“Never let a good crisis go to waste. It’s the universe challenging you to learn something new and rise to the next level of your potential.”

KRISTEN ULMER is a master facilitator who challenges norms around the subject of fear. She was a mogul specialist on the U.S. Ski Team and later became recognized as the best female big-mountain extreme skier in the world, a status she held for 12 years. Known for enormous cliff jumps and you-fall-you- die descents, she was sponsored by Red Bull, Ralph Lauren, and Nikon. Her work on fear has been featured on NPR and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Outside magazine, and others. Kristen is the author of The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
[As background], my mom was the youngest of nine kids. Her dad was a raging alcoholic and the family had a simple existence as tenant farmers. She grew up with severe money issues. They are so solidified that, at age 83, she still washes and reuses Ziploc bags and eats around moldy food. And . . . I am my mother’s daughter. I am frugal as hell, which is okay—it helped me become a self-made millionaire—but I think it holds me back from going to the next level financially at this point.

So, whenever I feel bad, I make a point to do something nice for other people. Either I stand outside the movie theater looking for someone who seems like they could use a break and I pay for their movie tickets, or I leave a $50 tip on a takeout burrito. Not only does it make other people feel good, it makes me feel good, and it also impacts my life in one other way that’s not so obvious. Spending money like this is my subtle attempt to break free from my lineage and resolve my inherited money issues.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
As for a favorite failure, my time on the U.S. Ski Team was a biggie. Here’s why:

My goal had never been to get on the national team. I’d only been competing in moguls to take cool road trips with friends. So when I found myself wearing the jacket, representing my country in World Cup competitions, I was in shock, and terrified.

Thousands of screaming people were now watching me ski, hundreds of cameras documented my every move, and I had no idea what to do with fear except take the bad advice of well-meaning coaches, friends, and family who told me to—you know the language—control, overcome, or rationalize away the fear. Think positive thoughts. Take deep breaths. Let it go. All that.

Alas, while I couldn’t see it at the time, I’ve since realized we can control fear about as much as we can control our breathing. Not very well, and not for long.

I could become stoic enough to get in the gate and push off, so it seemed to “work,” but I also skied terribly. I was not in flow with fear, thus I was not in flow with my life, and thus not in the flow state necessary for world-class performance. Not only that, but I unconsciously wanted off that team so badly that (of course) I got injured later that season. I was even relieved by my injury, which is crazy. I blamed fear as the problem for all of this, when I should have blamed myself for trying to control something that ultimately proves uncontrollable.

What I realize now is that you can’t conquer fear. The only thing you can do is block it out temporarily by pushing it down into what I call “the basement,” otherwise known as your body. You then have to hold so much tension to keep it pressed down that 1) you will become very stiff and prone to injury and 2) your body, not meant to be a dumping ground for repressed emotion, will rebel.

Injury is just one of the problems you’ll face. That undealt-with fear will not be denied. Any time your guard is dropped, it will come out of the basement stronger than ever, showing up in ways that feel like fear (persistent or irrational anxiety, insomnia, etc.) or in distorted, covert ways (anger, depression, PTSD, insecurity, underperforming, burnout, blame, defensiveness, etc.). This makes you want to work harder to push it down even further, until that effort, over time, takes over your whole world.

How I dealt with fear back then was a colossal failure. What I should have done instead was realize that fear is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather a natural state of discomfort that occurs whenever you’re out of your comfort zone. It’s there not to sabotage you, but to help you come alive, be more focused, and put you into the present moment and a heightened state of excitement and awareness. If you push the fear away, the only version of fear available to you will be its crazy, irrational, or contorted version. If you’re willing to feel it, and merge with it, its energy and wisdom will appear.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
I went on an immersive nine-day retreat 14 years ago when I was not in crisis. It was called Nine Gates Mystery School. It still exists today and I hear it’s better than ever. (By the way, I recommend going to one awareness retreat per year.) Nine Gates took my still half-baked idea, injected it with both certainty and energy, and raised my awareness from an ego to a global-centric perspective, which is why I credit this event with provoking much of my success today.

