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Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose

There are five things that are consistently present when transformational breakthroughs take place, but the underlying secret is simple: be fearless. Whether you’re working at a start-up, finding yourself at a personal crossroads or looking for inspiration to make a life-altering change, the “Be Fearless” principles can provide guidance on how to take that next step. And the moment to do so is now.

Part One: Make a Big Bet

The best – and only way- to begin any project is to start where you are. This often begins with the question, “Why not me?” Every new venture will have challenges and roadblocks. But if you break it down into chunks and start where you are, you can slowly move forward with any big idea. Launching a Big Bet doesn’t require a large budget, proven expertise, or the underpinnings of a large company or organization. All it requires is the ability to assess what you have now that you can leverage in your current situation to advance your idea. Start there.

To make a better world, we have to take bigger risks and make bigger bets. If you’ve ever had a bright idea you wanted to take forward but some voice inside you said, “I could never do that,” check yourself. Big, audacious ideas become a reality by taking a thousand small steps. What often seems impossible at the start becomes more plausible with each new action taken toward the goal.

Making a Big Bet can sometimes start by changing the way people – and oftentimes you yourself – think about the potential for one person to make a difference. The most common trait that Big Bets share is that they often fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or defy belief before they are proven. Great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, including those the world would sometimes count out. Burst through assumptions and achieve your dreams.

Many Big Bets happen as a result of either watching where trends are headed or deciding to start a new one. And while there is no such thing as a crystal ball, many Big Bets were executed because someone boldly envisioned a different future – one not yet seen by others – and pursued it. Peek around corners to see the kind of future you want to build and tune out those who don’t share your vision.

Now go, make your Big Bet. Define your objective, and then chunk it down into manageable parts. Every idea starts with a first step forward. Focus on your true north, the goals that propel you forward.

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Part Two: Be Bold, Take Risks

You can’t necessarily do everything, but you can always try. Get uncomfortable. Make a list of things you’ve always thought about doing but resisted because of a fear you wouldn’t excel. When you take risks, you experience a greater richness to life. Fearless individuals are not unafraid – they simply have the ability to overcome their fear. You may experience failure or disappointment, but you can always get right back up and keep going. Nothing extraordinary comes from the comfort zone. Be bold, step into unfamiliar territory, and try new things. The hardest part is the first step forward. But you can always try.

Few people are inclined to run toward risk. Most people want to minimize or eliminate it. However, if we substitute the term “research and development” for “risk-taking,” risk becomes easier to stomach. Risk is part of the process of discovery. Not only is it valuable to experiment early and often, but it is essential to advancing an idea or initiative. Embrace the concept of constantly trying new things and figuring out different ways to solve old problems. In the process, shift your mind to recognize that the risks we take represent our own version of necessary R&D – part of the process toward great achievement.

Innovation and iterative development often go hand in hand; it’s effective to take ideas that have already been tested and bundle them with new insights and a fresh team. Big innovations benefit greatly from smaller, incremental breakthroughs. There’s always room for new thinking, even in some of the most traditional sectors. Pick up where others left off.

For many people, regrets in life aren’t tied to things they have done, but to those things they wished they had done but did not. There’s a power to seizing the moment; if you choose a more comfortable path instead of acting, you may regret it deeply. When you consider getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new to advance your Big Bet, make a point of writing down the downside of not taking the risk.

Greatness doesn’t come from the comfort zone. Embarking on an experiment whose outcome you can’t predict takes courage, but that’s where the magic happens. Start with small bold actions and advance steadily. Progress often means borrowing lessons from others who have tried before you. Look at successes and look at failures. Remember, it doesn’t take a genius to accomplish something great. Be a good sponge and go from there.

Part Three: Make Failure Matter

If you examine the life of anyone who has achieved something extraordinary, you’ll find a story of failure somewhere along the way. The question each of us must ask ourselves is whether in the face of failure we would try again. Failure is inevitable. Maybe you haven’t failed yet, but you will someday. And when that happens, fail fast, fail forward, make it better, and then go do something really great. Failure becomes a positive when you do something with it.

Rejection is painful, but it can spark creativity. Many of the people we admire most built their successes on top of failures because those failures sparked great turnarounds. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job co-anchoring the local news. A teacher once said Thomas Edison was “too stupid to learn.” Steve Jobs got fired from Apple in 1985. Extraordinary leaders and high achievers have failed on their own paths to success, sometimes multiple times. So the next time you fail, remember that you are failing in the footsteps of giants.

For those who are made to feel “different” in society, the fear of failure can be particularly paralyzing. This sense of disenfranchisement can be used as a force multiplier, since you have “something to prove.” Perhaps you feel the burden of what others will say if you stumble, especially if you think your failure could play into the bias that exists around who is and who isn’t expected to do something great. Many people beat the odds and achieve great things, regardless of where they came from. You can too.

