Think of the most courageous person you know: a soldier defending his squadron while pinned down under enemy fire, a bystander dashing into a burning house to rescue someone, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl defying the Taliban. They are fearless, right?
Wrong. From accomplished athletes to seasoned performers, even the most successful and courageous among us frequently experience fear. Parents often encourage their children not to be afraid. But there is no shame in being afraid. Fear is a neutral emotion, neither good nor bad. But how you choose to react to fear shapes your life and defines your character. Fear can be an opportunity to channel that extra energy into something positive, or it can be a paralyzing stumbling block. It can be a catalyst for innovation, growth and change, or a disabling deterrent and a detriment.
The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually fear you will make one.Elbert Hubbard, 19th Century author
Lara Lee, chief innovation officer at Continuum, a global innovation and design consultancy, says that fear is one of the most powerful emotions that we have. “I think when we embrace our biggest fears, we achieve our most significant growth. Fear can be detrimental when it deceives us and distorts our thinking. It has the potential to make us rethink things and motivate us or to overthink things and paralyze us. But it’s even more detrimental when we choose not to deal with it – just ignore it and pretend it’s not there.”
Lee says we are socialized to be fearless. “We are taught that it’s our job as leaders to be rational, rather than emotional. Actually, it’s our job to be courageous. That means you accept and confront your fear and push beyond it. Courage uses fear as fuel.”
Lee, who has spent her career leading change and pioneering new territory, says most business leaders and marketers frequently experience three basic fears: fear of failure, fear of the unknown and fear of the truth.
Successful, innovative businesses not only acknowledge these fears, but also create a culture that enumerates, explores and embraces these fears. Says Lee: “We can use the tools of design and innovation to overcome these fears to spur positive change for our organizations and for people in our world.”
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.Alan Kay, American computer scientist
Fear of Failure
Innovative businesses factor failure into the equation: In order to succeed, you must be willing to fail. “None of us is smart enough to get a big idea right the first time,” Lee says. “Look at Thomas Edison.”
One of the most prolific inventors ever, Thomas Edison, made hundreds of unsuccessful attempts before perfecting the light bulb. As he said, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
Lee, one of Businessweek’s “25 Masters of Innovation” in 2006, says innovative businesses should replace the fear of failure with the fear of failing to learn. “We are led to believe that we should not fail. However, failure is how we learn. It’s a valuable part of the creative process. Fear of failure is what traps us into making small moves and not taking bigger calculated risks.”
Failure definitely is part of the culture at Liberty Group, says Patrick Shine, VP of marketing and business development for the U.S. hotel industry leader. “Marketing in traditional ways is losing its effectiveness. So we are constantly brainstorming and encouraging our marketers to think outside the box. We encourage them to be creative, and they understand from the beginning that failure is part of the creative process. They are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and move on. The opportunities are there, and they can’t let fear of failing get in the way. They need to be constantly adjusting and moving forward, often outside of their comfort zones.”
Shaun Schooley says often, large high-margin businesses deliberately cultivate a culture of fear. “At companies that are very successful it’s not unusual for them to protect their core revenue driver rather than innovate,” says Schooley, VP of digital strategies at CooperVision. “On the other end, start-ups and innovators are anti-fear. Small companies tend to cultivate a culture that allows people to take risks – all up and down the organization. They en- courage people to take chances and to fail with grace – celebrating their failures and learning from them.”
Whether you are trying to change the world, innovate your company or connect with a new customer – whatever your situation – whenever you encounter that inevitable fear, lean into it.Lara Lee, Chief Innovation Officer, Continuum
Fear of the Truth
“Veritas vos liberabit” is the motto of numerous schools across the world, including The California Institute of Technology and John Hopkins University. The term means, “The truth will set you free.”
All of us have had trouble accepting a difficult truth. It’s human nature to see what we want to see, especially when the truth makes us uneasy. But acknowledging and exploring the truth can liberate us and lead to greater opportunities. “Fear of the truth sounds paradoxical, because most of us believe that truth is a good thing, but we all know that sometimes it’s hard to face the truth – as when slumping sales are blamed on the weather or impending elections,” Lee says. “The challenge is how to learn as an organization to confront difficult truths, to accept them as valid feedback from the marketplace, to embrace that feedback, and then to internalize it and decide how to move beyond it.”
Lee says this often means taking a different path than the one you initially started down. “But that doesn’t mean you should stop and not push forward. It’s only by confronting a stark reality that you can begin to push beyond it. The answer is to dig deeper, reframe the challenge and find the hidden opportunity. Having the courage to let customers shine a light on what is holding you back reveals the big unexpected opportunities.”
Fear of the Unknown
The big challenge with the fear of the unknown is that our natural instinct is to continually try to predict and know what the future holds. But as Lee points out, the antidote to that fear is to stop predicting the future and begin charting your own course. “If you design a future with your customers at the core, you move from uncertainty to creating your own destiny.”
“When you try to push your boundaries, you start to get that sense of discomfort and want to back down,” Schooley says. “But that’s when you need to recognize your fear; you’re afraid of what you don’t know – the unknown. And that’s usually the thing that you should try and lean into. It’s a difficult concept to teach. But if you’re inactive and do nothing, whatever is around the corner is going to influence you. If you are active and push back, you can control the outcome, rather than the outcome controlling you.”
Schooley worked at Amazon for awhile with CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. Fortune magazine recently named Bezos its “Businessman of the Year for 2012,” acknowledging his innovation of the book market and management style, which includes asking his employees to submit new ideas through a six-page written narrative. “Throughout my career, I’ve noticed that the people like Bezos, who are the most successful, are the ones who push through and are unconcerned with the unknown outcome or failure,” Schooley says. Bezos tried to build what he thought the market would react to and didn’t recoil when he was criticized. “He sometimes failed, but he was not afraid to keep trying,” Schooley says. “That freed him to be innovative, and he stepped off the edge daily.”
Whistling Past the Graveyard?
Some people feel the fear, lean into it and dance on the edge. Other people whistle past the graveyard; they distract themselves, ignore the tightening in their guts and hope that their fears will subside. The tightening in the gut will likely pass, but waiting for fear to subside usually is not the most successful long-term strategy.
Suppose, as Schooley suggests, that the fear is a signal that a window of opportunity has opened for you. As Seth Godin, international best-selling author and marketing guru, says, by the time the fear subsides, it will be too late. “By the time you’re not afraid of what you were planning to start/say/ do, someone else will have already done it, it will already be said or it will be irrelevant. The reason you’re afraid is that there’s leverage here, something might happen. The fear can be your compass; it can set you on the right path and actually improve the quality of what you do. Listen to your fear, but don’t obey it.”
Says Lee: “Whether you are trying to change the world, innovate your company or connect with a new customer – whatever your situation – whenever you encounter that inevitable fear, lean into it.”
When you try to push your boundaries, you start to get that sense of discomfort and want to back down. But that’s when you need to recognize your fear.Shaun Schooley, VP, Digital Strategies, CooperVision