I was in Miami for a weekend last month, and was strolling down Wynwood (a famous art district) with a friend and her dog, and all three of us were drawn to a piece with bold lettering that said “Fear is not an option”.
It made for a pretty picture and fierce statement, so of course, I posted it on my IG page. That elicited some interesting responses (fervent support as well as vehement disagreement), and gave me cause to ponder. Fear is an emotion as powerful/ primary as love, hate, joy, and more, but unlike the other emotions which can be classified as clear positive or negative, fear doesn’t fit as neatly into either bucket.
As I dwelled on the role fear had played in my life and of those around me, I realised the answer to whether fear is good or bad is…it depends. The key is to know when to fuel it, when to face it, and when to suppress it.
Fuel It. The primal role of fear is well established. If you see a panther in the jungle, run (in the opposite direction). I would argue that is as much common sense as a reaction fuelled by fear. In today’s world, fear is not just about survival, it’s also about achieving greatness as it can be used to push ourselves beyond what we would ordinarily be comfortable with.
I believe fear played a huge role in my schooling. Prior to every critical exam, I was convinced that I would flunk (so much so, that my brother created a parody on this theme when I was in eighth grade). So high was my conviction that I would push myself beyond suggested learning, over-prepare, and then—predictably—do well. I do believe the biggest difference between me and my (uber-confident) competitor in 8th grade was that I was fuelled by fear.
In working with start-ups, I believe that trait is a common thread among the many successful entrepreneurs I’ve met—even when in growth stage, they believe their success could be transient, or that an innovation that makes them redundant could happen in the blink of an eye. Their fear might border on paranoia, but few of this breed are likely to be completely blind-sided—because they wouldn’t have taken their (puffy, sleep-deprived) eyes off the ball.
If the stakes are high, and you believe you have what it takes to fight, give fear a freer rein. It will take you places complacency never will.
Manage It. Fear, pumping adrenalin, does induce stress and take a toll, so it has to be summoned in moderation. Otherwise, our primitive ancestors would have had a melt-down of sorts after sighting a wild animal for the thirteenth time in a row, and Home Sapiens would, potentially, not have had a chance to come into existence.
Another reason to manage fear is that it is palpable. People, animals, even kids, sense it. As a leader in the work environment, as a parent, or when playing a role where people are dependent on you, or looking to you for guidance, you must keep fear in check.
Taking swimming lessons as an adult, I know that the one thing I never want to sense when flailing in the deep end is my coach’s panic. How likely are you to follow a diffident leader? If you want to rally the troops, fear has little place in your speech (save for the doomsday scenario—say your company is sinking, and you want the team to know that it is a “do or die” situation—and even then, that strategy is on shaky grounds).
If all else fails, pretend and tell yourself—you got this. Put on a brave face, even if you don’t completely feel it. Because one of the things that fear lacks, is followers.
Trounce it. Very few good decisions are based on fear—and I say that, having made a fair number of those. I was recently speaking with a friend in an unhealthy relationship, who I was urging to walk away. There was nothing in my reasoning that was new to him, yet he hesitated. I finally called his fear, the gigantic elephant in the room— “You’re afraid that if you let this go, you might not find someone better.”
The primary motivator for his paralysis not love (or lust), it was his fear of being alone. And while feudal relationships are built on fear, few healthy partnerships are. So, while I’m all for giving flight to fear if it takes you on a new adventure, there are times when you have to conquer the beast, face it squarely and fearlessly and say—Frankly, my fear… I don’t give a damn.
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