Nine Gates is an 18-day intensive retreat broken into two nine-day sessions. If you’re drawn to a silent Vipassana retreat but hesitate because it sounds like torture (it does to me), consider Nine Gates instead. I suspect it gives you a similar awakening experience without the inactivity.

People tend to only do personal work when they’re trying to crawl out of a hole, and I was no different. I’d signed up for the event when going through a bad breakup, which is fine. Often crisis is what drives evolution, and little else does.

By the time the retreat happened, though, I felt great again, and I went anyway and—wow. Just wow. Instead of spending the week getting the mud out of my eyes, it took my already clear vision to the top of a personal high mountain, where I could clearly see what I wanted to happen next in my life. I left the event and started my mindset-only ski camps—which (according to USA Today) were the only mindset training camps in the world, in any sport.

On one hand, never let a good crisis go to waste. It’s the universe challenging you to learn something new and rise to the next level of your potential.

On the other hand, when not in crisis, I consider “my life is great” as a cop- out, a stuck place, where learning is no longer available to us. Which is why you shouldn’t wait for crisis to happen before you take steps to go beyond what you’re capable of seeing on your own. Go to marriage counseling when your marriage is going great. What then becomes possible? Hire a fitness coach when you’re already in the best shape of your life. Bring in a marketing expert when your marketing department is already kicking ass. And watch next-level magic happen.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
My two favorite books are:

The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. This book offers you a blueprint of your personality. This is important. Let’s say you learn you’re a tiger. You now know not to waste time trying to get rid of your stripes, but instead to develop your innate strengths. Or if you’re a lamb, which is no better or worse than a tiger, you’d learn not to waste your life trying to be something that you’re not, and how to instead be the best lamb possible.

I love this book so much, in fact, that I wouldn’t date or certainly hire anyone unless I knew what their enneagram type was. It’s like being armed with their operating manual, which prevents any confusion or potential conflict down the road.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I was encouraged to read this book by four different people in one week, so I bought it and dove in. But . . . snoozefest! I stored it on the bookshelf. A year later, I dusted it off, and again . . . nothing. Back to the bookshelf. This happened four years in a row until, in the fifth year, I started yet again and it was so good, I suddenly devoured it like a starving person devours a buffet.

It was so powerful because it outlines non-dual states—a.k.a something bigger than my own personal, limited view of the world. Tolle calls it the “Now,” I call it “Connected Self” or “the Infinite.” In sports, we call this reality “The Zone.” In Zen, it’s called enlightenment. Every spiritual tradition has a name for this place.

I judge the quality of my life based on how often I access this higher state of awareness. Being into Zen, I don’t see it as sustainable, which is different from what Tolle suggests, but it’s so important to for us to go find it in our lifetimes. It’s that state when your lights really come on and you can see, if only for a moment, who and what you are, and the nature of what’s really going on beyond our own individual mind. It’s also the place where your greatest ideas can be discovered. But this state is not going to find you; you have to go find it. This book helps you do that.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Talk therapy. Talking and thinking about your fear is great—who doesn’t like to talk about themselves for an hour? But it will keep you in the loop of your thinking mind, often for decades. Emotional problems need to be dealt with emotionally, not intellectually.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to? What new realizations and/or approaches helped?
Past age 40, it seems that we really start to filter who we hang out with. For decades, I had several friends whom I picked in my 20s, when I was drawn to crazy, eccentric people. But in my 40s, they weren’t my style anymore. Some of them were even abusive to themselves and thus also to me. So, what to do? Stay close out of habit, history, and a desire not to hurt them, or finally say no to these toxic friendships and walk away?

I decided to walk away. One by one—and mind you this was not easy to do— I ended it with five best friends and ultimately hundreds of acquaintances. It set me free from my past self and made me able to explore what parts of my personality I wanted to nurture next. It has been a bit lonely, sure. I have yet to find a new best girlfriend even though I’ve been hunting for eight years, and I don’t go to as many parties as before. But the ones I do go to, and the people I meet there, are always fascinating, energizing new experiences.

Friendships are supposed to support your growth, not hold you back. End the ones that hold you back, and be curious about what kind of people you’re drawn to next. I find whomever you’re attracted to today possesses whatever qualities in yourself you’re ready to nurture.

