I had been in AIESEC for one and a half years before I went on exchange. People had talked to me about it previously to try and convince me to go, but I had kind of brushed it off with excuses about being too busy, but the truth was that I felt way too scared to consider going somewhere so far away by myself.
No, here’s the real truth: I had struggled with anxiety and panic disorder for the majority of my teenage years. I was deathly afraid to jump into anything new. I lived my life doing things that were safe and routine, scared that if I was thrust into something unfamiliar that my anxiety would cripple me. Spending six weeks in a country with an unfamiliar language, in an unfamiliar house, without any friends or family close by, was unfathomable.
The thing was, I had unknowingly lived my life under the mindset that I should play things safe. I denied myself experiences, both good and bad, because I was scared of what would happen. Now that I look back on it, I’m amazed that I wasted so many years. Life is a game to be played, and if you are fortunate enough to be at university, to consider going on exchange, to study what you want to study, the world is at your feet.
A couple of days before my first exam, I saw a video made by one of my friends in AIESEC about Taiwan. I remember thinking “wow, that looks so cool. I’d love to experience all those things”. And then immediately after, thinking “but…I have no money. I don’t want to be alone. It’s a really long plane trip”. But I realised that I was making excuses not to go, even though I wanted to.
I applied to a project in Taiwan on a whim – I deliberately chose one which was marked as “Urgent match” because it meant that I would have less time to overthink things and pull out. I applied on November 14th and sat my interview within two days. I flew out of Australia on December 5th.
Somewhere during this 3-week period, I came to the realisation that nothing terrible was going to happen to me. All the “whys” I had turned into “why nots”. There was a world out there beyond the four walls of my room, waiting to be explored. I can honestly say, unconstrained by the stupid rules and fears that I had placed on myself, that I lived more in that six weeks in Taiwan than I had in my entire 18 years before it, because it was only after I let go of all my reservations that I realised I could do anything, become anything I wanted.
I took my students out to dinner. I played a boardgame with friends at midnight on New Years’ Eve in the middle of the street. I talked to every taxi driver I met. I went to a concert and met a popstar, I climbed a mountain in the rain, I rode a motorcycle without brakes, I stayed out until 3am, I lived life as it was truly meant to be lived, with no regrets and plenty of chutzpah.
Life is really short, you know? It’s too short to talk yourself out of doing things you want, or into doing things that you don’t. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear – in fact, you can’t be courageous without being scared. Being a courageous leader means staring your fears in the face, and saying “This is scary. But I’m going to do it.” If fear is the only thing holding you back, rejoice, because there is nothing stopping you from living the life that you want, except you.
You might think “but what if I go, and I hate it, and it’s horrible.” But what if it isn’t?
On New Years’ Day, I could have been at home in Sydney, scrolling through Facebook on my phone. Instead, I was sitting in an alcove of Taipei Main Station with a group of friends from Singapore and the Philippines, sharing stories and waiting for the sun to rise. It’s scary how easy it was to almost miss out on the most life-changing journey I’ve ever had.