Every life has many chapters. New opportunities sprout out of disappointments. Timing and outside factors can play a big role in the success of an idea – and also in its failure. It’s important to be clear headed about the realities of taking the risk to start something new. Sometimes failures happen not because an idea is bad, but because the execution is wrong. The key is identifying the potential for failure early on so that you can course-correct before it’s too late. It’s important to have an honest discussion about what’s working and what’s not, and to tap others to help you identify what’s wrong so you can make necessary adjustments along the way. A failure early on doesn’t have to be fatal. Look at the long view and keep a healthy perspective about the future.

Every great innovator has failed, but only the truly great among them find ways to apply the lessons of their failures to propel them forward. Ask yourself if failure, or the fear of failure, is getting in your way. It’s human nature to want to hide your failures because they feel embarrassing. Instead, you should announce your failure and use the opportunity to say what you’ve learned and to reaffirm your commitment to your goal. Perfection is a myth. In reality, the road to success is a long journey, with peaks and valleys and boulders in your path. There’s nothing you can’t overcome.

Part Four: Reach Beyond Your Bubble

Studies show that we all have biases. If you seek to be a changemaker, you have to broaden your understanding of the world. Eliminating blind spots in our mindsets and our organizations can feel daunting, but it can also represent a powerful opportunity to broaden our perspective and may lead to new and novel solutions. Often, the very nature of being in a bubble means you don’t know you’re in it. It takes intention and effort to shake loose from complacency. Seek out those with different perspectives and backgrounds as you take forward your Big Bet. The ability to work with and understand people who are not like you is part of the secret to success.

For this reason, it’s helpful to build unlikely partnerships. Great organizations, products and movements have been advanced by the collaborations between people who are quite different from one another and who complement one another’s skills. Sometimes, to be seen and heard, you have to bring along a totally unexpected ally. In an era when so many people retreat to their corners, the fearless changemakers have to walk out into the center of the arena and beckon all the others to join them.

To change the way we interact with the world, we have to change the way we see each other. Diversity makes companies more productive and prosperous. If we democratize entrepreneurship and build more inclusive businesses, we will strengthen our economy and make sure that anyone from anywhere has a fair shot at the American dream. This means being fearless in disrupting the status quo – not just in business but all across our culture. Change happens when people think of diversity not just as a nice thing to have but, as data have revealed, as a smart strategy to maximize performance.

When you’re planning a project or movement, it’s important to examine a spectrum of potential allies to avoid relying on the ‘usual suspects.” When individual powerhouses join forces, the result can be dramatic. Leverage partnerships for growth. We are better together.

We all have unconscious biases and blind spots that skew the way we view the world. The only way to overcome them is to make a deliberate effort to see and experience what we don’t know. As you launch your Big Bet, surround yourself with people different from yourself so they can bring different perspectives. Be intentional about planning your alliances. Step outside your comfort zone and use diversity to build something stronger.

Part Five: Let Urgency Conquer Fear

Urgency can be a good thing. When your back is against the wall, when options are limited, when time is not on your side, a certain clarity can set in, bringing with it a boldness you might not have known you had. We often have a choice about how to respond to urgency. We can look away and let complacency take hold, or we can use these moments and let urgency conquer fear to make a difference.

Any company – or person – is capable of stepping into the center of a crisis and making a difference. It’s easy to think of first responders as bold and rash, but anyone can be a first responder to a crisis they witness. Jump into crisis and respond with action.

Don’t overthink or overanalyze. Just do it. Studies show that the more time you spend collecting information and making choices, the more hesitant you become and the more likely you will be to stick with the status quo and ignore better options. Urgency can be a powerful motivator to fearlessly get in the arena. It is up to you to let the urgency of the moment conquer your fear and drive you forward.

The first step to greatness is deciding to be the one who doesn’t just let life happen to you. You are responsible for the kind of impact you have on the world. Pick your arena and get started. People become heroes not because they are blessed with extraordinary powers, but because when they see the urgency, they choose to act. Choose to be among those who step forward. Go change the world.

Are you ready to change the world? Be fearless is a call to action if you strive to lead an extraordinary life and make a difference. For more information and updates visit !


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About The Author

Jean Case

Jean Case, the Chairman of the National Geographic Society and CEO of the Case Impact Network and Case Foundation, is a businesswoman, investor, philanthropist and internet and impact investing pioneer who is a passionate believer in the power of business to do good and advocates for the importance of embracing a more fearless approach to innovate and bring about transformational breakthroughs. Her career in the private sector, including as a senior executive at AOL, spanned nearly two decades before co-founding the Case Foundation in 1997.

Jean launched the Case Impact Network to expand efforts to usher in a new era of more inclusive capitalism. This work focuses on unleashing business and capital as powerful forces for change and supporting investors to use their capital to promote social change through impact investing.

In addition, Jean currently serves on the boards of National Geographic Partners and the White House Historical Association as well as on the advisory boards of the Brain Trust Accelerator Fund, Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016 and has received honorary degrees from Indiana University and George Mason University. In January 2019, Jean’s first book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose, was published by Simon & Schuster. That same month, it was named a national bestseller.  Finally, Jean and her husband Steve joined The Giving Pledge and publicly reaffirmed their commitment to give away the majority of their wealth to fund worthy charitable causes.

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