Meet Melissa Joy Kong, former CEO of start-up centered media company Technori and most recently one half of the Lovementary road trip, where she traveled across the United States recording real-life love stories (how cool!). I’ve been a frequent reader of her Tumblr blog and decided to ask her to talk with me about fear and she graciously said yes and had lots of helpful things to share with us.
A quick heads up, this is a pretty in depth read, so feel free to break it up into multiple sittings as needed, put on something comfy, grab your favorite snack, get out a notebook and pen, and without further ado, get to reading.
V: So what goal or dream did you have that you were afraid to go for?
M: So I just completed a three and a half month road trip with somebody who is now a friend, his name is Nate Bagley. And the two of us found out over this past summer, in 2013, that we both had pretty much the exact same project in mind. I wanted to interview 100 couples who were really in love and figuring out how to make marriage work and interview them on what it took to build a great relationship and travel across the country and write a book about it. He, about four months earlier, quit his full time job and decided to pursue a podcast called the Loveumentary full time. A mutual friend introduced the two of us, we talked and we knew almost immediately that we needed to do the project together because it was just way too serendipitous for us to glance over it.
It took us a couple months of planning and sort of like saying that you’re going to do something but you’re still kind of like one foot in and finally on September 2nd, I decided to buy a one way ticket to Utah, pack all my stuff up, move it into storage in Chicago, which is where I was living at the time and give it a go. And at this point we had no money, we had no idea how we were gonna make this trip happen. Our plan was to do a Kickstarter campaign, but that takes like a month. So here we are, no money, figuring out how to basically live and feed ourselves while we’re in Utah figuring out this project. And the crazy thing about it is that Nate and I didn’t actually meet in person until Day One of the trip.
So when you talk about compiling a bunch of fears, there’s the financial fear of how are we gonna eat, there’s the fear of is this project even gonna work out, there’s the fear of leaving everything that I knew behind and loved, you know, my startup job and my city and my friends, my home and all of that, in pursuit of something that I just had a very strong gut feeling about and that’s kind of the first thing I’ll say about the idea of hugging your fear.
I think that we make decisions out of three major places. This isn’t scientific; this is just sort of metaphorical. I think we make decisions out of the head, the heart and the gut. I think the head is sort of our rational, logic, analytical part of us. I think that heart is the emotional, feelings-based, relational part of us. And I think the gut is a feeling of constant and comforting certainty that something is the right thing or that something is the thing that needs to be pursued. My head has failed me and my heart has too. The heart can be quite irrational and the head can be devoid of serendipity and joy. But the gut never leads me astray. When I think about all of the big gut level decisions I’ve ever made never once did I regret a decision or think later on that it was the wrong thing to do. So I think that the more you tune into your gut feeling, and the stronger that that gets, the easier it is to follow it, and the easier it is to just sort of listen to that part of yourself which I guess for me was the first step in overcoming my fear. So this trip was the most recent instance where I totally hugged my fear and made out with it and everything.
V: So you talked about there being that period between having an idea and then deciding on it, what was happening during that time? What feelings? Behaviors? What was going on in your mind?
M: It’s a really weird thing, it’s like….have you ever had something that happens in slow motion and you feel like you’re either watching something crash and burn or you’re watching joy accelerate in slow motion? It almost feels totally out of your control, you just have to sit back and observe? And that’s what the few months leading up to me taking that leap felt like. It was observing me about to take an enormous leap that in many ways was completely irrational and even I think some would consider, my mom in particular, not safe. You know, getting in a car during a period of my life when I don’t have health insurance, driving with a stranger that I’d never really met in person and didn’t have that much history with, all these sorts of factors and I think sometimes when we’re chasing after something that we really want, one of the things that people always come up against is that they’re waiting for a sign. They’re waiting for a sign that they need to go take a leap and the truth of the matter is that the sign is that you had 24 hours. That was your sign. The sign is that the sun came up and you got out of bed and you could do whatever you want with that time.
It is really simple, we find ways to care about things that aren’t really gonna matter to us. I do this exercise that some of your readers might love, it’s based on Danielle LaPorte’s “core desired feelings”. And it’s an exercise that I call “Core Desired Moments.” The Desire Map, Danielle LaPorte’s book which is an amazing read, is about basing your goals off of how you want to feel. Do you want to feel joyful? Do you want to feel loving? Do you want to feel open?
