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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 August 4, 2020

    The Gentle Art of Saying No For a Less Stressful Life

    The Gentle Art of Saying No For a Less Stressful Life

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here’s how to master the Gentle Art of Saying No:

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    1. Value Your Time

    Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”

    2. Know Your Priorities

    Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time?

    For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.

    3. Practice Saying No

    Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.

    4. Don’t Apologize

    A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.

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    5. Stop Being Nice

    Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets.

    Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.

    6. Say No to Your Boss

    Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no,” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning.

    But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.

    7. Pre-Empting

    It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting,

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    “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”

    8. Get Back to You

    Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them:

    “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.”

    At least you gave it some consideration.

    9. Maybe Later

    If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say,

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    “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].”

    Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.

    10. It’s Not You, It’s Me

    This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often, the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time.

    Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

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    Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

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