On Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. One of the reasons is that I’ve been scared a lot.

One of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

This has been something of a mantra for me. By accepting fear and going ahead anyway, you get things done.

Yet fear causes so much damage.

Racism arises from the fear of the unknown. Clinging to a job that sucks arises from the fear of the future. Parental overprotectiveness arises from fear of the uncontrollable.

Fear is one of the most destructive emotions in a dynamic society. It stops motion. It paralyzes.

I don’t enjoy living with fear. Especially in the last few months, I’ve been scared a lot about a couple of big ventures we chose to take. Scared what will happen if they fail. They didn’t, yet it’s less pleasurable than you’d think. Now it’s time to get scared about new things.

But even if these efforts had failed, so what? Isn’t failure one of the best catalysts for novelty? Fail often, fail fast, right?

Well, tell that to the fear.

Fear can paralyze. But in a paradoxical sense, it can also stimulate.

Like the base jumper looking down just before the jump. She’s going to be scared to death. And jump anyway.

It’s kind of like the Finnish idea of sisu the researcher Emilia Lahti has been making famous in the world. Turning obstacles into opportunities.

Part of me thinks fear is the signal of doing important things. Another part of me thinks it just sucks.

Sometimes it would be great to be fearless. But to the majority of us that’s probably not an option.

What is, is embracing fear.

It won’t take the fear away. But it will paralyze the fear, instead of letting it paralyze you. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, anyway.

Like in this passage from the Peter Gabriel song Darkness:

“When I allow it to be
There’s no control over me
I have my fears
But they do not have me”


On Success as a Burden

I had a crazy first day at work this year. After a few weeks of Christmas holidays, I came back to work energized and happy to see the awesome bunch of people I get to work with.

About two hours in, we had reached two thirds of the entire months’ sales quota. It was really weird. While money is not by far primary to what we do, if you want to run a successful company, it does, of course, need to make some money. Now we had in a few hours brought in the majority of the sales we had projected for the entire month.

But then things went crazy. I received a couple of emails that confirmed that a few really long shots we had taken had come through. And as I was going home after the day’s work, mulling over these successes, the biggest breakthrough of the day (and the last half a year or so) landed in my email. I was completely dumbstruck. When it rains, it pours, I guess.

When I was walking towards my front door I realized we had had four independent big successes, big ones to celebrate on a montly or even a quarterly basis – on the first day of work, no less!

But I wasn’t happy.

We had had financial success, marketing success, a big deal come in and a few new doors open that I hadn’t dreamed could happen. All in the scope of one single day.

And while I do know from a truck load of studies money or fame don’t really contribute to happiness, I had in fact done all this while working with what I love, with people who I really admire and cherish. So everything should have been amazing.

But it wasn’t.

After some head scratching I got an inkling of what was going on.

A ton of studies show that lasting happiness arises from pursuing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – ie. fun in themselves; and spending time with people whom you love, with whom you are respected and with whom can be your authentic self.

I would emphatically argue that we have all this at work.

But happiness requires one more thing. Your attention needs to be where happiness is generated. In other words, in your work, or in your people.

And this is how success can go sour.

If you focus on your work itself, or the authentic interactions with the people you work and live with, you will flourish. But if instead, your attention is on financial success, the praise for your product, or in that huge marketing breakthrough, it will be shifted away from your real sources of happiness.

Now you do need those successes to keep going. A company that does not have financial or marketing successes is not going to be a company very long. But paradoxically, if you focus on those successes once you have them, you will not be happy.

Your attention will zoom in on the results that you’ve achieved.

And results are scary because they are static. Life is not.

What with life being a living, flowing thing, it is almost a given that many of your successes will eventually be gone. And that is scary.

We need successes to keep going, to have a direction for our work. But we need to zoom out from those successes once we have reached them, and carry on with our work, towards the next big thing.

The key is to keep moving.

To do what you love, with people you love.

And to cherish the doing and the people.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”


Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.