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What we have most to fear is fear itself

What we have most to fear is fear itself

Have you noticed how often people draw back from trying something new because of fear? Fear that they might not make it; fear that the outcome will not be as good as they hope that it will be; fear that change may prove that what they’ve been doing until now isn’t as good as they’ve made it out to be; fear of being seen to make a mistake—even if that error is essential to finding the correct answer. This fear of taking risks in life risk stymies all too many people, especially those who have tasted success in the past. Successful people like to win and achieve high standards, so they become deeply invested in their continuing success. and in their past track record. That’s what makes them frightened of failure. They don’t care to put their reputation as a “winner” at risk—so they stay in their comfortable rut, missing all kinds of opportunities for an even brighter future.

This is very sad, and it’s an easy trait to fall into. After all, when things seem to be going well, we generally decide to stick with what is so obviously working. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. Paradoxically, whenever things are going well may be exactly the right time to take some risks and make a few changes. The reasons?

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  • Life changes. If you’re doing well now, the only way (usually) is down, so it’s time to find a new way to prosper, before the old one gives out.
  • Change needs resilience, and resilience is born of confidence. When will your confidence be highest? When things are going well for you, or when they aren’t? You’ll cope with any setbacks far better when you’re doing so from a position of strength.
  • If you wait until life has dealt you some bad blows, those necessary changes will need to be made under time pressure and stress. That’s a bad time to make decisions. The more stressed and frantic you are, the more likely you are to make mistakes—and the less you’ll be able to recover from them.

Corporations often make the same error. They get complacent when the product line is selling well and profits are high, only thinking about new ways to please their customers when those customers are already going elsewhere. You know what they say about being fat, dumb, and happy?

The time to take risks is when you can most easily afford to lose or screw up. And here’s another thought: when a positive value, like achievement, becomes too strong in someone’s life, it’s well on the way to becoming a major handicap.

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Achievement is a powerful value for many successful people. They’ve built their lives on it. They achieve at everything they do: school, sports, the arts, hobbies, work. Each fresh achievement adds to the power of the drive to achieve in their lives. Against this background, failure becomes unthinkable. Sometimes they’ve never truly failed in anything they’ve done, so they have no experience of rising above it. Failure becomes the supreme nightmare: a lurking horror that they must avoid at any cost. And the simplest way is never to take a risk. Stick rigidly to what you know you can do. Protect your butt. Work the longest hours. Suck up to anyone in power. Double and triple check everything. Be the most conscientious and conservative person in the universe.

Then, if you have to do anything risky—and constant hard work, diligence, brutal working schedules and harrying subordinates won’t ward it off, it becomes logical to use every possible means to make sure you still don’t fail. Lie, cheat, falsify numbers, blame others, hide anything negative. I believe the collapse of ethical standards in certain major US corporations in recent years has had more to do with fear of failure among long-term high achievers than criminal intent. Many of those guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen were supreme high-fliers, basking in the flattery of the media. Failure was an impossible prospect. It was worth doing just about anything to try to keep it at bay.

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Beware of being fat, dumb, and happy. Beware of a lack of balance in your outlook on life, when one goal or value —however benign in itself —becomes too powerful. Over-achievers destroy their lives, and the lives of those who work for them. People too attached to “goodness” and morality easily become self-righteous bigots. Those whose values for building close relationships become unbalanced slide into smothering their friends and family with constant expressions of affection—and terrifyingly insistent demands for continual expressions of love in return.

Balance in life counts for more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on reality.

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Are you a safe pair of hands? Sometimes, dropping the ball isn’t a bad idea. Are you a positive person? Maybe you need to cherish your negative thoughts too. Are you successful? Everyone learns more from failure than they ever do from success.

In many ways, the saying that “all we have to fear is fear itself” is less trite than it sounds. Fear is the great destroyer of human life and happiness. If you’re successful, but constantly afraid of failing, all your success hasn’t bought you what matters most—peace of mind in the face of life’s constant unpredictability.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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