Dangerous Not Scary

Here is a distinction that took my breath away recently. What’s so different about scary and dangerous? More specifically, what’s the difference between something being scary-not-dangerous versus being dangerous-not-scary? Short answer: A lot. Scary-not-dangerous is an intimidating but usually growth-filled space to play. Dangerous-not-scary situations compel us to remain stagnant out of comfort even when we are aware – somewhere, often deep down – that we are ready for something new.

It was really scary jumping tandem out of an airplane. But it wasn’t dangerous. I was with a trained professional. I took the necessary precautions. But damn if I didn’t feel the whole my being sink to the floor as the color drained from my face when the airplane door slid open and I looked out at the whipping wind and clouds from 13,000 feet up. That was hands down the scariest thing that I’ve ever voluntarily done. And it wasn’t dangerous.

It was also really scary the first time I made a phone call to a health care executive as a 24-year old Account Manager. It was my job to tell this Chief Financial Officer what new resources were available to him through his engagement with my firm…and then ask him to renew his membership for, I don’t know, maybe $20,000 USD. At the time I couldn’t imagine what value I could provide to a CFO. (Thank goodness I got over that particular insecurity!) I was terrified about asking this “big fancy executive” to sign a contract. Me talking contracts?! I was so dumbfounded and in my own head that when he answered the phone for our scheduled call I just mumbled, “hello.” And that was it. No “my name is…” No “I’m calling about…” Just “hello.” Thankfully I had my colleague on the line and she jumped in and bailed me out introducing both of us and setting the agenda for the call. But even if she hadn’t been there, what was the worst thing that could have happened? I sounded foolish? I hung up on him? He didn’t renew the contract? In other words – this was a classic scary-not-dangerous situation.

Scary-not-dangerous situations are great playgrounds for learning. I had a practice for many years of seeking out these kinds of situations professionally because they always stretched me to grow in new and unexpected ways. I would tell myself to do one thing every day that made me really nervous. Today I will still say yes to most anything that gives me butterflies in my stomach.

Opportunity is usually just around the bend from scary.

But dangerous. Oh dangerous. Watch out for her. Dangerous-not-scary situations quietly leak the life out of you. Dangerous-not-scary situations are the ones that don’t prompt any sense of urgency from you. There is nothing overtly scary about these situations and so your fear response is not activated. As a result, these kinds of situations can often exist for long periods of time without demanding our conscious attention, let alone action. It is dangerous but not scary to stay in a job that creates lots of stability but that leaves you uninspired and drained at the end of each day. You can end up looking back on your life with regret. Was this really how you wanted to spend your days? It is dangerous but not scary to eat unhealthy foods and not exercise because you are just too darn busy or overwhelmed or distracted to pay attention to your physical wellbeing. It is dangerous but not scary to follow old habits that keep you stuck in the same place you’ve been – even though your heart keeps telling you the you are ready for something new. (And if you are feeling this way, you are ready! Jump!)

Sometimes the overwhelm of change is eased with preparation. Other times it really does help just to rip the bandaid off already! But those are posts for another day. What I want you to see here is that there is a difference between what is scary and what is dangerous. If we can train our eyes to notice which flavor of situation we are in, we have a choice to act differently. But how can we choose what we do not see? Here’s to noticing where things in our lives are scary-not-dangerous and where they are dangerous-not-scary. And to the changes that this small but critical distinction can offer us all.