Conquering Fear: The Everyday Heroics of Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert officially took over CBS' The Late Show last night, and there was a lot riding on this transition. Stepping into those very big shoes previously filled by the legendary David Letterman — one of the most influential comedians and television personalities of the last thirty years — would be an absolutely frightening endeavor for anyone, no matter how talented. On top of that, Colbert has been very successful at playing Stephen Colbert the character for nearly a decade, and he has to prove to the world that Stephen Colbert the person is not a one-trick pony. It's enough to induce a serious case of stage fright.

But here's the thing: He nailed it. And one of the big reasons why? Stephen Colbert thrives on embracing failure. The latest issue of GQ magazine has an insightful and absolutely inspiring profile of Colbert, which covers everything from what it takes to mount a production the size of The Late Show to the very tragic loss of his father and brothers at the age of ten. For someone who's endured more devastation than most will likely ever know, what's truly amazing is how positive his outlook on life is — instead of feeling that fate has robbed him, he celebrates what life has given him. In the way he carries himself and continually pushes forward, Colbert offers up a great lesson on embracing failure in order to push past your fears.

When Colbert was about to take to the stage for the very first time in his improv career at Second City in Chicago, a longtime director gave him this advice: "You have to learn to love the bomb.” The GQ article goes on to quote:

"It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn't ‘Don't worry, you'll get it next time.’ It wasn't ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you're failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.

...He said he trained himself, not just onstage but every day in life, even in his dream states, to steer toward fear rather than away from it.

That's pretty powerful stuff. And it explains a lot about not only his success, but about the way that he approaches life itself. It's also an idea that we've been teaching at Capes Coaching since the beginning. From a strictly career-based POV, the arts and entertainment industry is full of "fear pits" — those giant craters that lie directly in front of your goals and stir up what we call your "inner critics." Whether you have to get in front of a live audience, audition for casting directors, submit your screenplay, or play your music demo, you're constantly having to put yourself on the line in very personal ways. Rejection is always hovering somewhere nearby.

It can be so scary that those fear pits seem to grow bigger the closer you get to what you want. They can get so big, in fact, that you can convince yourself that you'll never make it across. But, remember that scene in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones's double-crossing partner takes his whip and leaves him with no way to swing across a large chasm? Seeing that the temple is crumbling down around him, and realizing that the only way to survive is to jump across the chasm, Indiana takes a deep breath and jumps. Of course, he makes it, otherwise it would be a very short movie. But, I love that idea. Lacking an easy way to get across, and fearful of falling into a bottomless pit, he embraces the idea of failing and jumps.

It can seem counter-intuitve, I know. If you embrace failure, aren't you setting yourself up to possibly manifest it? Well, the truth is that embracing failure, which is the acceptance of it as a possible outcome, is not the same as worrying about failing. The latter is pure fear, and that can be such a powerful force that it keeps you from doing anything at all. It's paralyzing. But accepting the idea that you could very well fail at the things you are attempting will help you (to quote Colbert) "...penetrate through the fear that blinds you."

In the end, it takes a lot of strength and courage to approach life from that angle. And Indiana Jones is obviously a movie hero — he can be saved by the hand of God (aka Steven Spielberg). But Stephen Colbert is proof that real people don't have to be movie heroes to make heroic personal decisions every day of their lives. Failure will always be out there somewhere. But so will success. All you have to do is "Learn to love the bomb," and jump.