Harness Your Fears and Let Them Guide You

Fear is bad. Fearless is good. Those of us who believe in the power of positive thinking, who like to encourage rather than discourage, would wholeheartedly agree with those statements at first glance. Cosmopolitan magazine celebrates “Fun Fearless Females.” Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, in discussing her book On Becoming Fearless, writes that “the more fearless we become, the more effective we will be.”

Well, maybe. Fearless is a word that can mean different things to different people. In certain situations, when it comes to talking to entrepreneurs, for example, we need to use that word judiciously. Don’t get me wrong — there’s certainly nothing wrong with encouraging people to “be bold” or “have courage.” I do it all the time. In fact, I feel one of my reasons for being is to urge people to start businesses or grow the ones they have.

But there’s another definition of fearless: “oblivious of dangers or perils.” And that’s the one that concerns me. If you interpret fearlessness to mean “proceed no matter what” instead of “proceed with caution,” then I’m talking to you.

I am certainly not advocating that people live in fear. Fear can be paralyzing, preventing us from taking that next step or taking any steps at all. I agree, in principle, with President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous caution, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But fear can be useful. I’m a big believer in listening to my gut. But my gut doesn’t only tell me when to “go for it,” it also lets me know when I need to slow down and consider my options. Being frightened makes me think twice, but it doesn’t hold me back.

Fear serves some other purposes. It can keep you grounded. As many times as I’ve appeared on TV or given a speech, I’m still always a little fearful before going on the air or walking up to the podium. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing and I don’t let it stop me. Rather, that twinge of anxiety keeps me from getting complacent and helps me maintain my edge.

These are scary times for most Americans. Banks are failing, bankruptcies are rising, and consumers are sitting home holding on to what some feel is their last dollar. The truly afraid are immobilized, waiting, like Chicken Little, for the sky to fall or hoping the economic storm will soon blow over. However, I think it’s a great time to start or expand your business, so I could tell you to “be fearless” and just plunge on in. But that would be irresponsible advice. In order to succeed in business, you need to be aware of the dangers, to understand what obstacles you might encounter so you are better prepared to meet them head on. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

On the other hand, starting or growing a business in this economy does require you to be brave, bold, and audacious. So, yes, some degree of fearlessness is required. Thus the conundrum: How do you find the middle ground between being blindly fearless and courageously so? Again, let the fear itself be your guide. What is it trying to tell you? To stop what you’re doing or merely reconsider some aspects of your plan? To buy a seemingly successful business or have your accountant recheck the numbers? You get the idea. There are many ways to reduce fear, including the usual maxims of “do your homework,” “be prepared” or “take a deep breath.” But remember, the point is not to vanquish the fear, but to control it.

Arianna Huffington understands this. Channeling Mark Twain she wrote, “Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the mastery of fear. It’s getting to the point where our fears do not stop us from daring to think new thoughts, try new things, take risks, fail, and start again. Fearlessness is all about getting up one more time….”

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