In middle and high school, I was very smart, yet still a C student, because I never gave more than 60% of myself, never delivered what I was really capable of. All my teachers said, “Alison has great potential!” It wasn’t a compliment. That seemingly encouraging statement adults say to kids includes the unspoken thought “which she’s not living up to.” Trust me, I heard it anyway.

My high school counselor told me I probably wouldn’t get into any of the colleges I applied to, even my safety, but I did. I underperformed in school, finishing papers at the last minute, and at work, stalling on tasks then rushing them, consistently. I was so terrified to get anything wrong that I refused to care too much and risk being shamed. I reasoned that, if I failed, I had 40% more capacity in reserve so it wasn’t actually a failure. Eventually, the behavior became a habit and I was stuck. Potential is the booby prize and can become a self-selected cage, for safety’s sake.

The advice I would give my younger self is to give 100%, especially when you truly care. Be willing to risk it all and fail. Keep tilting at windmills and don’t worry so much about being embarrassed or ashamed. You won’t die. There is a reason why they burned the boats after the troops landed on the Normandy beaches. It was so nobody could second guess themselves. It required that each man commit wholly because there was no way out. Until recently, I have always had a boat ready to escape with me on the shore.

Two events made it too painful to continue operating this way. First, when I was about to turn 50, I was working as a medical editor at a big advertising firm. Overall, I enjoyed my job and liked the people I worked with and the clients we served. But I asked myself this question, “Is this what I was born to do?” and the answer was a resounding, “NO!” which brought me to tears. I had buried my passion, my caring and my true self so deep, it took a while to find again.

Next, in 2015, my husband, David, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and we were told to get ready for him to die. Not that bluntly, but make your wills, stop working, slow down for this kind of cancer usually means prepare to die in six weeks to four months. We took a different path. We chose to live fully and fearlessly instead. Our love had become logistics so we recommitted to expressing it in words and deeds. We pruned our obligations and made space and time for people and activities we loved.

People say as a meme, “What would you do if tomorrow was your last day to live?” Mostly, we don’t live that way but it changed my life and can do the same for you. In our case, for David, soon it would be and soon our time together, almost 25 years, would end too and I be left to continue without him. If we had loved that way all those years, our marriage would have been very different. I sang on four cabaret stages and spoke on three stages about my work before David died in my arms at home. When I began taking risks, serving tutoring and consulting clients with dedication, speaking and inspiring on stages and podcasts, and sharing songs and poetry at open mics, I came fully alive, at 100%. I even started online dating and dared to seek (and find) love again.

I would tell my younger self to stop coasting on the idea of potential and embrace living fearlessly. The cost of shrinking to not risk failing is way too high. Safety is not a 60% solution. Being true to yourself at 100% is terrifying, inspiring and worth it. I dare you.


  • Alison BW Pena

    Bad Widow Consultant and Speaker

    Alison Pena aka Bad Widow lives in NYC with her boyfriend, Wayne. She met and married David Beynon Pena, an incredible artist, in October 1996 and was widowed in September 2016. She is a consultant, speaker and author. For fun, Alison loves hanging with friends and family, music, travel, Maine, doing open mics, writing, exploring and learning new stuff. Alison started to offer resources about how to reclaim resilience and resourcefulness after a loss or transition, including work, relationships, health, money and love. She supports clients to 1) re-engage with life fully, 2) reinvent yourself and 3) rebuild networks after loss or transition.