Business is More Like High School Than the Jungle: Don’t Fear the Reaper

Fear has killed more good ideas than almost anything else. Fear of being rejected. Fear of failure. There’s a list right now on the whiteboard in the Novel Project office. I call this list, “Things we are afraid of, but must do.” We are afraid of launching. We are afraid of seeking money. We are afraid of being embarrassed.

One of the most valuable things you can do is know what you are afraid of. Some of those fears keep us alive, like the small voice that warns against crawling into the tiger’s pin at the zoo, or voting for the wrong political party. But other fears don’t keep you alive; they just slow you down.

Following a dream can feel a great deal like surviving in the jungle. Eat or be eaten. The weak don’t survive. But when it boils down to it, staying afloat in dream chasing – be it business, the arts, or whatever – is far more like surviving high school than it is staying alive in the wild. Unlike the jungle, where survival is determined by the size of your bicep and the ability to swing on vines, high school is all about social interactions. Just as in the business world, most of the people you interact with are not out to get you, but simply to ignore you unless you’re interesting. Occasionally you find bullies. Sometimes you’ll be doing things alone, and sometimes in group projects. In high school, you don’t have to be afraid of being eaten for dinner, but you do run the risk of being rejected by that cute girl at the Homecoming dance.

High school is filled with what I call Fake Fears. Fake Fears are the things that frighten you but really shouldn’t. The consequence of asking a girl to dance and getting rejected is that you don’t get to dance with her. The consequences of not asking the girl to dance is that you don’t get to dance with her. The outcomes of both actions are the same, but we’re far more afraid of asking and being rejected than we are of just assuming rejection without the wasted energy of confirming it.

That’s a fake fear. And you don’t realize it, but half of the things you would like to have in your life right now and don’t have is likely due to some fake fear that you’ve been harboring since childhood. Virtually every big chance in life, the ones that take you to the next step, is more the equivalent of asking the cute girl (or guy) to do a little jig than it is to outrunning a predator in the dark undergrowth of some rain forest.

Once you leave high school, the names for these fears change. Being shy becomes, “Fear of Failure”. Being afraid of being different is called, “Fear of Success.” Not picking up the phone and calling that cute girl to ask for a date is called, “Being afraid of that huge and scary company that might like your ideas, but is huge and scary.” But the consequences will be much the same – they’ll either like you, or most likely ignore you. Nearly every business or dream chasing venture you might consider will be overwhelmingly influenced by the social interactions that are needed in order to make it work. Your job is to figure out which fears are the type that keep you well stocked in the basics needs of life – like food and shelter – and which are just keeping you in check for no real reason at all.

Start by writing a list. On this list write down everything you want in life professionally or personally, and then break them down into immediate actions. If you were to stop writing silly lists and start doing something to get closer to that goal, what would it be? What about after that? Your first action items should be in the immediate time frame – what can I do today to get a step closer? What can I do tomorrow?

After you’ve written your list, look at the first item. Ask yourself, “If I did this action and it failed, what would be the consequences?” If the answer does not end in, “My life will be drastically worse because I’ll have no food, money, shelter, and nobody will like me,” then why aren’t you doing it? It doesn’t even matter that you might run out of steps by the 6th item – in all likelihood, you’ll end up rewriting your list after about two or three steps, because the actions you take will change your expectations.

Let me use the CanGoogleHearMe experience as an example. If I had created CanGoogleHearMe.com, gone to California, and been completely ignored, what would have been the consequence? Nothing. No one would have known I was there – Google would have ignored me, no one would have visited my site, and I’d have gone home in two weeks no worse off than I was before. I wouldn’t have danced with the girl. Period.

If there is a real consequence to your actions, meaning that your life will be substantially worse, that the consequence is more than just being a little embarrassed or wasting your time, it’s a matter of deciding to either rewrite the action to be less risky, or accepting the consequence as a reasonable risk. But at least by that point you’ve moved a little beyond being afraid of asking the cute girl to dance, and you can identify the tigers when you see them.

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