Ability to master fear would make the top 5 of any entrepreneur’s list of most important skills – in fact, it would most likely take out the top spot. The big names – Branson, Jobs, Disney, Gates to name just a few – know that the path to success never did run smooth. These guys have all experienced setbacks at some point in their journey, but they didn’t let their fear stop them.
Fear: Friend or Foe?
Fear is a completely natural response to negative stimuli… so it can’t all be bad, right?
Fear is one of those double-edged-sword emotions. On one hand it is a friend:
- it keeps us safe by letting us know when we are in danger.
This is a hangover from our ancestors for whom mortal danger was a daily threat (hopefully this is a less relevant application in the modern business world!)
- it lets us know that the stakes are high.
Fear can be a great indicator that you are attempting something worthwhile
- it motivates us and ensures due diligence.
If you go into a new venture without carrying a little fear, it may indicate be that you are underprepared and over-confident – not a good mix!
On the other hand, fear can be quite the foe if it is misplaced:
- it could hold you back from taking even calculated risks.
Playing it safe can mean that you miss out on opportunities; you may be tempted to stay in familiar markets or hold back from taking actions that would grow your business.
- It can be contagious.
Your team might catch your fear because they use you as a barometer for how the business is travelling.
- As a manager you may overstate your employee’s mistakes (both to yourself and to them).
This fosters a culture of fear which ruins team communication, puts a dampener on creativity and makes innovation impossible.
Small business owners certainly have their fair share of fears to master:
- Not being ‘good enough’
- Cashflow problems
- Losing key team members
- Curveball challenges
- Competitors gaining market share
- Not being experts in the ‘other’ business functions – accounting, IT, marketing, HR etc
No one can deny that this is a lot to worry about. The good news is that I am going to make all these fears go away.
Many of the worries on the list above are simple enough to mitigate through careful planning:
- Cashflow problems can often be managed through minimising costs and saving when you can
- The impact of staffing issues can be reduced through strategic succession planning
- A lack of expertise can be made up for through outsourcing those functions, networking and knowledge sharing
The others on the list are harder to plan for
- Self-doubt is something all people go through
- Even the most successful small business owner will tell you that issues will always just ‘come up’ without warning
- There is little you can do to influence the success or failure of your competitors
The thing is, when you stare down each of these individual fears you come to realise that they are really all the same fear wearing different masks. The fear of failure.
What can you do?
Fear can be paralysing, but there are a few techniques you can use to overcome it. I mentor my business coaching clients to have a crack at these Fear of Failure Busters and break through their anxieties to the success that is waiting for them on the other side:
- Make failure your teacher
If you haven’t failed this week, then you should be disappointed. It means you probably haven’t learned anything! If you have failed spectacularly then you have eliminated one more dead-end on your roadmap to success.
- Change the way you think about failing by changing the way you talk about it
I mentor my clients to leverage the word ‘experiment’ when it comes to trying new things. This helps to take the pressure off, because you expect some element of failure in any experiment. I also favour the phrase “figure it out”, which hints at a process of trial and error.
- Practice failing to disassociate it from shame
Many of us have been conditioned to equate failing with being ashamed of ourselves. It takes practice to realise that your personal worth isn’t diminished when things don’t work out. Start by taking small risks and be sure to share your mistakes and failures instead of hiding them. The more you do this, the more comfortable you will be.
- Remember that regrets are worse than failures
Do you remember the things that you failed at 10 years ago? 5 years ago? A month ago? Possibly not. You likely do remember that opportunity that you regret not taking a chance on. Fears and failures, unlike regrets, are often temporary. Don’t waste energy on things that are going to change soon!
- Learn to be saved by criticism instead of crushed by it
Criticism is a gift and it takes guts and skill to criticise someone properly. I don’t mean trash-talking (that’s cheap and easy and you should ignore it). I am referring to the kind of supportive criticism that you have to take seriously, because you know it is true. This kind of feedback is more precious than profits. It is what is going to help you improve and make your business stronger.
- Don’t absorb the concerns of people who are responding from a position of fear
There are people in your life that might contribute to your fear of failure through well-meaning but unfounded apprehension. It may be that your family or friends are not supportive of your business and continuously push the ‘stability’ and ‘predictability’ of a regular job. Thank them for their concern and remember that, while they may be your biggest fans, they may not be your best cheerleaders.
- Find your cheerleaders
Fear is contagious but so is positivity. Surround yourself with other small business owners, mentors, coaches… people who have knowledge and experience that see the potential in you and your business and can provide support and advice.
- Live in an evidence-based world
Ask yourself what ‘proof’ do you have that you are going to fail? Chances are that you don’t have much to go on. Give yourself some proof of your successes. Create an achievements board to go up alongside your vision board. Consult it when you need that ‘proof’ that you have had successes before and you will have them again.
Fear can be a friend or foe, depending on how you deal with it. If fear of failure is holding you and your business back from the successes that you would otherwise enjoy, then it has become your enemy. The above techniques can be used to good effect to send your fear packing. Remember, at the end of the day, there is only one true failure in life. Giving up and never trying again. As the great playwright Samuel Beckett once said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”