Philip Island, in Victoria Australia, plays host to one of the greatest nature experiences possible. On the shores of Philip Island are the burrows of thousands upon thousands of fairy penguins, extraordinarily cute little birds that stand only 30cm or so tall. Every morning the adult penguins head out to sea to catch fish. At the end of the day they return to land to bring back food for their chicks. Watching them get from the water to their burrows is both funny and exhilarating. The penguins surf in on the waves, then gather in groups at the water’s edge. Their burrows are 100 metres or so away, with the open space of the sandy beach between them. All of a sudden a group of penguins will take off, waddling as fast as their little legs will carry them across the beach. But then, having got 10 or 20 metres they’ll suddenly turn around and waddle back to the water. They wait, then try again. One group makes it, but another performs this strange ritual of turning back. And on it goes, through the dying light of day, until finally the penguins have all crossed the beach and met their chicks in their burrows.

What’s going on? Why the strange stop-start-return ritual? The answer’s quite simple. At sea the birds are fast swimmers, able to dive deep. At sea they’re safe from predators such as eagles and hawks and dogs and cats. In their burrows their safe below ground. But on the open beach they’re vulnerable and exposed. On the beach they can only waddle slowly and are easy pickings for predators. And so, as they cross the beach, the moment they see a shadow or something out of the corner of their eye, they turn back and race for the safety of the water.

It seems that we humans are a lot like those fairy penguins. When confronted with challenging situations we find ourselves like the penguins standing at the water’s edge. We know where we’ve got to go, we know we’ve got to get across that beach to get back to the burrow, but it can be so terrifying. When we step out of the water and start waddling across the beach we leave our safety zone behind, we’re in no-man’s land where it’s dangerous, uncertain and where we’re vulnerable. Yet to get to the burrow we must leave the safety zone behind and strike out into the danger zone.

Michael Jordan is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And yet, he was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn’t think he had enough skill.Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest and most successful businessmen, was rejected by Harvard University. Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin empire, is a high-school dropout.

Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions. But imagine if Michael Jordan had given up on his dream to play basketball when he was cut from that team. Imagine if Richard Branson had listened to the people who told him he’d never do anything worthwhile without a high-school diploma.

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Think of the opportunities you’ll miss if you let your failures stop you.

It’s only natural to want to avoid the thing or situation you fear. But when it comes to conquering phobias, facing your fears is the key. While avoidance may make you feel better in the short-term, it prevents you from learning that your phobia may not be as frightening or overwhelming as you think. You never get the chance to learn how to cope with your fears and experience control over the situation. As a result, the phobia becomes increasingly scarier and more daunting in your mind.

The most effective way to overcome a phobia is by gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in a safe and controlled way. During this exposure process, you’ll learn to ride out the anxiety and fear until it inevitably passes. Through repeated experiences facing your fear, you’ll begin to realize that the worst isn’t going to happen; you’re not going to die or “lose it.” With each exposure, you’ll feel more confident and in control. The phobia begins to lose its power.

It’s important to begin with a situation that you can handle, and work your way up from there, building your confidence and coping skills as you move up the “fear ladder.”

Make a list. Make a list of the frightening situations related to your phobia. If you’re afraid of flying, your list (in addition to the obvious, such as taking a flight or getting through takeoff) might include booking your ticket, packing your suitcase, driving to the airport, watching planes take off and land, going through security, boarding the plane, and listening to the flight attendant present the safety instructions.

Build your fear ladder. Arrange the items on your list from the least scary to the most scary. The first step should make you slightly anxious, but not so frightened that you’re too intimidated to try it. When creating the ladder, it can be helpful to think about your end goal (for example, to be able to be near dogs without panicking) and then break down the steps needed to reach that goal.

Work your way up the ladder. Start with the first step and don’t move on until you start to feel more comfortable doing it. If possible, stay in the situation long enough for your anxiety to decrease. The longer you expose yourself to the thing you’re afraid of, the more you’ll get used to it and the less anxious you’ll feel when you face it the next time. Once you’ve done a step on several separate occasions without feeling too much anxiety, you can move on to the next step. If a step is too hard, break it down into smaller steps or go slower.

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