When Francine Ward told me that self-esteem isn't achieved through contemplation or self-directed pep talks but by walking through our fears, I did what many people would do: reflected upon some things of which I'm proud.

My children, marriage and family. Being a columnist. Having offered, with my husband and kids, a loving home to a friend of my son's who needed one. Teaching yoga.

Each, I realized, at some time required walking -- or stumbling or sprinting -- through terror. Of not being good enough. Of looking ridiculous. Of being made a fool of. Of failing to meet others' expectations. Of failing, period.

What am I least proud of? Challenges I haven't tackled because I'm afraid even to attempt them.

Ward sparked these reflections at a health spa visit I treated myself to as a birthday present. Even in a place where more than a few clients were wealthy and polished, Ward stood out. Gorgeous and impeccably made up, she had the poise and voice that whisper, "Finishing school."

So when someone told me that Ward -- who was speaking about her book, "Esteemable Acts: 10 Actions for Building Real Self-Esteem" -- had gone from being a high school dropout, prostitute and drug and alcohol addict to being a Georgetown Law School-educated lawyer and businesswoman, I had to talk to her.

Ward, who will be speaking at Unity of Washington church on Sunday and presenting a workshop at Sisterspace and Books on Wednesday, says many Americans' hidden self-esteem problems are due to their own addiction: to the quickest possible fix.

"On television today, there's this big explosion in 'extreme makeovers,' '' says Ward, adding that record numbers of people are exploring plastic surgery, Botox and gastric bypass operations. "We want to do very little, and get a lot. We want to drink, smoke, act out, treat people any way we want to and still come up smelling like roses."

So many of us think of self-esteem as something that certain people are born with or "just get," Ward continues. "It's foreign to most of us because it requires work. Self-esteem is not something you get in 10 days.

"We get it by having the courage to walk through our fear."

Which sounds like no fun at all. No wonder many of us are the way Ward says she once was, having to learn everything "the hard way." When she was growing up poor in Atlanta and the South Bronx, she writes, "the notion that I'd never leave the ghetto was presented to me at home, at church, in school. . . . Disadvantaged black girls like me couldn't become anything other than drug addicts, alcoholics or prostitutes."

Ward became all three. At 26, after a night of partying, she woke up in the hospital after being hit by a car. "I was so drunk, I didn't realize I'd been hit. Doctors, who told me I was found in the street by cops, told me I'd never walk again."

The accident was "the trigger point," she says. "I literally had to be beaten up into a state of reasonableness. . . . Some of us can't see our way clear until we get hit by a bus, literally or figuratively."

After rehabilitation and a year on crutches, Ward did walk -- and eventually ran in two marathons. She also entered college. When she decided to pursue a law career, friends who'd applauded her college aspirations suddenly recoiled. "You're an ex-hooker with a criminal record," said one. "Why even try?"

Are you surprised? In some ways, Ward's story and message are all too familiar. We know the drill: We have only fear to fear. Our backgrounds, skin colors, economic situations needn't limit us.

But we need people like Ward and their "obvious" messages because -- like the "sensible" friends who discouraged Ward's legal ambitions -- we forget. We "deal with" our fears by ignoring them, promising to confront them "later" or losing sight of them in the endless distractions that life handily provides. We tell ourselves and loved ones that not taking risks is smarter than failing.

As if failure was fatal. As if it was avoidable. We read admiringly about actors, politicians, entrepreneurs and activists who faced tremendous setbacks -- who lost elections or helmed unsuccessful businesses, who were advised that they had no skills. They kept going.

Why can't we? Why is the world, as Ward put it, "full of people making safe choices, stuck in jobs they hate, relationships they can't stand?"

Because we don't realize that sometimes we have to fail to truly succeed. "If you're given everything you want in life, you never learn to work through anything," Ward insists. "Real growth comes from stretching beyond our comfort zone."

Once we stretch, there's a necessary learning curve -- during which we may indeed face setbacks and failures. Then, amazingly, we find ourselves doing that which we feared. Says Ward, who should know:

"Boy, what a feeling of self-esteem that is."