• Dr Nikki James

Lesson 2: Punch Through The Fear


James is one of those teachers who can teach you just as many what NOT to do's as he can TO DO's. I met James in 2007 when one of my staff tricked (yes Pat! tricked!!) me into joining his surf lifesaving club.


To set the scene, I was 25 years old. It was one of two periods in my life where I was living more than 10min from the ocean. And a guy called Pat was the captain of his surf club and worked at Vinnies with me. Part of our job was to organise weekend social events for young people living in domestic violence refuges. In a planning session one day Pat thought it would be awesome to take the kids to the beach for a swim. After chatting with the safety team (Safety first and all that!), we found out:

  1. We could do this

  2. I would need to get my bronze medallion

Pat casually suggested that for 'work purposes' I should come and do the bronze medallion training at his surf club. It seemed like a logical solution, so I said yes...


A side lesson of this story is - make sure you understand what you are saying yes to before you say it.

In my head, I was thinking 'how hard can it be' right?? WRONG. It was a minimum of 8hrs a week training for 6 weeks, more if you actually want to pass. I think over the 6 weeks I almost drowned twice and vomited multiple times from training too hard. Then, as if that was not enough, the universe provided us with 6ft waves the morning of our fitness exam. 10min before the exam, we witness a 10 man surf boat getting rolled by the waves. Would you go in? I was terrified. But I did it. Despite feeling like I was going to die and swallowing what felt like a bathtub of water... I passed.

I was now officially a bronze medallion holder. What I'd failed to realise - this required me to serve on a lifesaving patrol once a month. (See I told you I was tricked). I was allocated to patrol 5.


Enter James.


James was the famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) patrol captain of P5. A construction company owner by day, a music/art lover by night and a passionate surf lifesaver most weekends and an ammeter photographer in his spare time. He lived life hard and fast, treating each day as a gift to be enjoyed. Although James and my story began in surf lifesaving, it travelled through 'winter sleep outs', humanitarian projects, business, and crazy trips to China.


Now, as if James was not busy enough, let's add owning and Outdoor Education company in southern China to the list. It is in this context that the most life-defining lesson I learnt from James began. One call. One analogy about punching a rescue boat through a wave and I was off to a little place called Yangshuo in Southern China.


The story goes like this. About three months after beginning my patrolling duties James and I were sitting side by side on the sand enjoying another pretty cruzie patrol. The topic of conversation went from the job at hand, to work and to an upcoming climbing adventure to Peru. From there, James told me about his outdoor education company in China. He mentioned that they were just about to start a charity arm of the company to give back to the local community. As a passionate NGO worker, this sparked my interest.


Fast forward 6 months to an innocent question 'how's the charity going?' as I'm sitting at my house texting him about our upcoming patrol. After expressing his disappointment about it not going well, he asked if I knew anyone who would be interested in heading it up. I thought about in for a day or two, spoke to a few people and responded to him with three options. People who I thought had the skills and experience to do the job to which he replied with one line... "I meant YOU!!"


My first instinct. HELL NO... But then I thought about it. If there was ever a time to do something completely crazy and out of your depth, having James in your corner was the time to give it a go. As a patrol captain, he had trained me well. And, when I had no idea what I was doing, he had my back. I had no doubt he carried this over to his work life too.


Next thing I know, I'm boarding a plane en route to Yangshuo, China. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The next day, I am off hiking through the mountains of China with 20 strangers from around the world. Let the adventures begin. Fortunately, we managed to remain safe, no one got stung by the Chinese Catapillar that can paralyse you indefinitely. We all got back to town in one piece.

Now, my job was meant to be... Set up the charity. However, it quickly because 'gap filler' when we realised we had way too many clients than staff. Throughout that season, I became a Peer Support course writer, a rock climbing guide, a mentor to the management team, a negotiation facilitator and the list goes on. Talking through all I was doing with James, it was evident I would have to step in and help sort out a few issues. Apparently, I was in the perfect position to step in and help out on their behalf. Great right? Wrong.


I was petrified, I had no credibility with the management or staff. And if they all ended up hating me, I would be stuck in a random town in southern China by myself... This is NOT what I signed up for.

I remember exactly where I was when James's lesson punched me in the gut! If I took you to Yangshuo I could draw you an X on the ground, tell you the way I was facing and show you the phone I was using. It is that vivid in my mind. I'd called James to let him know how crazy things were. To which he responded, "step in and fix it."


For ten minutes, I proceeded to rattle off an endless array of excuses as to why I could not do it. Reasons ranging from 'everyone will hate me' through to 'I actually don't have any authority to do this'.


After listening patiently, James calmly informed me that I was just afraid. And this situation was just like being in a rescue boat with a wave bearing down on you. Every instinct in you says 'abort mission!' 'Turn back!!!!' But, the only way to make it through with yourself and the boat right side up is to punch through the wave. And that this is what I needed to do in this situation. I was speechless. Not to mention all my excusing having the weight fall out of the bottom of them.


At that moment, James was talking about one specific situation. But, his wisdom for that moment filtered through my whole life. For the first time, I was acutely aware of how debilitating fear could be.


Truth be told, I didn't really step up at that moment. I think it took a while for the lesson to sink in and for me to build up the courage to confront my fear. But I am so thankful for the moment and the lesson. It has altered the way I live my life. I don't succeed all the time, but every time fear strikes me, I challenge myself to muster up two seconds of courage and punch through the fear. And I can tell you, that each and every time I have managed to succeed has led to a moment I have shared in this book and I wouldn't trade those moments for anything.


Thank you, James, for living your life so fearlessly and encouraging me to do the same.

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