured my latest blog post, in which you are hat tipped. Your fingerprints are all over that piece. You heard the story, but perhaps not how it resolved. Would be delighted to have you see where it led.

  • TanyaMonteiro

    My new daily mantra, ‘when it’s as hard for you to say as it is for the other to hear–you know you’re speaking truth.’ Thank you for this Jerry

  • Ben Thomas

    It wasn’t until I had the chance to sit in on your talk in Bozeman that I realized how much of my life is dominated by fear. Since yesterday I have been feeling tense and edgy, like something is going to happen. Or perhaps like I am going to finally do something about my fear-bound condition. Maybe I will escape into horrible, horrible freedom (to quote the escaping space-ants in the Simpsons). Thanks for helping me to open a dialog with myself about this.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome. Try to turn that dialogue into something friendly. Turn the space-ants into Krusty the clown… No wait. He’s even scarier.

  • John

    Loved the video. I wish they recorded more of the talks you do.

    I think there’s an interesting comparison with being fierce and fear. I recently faced fear in a couple of business situations where I had a lot of fear and a related topic: imposter syndrome.

    Luckily, I’d recently heard about these mormon missionaries who’d been kidnapped in Russia about 15 years ago (they just made a movie about their experience called the Saratov Approach). I had a chance to meet the actual missionaries that were kidnapped. One of them described the experience of being kidnapped and then said something really powerful: Once I’d accepted the worst case scenario (in this case death), I was completely liberated from fear.

    I’ve applied this to many areas of my business. When something scares me, I think through the worst case scenario and once I accept that scenario I’m unafraid since I’ve accepted the worst possible outcome already. The great part is that it rarely reaches the worst outcome. So, I often end up far ahead of it.

    I hope you’ll share more of your future plans and how you think about shaping those future plans.

    Also, your blog title makes me think it should be a Katy Perry song.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks John. I’ll ping Katy and see if we can collaborate.
      I’d call your strategy for dealing with your fears “leaning in.” It’s making friends with the monster.
      It’s a really powerful tool.

      • John

        The irony is that with Twitter you really can ping Katy.

        Leaning in and making friends with the monster is a good description. Ahh…the emotional roller coaster of life.

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