Those Jolts Of Fear

I was watching this movie the other night where two pilots were.about to embark on the Doolittle’s Raider’s mission in WWII. The younger one said, “I don’t think I can do this. I just don’t have the courage. I’m scared… really scared!”

The older pilot looked at him. “Hell, man, I’m scared, too. The man who isn’t scared inside might not be human. The difference is, most of us do it anyway. And that’s where the courage comes in.”

That rang a very loud bell with me. I realized in that moment that, all through my life, I’ve been more courageous than I would have ever taken credit for. There were so many times in my life that I had some little fears, and a lot of big fears about taking on life’s challenges… and I did them anyway. It has become a mind game, trying to remember where I might have turned away from a challenge, and not met it.

I have cherry-picked a few quotes to share with you –

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”  T. S. Eliot

“Courage is grace under pressure.”  Ernest Hemingway

“You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, and as you walk through those doors today, you will only have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart.”
~Jim Carrey


“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” Erich Fromm

“Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” John Wooden

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” Eleanor Roosevelt

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  Nelson Mandela

“Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.”  John Wayne

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Steve Jobs

“Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared. ”  Eddie Rickenbacker

“Creativity takes courage.”  Henri Matisse


I think Eddie Rickenbacker had it right. Fear is nothing without its partner in crime, courage. It’s one of those yin yang things. As we live in a dualistic dimension, there is no black without white, no up without down, no quench without thirst, etc. Courage can’t exist with first fear. Those are the basics, now on to the fun part!

There are two occasions that I failed to complete, two challenges that I simply didn’t meet, both because of different kinds of fear. The first one was an opportunity to become a smoke jumper for the Forest Service. I was on a 22-man hotshot crew in West Yellowstone, Montana in ’63 when I was recommended for the smoke jumper school in Missoula. I declined.

The second one was failing my piano final at Berklee four years later.

I find it somewhat ironic that despite my fear of sight-reading, I ended up writing compositions and arrangements for several hundred recorded pieces over the years, some for full orchestra. I could write music easily, and read my own scores… I just couldn’t, for some weird reason, read other peoples’ music. Chalk it up to some sort of musical dyslexia, I suppose.

What obviously happened however is that, over the years, consistently saying “yes” to challenges seemed to slowly reduce the fear and make success more likely. The challenges ceased being something to fear and became simply another obstacle to overcome. A strange element in all that, that I discovered accidentally, is that most people want you to succeed. Somehow that sets up this feel-good scenario that promotes success even when one is challenged to produce. Over the years I’ve failed in some’s eyes, but succeeded in so many… and I’m still my own best judge of how I’ve handled my challenges, and whether or not I succeeded.

Case in point – during my years working at Doppler Studios in Atlanta, the owner, Pete Caldwell caught me in the break room, sipping on an early beer. With  the slightest smile, Pete said, “Hulse, I’ve got a great new job for you, with good news and bad news.”

I was intrigued. “Tell me, what is it?”

“Good news first. You get to write full-orchestra symphony!”

“Jesus, that’s great! What’s the bad news?”

Now a big smile. “It can only be sixty seconds long!”

I heard the now-familiar “Piece of cake!” come out of my mouth, though I had no earthly clue how do accomplish it. But I had the weekend and four days to get it ready, write the score and get 22 parts copied by the following Friday’s recording session. It was to be the background for a tv commercial for a big hotel downtown.

Here it is –


It’s easy to be too hard on oneself, especially deep into the night. My fallback position is that I came from a town of 150 people in Montana, and through the fear found the courage to leap, and leap, and leap, and the net seemed to always appear. My career wasn’t iconic by any means. The beauty of it probably resides in the fact that I took my abilities as far as they could go in this world. Fame and fortune never came knocking, and that was probably a blessing in itself, as the downside of those elements never entered my personal life. Don’t think I ever signed a single autograph… I did, however, get that “special table” up front several times.

Is it normal to tell ourselves, when we’re retired, that we’ve done a great job, that we were totally successful, that we accomplished what many of our peers could never have pulled off? Well of course! It’s only human nature. We need to feel successful, we need to feel we blew past our potential and made a real difference in our art, and in the lives of those around us. And right here, my friends, is where some of us can bullshit ourselves, Making comparisons is a subjective exercise that can make it easy to bend or ignore the truth. For instance, I used to think that I was probably among the best 500 jazz pianists in the country. Now that number is more like 5000. It can be hard on a sensitive ego to realize there are twelve year olds out there who already play better than I ever did. A sobering thought, but one that can put the jealous ego in its place and simply applaud all the great musicians everywhere.

The phrase “I was scared, but I did it,” has served me extremely well over the years. What fears, you might ask… what is out there that scares a musician, anyway? Good question. It all starts when we’re little. I was dared to swing across Daylight Creek, the little creek in our town, on a rope swing that the high school kids had set up. I was scared, but on a dare I mustered the courage when I was ten. I think that’s how it starts for many of us. Then come other challenges, other dares, and how we handle them usually defines how we respond to challenges for much of the rest of our lives.

It seems that doubt often spawns fear. I loved tap dancing in front of large theaters full of folk, but hated playing my classical piano pieces in front of even a few. Confidence and doubt. The more confident we become, the less we fear. Experience breeds confidence, while repetition breeds improvement. Put these elements together, this repetition, improvement and experience, and we get a consistent movement toward excellence. In this scenario, fear can be a huge speed bump for sure, but even passion for a thing can overcome it.

There were fears throughout my musical life, fears that usually turned out to be motivational. Hard, sometimes unreasonable deadlines for recording jingles nearly always gave me a jolt at some point. Playing concerts in front of large audiences was always, at the very least, a huge adrenalin rush, and l probably associated adrenalin rushes with fear, though that shouldn’t necessarily be the case.

There can be an absolute joy in overcoming a fear. It’s a satisfactory triumph that we never outgrow. For me it became much easier to face a fear over the years, much of that due to experience, and a new-found willingness to fail, yet learn. Thank you, Buddhists. From you I learned that selflessness leads to objectivity in the Western mind, and objectivity is a springboard for insight and understanding. When challenges become less personal, fear is reduced, sometimes to nothing more than a fleeting thought. We then forge ahead, more confidently and hopefully more wisely, seeing success and knowing how to achieve it, knowing that we can achieve it. In those moments, those jolts of fear become little more than a familiar twinge that serve only to make us smile and move us toward our next success.

Steve Hulse

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