Befriending fear: Harness what scares you

"Chief fear boss" Judi Holler says the best way to get over fear is to use it.

By Eric Minton January 2019 issue

He sounds like a slouch. He hangs around Judi Holler’s home and, well, everywhere she goes, for that matter. Cares for her and keeps her safe but wants her under his thumb, demanding that she vacuum or do laundry when she should be working. And check out his name: Fear. She should dump the guy, right? No way. Working with fear has become integral to Holler’s professional success.

We’re not talking about an actual physical dude, of course. Fear is the metaphysical psychosis that occupies a portion of everyone’s persona. Holler has created such an interactive relationship with this distracting physiological abstraction that she’s made fear corporeal in her imagination. “Yeah, it’s a person, I talk to him,” she says. “The thing for everybody to understand about making fear my homeboy is that you turn fear into your friend. You make space for fear, you make it part of your life party, and you stop wasting your precious energy trying to get rid of it. You’ll never be able to outrun your fears.”

Holler learned to capitalize on her fears during her time studying improv theater at Second City in Chicago, which boosted her into a career as a fear researcher and keynote speaker. She’s given herself the job title chief fear boss, and she’ll be addressing the audience at Imaging USA in January 2019 as a keynote speaker. Our interview had me in stitches; it also had me shifting my own approach to business as a creative entrepreneur.

“A lot of business owners allow fear to make decisions instead of making decisions for themselves,” she says. “I prefer to be the boss of my life, not fear. Fear, I thank you for keeping me safe and appreciate what you do to keep me alive, but I’m the boss.”

Judi Holler


Holler’s experience with creative entrepreneurs (being one herself), her expertise in identifying fear’s role, and her training in embracing fear can gird photographers to tackle one of their most challenging obstacles to business growth (whether they recognize it as such or not). She brings to the table her own life lessons—“I had to work that brave muscle,” she says of her career moves—and she brings to the stage the personality of a Second City alum.

The oldest of four siblings, Holler had a lower middle-class upbringing in St. Louis and became the only person in her immediate family to earn a college degree, a bachelor’s in communications. As Holler tended bar while seeking a job in her field, her boss’s wife invited her to a Meeting Professionals International chapter meeting. “I was like Bambi,” Holler says of the experience, but she noted a woman who “looked amazing” standing alone. Though intimidated, Holler ran what she calls her first “fear experiment” by introducing herself. Two days later, the woman called her for an interview, and Holler was on a career ladder in corporate sales and marketing. At 30 she moved to Chicago and began taking classes at Second City. A successful audition for The Second City Conservatory led to five years studying and performing improv with the theater and forming an improv group with other students, calling themselves Control Alt Delete.

Holler sounds fearless, right? But she insists that nobody is fearless. “People say, ‘I don’t get afraid.’ Sure you do. To say you have no fear is to say you are an alien.” Second City opened her eyes to real fear.


“The more I did the scary thing on stage at Second City five, six, seven nights a week, the more I had the guts to start doing the scary thing on the stage of my life five, six, seven days a week. I was managing my fear totally differently. Instead of running from it I was inviting it into my life party, making space for it. My improv training helped me realize that my fear is a clear asset for the business I’m running as CEO of me.” She began blogging on this topic in 2013, which led to speaking engagements, which led to another leap of fear in 2016: leaving her corporate job to become a full-time speaker and writer on fear, personal branding, and balance.

Yes, she still gets stage fright. “I get scared every time I speak in front of an audience,” she says. “I like that. I don’t want that to ever change. It means I respect the audience and what I do matters.”

She explains that fear uses disguises to manipulate people:

Holler cites Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art,” which she calls “mandatory reading for all human beings, but certainly for creatives,” as she spins off a litany of what Pressfield calls “the resistance”: fear of letting our family down, fear of poverty, fear of groveling, fear of looking ridiculous, fear of death, and, of course, fear of failure. However, as Pressfield writes, “The real fear, the master fear, the mother of all fears that’s so close to us that even when we say it we don’t believe it, is the fear that we’ll succeed.”

Judi Holler


Holler draws parallels between the crafts of improv and photography. As with improv, photographers master technical skills that better prepare them not only to adjust to unexpected situations during a photography session but to remain in control of those situations as they develop. They can apply this same focus in their entrepreneurial dimension.

Another parallel is in Holler’s definition of improv: two or more people collaborating in an environment of uncertainty with the common goal of creating a solution. “We do that every day,” Holler says. “You don’t wake up with a script. Mental preparation for me is more important than the technical craft. Trusting yourself, trusting your team, trusting your creative abilities so you can make a decision, balance P&L [profit and loss], and hire people, and trusting who you hire. And then trusting the process. How you manage yourself and your energy on stage is the same as managing your business.”

Trusting in one’s individuality is the most important fear a creative should harness. Holler loves rap music, “old-school, ’90s hip-hop,” and when she started out as an entrepreneur, she was afraid customers would find out. “I feared that people would not hire me and take me seriously,” she says. Then she started using that fear as a springboard, fusing hip-hop into her work.

“What I found was, No. 1, I started having a lot more fun. I was starting to create things that were firing me up.” And two, “I started attracting customers and clients that were my people, that love the same things I do. We have to find ways to infuse the things we love into our work. There are a million speakers out there just like there are a million photographers, and they have to remember that no one has their lens and no one is them.” 

Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.