What are you afraid of? Michelle Poler realized that her biggest fear was fear itself. Her online project to face 100 fears in 100 days led her to a new career as a public speaker, while inspiring countless people to find their own stories of courage.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do. I was the happiest person alive when I finally arrived. My big dream was always to move to New York, but it took me a little while to get here. My husband and I had been living in Miami, and he promised we could move to New York from there.
What were you doing in Miami?
My husband graduated university two years before I did in Venezuela, which is where we are both from. He got a job in Miami and moved there first, so when I graduated I moved there, as well. I was hesitant because New York was really my goal. We were really comfortable in Miami, and so I was convinced that we would never actually make the move to New York. It’s hard to leave something so comfortable, you know? Things were too easy in Miami. I was 24 or 25 at the time and we had a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a really nice building in a beautiful area called Brickell. I had a decent job and was making enough money, but I didn’t feel my age. I felt like I should have been struggling a bit more.
What field were you working in?
I was working in advertising, at a really amazing agency as an art director. But I kept having this feeling that things weren’t right for me. I realized we needed a reason to move to New York, to actually make the jump. A friend told me about a masters program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It sounded perfect, because I wanted to explore more of my creative side but also I needed to learn strategy, which was what I was lacking.
It’s a really difficult program to get into. Around 1,000 people apply each year, but only 30 people get in. We decided that if I got in, then we would move. I wanted it so much and I worked really hard on my application. Waiting for the acceptance letter was agonizing. One night we were supposed to go to a friend’s dinner party, but I couldn’t get ready because I was so upset about not hearing anything from the school. I was screaming at my husband saying, "I need to know, I need to know!" And then I got an email right then that said, "Congratulations.” I couldn’t believe it.
You conjured it! So how long was it before you moved to New York?
I found out I got accepted in April and at the end of June we moved.
Was New York what you thought it would be?
Oh, yes. I had visited New York a few times, and I had always been so jealous of everyone that lived here. When I was little, I would watch a movie and if the characters lived in New York and they were sad, I would just think, “Wait, how can you be sad when you live in New York?” [Laughs]
Now that I’m living here, whenever something makes me frustrated or disappointed or sad, I go back to that thought and it automatically makes me feel better.
I always feel like that driving back from the airport, the first time I see the skyline.
That first summer was the best summer of our lives! We enjoyed it so much, because we knew that in three months I was going to be working nonstop for the next year. My company from Miami transferred my job, so I was going to work full time in advertising and also do my masters degree. The program was every night between 6-9pm. It was crazy.
My husband works in finance, and he was amazingly supportive during that time. I wouldn’t get home each day until about 10pm, and he would have dinner ready for me so I could do my homework. Even the weekends were spent doing homework for the following week.
It was a real lesson in time management. People are always saying, “I’m so busy, I don’t have time.” But it’s really not about time, it’s about will. When you want something, and you have to get things done, then you do. It doesn’t really matter about time; you sleep a little less, or maybe wake up a bit earlier.
How did the 100 Days Without Fear project begin?
It started during my masters. The final assignment of the program is a 100-day project. It's one of the main reasons I applied. When we started the program they told us, "Do not think about the 100-day project. Don’t do it. We don't want you to start coming up with ideas.”
I wouldn’t be able to help myself!
Of course, everybody was thinking about it. I even had a list of ideas: 100 novels, 100 ways to advertise a single product, 100 restaurants. But I couldn’t think of one that worked.
One of our earlier assignments was to write an essay about what we would want life to look like if it was perfect and everything went according to plan. I wrote about being an entrepreneur in 10 years. I wanted to be invited to speak at conferences, and visit amazing companies. I wanted to work with my husband.
Then we were asked to write about one obstacle that could get in the way of that perfect plan, something that you know will prevent you from getting there. I started writing down all these fears and realized that my obstacle is not one thing, it’s many things. But they were all fears.
