A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

23 April 2009

Fear, Episode 2: Fear of the Unknown

It's a funny thing about "worst-case scenarios": when we force ourselves to define them in concrete terms, they lose a lot of their power over us.

From an evolutionary survival standpoint, fear of the unknown is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the choices are, "assume this unfamiliar plant is poisonous" or "assume this unfamiliar plant is not poisonous," the first choice is definitely the less risky one.  This becomes a problem, though, when we generalize "this unfamiliar plant may be poisonous" to "all unfamiliar plants are certainly poisonous, and may be spraying noxious fumes directly into my nose at this very moment!"  This example may sound silly, but if you think about it, we turn specific risks into general "danger" all the time -- usually by refusing (or perhaps just forgetting) to confront the real risk.

A friend of mine, who is an internationally-known expert on security, just recently wrote a great article about this very topic.  He cites a tendency of people to respond more readily to defined risks (for example, purchasing insurance that specifically covers an act of terrorism against an aircraft) than to general ones (for example, purchasing insurance that covers any emergency or accident that occurs during one's flight).  Part of this is a direct result of our fear of the unknown.  If we can define the threat, we can respond to it, and in this way we can exert some control.  Maybe, if we respond to enough specific risks, we'll cover enough of the bases to have a statistical advantage over the things we haven't considered.  Or perhaps it's more insidious than that -- we try to protect ourselves against the specific in order to avoid having to imagine what else could go wrong.

When you avoid a particular situation - for example, making sales calls for your business - this is what's happening.  You "protect yourself" from making the call (which is a specific action) and avoid having to imagine what might happen if you did make it (a wide, and as yet undefined, range of possible outcomes -- including some that are very positive!)  You've gained the security of staying in your comfort zone, but you've lost the opportunity to enjoy a favorable result.

What risks are you avoiding right now?  Take a moment to reflect on your current "risk profile."  Are you avoiding an actual "poisonous plant," or are you letting yourself be beaten by a totally undefined foe?  What does the worst-case scenario really look like?  Will someone die if you are not completely successful?  Even if something big, like your job or an item of your property is at stake, how big a deal would it be to lose it?  And how likely is that, if you're being honest and realistic about the risk?  Take the time to define the risk in concrete terms, and determine what all your options are.  Be sure, in this process, to include all the possible good outcomes as well!  Once you have honestly assessed all the sides of the situation, if you can honestly say the risk is too great, then let go of it and don't look back.  But if the risk is manageable, as most risks are, make a plan for how you will manage it.  Your plan will give you direction, focus, and confidence -- the three tools you need to stop fear in its tracks.

14 April 2009

Fear, Episode 1: Fear of Failure

Most fear falls into one of three categories: fear of the unknown, fear of change, or fear of failure.  People's ways of coping, or not coping, with these fears can be dramatic, or even downright crazy.

I happened to catch about half of the Robin Williams movie, "Man of the Year" on cable last night.  In this story, a huge technology company makes all the voting machines that people use to cast their votes for President.  As it turns out, there's a bug in the software that causes 60% of the votes to go to Williams' character, a comedian and TV talk show personality.  The company goes to extremes to prevent the public from finding out about the error, using all its considerable resources to discredit (and even attempt to murder!) the whistle-blower and lock the hapless comedian into the presidency.

What was so crazy about this is that it was a simple software error - not voter fraud, not a conspiracy, nothing anyone would go to jail over if they just admitted the error and took steps to correct it.  The "terrible consequence" would be the voters needing to go back to the polls for a redo.

But the fear of failure - of being seen to have released a faulty product or not performed flawlessly - so consumed the leaders of the company, that they were willing to conspire, commit fraud, and even kill someone to prevent anyone from finding out they had failed.

This story is fiction, and an extreme example, as all the best fables and cautionary tales are, but does it really miss the mark in any aspect but scale?  Have you ever gone to a great deal of trouble to conceal a small failure?  Have you lied to someone about failing?  Hurt someone's feelings without meaning to, because you avoided owning up?  Done any of those things in your adulthood despite learning better as a teenager?  Perhaps you decided not to try something at all, just so you could be spared the possibility of failing.  Your comfort zone is a really nice place, full of the safe, cozy status quo.  But to FAIL is the First Action In Learning.  Failures are important milestones you can never pass if you don't reach them.

If you fear failure, consider these two simple steps that can motivate you to "feel the fear and do it anyway":

1) Connect to your purpose.  Find the "why" that makes doing a scary thing worth the risk.  Envision your success clearly in your mind's eye, seeing the benefits in detail.  Know before you start what's really important to you, and be confident that the endeavor promises rewards great enough to be worth enduring a few setbacks along the way.

2) Acknowledge the possibility of failure, and what that really looks like.  Sometimes we mix up fear of failure with fear of the unknown, and create implausible scenarios far more terrible than any likely reality.  Picture failure in your head, and play the scene past it.  After you fail, what happens next?  Probably some variation on picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, right?  You've done that before.  Surely you can handle it again.  Besides, your imaginary failure may have already sparked an idea about how to avoid the real-life version.

Whatever you do, don't deny, evade, or lie about failure, to yourself or anyone else.  Efforts to avoid the consequences of failure very rarely lead anywhere you want to go.  Take ownership of your actions, both successful and unsuccessful, and when it does go wrong, do everything you can to make it right.  This will show you to be an honest professional worthy of others' respect, even when everything doesn't quite go according to plan.

03 April 2009

Spring Cleaning

The idea of "spring cleaning" - embracing a fresh warm day by throwing the windows open and banishing winter's dust bunnies from the corners of your house - is inspiring and refreshing.  I hope you participate in this annual ritual, taking advantage of the opportunity to purge from your life any dust, dirt, or detritus that you no longer need.

As you take on the physical task, though, I also invite you to spring clean your brain.  Mental cobwebs are as bad or worse than household ones, and they too deserve your attention.  Take a moment to reflect on your current attitudes.  What are you putting up with that is holding you back?  Are you succumbing to the poison of the daily headlines, or worse yet, "These Economic Times(TM)"?  (Are you as sick to death of that phrase as I am?)  Is there a dingy layer of negative attitudes, about your abilities, your job, or your health, polluting your brain and turning your gray matter black?  If so, are you working consciously to shine it up, or are you making excuses for why you aren't getting the results you want?

I recently read something from a colleague of mine that I thought was absolutely inspired.  She asked, "if you argue for your excuses, what do you get when you win?"  If I had to bet on it, I would bet that whatever you're winning isn't anything you really want to keep.

So go ahead and chase the skeletons out of your mental closet, and replace them with the bright light of inspiration and the colors of creativity.  Choose mantras, affirmations, or quotes that reflect the way you want the world to be.  Set a goal.  It doesn't have to be a huge one; just something you know you can do this weekend, or by next Friday, or by the end of the month, that will make your world more like you want it to be.  Use that small goal to build your confidence in your ability to achieve results, and set another one as soon as you have accomplished the first one.  Sometimes spring cleaning has to happen one room at a time, and that's okay -- as long as you start!

As for myself, well, I don't do windows, but I can help you set and achieve WAY-SMART goals.  Give me a call if I can help!