25 Famous Women on Fear

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Fear of failure or trying new things can be paralyzing or motivating, depending on who you are. Below, 25 women — including Nora Ephron, Shonda Rhimes, and Jenna Lyons — share fears that once controlled their lives, and the steps they took to overcome or embrace them.

J.K. Rowling

“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew. … So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me … I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” — Harvard Commencement Speech, June 2008

Stevie Nicks

“I am pretty fearless, and you know why? Because I don’t handle fear very well; I’m not a good terrified person. I learned that a long time ago. You know when you walk into your house and there’s nobody there and all the lights are out, it’s like I just fearlessly go into the dark, because I know if I start creepin’ out that it’ll get me. So I just try not to ever be afraid of anything. I just go, ‘Well, if the earthquake happens, I’ve got my steel-toed shoes and some rope, and we’ll get down a mountain.’ Or you’ll be up there in a helicopter waving at us. I believe that we will just about get through anything.” — Interview, May 2001

Indra Nooyi

“When you’re a CEO, you can’t break too many stereotypical expectations. I wish you could, but you can’t. … Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.” — Harvard Business Review, September 2015

Gloria Steinem

“Well, when you attempt something new, there’s always fear. … I think the most obvious real fear I had was of public speaking. That really paralyzed me. … I’d have to cancel appearances at the last minute because if I tried to do them, I’d lose all my saliva and each tooth would acquire a little sweater. I didn’t begin to speak in public until I was at least in my mid-thirties or maybe even my late-thirties. I suppose I’d chosen to write as a way of expressing myself partly so I didn’t have to speak. It was only the beginning of the Women’s Movement and the impossibility of getting articles about it published that caused me to go out and speak publicly. Even then I couldn’t do it by myself, which is why I asked my friend Dorothy [Pitman Hughes, child expert and activist] to speak with me. For that first decade, I almost always spoke with her and one of two or three other partners. … I discovered that you didn’t die, and that something happened when you were speaking in a room that could not happen on the printed page. And, you know, Dorothy and I were one white woman and one black woman speaking together, and that turned out to be very good. We didn’t do it on purpose, but it turned out to attract more diverse audiences and made a very important point.” — Interview, July 2011

Nora Ephron

“I put one of my biggest worries into When Harry Met Sally, which was that I would move to New York and nothing would become of me, and I would die in my apartment and no one would notice until the smell drifted out into the hallway. I have a very clear memory of standing in Central Park when I was in college and looking at all those buildings that surrounded the park and just thinking, ‘Am I ever going to know anyone here?’ I mean, that moment when you first come to New York and you don’t know anyone. … But as a kid, you’re just overwhelmed by just had badly you want to come here and how frightening it is that nothing will happen to you. You know, that all this ambition would be for nothing.” — MAKERS, July 2012

Michelle Obama

“College was probably the most impactful thing that I have done in my life other than being the First Lady and having kids and marrying Barack Obama. … It taught me that I could leave home and be successful away from home. It taught me how to open up, how to try new things that are scary, how to buck expectations and beat the odds, and all that good stuff. … Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” — Discussion with Howard University Students, September 2016

Malala Yousafzai

“There’s, like, this fight between courage and fear. And sometimes we choose fear because we want to protect ourselves. But we don’t realize that by choosing fear, we put ourselves in a situation that has a really bad impact on us. So if I would have kept silent in Swat Valley and my father would have kept silent, and all of us would have kept silent, then there would not have been that moment when change would have come in our valley. So, it’s better to speak out, to have that moment when you say, ‘I’m going to do something for my side.’ And that needs a bit of courage. Our courage was stronger than our fear. And that what really changed our lives was fear. It wasn’t that we just totally were fine with what was going on in our society. We were afraid. And that was the fear that to live in that situation, the fear that I would be away from school, that really motivated me to have the courage to speak out.” — Oprah, October 2015

Jenna Lyons

“I think fear is always a good thing. I don’t know. I’m scared of failure; I think people should be scared of failure; they should want competition. I think it’s what drives you — it’s what pushes you. I’m not really excited about being complacent or happy completely. I want to be a little scared, a little hot under the collar.” — Hearst One Minute Mentor, March 2015

Mindy Kaling

On her greatest fear: “Generally? Hurting someone’s feelings. Specifically? Being kidnapped while on vacation.” — Vanity Fair, July 2015

