The people I had to impress the next day would hold the success of our business in their hands. There was no salary or expense account at the end of the month now. I either continue to win contracts and we pay rent, wages and mortgage and live well; or not. This independence was what I wanted and so the fear came as a surprise.
Anybody who runs their own business will know what it felt like: the surges in adrenaline, the shakes and sweats, the impossibility of sleep. Those are the easy bits. Hit the gym, burn them off. Harder to deal with was the sudden self-doubt. Little nagging voices that tell you why you won’t succeed. The unexpected gaps in your sales pitch. All the people you will let down.
I remembered reading a quote that fear is like a thin curtain of mist. You can’t necessarily see through fear, but if you can know it for what it is, you can keep moving forwards, let it pass over you and come out the other side.
We know that people tend to have one of three responses to fear – Fight, Flight, or Freeze. And it became clear to me early on in my current work that people who start their own business react to fear of failure with a strong Fight response. My clients would say things like “Failure is not an option” or “The fear of letting people down is what gets me out of bed at 5am” and “I will not have people see me as someone who fails”. Fear of failure is right up there as a prime motivator for entrepreneurs.
Equally, I’ve also seen some cases where that strong Fight response to the fear of failure can sometimes be a cause of failure itself.
When it goes wrong, fear seems to lead to problems for three reasons.
First, that motivation to do anything rather than fail, can lead some people to simply try harder. If the answer is to do more of the same but do it faster, higher or stronger, then fear of failure is great – it works. But if the situation actually needs you to try something different, then fear can blind people to other options.
Second, I’ve seen businesses start to fall apart when directors or partners have different fear responses. If you react to potential business opportunities and risks with a Fight response but your partner is in Flight or Freeze, then a gulf can open-up between you. The harder you push your solution, the quicker and further they’ll back themselves into a corner.
Third, fear is one of those emotions that people are hard-wired to read in others. It’s a deep-rooted evolutionary trigger for our own Fight, Flight or Freeze response that we detect in the one of most ancient parts of the brain. Be aware that when you are determined to try harder and avoid failure, you may be triggering unconscious and negative fear responses in other people which might drive them away – staff, colleagues and potential clients!
There’s a sign over the door to the runway at RAF Brize Norton, the last thing that trainees in the Parachute Regiment see before they board the aircraft for a jump. It reads: “Knowledge dispels fear”.
I don’t believe that my business experience, scary as it’s been at times, is anywhere near jumping from a plane, at night, into hostile territory! But I get the point. The more I know about how I’m going to feel when confronted by fear, the better equipped I am to deal with it. I need to know that fear will drive my behaviours if I let it. And I need to know that I can choose how I respond to the way my body is reacting and to those sudden self-doubts.
In the world of professional-development, fear is almost always seen as something to get rid of; to analyse and work through until it disappears. I don’t think that really does justice to what makes a lot of business owners tick. There’s a reason why we put the hours in. Why business people take calculated risks again and again. Why failure is not an option. Fear is good.
About the writer:
Nick Robinson works with business owners to develop the beliefs, strategies and behaviours which will maximise their natural strengths whilst avoiding the pitfalls, so that their business can grow and prosper.
As well as building and selling his own small business, he worked in finance, business planning and project director jobs, is a former chartered accountant, has an MBA from Cass business school and is a certified professional coach, an NLP master practitioner and a Newfield Network master in coaching.
He can be found at: nickrobinson.org and on twitter @NickRobCoach