Whenever there has been a fear in my life, I avoid it. I just turn away from whatever it is and find a detour. It was a wake-up call. I realized that I’d never achieve all the things I wrote about if I don’t learn to get over my fears. It was this that led me to my 100-day project! I realized why they wanted us to wait until we had completed these other assignments first.
It was only after doing those that you could get to your 100-day plan.
Totally—it was so clear. The project started 100 days before graduation, which was fortuitous timing. This amazing author Elle Luna, who wrote The Crossroads of Should and Must, started her own 100 Day Project in partnership with the magazine The Great Discontent. It started the same day as ours did, so the concept of a 100-day project was already going viral.
It took me a while to figure out the structure of my project. Going into it, the only thing I knew was why I was doing it: to become a braver person. Someone suggested that I do a video a day of myself facing a fear. I was already creating a lot of video work for fun. Whenever I would go to an event or on a trip, I would record it and create a little video. It seemed like a great idea, so I updated my GoPro and got started!
Another friend suggested that I put those videos on YouTube. I was just planning on putting them up on my website to keep everything nicely branded, but she was right. YouTube was how people would follow along with the project. The videos would have been hard to find tucked away on my website.
When did you start to pick up media interest?
On day 40. Before then, my followers were just friends and family, and my Facebook friends. Then out of the blue I woke up, and I had an email from the Daily Mail that said, "Michelle, we want to share your project. Can you allow us to post your pictures and videos on our website?” Of course, I said yes! Then immediately it went everywhere—DesignTAXI, Bored Panda, and sites like that posted it. Ashton Kutcher and Sofia Vergara posted about it!
It was so weird. It was what I could only have dreamed about. Glamour magazine, Elle magazine, CNN and Fox were all talking about it. There were always so many people commenting on those sites.
Did you read them?
I couldn’t help myself. A lot of people were so positive, saying how inspired they were.
People also started sending me thousands of emails a day. It was crazy. I wanted to read and reply to them all, but I started having to quickly scan for the “big” ones, like emails from people or companies that wanted to share the project or wanted to be involved.
Of course, there were also negative emails and comments. People would say, “This is fake” or “These fears are so stupid.” Yes, some of them were small fears, but they were big fears to me. Everyone has small fears that might seem silly to other people.
It was overcoming those smaller fears, like holding a cat, that make me realize that I could have been confronting my fears the whole time. I realized that I was hiding myself from the world. It wasn’t worth living like that anymore.
How were you balancing this with your masters and with working?
It was crazy. When the project first went viral I still had my full-time job, plus school every night, as well as homework so I could graduate. I was also facing one fear a day, recording and editing the video and publishing it. It was getting overwhelming.
One day, I was like, "You know what, I need to quit my job, because something has to go.” I was planning to resign after I graduated, so it was just moving this up the timeline a bit. It wasn’t healthy how I was living; I couldn’t put my best into everything anymore.
It was scary to leave my job, but so exciting at the same time. I was nearing the end of the project. One of my fears is public speaking, so I reached out to TEDx to see if I could do my 100th fear there. They said yes, and were excited for me to live out my final fear on their stage.
The TEDx Talk was only a couple of weeks after graduation, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I had about six weeks to get ready for it. It was an amazing finale, because creating the talk and the graphics forced me to not only face my fear but to really understand my project, why I was doing it, and what was at the bottom of my fear. I also wanted to figure out what I could teach other people.
Public speaking is one of my personal fears. I can’t imagine how nervous you were.
You can see in the video of the talk how nervous I was!
I could tell. But to me that felt genuine, because you were also prepared and gave an amazing speech.
Before I went on I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I was supposed to be nervous, because I was facing a fear. The audience was so supportive; I really felt like they were on my side, and that they wanted me to succeed.
What happened after the TEDx Talk?
My intention was to find a job in branding. But my husband said, ''Wait, if you get a full-time job you're not going to keep building this movement that you’ve started. What if you give it a couple of months, and see where this goes? Maybe you can speak at other places?”
