When Tony Leys, journalist for the Des Moines Register, recommended me for the Storytellers Project, I was honored. I would be paired with a Des Moines Register coach who would help me refine my “First Time” story into a 10-minute performance—with no notes—in front of 1,300 people at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
How utterly terrifying.
So, of course, I said “yes.”
Because while some get an adrenaline rush from bungee jumping or skiing down steep mountains embedded with jagged rocks or other death-defying feats, I get a rush from doing scary things that might result in financial, career, or reputational ruin. Because these scary things are always the ones that yield the most learning, the most growth, and the most change. The rush from successfully mastering the thing I fear is like no other. As an added bonus, it oftentimes leads to even scarier opportunities.
But sometimes—like this one—the fear of failing is stronger than the thrill of succeeding.
Forgoing my love of procrastination, I completed my story in record time—with the help of my talented coach, Shelby Fleig. All that was left was to memorize it. I created a bulleted outline—and couldn’t remember the words to say in between the bullets. Panic blossomed in my stomach.
Shelby gave me the verbal equivalent of Xanax.
I recorded myself reading my story, then played it back repeatedly—and could never remember a single word after pressing stop. Panic wound its way through my body.
Shelby switched to verbal Klonopin.
I printed my story and read the first paragraph over and over again, then looked away from the page. My mind was a complete blank. The only words from my lips were curses.
Panic turned to horror. I imagined myself on that stage, standing frozen in front of a silent audience as the minutes ticked by. Self-doubt took root in my mind.
My sister, Monica, told me I could do it. My mom, Mattie, told me I could do it. My dad, Robert, told me I could do it.
“Shelby,” I said, on a call after sending her a Dear John email. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t. This is reminding me of the time I played a doctor for a Red Cross commercial and was in a hospital room full of casting producers and directors and messed up my lines every single time and everyone was so impatient and heaving long-suffering sighs before the director said, in a disgust-filled tone, ‘just say your lines and we will edit them later’, leaving me almost in tears and wanting to run out of the room and so I just want to tell you now so you have time to find someone else…”
I ran out of breath.
“Rachelle, I totally understand.” Her voice contained infinite patience and kindness. “We don’t want this to cause you anxiety. So if you feel that way, we completely understand and support you. But I know you can do this.”
No, I can’t!
“I think your story is great and will really resonate with our audience. But if you don’t want to do it, this won’t be your last opportunity.”
Oh, yes it will!
“Why don’t you take another week, practice memorizing it, and if you still feel the same way, that will be fine.”
Why couldn’t she have been impatient and unsupportive, like the Red Cross casting crew, allowing me to feel good about my decision? Her kindness—and, okay, ego-stroking—was my undoing.
I gave it another try.
I read my story, memorizing it line-by-line while standing in my dad’s living room and staring out into an invisible audience. I did this over and over again, every day until parts began to stick; until, amazingly, all of it did. I’d memorized it. Literally. Word for word. Because as I said the words out loud, I was seeing them in my mind, complete with paragraphs and missed typos and all.
I told Shelby and my family I could do it. “We know it,” they all said, continuing to cheer me on.
Was I still terrified almost every single day I spent practicing, up until the night of the event?
Was I terrified walking out on that stage?
But as the audience chuckled at unexpected moments and my “Thank you” was met with applause, I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline and an empowering rush of pride. Because, with the support of my family and Shelby and my smiling friend, Leigh Michaels, I’d done it.