How to Bargain With Fear, Embrace Failure and Accomplish Any Goal
I’d like to talk about fear. The roots of fear, the symptoms of fear and the one small step that we can take to disempower fear in our professional lives.
An African proverb popularized 10 years ago in Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat states:
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
Here’s the thing: we’ve been trained to fear running. All of us. From the very beginning, as we took those first timid steps away from our parents embarking upon a grade-school education that would become the foundation of our adulthood. Here, the indoctrination began.
Suddenly getting the right answer, the passing grade, the red felt pen smiley face, became the one thing that could avoid parental criticism and disappointed teachers.
In school, the entrepreneurial mentality of diving in, failing fast and failing often, of just stepping on the track and running, would be met with scorn and failing grades. From grade school to high school and up through college, this notion of “getting it right” remained. You take the test and you pass or you fail. No retakes. It’s now or never. So, you better focus, study, take your time, get it right. Don’t screw this up.
None of this is conducive to urgent movement. If you only have one chance to succeed, you better be sure you won’t fail.
For some of us, the same misinterpretation of human performance that plagued us throughout our educations followed us into professional life, as leaders (themselves in fear of failure) develop cultures that punish “mistakes” and reward compliance.
Beyond the need to “get it right”, what’s so damaging is the pressure to get it right the first time. Which is, of course, impossible. We know instinctively that it takes thousands of practice hours to master a musical instrument or a sport. We understand that there is a level of devotion necessary for any artist to reach full potential. This type of mastery creates a confidence that drives real performance.
In professional life, however, we constantly face challenges that require us to begin something new, from a point of disadvantage, unpracticed and untested. Leaders plead for a spirit of innovation and initiative, while our psychology desperately fights to maintain the safety of stillness. It’s no wonder people prefer to stay on the sidelines. If you step in the ring for the first time and have only one punch to win the fight, it’s probably safer to stay ringside and watch somebody else get pummeled.
Of course, this is all psychological nonsense.
And yet, we see the affects manifested every day, don’t we?
• Sales executives afraid to make a call out of fear of rejection.
• Team members avoiding challenges by doing what they know and are comfortable with, even when it doesn’t help achieve their goals.
• People “poking holes” in new ideas and initiatives, explaining why it would never work and shouldn’t be tried.
• Quotas being declared unreachable; failure proclaimed before any effort has even been expended.
• The stress of performance expectations that make people miserable, resulting in even worse performance.
This “culture of fear” creates working professionals who are afraid to step in the ring. Lions who refuse to run.
In a future post we’ll examine some steps to controlling fear but for today, let’s focus on negotiating with it:
Run, but give yourself Permission to not run.
This is not contradictory statement. Let me explain. I am suggesting that in any scenario you must fight the internal urge to be still and just…run. If it were that easy, though, we would all do it, all the time. But we don’t. So, I also suggest making a bargain with yourself. Like any negotiation, both sides (the version of yourself that wants to flee, and the version that yearns for success) must come away feeling as if they’ve gained something and given something up. And, like all good negotiations, the final contract must be in writing.
The bargain is this: whenever you embark upon a task or venture for which you are uncomfortable, write down the circumstances whereupon you will quit. Be as specific as possible. Remember, this is an agreement with yourself, so be clear. Detail what, specifically must occur before you will give yourself permission to walk away. Sign it and keep it visible while you work.
Then, run. Get up every morning and run faster than the slowest gazelle. Move more quickly than those around you. Make more mistakes, take more chances and gain more experience than your competition by having a more robust understanding of what WILL NOT work.
And, of course, in keeping with your bargain, quit if the circumstances allow for it…but never before. This isn’t about fear any longer. It is tactical, each movement as part of a larger strategy. Keep a record of your bargains, track the outcomes and stretch your legs.
In time, by repeatedly utilizing this tactic a foundation will be built and old walls will begin to crumble. In a time of constant change and challenge, the ability to bargain with fear is a competitive advantage no education can match. The ironic twist is that our educations helped to manufacture these fears in the first place.