[Note from Tim: I asked Kristen how she broke up with her friends, exactly, and she sent a detailed four-page blueprint. Find it for free at tim.blog/kristen]

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I honor those states by walking away from work and instead doing what seems like “nothing,” which is of course something (take a walk, stretch my body, watch a movie). I do these things for as long as it takes, whether a few hours or even a few days, until my motivation comes back.

If I have a tight deadline, though, I take just five minutes to do that “nothing.” But during these five minutes, I go alllll the way. I become fully present to my unfocused or overwhelmed state. Maybe I’ll take a hot shower and just stand there and let water luxuriously rain down my neck while groaning about how overwhelmed I feel. It’s lovely. Or I’ll find the cat and bury my unfocused mind into his soft belly and just enjoy how spacey and stupid I am at the moment.

Not only is it a relief to submit like that to my present reality, but—surprise! —these actions also have the great ability to allow another reality to enter, without my having to force anything. I usually come back after those five minutes, organically energized and ready for another big push.

Honor your moods not by forcing a different reality, but by just letting them be. It’s very Zen. When you’re sad, just be sad. When you’re afraid, just be afraid. When you’re overwhelmed, just be overwhelmed. When you’re unfocused, can you find a way to let it be and simply enjoy that state?

This is how—like water through a hose—these states will come into, through, and out of your life. Do this and that reality will always run its course, and there will be space right behind it for something else to enter.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
Because my belief is that your relationship with fear is the most important relationship in your life, I now spend at least two minutes a day engaged in what I call a fear practice.

Especially first thing in the morning before I get out of bed, I do a body scan to assess my mood. I’m particularly interested in how much I feel fear (it’s always there, whether we’re willing to admit it or not), and where in my body it’s located.

Fear is a sense of discomfort in our bodies. It may show up in obvious ways as fear, stress, or anxiety (which are all pretty much the same thing), or maybe it will feel more like anger or sadness (which can be tied to fear, if fear is in the basement). If it seems like it’s in our minds, that’s because we’re not dealing with it emotionally but rather intellectually, which is never a good idea. I locate the feeling in my body—sometimes it’s in my jaw or shoulders, sometimes my forehead. Then I have a one-to two-minute, three-step process:

  1. I spend about 15 to 30 seconds affirming that it’s natural to feel this discomfort. I may have a big talk coming up or a deadline. You are supposed to be scared when you’re doing big things—okay? Acknowledging this can be life-changing.
  2. I spend the next 15 to 30 seconds being curious about what my current relationship is with that discomfort. If the anxiety seems out of proportion to the situation, or if it seems irrational in any way, that means I’ve been ignoring fear and thus it’s starting to speak louder or act out. If this is the case, I give it my full attention then, and ask what it’s been trying to say to me that I haven’t acknowledged (e.g., “Write a new speech; the one you have sucks.” Or, “You forgot to call your mother”). Being such a great advisor, I use this time with fear to juice its knowledge like you would juice an orange.
  3. Then, I spend as long as it takes to feel it. Now, this is important: I don’t try to get rid of it. That is not what this is about, because that would be disrespectful to fear. The key is to feel the feeling by spending some time with it, like you would with your dog, friend, or lover. I usually do this for about 30 to 60 seconds. After which, fear, feeling acknowledged and heard, often dissipates.

Then for the rest of the day, any time I feel anxious or upset, I do it again. My clients have a fear practice too, and the results are quite profound. After about a week, not only does their fear and anxiety calm way down, but many other problems like insomnia, depression, PTSD, and anger become resolved. Keep doing it past that week, and you’ll start to notice the percolation, energy, and heightened states this practice offers.

I don’t have a gratitude, peace, or forgiveness practice, which are super popular in America right now. I see this as turning away from a truth that is trying to get your attention, and forcing a lie. My analogy is that this is like putting a Band-Aid over a wound so you don’t have to look at it. Which is a problem because that wound, if you continue to not deal with it, will ultimately start to fester.

Instead, I turn toward my discomfort and try to have an honest relationship with it by engaging in this fear practice. I focus on my discomfort, fear, sadness, anger, or anything else that seems unpleasant—all of it—and that effort not only affords me insights but, even though you’d never expect it, also thoroughly and amazingly sets me free.

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