Six years ago I was asked to be an ambassador for Avon, a company that does incredible things for women through entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Its foundation is the largest corporate contributor to women's causes worldwide, supporting and funding women's empowerment, breast cancer, and domestic violence initiatives around the globe. The role required travel and a series of speaking engagements alongside some powerful and accomplished women. The mission could not have been closer to my heart, and it seemed like an amazing opportunity.
But instead of leaning in, I found myself leaning back. Even though I am more than comfortable speaking in character on a crowded movie set, the idea of standing up in an auditorium full of people, in the glare of the press, and giving a speech that shared an important message, well, that level of formality and responsibility terrified me.
I considered letting the opportunity pass me by. But a voice inside my head kept whispering, “Really? You’re going to let this go? Because you're afraid?”
I discussed my fears with my family, and they came back to me with the advice I always give to them, “You can do anything. Just jump!”
I talked with my team, many of whom were surprised to learn about the depth of my anxiety. While it was hard to share something so vulnerable, I was touched by how supportive everyone was, and how much they believed in me.
In the end, I listened to my heart. This was my chance to help create change in the world, and to reach out to other women in need in a way I never had the ability to do before. I could continue to contemplate, ruminate and basically drive myself crazy with endless questions and visions of failure and embarrassment, but deep down, I knew I needed to face my fears and accept the challenge.
So I jumped.
When I told Avon I was accepting the position, my approach was brutally honest. I walked into the room and said, “I want you to know, I’m an actress, not a public speaker.” I explained that it’s one thing to pretend to be Elle Woods and another to speak on behalf of huge numbers of women about issues critical to them and their families. It was going to be my toughest role yet, because it had to be entirely, authentically me. If I failed, there would be no second take.
I can still remember when I gave my first speech – at the UN of all places! – in my role as Avon’s new global ambassador. I was so nervous, I could barely speak as I walked up to the podium. My speech was on a piece of paper that rattled audibly in my hand because I was shaking so hard. I’m not sure how I made it to the end, but I can still remember feeling relieved as I walked away from the podium and sat back down.
Cue Hollywood ending. Or not! The truth is my paper shook for almost two years before I finally got used to speaking in front of a crowd. But the tradeoff was worth it. As a global ambassador for Avon, I was able to lobby against domestic violence. I got to sit with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton to discuss important issues. I visited Brazil, Russia, Poland, Japan, and several other countries, where I spoke about local programs, awarded grants and promoted breast cancer screenings.
Often the engagements included addressing gatherings of Avon representatives, and I'd get to spend time with some of them afterwards. Those moments were unbelievably rewarding, as they would give me a hug and tell me that my words were so important to them. As time went on, they noticed that I came back year after year, and made a point of thanking me for my commitment. It meant everything to me that they were so appreciative. I gradually realized they weren’t focusing on me; they were celebrating the message. And that realization at last allowed me to relax (a little!). It didn't matter if I stumbled, or shook, because what I had to say was truly meaningful.
Because of this experience, I know that if I want to do things that matter, I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I worked through my fear because I put myself in a difficult situation over and over again until my anxiety subsided. Sure, there were times when I thought I’d never get past the next speech. But now I call Avon and ask for more opportunities.
Doing begets more doing. It sounds simple, but I’m a firm believer that action can solve so many worries, and just powering through, no matter what, can give you the confidence you need when you feel like you’ve got nothing to offer. It’s in those moments that we must dig deep, ignore the noise, and lean in.