The fine art of managing fear

This is a story about a guy named Joe.  Joe had a crippling fear that bound him for many years.  This was the fear of being let go from his corporate job.  While Joe didn’t have a rational excuse that led him to believe this would actually happen, he still obsessed.  This fear bound him to limiting thoughts, overly conservative decisions and an irrational, self-induced, overbearing workload in order to manage other people’s perceptions.

Joe’s fear of getting fragged led him to believe he would be publicly ridiculed, disrespected and discredited.  He would envision himself terminally unemployed.  In short, he feared the worst.

Then, one day, Joe saw it coming.  He was called into the office by his boss and human resources.  He felt a pit in his stomach, but needed to demonstrate composure.  He took a deep breath, got a cup of coffee and entered the office.  He sat down across the table from them while remaining focused on keeping a steady hand, sipping his coffee often and listening intently.  The cup of coffee helped serve as a vital focal point.  He was getting terminated.

Now what? Joe’s worst fear had come true and he found it uneventful.  He had built a catastrophe in his mind, and it wasn’t.  Joe learned despite his internal strife, the world moves on and nobody really has much to say about it.  It just is what it is. 

Everyone experiences a fear of failure in the workplace.  It can be paralyzing if you let it.  How you internalize fear is critical to how you face challenges – or hide from them.

I put work-specific fear into two broad categories: 1) the fear that binds you; or 2) the fear that guides you.  These types are not meant to be all encompassing; rather, two contrasting types described below.

The fear that binds you – it can be crippling.  This is an internally developed and accepted fear of failure, public ridicule or loss.  It’s the voice inside your head that says, “You can’t do that…and if you try, you will fail and everyone will know.  So why put yourself through that misery”.  So what happens?  You do nothing and watch opportunities pass you by.  Over time, you convince yourself this is just “how it is”.  Change, or even risk taking, just isn’t possible.  I generally find this type of fear doesn’t change over time if left unacknowledged.

The fear that guides you – it can be liberating.  This fear can drive a healthy balance between the spectrums of conservatism and recklessness.  It’s the voice inside your head that says, “There is a probability you can do this, but also a likelihood you will fail…go for it.  The worst that will happen is you don’t succeed.  Learn from it and move on.”  This type of fear accepts risk taking, creates and sustains great companies, people and products.  I generally find this type of fear is a learned behavior that is developed and tested over time.

Joe’s pivotal event paved the way for him to try another challenge involving risk, then another.  After a while, Joe learned how to manage the stresses and fears of successes and failures without having it bind him, or hold him back.  It shouldn’t hold you back either.  Best of all, it provides a healthy, self-aware fear that guides those who let it. 

At some point in time, your desire to succeed should overcome your fear of failure.  In the wise words of Marianne Williams, “”Nothing binds you except your thoughts; nothing limits you except your fear; and nothing controls you except your beliefs.”