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Understanding fear

One of my relatives is highly creative. When I asked him why he hadn’t submitted his work for publication, he told me he didn’t want to be successful. I didn’t know how to react to that.

Assuming he would be successful, I asked him why that would be a problem for him. He said he didn’t want to deal with having to talk with people about his success. It sounded to me like he thought dealing with being successful would be a lot of work.

It seems that a lot of people talk themselves out of doing things because they’re afraid it would involve too much work, or it might be too hard. How do they know if they don’t try? Some people work so hard at not working, that if they spent that much time and energy working, they would have a lot more to show for it.

I once interviewed Lolly Daskal [1], a woman described as one of the most influential leadership coaches of our time. She’s the author of The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness. During our interview, she told me that leaders often fear people will discover they’re not as smart as they appear to be or fear being exposed in some other way.

In one of her blogs, she lists fears that many of us in the professional world have confronted at one time or another. They are fears we must overcome to move forward in our careers or our lives.

The list includes fear of:

  • Being criticised
  • Being a failure
  • Being a bad communicator
  • Making hard decisions
  • Not taking responsibility
  • Not getting it done

They say curiosity killed the cat. Conversely, our fears may not kill our curiosity, but they can certainly wound it. Fear resulting from our curiosity is as common as curiosity itself. That said, how is it that some people can overcome that fear and go boldly into the realm of the unknown while others cannot? What enables them to say yes to the following questions when others hesitate?

Should I:

  • explore this new opportunity?
  • invest in this stock or start-up?
  • quit my job to pursue my lifelong dream?
  • consider a new career?
  • throw my hat in the ring for this new position?

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do . . . Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain [2]

Overcoming our fears

So, how do we overcome our fears? You may be surprised at the answer. It’s ironic, but according to scientists, the same curiosity that our fears can stymie is the antidote for overcoming our fears.

In short, they say, we need to be more childlike. As a child, researchers explain, curiosity is how we discover our world. It’s how we learn. We’re wide open to new experiences and unaware, and therefore unafraid, of the potential consequences. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve experienced many of those consequences, so we’ve become more guarded, more conservative, in what we’re willing to explore or not explore. So, for example, how could I break through my fear of exploring vegetables and consider cooking carrots in a new way?

According to scientists, I need to start by accepting the possibility that not all vegetables are the same, and perhaps those mushy carrots I ate early in my childhood weren’t cooked in the best way. That single act of acceptance may be enough to encourage me to engage my curiosity about this whole mushy carrots thing. If I can get over my fear of reliving a negative experience from my past, scientists say, I’m more likely to be open to considering new and interesting recipes.

My thoughts immediately take me to the Nike slogan, Just do it!

But what if your fear is more substantive?

What if your fear is closer to being an impenetrable wall than a pane of glass?

Many of us talk ourselves into settling for how things have always been done because we fear the repercussions of making a change. Change is hard for most of us. If not change, sometimes choice. We fear other people’s judgments if we make certain choices. They might make fun of us for trying something no one else has tried or tell us that it can’t be done because they would be afraid to try it themselves.

What do we actually fear?

Mostly, we fear change. However, embracing change can lead to some of the most innovative ideas.

“When you take risks, you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” Ellen DeGeneres

As Deborah Bowie stated so simply:

“The opposite of fear is not bravery, but curiosity. When we know more, we fear less. That is true in every part of life – personal and professional.” [3]

Case study

Ellen Langer [4] asked Harvard college students to give unprepared speeches to an audience. She wanted to see whether being open and curious could transform public speaking anxiety. How? By asking speakers to change their mindset about what constitutes a mistake.

Langer randomly assigned students to one of three conditions:

  • The “mistakes are bad” condition, in which they were told not to make a mistake;
  • The “forgiveness” condition, in which they were reassured that mistakes were fine and instructed to purposely make a mistake; and
  • The “openness to novelty” condition, in which they were told to incorporate any mistakes they made into the speech itself and instructed to purposely make a mistake.

Speakers in all three conditions gave a talk in front of a room full of people and were told they would be judged on how well they performed.

The results? Speakers in the “openness-to-novelty” condition judged themselves as more comfortable and rated their performance better than speakers in the other conditions. Moreover, the audience also judged the speakers in the “openness-to-novelty” condition as being more composed, effective, creative, and intelligent than speakers in the other two conditions.

I once had the opportunity to interview CEO and co-founder of FiREapps, Wolfgang Koester [5]. His company helps corporations improve efficiencies, reduce costs, and reduce currency effects. He has over thirty years of extensive experience in currency markets and working with numerous global Fortune 1000 companies as well as government entities. He’s steeped in such topics as interest before taxes and depreciation analysis, and he suggested we talk about the latest bitcoin issues.

I was simply not in the same league regarding financial matters. I knew that if I were to conduct the interview, I’d have to be a lot smarter about those issues. I had three options. I could:

  • not conduct the interview (fear of being exposed),
  • interview the man, feeling clearly uninformed about complex currency and tax matters (and be exposed), or
  • pursue my curiosity to know more about such things as blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Fortunately, my curiosity was the antidote to my fear.

Behaviorists and business coaches alike encourage us not to shrink from the fear of the unknown or to allow our fears to shut down our curiosity. Instead, we’re told to embrace our fears, to become curious about them, to examine them, to study their origins, and to learn what the unknown provokes in us and why.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Sheryl Sandberg [6]

As noted in previous chapters, highly successful leaders become comfortable exploring what makes them uncomfortable. This is the key to overcoming the first and mightiest of FATE.

As so many of my interviewees, leaders, and entrepreneurs have reminded me, to get closer to innovation means that we must get comfortable being uncomfortable.


References

1. Daskal L. Lolly Daskal’s Blog [Internet]. Goodreads.com. 2020 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7406515.Lolly_Daskal/blog

2. Mark Twain. Columbia.edu. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: http://www.columbia.edu/~ey2172/twain.html

3. Bowie D. Engendering Curiosity As the Antidote of Fear. Linkedin.com. 2016 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/engendering-curiosity-antidote-fear-deborah-v-bowie-iom-cce

4. Ellen Langer. Ellenlanger.com. 2009 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.ellenlanger.com

5. Wolfgang Koester | Kyriba. Kyriba. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.kyriba.uk/company/leadership/wolfgang-koester

6. Sheryl Sandberg - We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change. Goalcast. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.goalcast.com/2017/09/05/sheryl-sandberg-quotes-life-leadership-equality/sheryl-sandberg-we-cannot-change-what-we-are-not-aware-of-and-once-we-are-aware-we-cannot-help-but-change

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Innovative Leadership: Developing Curiosity

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