“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Dealing with fear is a delicate balancing act. Consider the following three types of people:
Those with too much fear: Frozen in place by obsessing over every possible negative outcome, fearful types place an artificial ceiling on achievement and happiness.
Those with too little fear: Engaging in excessive risk, reckless types often find themselves on the wrong end of a huge business loss or other beat down.
Those who achieve the Golden Mean: These types dial in the sweet spot — the Aristotelian “golden mean” between the extremes of excess and deficiency.
This article confronts fear head-on. Knowing its origins and effects, one can develop effective strategies to manage fear and achieve the best results possible.
FEAR: FROM BIOLOGICAL NECESSITY TO MENTAL INFIRMITY
The 50th Law, by Robert Greene, describes fear’s origins and how modern day life has transformed it from a survival tool into a malignant disease:
“In the beginning, fear was a basic, simple emotion for the human animal. We confronted something overwhelming – the imminent threat of death in the form of wars, plagues, and natural disasters – and we felt fear. As for any animal, this emotion had a protective function – it allowed us to take notice of a danger and retreat in time. For us humans, it served an additional, positive purpose – we could remember the source of the threat and protect ourselves better the next time. Civilization depended on this ability to foresee and forestall dangers from the environment.
Over time, however, something strange began to happen. The actual terrors that we faced began to lessen in intensity as we gained increasing control over our environment. But instead of our fears lessening as well, they began to multiply in number. We started to worry about our status in society — whether people liked us, or how we fit into the group. We became anxious for our livelihoods, the future of our families and children, our personal health, and the aging process. Instead of a simple, intense fear of something powerful and real, we developed a kind of generalized anxiety. It was as if the thousands of years of feeling fear in the face of nature could not go away — we had to find something at which to direct our anxiety, no matter how small or improbable.
In the evolution of fear, a decisive moment occurred in the nineteenth century when people in advertising and journalism discovered that if they framed their stories and appeals with fear, they could capture our attention. It is an emotion we find hard to resist or control, and so they constantly shifted our focus to new possible sources of anxiety: the latest health scare, the new crime wave, a social faux pas we might be committing, and endless hazards in the environment of which we were not aware. With the increasing sophistication of the media and the visceral quality of the imagery, they have been able to give us the feeling that we are fragile creatures in an environment full of danger – even though we live in a world infinitely safer and more predictable than anything our ancestors knew. With their help, our anxieties have only increased.
Fear is not designed for such a purpose. Its function is to stimulate the powerful physical responses, allowing an animal to retreat in time. After the event, it is supposed to go away. An animal that cannot not let go of its fears once the threat is gone will find it hard to eat and sleep. We are the animal that cannot get rid of its fears and when so many of them lay inside of us, these fears tend to color how we view the world. We shift from feeling fear because of some threat, to having a fearful attitude towards life itself. We come to see almost every event in terms of risk. We exaggerate the dangers and our vulnerability. ”
Greene’s book goes on the detail how to change the way we perceive difficult challenges and hard times, reframing the way we view negative events into a call to action.
BUSINESS AND PERSONAL TOOLS TO OVERCOME FEAR
Properly understood, fear itself is the enemy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt keenly observed this in his 1933 inaugural address by declaring “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Be inspired and watch this portion of Roosevelt’s speech. Remind yourself that this disabled man, against all odds, would spend the remaining 12 years of his life successfully defeating the Great Depression, Germans, and Japanese — as well as fear.
Here are ten effective techniques to channel your inner FDR:
- Detach: so many decisions — either to move forward or stay put — are made in a swirl of emotions; step away and view every difficult situation in a detached, unemotional way
- Self-audit: evaluate where you are at work, home, and in personal relationships; ask, “what changes do I fear?” and “what is the downside of staying put versus moving forward?” If the downside of staying in place is greater than the risk of making a change, ask: “why am I not making this necessary change? what do I fear?”
- Lean on past successes: how many of us look back wistfully on significant accomplishments achieved the face of overwhelming odds? Remind yourself constantly that the greatest joy often derives from tackling the hardest problems
- Learn from past failures: never lose an opportunity to learn from a defeat or business loss — always debrief what happened
- Perform a cost/benefit analysis: list every downside of staying put versus moving forward; similarly, list every upside of each course of action
- Do your homework: lack of due diligence in any pursuit increases the odds that one will either fail to move forward because of a phantom risk, or move forward having underestimated what should be an obvious, major risk
- Own everything and lead: take responsibility for your work projects and personal life: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
- Surround yourself with like minded people: fear is contagious; so too is recklessness; observe those who get it right by working with them
- Experiment: decide to engage in a mental or physical task which you perceive as daunting or intimidating; examine how you feel before, during, and after the challenge
- Start right now: fearful types plan incessantly, or don’t plan at all; either way, they are always “waiting” for the right set of “circumstances” to coalesce before they act. Such waiting is fear in disguise. Move now, while you can.
This final point, move now, cannot be overemphasized. As Robert Greene observes:
“Move before you are ready…Most people wait too long to go into action, generally out of fear. They want more money or better circumstances. You must go the opposite direction and move before you think you are ready. It is as if you are making it a little more difficult for yourself, deliberately creating obstacles in your path. But it is a law of power that your energy will always rise to the appropriate level. When you feel that you must work harder to get to your goal because you are not quite prepared, you are more alert and inventive. This venture has to succeed and so it will.”
REVERSAL: THE FOLLY OF THE FEARLESS
Worriers obsess about the downside of the simplest of changes. Their counterparts, however, those who lack fear, often dive head first into a sea of unforeseen risk.
A healthy amount of fear is good. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton often discusses how fear is necessary for survival, and to not feel fear would be foolish or even dangerous. When embarking on an adrenaline inducing work task or outdoor adventure, I always lean on Hamilton’s words, which give me the license to experience fear without feeling weak.
Whether it be a work project, investment, or personal adventure, be sure to embrace the appropriate amount of fear. This emotion should force you to recognize the potential downside of the prospective endeavor — a risk fearless actors fail to comprehend.
In the business world, fear should cause one to, at the very least:
- Recognize the increased risk in engaging in a business with which you have little or no familiarity
- Conduct appropriate due diligence so that you are not conned by charismatic characters or fooled into hiring a narcissist
- Ask: What if this venture goes bad? How will this effect me? What is my exit strategy?
- No matter how much success you experience, do not grow complacent; as Laird Hamilton explains, always stay aware, alert, and respectful of your environment
- Seek others’ input and advice. As the great basketball coach John Wooden said, “Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.”
Go forward with the appropriate blend of confidence and fear. And be sure to use your body while you are at it. As Amy Cuddy explains in this enlightening TED talk, “Our bodies change our minds, and our minds change our behaviors, and our behaviors change our outcomes”: