I was in a peer group meeting recently where someone described a bad trend. His revenues were down. Way down. He was against the wall -- and had to produce or perish. (I have his permission to post this.)
He sought the input of the trusted advisors around the table.
The Smell Of Fear
His colleagues offered advice. Most of the advisors spoke of their perception of his fear. Their advice was based on an observation: "I can smell your fear."
The fellow acknowledged his own fear. "Yes," he said, "I have great fear about this. I could be out of business in two months. It has given me a stomachache for a long time. My stomach hurts right now."
Conquer your fear?
The advice from several colleagues: conquer your fear. There is nothing that can happen if fear is in the air. Fear in the air = blood in the water.
The responses picked up speed, as we took turns offering consistent advice around the table: overcome your fear before hoping to succeed. Because of where I was sitting, beside the fellow, I was going to be last.
I was skeptical. It takes a long time to conquer fear. This fellow didn't have a long time. He had weeks.
How do people conquer fear? The only fast way I know is alcohol. And it doesn't conquer fear, it numbs it. Frankly, the drinker is numb, less able to handle the underlying reasons for the original fear -- and now the cause for fear has doubled with drunkenness.
Of course, nobody was recommending that he hit the bottle. But "conquer your fear" is what you tell someone if you really want to scare the calm out of them.
Do I fear fear?
I didn't want to simply agree -- overcome your fear or fail. I didn't think this fellow had the time to conquer his fear and do everything else that had to be done.
I thought: urgency requires that this job be done with fear.
By the time the sharing of advice reached me at the far end of the table, I knew I had to provide a counterpoint. That was easy for me, because my relationship with fear seems different.
Here is what I told him...
"Fear and I are old friends.
"I'm not proud of my long-term relationship with fear. But it is a long-term relationship, so it's worth considering.
"Fear is a regular companion. I don't want to be melodramatic, to overstate the presence of fear in my life. But fear is a constant.
"So proceed, I told this fellow, with your fear. Lever your fear.
"My first college stage director, Ann Klotz, now the Head of School of Laurel School, was a college classmate. She was directing her fellow students, who were all nervous. She said:
Famous talents have always been apprehensive as they walked on stage. Bing Crosby, the self-assured, calming presence, was beside himself before every performance. He was physically ill at the thought of facing the audience.
He didn't conquer his fear. He levered it.
Channel your nervous anxiety into productive performance. Take those butterflies in your gut and lift them into your throat, into your intention, into your performance. Use that energy to do what you really want to do.
"Nearly forty years later, I continue to use that advice. (There is only one time I have taken the microphone without fear. I bombed. Now, whenever I am not fearful before taking the audience, I seek, find and embrace fear. It keeps me alert and sharp.)
"Don't spend any time conquering fear. Embrace your fear."
That is what I told our friend in the peer group.
Take me with a grain of salt.
To be fair, I have live a charmed life. The argument could be made that my life is one of the luckiest lives in the history of the planet. (Were she alive today to read this, my mother would say, "Don't be shry." Shry is Yiddish for when you court unluckiness by declaring your luckiness. My mother was a little superstitious and rarely spoke Yiddish.)
Anyway, if there's someone who is living a luckier life, I'm happy for her. I have no complaints.
I haven't had many real, existential fears.
But that doesn't mean I don't fear.
I fear all sorts of things.
Here is a short list of what I fear:
- sour milk
- spilling things
- tripping and falling
- getting hit over the head and savaged while I'm occupied at a urinal
- being misunderstood (to the point of lawsuit or impugning my reputation)
- being stupid
- being perceived as stupid
This last one isn't true. It was, but it is no longer true. I spent most of my life trying to be perceived as smart. I no longer worry much about that.
Back to the list of fears:
- compete, unrecoverable failure -- bet the farm, lost the farm
- forgetting my lines when I'm on stage and other actors (and the folks at the light table) are depending on my memory
- being falsely accused
- upsetting those who are closest to me
This last one isn't completely correct. I used to be a people-pleaser to a fault. I believed that I had failed anytime I'd done something to upset another person. I have come to realize that sometimes it upsets someone else when I say or do the right thing.
As a teacher taught me, Dale Carnegie's book Win Friends And Influence People might more aptly titled Win Friends Or Influence People. Because, as a shining light unto the nations, you don't win many friends.
Back to the list of fears:
- singing in front of people. (I cannot carry a tune.)
- driving on ice. It used to be fun. Now I am worried I will die.
There's a joke: "I want to die peacefully, in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car."
Back to the list of fears:
- typographical errors. It's the small things that drive the world.
- getting beat up at a gas station. It happened once. I provoked a brute. Bad choice on my part. I really don't want that to happen again.
- fire -- beyond the fireplace or stovetop
- hurting my knee at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
So How Is Fear My Creative Partner?
Fear is a great motivator. It is Mother Nature's jet fuel. When Mother Nature wants me to get busy, fear motivates me more urgently, more substantially than anything else. More than chocolate. More than money. More than sex. (Fear of complexity is a great protector of matrimonial fidelity.)
When I feel fear, I pause just long enough to wonder, "Hey, it's fear! What do I fear?" I identify the underlying cause of the fear -- and I really lean into it.
And that fear helps me focus on finding the solution, writing the sentence, starting the workout, pushing away the alcohol or cake, smiling at the stranger, picking up my pace, flushing the urinal.
Anyone who doesn't fear is half dead. Fear is fuel.
What do you fear? How can you lever that fear into productive performance?