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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 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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