Cheryl Strayed

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.” — Wild, March 2012

Fran Lebowitz

“I think writing for me has always been a matter of fear. Writing is fear and not writing is fear. I am afraid of writing and then I’m afraid of not writing. Also, I don’t know how to type, so the second I finished writing my essay by hand I would call my friend, Marc Balet, who was then the art director of Interview, because he knew how to type. I would go to his house with coffee and a danish, and I would read it to him and he would type it. And then I would go to proofing and give it to them by early afternoon.”— The Brooklyn Rail, March 2014

Tavi Gevinson

“I know the fear of being sensitive can be conflated with the fear of being feminine, and probably there’s some discomfort about being [perceived as] juvenile or girly. The other day, my friend was like, ‘I don’t feel like I identify with girliness, but I identify with sisterhood.’ I think I identify with that. I find it tricky these days to identify with certain feminine things, because it’s ‘feminine’ as defined by not-women. It’s kind of funny going through the layers, thinking, ‘Am I reclaiming those, or am I just succumbing?’ So I cut all my hair off.” — The Toast, August 2015

Shonda Rhimes

“A crazy thing happened — the very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear. It’s amazing the power of one word. ‘Yes’ changed my life. ‘Yes’ changed me.” — TED2016, February 2016

Constance Wu

“[M]y voice and my passions are the same as they have always been since I was a teenager. I don’t fear being outspoken. The only thing I fear is losing my sense of integrity, or losing sight of the values on which I guide my life. So I don’t think it’s particularly brave or unusual for me to speak out. At least, it hasn’t been unusual for me in my personal private history. People forget that they don’t have access to my personal history because I don’t post much on social media. Part of me still thinks the internet exists mostly for funny animal videos!” — Teen Vogue, February 2017

Simone Biles

“Sometimes you’re a little bit scared, but most of the time … you’re really just excited about it. So you just kind of throw fear out of the way. …Whenever I’m afraid of a skill, I count to three and hope for the best.” — PopSugar, August 2016

Sofia Vergara

“Being successful in the business world depends a lot on being personal enough to grow, focus and not lose the drive [and] the desire. You can never be intimidated by people with bad energies. You have to live without the fear of making a fool out of yourself or dreaming big.” — People en Español, March 2017

Ronda Rousey

“People say to me all the time, ‘You have no fear.’ I tell them, ‘No, that’s not true. I’m scared all the time. You have to have fear in order to have courage. I’m a courageous person because I’m a scared person.’” — Esquire, January 2013

Tracee Ellis Ross

“I am often afraid. I was terrified when I lost my voice, but I have come to understand and listen to the fear. I walk toward it and I lean into it to find information — and things that it has to teach me.” — Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, February 2016

Dolly Parton

“The key to my success has always been that my desire to succeed has always been greater than my fear. I’ve been scared to death about a lot of things, but then I think, ‘Okay, you gotta buckle up, girl. You’ve got yourself here, so get out there and just do it.’ And I just ask God to help me, and I follow that light.” — People, March 2015

Patti Smith

“I like my mind, and I feared harming it. I saw some of the best minds of my generation, and some a little older than me, destroy themselves in front of my eyes. That’s what kept me from the drugs and other excesses in the seventies. I said no not because I lacked courage; it’s because I was self-protective. Fear can be useful.” — Esquire, November 2015

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“The greatest obstacle to your own success is your own fear. Failure is never fun. But each time you fail, you learn something. It’s often said that one should fight to the last person standing. Hey, they’re still standing. And as a woman, I hope it’s us.” — The Huffington Post, February 2013

Yoko Ono

“Write down everything you fear in life. Burn it. Pour herbal oil with a sweet scent on the ashes.” — her Facebook, April 2011

Margaret Cho

“I can usually snap out of it during the day by trying to do something creative — especially, if I can put whatever the fear is or whatever the dread is into words.” — Psychology Today, May 2016

Kate Winslet

“Fear is a good thing. Running away from it is not.” — Running Wild With Bear Grylls, January 2016

Elizabeth Gilbert

“YOUR FEAR IS BORING. … Fear is boring, because fear only ever has one thing to say to us, and that thing is: ‘STOP!’… My fear wants me to stop, because my fear wants me to be safe, and my fear perceives all motion, all inspiration, all work, all activity, all passion whatsoever as potentially life-threatening. My fear wants me to live a smaller life. The smallest imaginable life, ideally. My fear would prefer that I never got out of bed. Your fear is the same. Exactly the same as mine. I guarantee it.” — her site, October 2014

25 Famous Women on Fear