But I was having a difficult time just coming up with three to five feelings, I was like “I want to feel like twenty different things!” So I created this exercise that I called “Core Desired Moments” and basically what I did with this exercise is imagine myself, and it could be different for everybody, but I personally picture myself at the age of 85 and I was sitting on a porch of a really nice house and my granddaughter comes up to me and she asks me “Grandma, tell me about all of the favorite moments in your life. The moments that brought you joy and made your life awesome.” And I sit there and I basically write what I would tell her. And as you go through those moments, you’ll learn a ton of striking things about yourself and what you desire and a lot of things will surprise you almost always.
One that surprised me was that in my single life, I spend about 70% of my time on work and professional related activities like answering emails or going to conferences and only about 30% of my time with friends, family, things that rejuvenate me beyond my daily run and my core desired moments were exactly the opposite. About 70-75% of them were all related to family and people and relationships and only about 30% of it was related to work and so I thought to myself, and this is the big thing about getting over your fear, it requires not just a sign or someone giving you the security, it requires a paradigm shift.
And the paradigm shift is one of undoing all of the layers that we’ve been taught to think through, like that we need security to be ok. And we have to have a full time job and it’s got to be in one of a dozen very specific industries that everybody tells you about when you’re ten years old like “You can be a doctor, an astronaut, a writer, a lawyer or a chef or something.” There’s nothing outside of that framework. So it requires this shift in thinking about how life needs to be and that happens sometimes really gradually. It was a process that took me 3-4 years, it certainly didn’t happen overnight. But I got to a point where I was able to do things, a little bit more unconsciously at the time, more consciously recently with an exercise like core desired moments where I’m like this is the life that I genuinely think will make me proud of the woman that I was and the life that I led 60 years from now. And the only thing stopping me from becoming that woman is me waking up in the morning and waiting for things to happen for me to get to that place and just going out and doing it, even if it’s just small.
I will say that I think that a big part of being able chase after the things that you want to do but fear doing is being super super thoughtful about who you spend your time with. I think that it’s something where when we’re young, this is another thing that we’re trained. We go into school and we want to hang out with the cool kids. Even if the cool kids don’t fit us, even if they’re not the best to be around for our personal growth, that’s who we want to be with. And later in our lives I think that we forget that we are consciously alive human beings who get to actively make decisions about who we spend time with. I think it really is true that you become like the 5 people who you’re with the most, a Jim Rohn quote. And not enough of us are thoughtful about designing the way that we spend our time and who we spend it with. That’s made a huge difference for me in my ability to pursue things. I decided to actively surround myself with people who believe that literally anything is possible, which was not part of my paradigm growing up, by any means. You can train yourself. Wherever you come from, whatever circumstances you had, whatever was held against you, you can train yourself to think through life differently and better and in a way that is more engaging and enlivening and joyful. It just takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight.
V: So what helped you get in the car and get moving?
M: I think that probably my unfair advantage is that I knew when I was eleven years old what I wanted to do professionally. I fell in love with media, absolutely head over heels, so by the time that I graduated from college I had done six or seven internships in the media world. And that doesn’t happen very often so I feel that I was just blessed with the foresight about what I loved from a young age. And that bought me time, but time doesn’t erase fear.
I would say what helped me was realizing that for the rest of my life if I want to chase big things, I needed to get excited about being terrified. Like that feeling that you get when you’re terrified of taking a leap, all that is is a lack of trust in yourself. All that is is you saying “I’m not willing to take a bet on me.” So it’s no wonder that things don’t line up. It’s like we’re on a different wave and we want to be up here but we’re like down here somewhere and we’re wondering why we’re not getting the things that come as a result of traveling the distance between the two, it requires a leap and I think people tend to think about taking a leap as like you take a leap and you just kind of fall down. But I would encourage people to think about it as taking a leap up. The very worst that is going to happen is that you fall back down to where you were, you just figure out how to bounce back up again.
And I think the other big paradigm shift is deciding that comfort is the thing you should be afraid of and uncertainty is the thing that you should chase. And when I say that, I mean that you literally train yourself to feel afraid when you start to get too comfortable. ‘Cause I think when you get comfortable, you really stop growing. This sounds very masochistic, but truly I think that we forget that the experience of pain and uncertainty is the only place where true growth happens. And if we can’t get used to the feeling of finding joy, genuine happiness and joy in the uncertainty, then it’s going to be really difficult for us to take those leaps. And all it takes is a decision that you’re going to view something through a different filter. That’s it.
