Entrepreneurship requires a special kind of courage — you must face a great deal of uncertainty as you launch and maintain your business. The ability to recognize your fears, assess the causes and then make decisions about how to proceed can mean the difference between success and failure for a new company.
Richard BransonFounder, Virgin Group
I’m an entrepreneur and as an entrepreneur, fear is my daily companion. For the longest time I handled fear the way most entrepreneurs handle fear, by ignoring it or running from it. Learning to fully experience our fear as entrepreneurs can be of great benefit to all of us along our journey to become a successful entrepreneur.
Internal and External Pressures
Entrepreneurs experience internal and external pressures that prevent us from acknowledging the existence of fear, which makes it impossible for us to experience fear for what it is. Internal pressures cause entrepreneurs to feel the need to be perfect, invincible and self-sufficient. There’s no room for fear in this self-image, so we criticize ourselves for feeling afraid or convince ourselves that we’re impervious to fear.
External pressures and the expectations of others also prevent us from experiencing fear. We tell ourselves that external appearances of weakness or vulnerability put us at unacceptable levels of risk. The market will punish weakness and competitors will pounce on any sign of vulnerability that peeks out of the depths of wherever it is we’ve managed to shove the fear, no matter how far down we’ve jammed the feeling of fear into the depths of our being. At home, we don’t want to let on that we’re scared, to protect those we love from experiencing the same fear.
So we present ourselves as fearless to the external world, when inside the fear may be tearing us apart in ways we don’t even realize, let alone understand, while at the same time preventing us from following our true path as entrepreneurs in the process.
Ignoring or Running Away from Fear
If we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge or experience fear, what do entrepreneurs do with it instead? We do our best to ignore it, by pretending it doesn’t exist, or run from it, by adopting unhealthy habits to try and keep our mind from coming back to experiencing the fear.
Entrepreneurs ignore fear by attempting to cover it with optimism. Nothing’s ever wrong, since everything is always going according to or better than plan. Sometimes we do acknowledge little ups-and-downs here and there, to give our otherwise optimistic outlook a hint of reality, to increase the believability of the story. We then quickly sweep away these little ups-and-downs as no big deal, just a couple of bumps in the road that weren’t scary at all.
You can tell when these conversations are happening. They’re usually prefaced by an entrepreneur anticipating your question, taking a deep breath before your question finishes, so he or she can then launch into a breathless few paragraphs on how “great” everything is going, with a noticeable absence of pauses for questions.
If you ask the same question a bit later, the answer will be very, very similar, in message and length, to the answer that was given the first time the question was asked. I think we do this to convince ourselves that things actually are going well, as much as we do it to convince other people that everything’s just fine.
The other thing entrepreneurs do, because we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge and experience our fear, is to run from it, run like hell from our fear. The frustrating thing about this approach is that no matter how hard or how fast we run, fear is never more than a half-step behind and is more likely a step ahead of us, since we’re just carrying it inside of us.
We run faster and faster until we can’t run anymore and guess what? Fear’s still right there with us when we stop or collapse from exhaustion.
And by running I don’t necessarily mean physically running away from our desk or office. Running can take many forms like drinking too much, eating too much or the wrong things, smoking, losing ourselves in unhealthy relationships, and even burying ourselves further and further into work, to make sure we stay breathlessly busy. The common thread here is that all of these habits we adopt are an attempt to distract ourselves from what is really going on and prevent us from being with the thoughts that may result in our experiencing the fear for what it is.
Leaning Into Fear as an Entrepreneur
We see that our armor is made up of nothing more than habits and fears, and we begin to feel that we can let those go.
I’m feeling happy to discover that there is a third options to dealing with our fear. What if, rather than ignoring or running from our fear, we allow ourselves to fully experience the fear for what it is? What if we lean into it and move toward it?
What if we accept fear for what it is and experience if fully, along with the seemingly unpleasant emotions that accompany it? Rather than close in on ourselves when we experience fear, what if we stayed open and vulnerable to it instead? Very counterintuitive, right?
I’ve been working hard to put this new way of handling fear into practice, on a day to day basis. It’s hard and scary work. At the same time, I’m encouraged by my initial experience of trying to stay open to and experience the fear I face on a daily basis as an entrepreneur.
Staying Open Instead of Closing Down
By becoming intimate with how we close down and how we open up, we awaken our unlimited potential.
Just being aware of trying to stay open and not shut down, which helps me understand when I instinctively begin to close down, has been a rewarding experience, as I continue on this journey to lean into my fear.
As I learn to lean into my fear, I’ve started to experience that –
Fear, while unpleasant, is temporary
Much of what I fear hasn’t happened and actually may not happen
Fear and the full experience of it can be a valuable guide in recognizing the signposts that are guiding my journey as an entrepreneur, that I otherwise may have consciously or unconsciously ignored
As an example of the last point, I recently had what I thought was the perfect partner for a new business venture lined-up to work with us. We had a call with the partner who let us know that they wouldn’t be able to work with us in the near future due to internal constraints.
When I first heard the news, I found myself immediately shutting down, mostly by tightening my stomach, where I channel most of my tension, which also has the effect of me hunching my back, a common response to trying to protect the heart. I became aware that I was shutting down, stretched upwards and took a few deep breaths.
This awareness and response helped me to remain open, especially the physical act of stretching long and opening my chest. As a result, rather than trying to force the fixed outcome that I brought to the call, I was able to process and act on the news in a way that opened more opportunities.
So the next time you feel yourself closing in and shutting down, ask yourself if you’re doing this as a reaction to being afraid. Maybe try and stay open and see what happens.
There’s a lot more to this practice than I can get into here and I’d like to leave the details to people much more qualified than me to deliver the instructions, such as Chungyam Trungpa Rinpoche, his student, Pema Chodron, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh. You can find the books I’ve been reading about fear in my book list.
Also, if you’d like a copy of the plan I developed, that’s been helping me lean into fear as an entrepreneur, please enter your email address below and I’d be happy to send it to you. The plan lists the books I’ve read, in the order I’ve read them, as well as the audio recordings I’ve listened to, that have helped further my understanding of the practice.
Since there’s so much great information out there, figuring out where to get started can be difficult. I’m hoping you find this plan as a useful guide in getting started on your own journey toward leaning into fear as an entrepreneur.