It was really scary. But I thought, if it doesn’t pan out then I can move forward looking for a job. All my friends who graduated with me were finding cool jobs, so it was hard to see that happening when I wasn’t certain about what I was doing. I felt like I didn’t belong and I had no idea where to start. I reached out to [lecture series] Creative Mornings. I was such a fan of their program, and they said that I could come and speak. From those two talks, I was able to create a demo reel.
A friend of mine who works at Google reached out and asked if I could make my presentation longer, to speak at his work. After that, I had enough credibility that I was able to reach out to more established places. That’s how I became a speaker!
When did you graduate?
I finished school in July 2015, and the TEDx was in October. My speech at Google was in March 2016. After Google, I started looking for representation as a professional speaker, so I could charge for my talks. That’s what has allowed me to keep doing this. Last August, my husband was able to quit his job and become my manager full-time.
I’m starting another project now called Dear Younger Self, and I want to talk to younger girls. Last year, I was given the opportunity to speak to an all-girls high school.
Was that scary?
Kids are scary! I wasn’t even sure they would respond to what I was saying. Before the speech, I was sweating and shaking and so nervous. The principal said, ''Oh, you don't have anything to worry about. This will be your best audience.'' I was like, ''No way, I don't believe that.” But they were clapping and cheering! It was amazing. It made me realize that these are the people I really want to be speaking to. After that experience, the teachers from the school kept emailing me saying, ''Michelle, the girls keep talking about you. They're facing their fears.'' The girls also reached out to me on social media, thanking me for coming.
It made me want to empower more girls. I was that young girl who was very fearful. I want to give them the confidence that things will be alright if they decide to face their fears. That is my focus for 2017.
I’m still speaking at companies, but 60 percent of my time will be spent on this. We’re going to go to all-girls high schools and organizations and camps and everywhere there are girls.
There is also a YouTube series that goes along with the Dear Younger Self project. It's me speaking to my younger self. I’m covering a list of topics that could be relevant to girls: boys, parents, school, expectations, body image. I write letters to my younger self on all these different topics. Every week, I just talk to the camera hoping that young girls will find it helpful. I’m also challenging the audience at the end of each episode with a different thing that they can do to get out of their comfort zones. Every episode I post a challenge they have to overcome, and I give away prizes when people let me know how they did.
That’s an important part of it. Especially with social media now, it's so easy to just share something or use a hashtag and feel like you’ve done something, when really you haven’t.
Totally! It’s exciting to be doing this new project. I’m also hoping to have guests, since we all go through such different experiences and I obviously can’t speak to all of them.
It’s crazy to think that the things you wrote in your “life plan” essay are already happening: You are working with your husband, speaking at companies, and making a difference.
It’s the craziest thing, and it’s even better than I could have hoped. I always used to dream about the future and what could happen, but I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now. When people ask me what’s next, I don’t even know and can’t imagine!
The other project you do is HelloFears.com. Can you talk a bit about that?
Sure! It’s a website I started as a way to share other people’s stories of courage. I thought that if my story could inspire people, then imagine how many people could be inspired by other people sharing their stories. Obviously we all have different fears, so I wanted to create a space for other people to face their fears, both physical and emotional. People submit these stories to me and I’m so excited every time I receive one.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
You have to focus on the reward, rather than focusing so much on the risk. I feel that when we want to achieve something and we have to take action, we immediately think about all the possible risks. If you focus on the reward, you are more likely to take that first step. I'm very a big believer in thinking of all the best-case scenarios, and focusing on them.
What does New York mean to you?
If I wasn’t in New York, I couldn’t have done any of the things I have. In New York, people are facing their fears everyday. If you want to get anywhere, you have to do the same thing. People in New York are tough, and they want to surround themselves with other tough people that they can count on. I wanted to become that person. New York is what made me face my fears. When I did that, I started to experience New York in a different way—I started to appreciate it fully.
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