One of the biggest things that I learned recently that completely shifted the way that I started to think about the outcomes of my life, cause things happen, things very rarely work out the way that we think they will and it’s really easy to get bitter and pissed off at life and other people when things don’t work out. But I read this recently in a book called The Tools which is a pretty good read, and he said at one point, the biggest disconnect that we as people have is that we are almost solely concerned with external success. You know, finding the perfect partner to be in a relationship with, raising the perfect kids, finding the perfect house, finding the dream job, getting paid a lot of money to do that dream job, you know, like all these things that are external.
So when we think that that’s the goal, it’s easy for us to be upset or pissed off or disappointed or hurt or whatever, when expectation and reality differ because our goal is those external things and very rarely is our reality those external things. And what the author said is what we forget is that the World, the Universe, who I call God (or you could replace it with any word for what you subscribe to) is concerned purely and simply and solely with the strength of our hearts. And when I heard that I thought, man, if you put all the hardship in your life through that filter I can see why every missed opportunity, lost job, empty bank account, like why all those moments happened. They were meant to strengthen my heart and my faith and my trust in myself, in the world, in God, in the network of friends and family around me, in being ok with being dependent sometimes. And when you put life through that filter of “How is this an opportunity to strengthen my heart versus how is this a failure about not getting exactly what I wanted externally?,” it changes everything.
So that’s another big thing that I would say towards the end of the process of starting to overcome your fear, if you can just switch the way that you view the outcomes of your life that maybe don’t go as planned and think about how they can strengthen your heart then it gets a lot easier to take leaps.
V: You mentioned a little ways back that one of the reasons that people don’t take that leap is because they don’t trust themselves to be able to do it. So how do you build that trust?
M: That’s a great question. I was just talking to my friend the other night about this, I’ll use my specific example for this, but there are many other variations. I grew up in almost poverty. And I was insulated from the experience of that quite a bit because my mom is one of the most loving people I’ve ever known and probably will ever know and when people fill you with love, being poor, you don’t really feel it as much. But when I look back on it now, I’m like, wow, we were poor. And one of the biggest ways that I see my upbringing affect my life now is that I literally for a really long time and sometimes still, I doubt what is possible for my life. I think one of the things we all kind of struggle with is getting to a place where we almost immediately in our heads go to the worst case scenario and we start to think to ourselves ok, this obviously is never gonna happen because of this and I’m never gonna get this job because I don’t have enough experience or this person is never gonna date me because I’m not lovable. They’re all lies or rather they’re all very neutral opinions that we get to add power to and the power is either going to support us or detract from us. And I think about my circumstance growing up and how I pulled myself out of it.
I think the first thing is if we can create safety and comfort for the people around us, or if we had that provided to us, then it makes us so much more comfortable taking leaps in our lives. But not all of us have that built in safety and comfort so it makes it doubly hard to take leaps sometimes and what I would say about that is growing the confidence to trust yourself, the biggest thing that it comes from when you don’t have all that safety and comfort and cushion and stability is to be in integrity with your word.
I learn more and more that being in integrity means that what you say you value matches how you live your life or what you say you’re gonna do matches what you actually do. And your word is your bond, not just with the world, but with yourself. And when you actively practice being true to your word and doing the things you say you’re going to do, then it makes it a lot easier to believe that the things that you promised yourself in the future will actually happen.
So an example of that is to just start off really small, say you really have low trust for your ability to accomplish your dreams. Say “I am gonna wake up tomorrow morning at 6am and go for a run” and if it’s on that calendar, no matter how you feel, your ass is getting out of bed at 5:45am and you’re going for a run, and that’s it, end of the story. It’s not about your feelings, it’s about what you committed to and how you’re gonna be in integrity with yourself.
We’ve just become a generation where we’re terrified of committing to things and what I would say to people, and I’ve heard this from so many people I respect and admire, Oprah is one of them. Even though she is one of the most busy people on the planet and probably commits to things and then gets invited to the president’s house, no matter what comes up she always sticks to her commitments unless she’s deathly ill. And I think it’s so important to do that.
