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Face Your Fears (Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy)

You can improve your life by taking control of self-defeating thoughts, feeling and behaviors. That is the thesis underlying cognitive behavior therapy, founded by Dr. Albert Ellis, who died in 2007 at age 93.

Ellis helped thousands of people.  He practiced what some have called “talk therapy.” As Michael Kaufman has written: “His [Ellis's] basic message was that all people are born with a talent for crooked thinking or distortions of perceptions that sabotage their innate desire for happiness. But he also recognized that people have the capacity to change themselves.”

It would have been enough for me to take the advice of my barber, Mike Guerreri, who when he retired was nearly 80 years old. He had had governors, senators, CEOs, and celebrities in his chair in Greenwich, CT over the years. He told me that negative thoughts weigh too much, use too much energy and damage only to the person who has them. He urged me to drop them as soon as possible and do something positive to make sure they’re gone. 

Dr. Ellis built an entire science around this hopeful approach to happiness. Taking issue with Freud’s focus on childhood neuroses, which Ellis termed another phrase for whining, he urged action to deal with them. My interviews with more than two dozen CEOs persuade me that the most successful leaders know this. It is one of the keys to their confidence to embrace risks. It is what enables them to take self-doubt out of the weighing of risks, how to transcend it and take calculated risks.

What brought Ellis to this belief and to exhibit it in his own behavior? You have only to examine a set of shaping experiences in his early years. At age 19 and essentially on his own (his parents spent little time with him) he was shy and feared any encounter with a female. Unsure of his ability to speak in public even with an audience of one, especially if female, he forced himself to complete a test: he would occupy a park bench and speak with no fewer than 130 women before ending the experiment.

“Thirty walked away immediately,” he said in a New York Times article according to Kaufman. "I talked with the other 100, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops.” This was one of the ten archetypal shaping experiences of my CEOS: “Getting good on your feet."  It was also a second one: “Swimming in water over your head” where you take a risk at something for which you are clueless. He faced his fear of speaking to females and took control of the negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors not just by introspection, but through action.

The rest is history. Though he got only one date as a result of his time on the bench, he did decades of public speaking, including a weekly seminar with a live audience. He is credited with one of the greatest contributions to the field of psychology.

Ordinary people become extraordinary leaders by the accumulation of shaping experiences in their lifetime. Some are presented by serendipity, others are created by the people themselves. Even in mid-career, at work and in your community it is not too late to pursue exceptional personal growth to be all you can be. Believe me, that phrase is a lot more than a U.S. Army recruiting slogan.