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Ever since I watched this TED talk by Karen Thompson, who’s making an attempt to demystify fear, it wouldn’t leave me alone. She claims that we should not only listen to our fears but actually welcome them (yes!). It’s fascinating.
I’ll start by saying that fear is something I experience A LOT. I’m an entrepreneur and a recent Y Combinator alum with both successes and failures on my account. And still a lot to prove. I’m also an extreme sports enthusiast (free-skiing, snowboarding, ex-instructor) who loves challenges, velocity and adrenaline and who is pushing her limits, sometimes at the risk of getting injured. Finally, I’m a performer with ambitions to one day be a decent contemporary dancer. I’m learning how to be vulnerable on stage, in front of strangers. It’s probably the thing that freaks me out most as I am far from where I want to be with my skills. Looking at my life, I notice a pattern: the moment I reach some sort of comfort zone, I will find new trouble to get myself into. And, inevitably, new fears.
I often talk to people who tell me that I’m brave. And that they wished they did X or Y but fear of failure is stopping them. They, especially women, wished they feared less. My standard reply is something along “just think about the reward and why you want to do it”. But it recently hit me that people are wasting too much energy on wishing they were fearless. I, too, get angry with myself when I experience fear. Fuck, I even have a tattoo on my wrist to look at when in doubt–a huge green “you go girl!” dot. YES YOU CAN!
But that TED video really got me thinking… what if overcoming fear is a waste of time? What if we welcomed fear and allowed ourselves to fear more? Can we stop the vicious circle of fearing fear? And fearing that we fear fear? And fearing that we… You get the point.
Fears Are Stories
Karen Thompson, a writer, suggests we look at fear as an amazing act of imagination. AMAZING ACT OF IMAGINATION, yes! When you fear, you’re imagining more or less likely universes of what’s going to happen. In this perspective fears are stories we create, with us and people we care about as main characters. Pat yourself on the back every time you fear–you’re writing fiction!
Our Brains Fool Themselves
The confusing part is that we don’t just create those stories (= the act of imagination). As soon as we make them up, we fool ourselves into believing they are an accurate prediction of what will happen. Our mighty brains, wired to protect us from bad things, overreact. So yes–your fears are friendly voices that want make sure you play your cards right. Yes–they have good intentions. But oftentimes they end up fooling you.
Luckily, you can fight back. Like with all advice, you can be selective in which one you listen to (and whoever knows me will confirm I’ve mastered selective listening!). While our irrational self is getting creative (dragons! people laughing at you! failure!), our rational self can decide whether something is a predictable reality or just our imagination on the loose!
Entrepreneurs Fear More
This might sound counterintuitive but fear is prevalent in entrepreneurial experience. Entrepreneurs expose themselves to fear by taking more risks. Challenging things are, by definition, scary and there’s a lot of the unknown. Entrepreneurs are not fearless. We’re not super-humans, neither can we predict the future more accurately. Entrepreneurs are merely the curious ones who want to try and see what happens.
The pattern Karen talks about is that entrepreneurs have what she calls “a productive paranoia”–they don’t dismiss fears but read them closely, understand which ones are likely and then focus on making action plans for most possible scenarios. In other words, entrepreneur’s creative self can get incredibly creative in writing stories. Yet entrepreneurs remain rational in reading those stories and don’t let their own brains fool them. It’s a pretty amazing level of self-control when you can be skeptical about what your own mind is telling you, right?
Fear Management 101
So don’t fear fear. Only those with no imagination are fearless. When you observe an avalanche of “what if…” questions forming in your head (yeah, they never ask for permission), welcome them. Your mind is trying to communicate something with you, which is awesome! Allow the creative story-teller in you to open many doors and suggest many scenarios. Then ask the rational scientist to limit the set of stories to a manageable subset. Life is not a movie and can be pretty boring so focus on the probable scenarios, not the most dramatic ones. Finally, let the entrepreneur in you come up with a plan to tackle what could happen. When your fear is either in Trash or on your To-do list, you’ll be free to move on.
It’s a daily exercise and trust me–you get better rationalizing your fears (or dismissing them) over time. Turn this into a habit. Being able to rationalize your own emotions will make you a better manager. You will get better at decision making, you will get better at assessing the real risks to your business versus just the most obvious or dramatic ones. Fear teaches you to ask “So what?”. Fear lets you foresee things and get ready for them. Fear makes you proactive about what’s going to happen. Fear forces you to have a back-up plan. Fear will make you run faster, be better, prove yourself you can.
Allow yourself to fear more.