If people are feeling like they’re lacking confidence in themselves, I would say take a look at how good you are at committing to things cause I would guess that there’s probably a big disconnect there. If people really want to start feeling more confident in themselves and in their lives and what’s possible for them, just start committing to things whenever you can. The next time someone asks you if you want to go to dinner, be like yes, I want to go to dinner and then don’t cancel. If you work at a job where you make your own schedule and deadlines, build in deadlines, promise people things. Say I promise to get you the first draft of this document by this Thursday at 12pm and then get it to them by Thursday at 12pm.
Because if I can make the small promises to myself and say ok, I’m gonna be strictly a vegan for a week or I’m not gonna have any wine at the party tonight or I’m gonna save $100 by the end of the month, these little things, which don’t seem like a big deal, when you do them and you keep those promises then I know that when I say I’m going to build one of the most successful, engaging and honest publications in the world by the time I’m 50, I’m going to do that. And I know that when I say that I’m going to have a marriage that despite the expected ups and downs of marriage and of life, I’m going to have the most kickass, stellar, loving, passionate, awesome marriage with whoever I get to marry. I can trust that that’s gonna happen because I am somebody who is in integrity with their word and with the people in my life. So anybody out there who’re struggling with that piece, with having faith and trust with themselves, start making commitments.
V: That’s powerful. How did you handle any doubts or fears that happened once you had already started and were in the middle? How did you keep going?
M: Alright, for anyone out there who is reading this, I’m just gonna say this. The last three and a half months of my life, were probably three and a half of the most emotionally, physically, intellectually, and personally grueling months of my entire life. And from the last three and a half months I would say one, what I have learned is don’t judge a book by its cover. Seriously. Because even if the book is exactly like the cover, exactly what you expect, at least ask questions to verify before you make the assumption. ‘Cause I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met along the way who were like “Oh my gosh, you must be having such a blast.” And it’s awesome and it’s great and it’s like you know what I am blessed beyond belief, but the last three and a half months were fucking painful, for a lot of reasons.
The second thing that I would say is I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to give up on this trip. I wanted to give up at least fifty times and just throw the towel in and just be like “I’m done, I’m not doing this anymore.” If we can remember that the point of life is the strength of our hearts and that process takes refinement, shedding of some bad lessons and growing of some good ones. As intensely painful as something is, the ability to lean back and be the observer of your life, versus the one freaking out about it, is incredibly freeing.
And when you can just sit back and observe yourself in massive amounts of pain, whether it’s struggling with intense loneliness, or with fear of being a failure, or fear of being unlovable, or fear that no one cares about you, or fear that you’re not accepted, or fear that you’ll never be successful, or you’re never gonna get enough done, or that you procrastinate too much, whatever it is. Everything that I just listed is something that I felt at some point in the last three and a half months. To be able to go through those things and to sit in my bed or in a car and just cry and let myself observe my willingness to go through pain and not judge it and not try to rush out of it and not try to numb it with television or alcohol or food or whatever numbing mechanisms that we’re all so good at using (myself included). To just sit back and observe myself going through that pain freely without any pressure to get through it quickly or faster than is normal, all I can say is that that’s when you start to feel really alive. Because when you hit that point, Seth Godin refers to it as the “dip”, when you just want to give up and you just can’t do it anymore and you feel like you’re literally at your edge that is when magic happens 100% of the time. And I think that that’s the gift of not being afraid to live and get your hands dirty. You’re blessed with a river to clean yourself off in.
And to anybody out there who is going through something or in the midst of chasing a fear and they just want to through the towel in and quit, what I would say to them is, when you’re 85 years old, and your grandkid is asking you what makes you proud in your life, if you quit right then and there, wherever you are right now, I’m talking to you, whoever’s reading this who wants to quit, and you can say that genuinely it felt like the right time to quit and you’ll have no regrets about it, then by all means quit. We don’t need to see everything through to the end. But if you feel at any level, that you will break your own heart a little by quitting, then you just can’t. You just have to keep going.
V: Do you have any books or quotes or anything that help you move through fear?
M: Yeah, one of my favorites, one of the books that really created shifts for me almost immediately was one called The Untethered Soul. It’s a pretty short read, but it’s dense material so it’s one of those things that you kind of have to meditate on and just go through slowly. But man, that book will kick you in the ass if you’re living out of fear. It’s a great book. It’s sort of along the lines of The Power of Now, but it does a great job of explaining things a bit differently that really resonated with me.
Another book, it’s literally my favorite book in the world, is a Christian book, but I would say that anybody out there who is interested in leading a secretly incredible life needs to read this book. And if they can deal with references to Jesus, even if they don’t subscribe to Jesus, I would really highly recommend this read. Because I truly think that the way this man writes, I can’t think of a life that I would want to live more than the life that this man lives. It’s a guy by the name of Bob Goff and he wrote a book called Love Does and the book is basically just about love doesn’t just sit around, it does stuff and it talks about this guy who just lives a literally secretly incredible life and does these obscenely cool things with his family and his friends and his little kids and is just a gem of a human being and I look up to him more than I look up to anybody else that I don’t know. I look up to him more than Oprah, more than anybody. He’s just one of those guys that you know that sitting down with him and having a conversation with him will bring you joy. And I can’t think of anything better in life than that. So I highly recommend that book for anyone who just wants to have a living, breathing example of what it means to live a life on fire and at a place of love and not fear.
I really really love Danielle LaPorte’s The Fire Starter Sessions. That is an awesome book. She also wrote something called The Desire Map which is basically about the core desired feelings principle that I was talking about a little bit earlier. Danielle LaPorte is amazing and she’s literally like a Goddess. Everything that that girl says is truth with a capital T. She’s awesome.
There’s another book for all the women out there that I think is a really fascinating read. The title is not the best, but it’s by Marie Forleo, and she wrote a book called Make Every Man Want You. And you would think that it’s this straight up dating book, like what manipulative tactics can I use to get men to like me, but really what it’s about is how to glow from the inside out. Like how to just be authentically you and just glow in a way that makes everybody want to be around you, not just men, everybody. Like little kids and dogs, everybody. I was shocked by how incredibly thoughtful and well written that book was given the title and what I expected from it, so I highly recommend that book for all the women out there.
And I’ll give two more. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck is another great one. He is just an incredible thinker. His definition of love is the commitment to somebody else’s growth. It’s a bit heady, he’s a psychotherapist, so he comes from that sort of background. But he has some really fascinating insights on love, money, life, career, all of that in this book so it’s one of those classic personal development books.
And the last one I would suggest is a book by the guy who wrote the famous The Four Agreements, but I personally think this book is the much better book than the The Four Agreements and it’s called The Mastery of Love and the it is all about love and how to love other people well and I think that it’s hands down one of the best books on love out there on the market. He definitely takes a little bit more of a spiritual perspective, non-denominational, but spiritual nonetheless and it’s just a fascinating read.
V: Any final thoughts?
M: If you’re waiting for a sign this is it. Your life is going to be determined by a bunch of the decisions that you make moment to moment. There isn’t ever going to be a perfect time. You’re never going to be fully ready. There’s always going to be a reason why not to do something. For anything worthwhile, there will always be an element of fear and for the things that are the most worthwhile; there will be a lot of fear. And if you can trust in your gut and be willing to get excited about that feeling of being afraid, sometimes terrified, you will live a truly magnificent life. So my last piece of advice is if you’re waiting for a sign, this is it, trust yourself and go for it.
So there you have it, lots of good stuff. This is definitely one to bookmark and come back to, right? There were so many helpful tips, thoughts and resources that Melissa shared, so I won’t re-mention everything, I just want to mention my two favorite takeaways:
– First, it is so affirming to know that someone you admire struggles at times with the same fears that you do despite seeming to be completely fearless. I know I’ve been guilty of judging her book by its cover. And I’m pretty sure that you can think of some people who you admire too. It just means that we’re all human, and to be human means to have fear sometimes. And to know that it’s likely that even after achieving many awesome things, there will still be fear at times, oddly makes me feel better.
– The second thing that hit me like a ton of bricks was the idea that your ability to keep commitments with yourself dictates how much you trust yourself. This was so huge to me. I’d never made this connection before, but once Melissa said it I saw it so clearly. It’s so easy to believe that letting yourself down doesn’t really matter, but it slowly erodes your belief in your capabilities because if can’t believe that you will follow through on the everyday commitments, it’s not so much of a stretch to believe that you can’t follow through or don’t have what it takes to reach your larger goals. This is definitely something I’m working on getting better at.
What are your favorite parts? Any aha moments? If you want to learn more about Melissa, visit her blog here.
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