Aside

Be Very Afraid. For a While.

Fear of change, fear of stagnancy, fear of failure, fear of speaking up, fear of not being listened to, fear of losing a job, or making mistakes, or looking dumb to others. Fear of loss, fear of disapproval, fear of punishment.  I could go on. So probably could you. It seems like the list of things to be afraid of by any of us is rather long. There have to be hundreds of them, right? Maybe, even thousands?

To ignore fear is to miss key signs and warnings that could save us. From things like rattlesnakes, or crazy bosses, or cars just about to hit us. But to give in to fear is to say that it’s okay for it to move in, and take over.

So, if the answer is not to ignore it, and also to not to give in to it, what are we to do?

I wonder if the answer is to listen to fear.

Now before you call me all crazy and stuff, let me share how I got to that answer.

  • First, it seems to me that fear is not a question of IF, but WHEN. I am no stranger to fear having lived in situations worthy of fear. But it seems that fear is not as situational as I once imagined. It is not limited to a certain race, or gender, economic, or status group. It is not as if one gets to a certain place in life and can then live without fear.
  • Second, fear is like that loud television next door in too-thin walled-hotel rooms that can’t be tuned out; ignoring it seems like it only gets louder and louder.
  • Third, my fears always hold some kernel of a truth … there is some lesson nested within that fear.

 

Fear as a Signal.
All of these things have me thinking of Fear like I do the signals on my car. I got a new Lexus Hybrid last year after my other car had an untimely death, and the stupid thing loves making sounds. It beeps at every bush, or ant, or leaf if I get too close to one. When I leave the key in the car which I do often cause it’s a hybrid and it makes no real-car-like sounds, it beeps one long beep as if to say, don’t f-o-r-g-e-t me. And of course, if I don’t put on my seat belt as I back up off my long driveway and before I start cruising down my street, it beeps until I do – all in the interest of safety. It’s got me trained to respond because it only gets louder and louder if I ignore it. So, what if fear is just a signal? Wouldn’t the goal be to pay attention to it, perhaps to hear it quickly, learn what you need to do just to get it to shut up?

The Lunch Date.
This explains how I came to find myself having lunch with Fear. I schedule it on my calendar. I get a take-out lunch but go to a quite spot. And then we chat. We talk about everything. We talk about my ideas as a writer – how I wonder if I’m making any sense at all. We talk about my fears as a speaker and the work I do to be big and bold, while also being authentic and grounded. We talk about my fears that my content and ideas don’t really matter because it’s not being seen by enough people. We talk about the crazy juggling act it is to be in relationships and tend to others while also tending one self. We talk about my crazy fear of being a bag lady with no place to live one day. I call this little experiment the “Lunch with The Fear”.

But on my calendar, it just says Lunch w TF. There are just a few ground rules that we’ve negotiated over time – I need to be curious, I need to be conversational, and of course, I need to be real about stuff. I need to actually listen. As in: listen, listen, and listen. I need to not convince fear to go away. I need to hear what I need to hear. Sometimes I get upset. But I try not to defend what I’ve done or overpromise what I will do in response. I just listen. I really don’t like these lunches with Fear. Yet, I keep these appointments even though I would rather get my eyes poked out with forks. Because I believe that in listening at my set lunch dates, I let Fear have its moment and the rest of the time, it can wait (and keep quiet) until we have our next time together.  So I am afraid. Very afraid of all the things I fear. But only for a while.

Fear, in turn, has developed manners. It tends not to visit late at night, at 3:00 am. It has stopped consuming me the 30 or so minutes before I go into a live broadcast with several thousand people watching. It doesn’t consume my energy as I prepare for strategy sessions. It doesn’t add side commentary when I’m parenting through tough times. I am more present in high-stakes situations where clarity matters. It tends to shut up when I’m writing. (though, truth be told, it has interrupted a few times during this writing session). If I ask Fear, “what concerns you”, it tells me right away and usually quite clearly. And it usually gives me some insight that I needed to get better at my different pursuits.

When fear had access 24×7, my world was more fear-filled. All the world is dangerous if you are afraid. Or, maybe better said, when… when we are afraid, the world seems scary. As long as there is so much fear, there can rarely be all-out joy. When fear exists in relationships, it limits connections. Now, by scheduling time, I have less overwhelming waves of fear. As a signal, it no longer gets so loud as to overwhelm the other signals. I am no longer my fear. And, oddly enough, my fear also doesn’t leak out in random ways — showing up in situations where it isn’t wanted or needed.

