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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 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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