Jean Case knows a thing or two about mustering courage and moving full velocity in the direction of one’s dreams. In her new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose, Case, a former AOL executive who helped bring the Internet to the masses in the 80s and 90s and inaugurated a new era at the National Geographic Society by becoming its first female chairman in 2016, illustrates the power of approaching life head-on without flinching.
From her underprivileged upbringing in the Normal, Illinois, where she was raised alongside three siblings in a single parent household, to her twenty year career in the private sector and her establishment of the Case Foundation in 1997, the philanthropist’s life models the kind of risk-taking visible in other extraordinary people she profiles in her riveting read. People like John F. Kennedy, who’s ambition landed a man on the moon in 1969; Jane Goodall, who journeyed into the wild to study chimpanzees; former roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who revolutionized the hospitality industry by starting Airbnb in their apartment; Sara Blakely, who created a billion dollar company, Spanx, from cut-off panty hose; and many other inspiring mavericks. In an interview with Thrive Global, the trailblazing investor and CEO of the Case Foundation breaks down the keys to squashing your fears and pursuing your big ideas:
Make a big bet
“I like to say, ‘Make a big bet, and make history,’” Case says, chronicling the story of the founder and president of Give An Hour, Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. Van Dahlen was the sole practitioner in a mental health facility witnessing an ever-growing need for more clinicians for soldiers coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. She realized she could make a difference by offering an hour a week of pro bono therapy to people in need. That realization turned into an awareness — and big bet — that she could create a network of psychologists who could also provide an hour of their time to veterans and their kins, which eventually turned into her non-profit. “She took that idea forward one step at a time, starting right where she was, with no skill in organization building or fundraising,” Case enthuses, adding, “Now, many thousands of doctors contribute hours around the nation, offering tens of millions of dollars of free counseling for veterans and their families.”
Be bold, take risks
Jane Goodall, the legendary primatologist and anthropologist who wrote the foreword to Be Fearless, illustrates this axiom like no other. In her early twenties, with no formal education or training, she ventured into the jungles of Africa to study chimpanzees. “She didn’t really have anything to demonstrate she could do that,” Case marvels. “She broke all the rules, and because of that,” she emphasizes, “she was really able to innovate and create a whole new way that animal research would be conducted thereafter.”
Make failure matter
Case reveals that she’s more inclined to invest in an entrepreneur who’s made mistakes. “If she’s got a failure or two under her belt,” Case says, “I know that on her second or third try she’s going to be that much smarter and wiser in going forward.” On that note, she adds: “Einstein said ‘failure is success in progress,’” which is to say we can reap the benefits of our fumbles by paying close attention to what went wrong and fine tuning our vision. J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter series, is a favorite example of Case’s of someone who fell and got up continually. “Before she found her success,” Case points out, “she was a single mom on welfare, writing stories at night. She was rejected by over a dozen publishers. She’s even taken some of those letters of rejection and put them on Twitter as an inspiration to other authors to say, ‘Look how I failed.’”
Reach beyond your bubble
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx underwear, brilliantly renders this principle. She held a full-time job selling fax machines when it occurred to her to clip the legs of some panty hose to slim and smooth her form in a dress. “Sara will be the first to tell you that she was actually helped by what she didn’t know,” Case says, “because she was less daunted. She wasn’t fully aware of what she didn’t have — a lack of in-depth knowledge of the fashion industry, or an MBA.” Case says Blakely felt that an awareness of all the ins and outs of what she was up against might have overwhelmed and actually stopped her from carrying out her vision.
Let urgency conquer fear
Case points out that often people with in-depth knowledge about a certain topic sometimes think themselves into paralysis. “Women are especially diligent, and I think sometimes if we’re not careful, we can overthink a problem and it can paralyze us. There’s a lot of growing data that says we have a brief period of time to make a decision and move forward. Otherwise, we can become paralyzed with all the choices or all the data coming at us. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, make the decision,” she urges.