If we could measure the cost of fear – to learning and growth, to sharing and communications, to how fear stops us from having productive, creative, cultures of innovation at work – I’m sure the cost would be enormous. As in, gazillions and trillions, not billions or millions.

So, maybe, – and this is a big maybe – things would change if we each just scheduled our own Lunches with TF? Maybe that’ll create more fear-less cultures.

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14 Responses:

  1. Gurprriet Siingh. November 16, 2011 at 5:47 am  |  

    What a brilliant post. I love the Lunch wTF idea, and I think it’s great to have a “practice” like this, it makes for a conscious focus on a very primal force like Fear.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I always reflect on my fears and dig below to the fundamental sub-cutaneous fear. For example, the fear of change, is actually a fear of “Will I be relevant after this change has occurred” the fear of my relationship with my mom, has more to do with a fear of the guilt I might have to live with after she’s gone.

    I find that identifying the “fundamental fear” always leads to some tangible action I can take, in order to address the fear. While the fear of change is paralysing, understanding the fundamental fear of losing relevance causes me to act on how to continue to remain relevant in a changed scenario.

    Thanks for this!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. November 18, 2011 at 8:54 pm  |  

      Thank you… those are great insights you have. While listening to fear gives me action items of things to work on, not listening just makes me crazy (with no sense of positive action I can do …)

      Reply
  2. Jim Ullman. November 16, 2011 at 3:25 pm  |  

    Hi Nilofer,

    I appreciated your post immensely. I struggle with it periodically and it brought to mind an approach I came across in a book called “Built on Trust” by Arky Ciancutti and Thomas Steding. They have a section dealing specifically with Fear in organizations and reference Susan Jeffers’ book “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” Apparently, Jeffers suggests replacing “fear” with “I can’t handle…” as in “I can’t handle…rejection,” “I can’t handle…being accountable,” etc. because that enables you to reframe the issue into an internal dialogue you can explore. Sounds like you’re doing the same thing.

    Jim

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. November 18, 2011 at 8:55 pm  |  

      Framing is a lot of what this post was about. Thanks for getting that.

      Reply
  3. Todd Gorman. November 17, 2011 at 5:14 am  |  

    In the past year or two, I’ve learned through making some really minor changes (that felt a little bigger than that at the time!) that the only person’s permission I have needed is my own. (I’ve had an example to follow, I’ll admit. Modeling helps. Sometimes acting like someone else can give you courage.)

    No one’s going to explicitly give you permission for being yourself, but once you start doing it, you’re likely to get recognition (with underlying admiration and respect)! Let them follow you, baby — but it sure doesn’t feel like leading all the time! Yeah, that feeling (of going your own way) is an acquired taste, to say the least!

    As far as the “I can’t handle . . . ” translation, it’s only healthy to acknowledge your limitations, and take that merely as a sign that either you have a deficiency in knowledge and need to learn something, or you need to go outside yourself and involve someone else. We hate to ask for help, but we do love to help others (especially in our tribe), don’t we? [Asking for help also means being open to options we haven't seen. If you're not gonna be open, don't ask!]

    As we face holidays and family get-togethers, we also have to acknowledge the basis fear has in much of the conflict or potential for conflict. People have things they’re worried about, and they’re not always coming from where you’re coming from. People who are being reminded of their own mortality, or how little they’ve accomplished over the last few years relative to someone else are not coming from a happy place. Sympathy and grace can help smooth these ruffled feathers, and perhaps help people look at themselves in a more positive/empowered sense.

    Reply
  4. Bill Allen. November 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm  |  

    I’ve just found your blog, I like it very much. My fear does seem to be more of a 3 am latenight snack. The worse thing about that is you’re in the worst position to do anything about it and so the feeling of helplessness grows.

    Thanks, I also enjoyed the hero article and will be looking forward to more.

    Reply
  5. Michael Loo. November 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm  |  

    Thank you for writing this! It’s reminded me to remember to listen to myself, my whole self, even the parts that are difficult to hear.

    By the way,the hyperlink embedded in ‘when’ at the third paragraph from the last leads to twitter.com. That can’t be right.

    Reply

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