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How to make friends with fear

silhouette of rock climber on vertical rock face

What stops us from doing anything in life? Almost always, it is fear. Horrible, shaking, gut-clenching terror, or the sneaky kind that keeps you procrastinating and finding reasons why you will look again at doing something tomorrow. Remember that great George Addair quote, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear”?

All that fear can cause you to seize up when it comes to starting and growing a business, or battling through tough times. Fear can paralyse us, cause our brains to fog, and leave us unable to think clearly, let alone make decisions. We argue ourselves out of doing things, and those things include starting a business. Yet right now, during these challenging, fearful times, if we re-frame our thinking, we might be able to see that it is also a time of incredible opportunities. So, let’s look at fear and see if we can reduce its impact.

The first thing to do is to recognise it. The first sign is usually prevaricating. You start questioning if you have done enough research, or if you have chosen the right business name, or if this month is the correct month to plan to start. Perhaps next month would be better as you have your other half’s birthday to plan… This sort of prevarication is the brain playing games with you, finding ways to avoid even looking at what you are afraid of.

Another reason why entrepreneurs battle with fear so much is that by nature, we want to achieve “more” and aim higher, so we have a natural tendency towards perfectionism. And perfectionism in business—or anywhere else—is an imperfect goal that piles on the pressure and causes more fear. Our self-confidence may not be that great either for various reasons we will look at later.

When I was struggling with fearfulness in recent years, someone I trusted kept saying to me, “Whatever it is that happens, you can cope with it”. It took me some months and some other reading to unpick what this advice was really about. We can, and do, cope with what life throws at us. Often, a situation turns out not to be as bad as we first feared. What we are frightened of is not the thing itself (a business failing, a huge great spider, a plane ride). What really frightens us is that we won’t be able to cope with it. You can cope with business success (and failure), so take a breath and go for it.

man bungee jumping
Feel the fear and do it anyway.

The paradoxical thinking about people who fail

There is a terrible stigma about failure, especially in the UK, that makes us scared to put our heads up over the parapet. Entrepreneurs who deserve second chances have often been denied them as a result. Yet our feelings are paradoxical.

We also love a good “against the odds” story. We love to hear how KFC’s fried chicken recipe was rejected over a thousand times, or how Walt Disney was fired from his first job because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas”; how his first business failed and his funding applications for Disney World were rejected over three hundred times. Or how Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia came up with the idea for Airbnb because they were so broke that they had to lease out their own apartment to pay the rent. Seven major investment companies turned them down before getting a break from Y Combinator.

US entrepreneurs, especially those in Silicon Valley, understand that there is no more excellent teacher than failure. In my last book, Scale for Success, Stephen Kelly describes how he nearly didn’t get offered a job in Silicon Valley because he hadn’t failed, a concept that might sound crazy in the UK. But the Valley’s success has often been attributed to a combination of its access to talent and its level of forgiveness of failure. Most of the CEOs there have already failed, and that experience is highly valued. There is no greater teacher. Failure has its plus side.

Is the reality of failing that unpleasant?

Of course, none of us like to fail. However, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you will discover that you fail on a virtually daily basis. But when we let that fear of failure take over, the only person who suffers is us. It is no different from a relationship you won’t risk for fear of getting hurt. To succeed in business, you have to leap in and embrace those continual failures along the way. It won’t be as bad as you think.

Rune Sovndahl, a Danish entrepreneur and co-founder of the globally successful Fantastic Services told me a story that demonstrates this so well. Rune says that he expected ups and downs in life, but he never expected to fail at things. One of his personal goals was cave diving. So, he set the scene perfectly, planned it all, rented the gear, and did cave diving courses. He was confident that he “had got this,” especially having seen how unprepared the rest of his class were.

So, Rune was absolutely stunned when his instructor failed him at the last practical exam. In retrospect, Rune says the instructor was right to do so, and he went on to fail several more times. But the extraordinary thing was that Rune says he enjoyed failing. It was a new sensation, and he discovered that being challenged at levels he had never known existed made him appreciate the experience all the more and relish the chance of improving.

Rune says that he now realises this is much the same in the business world, especially in the beginning when you will indeed fall, and yet get back up numerous times. He says that what is important is what you take away. If you have made a mistake, then learn from it; get up and grow. These failures will help you to realise where your abilities can get you and so they can teach you how to push beyond that, outside your comfort zone. Then, Rune advises, get an honest opinion from the best in your field and listen, improve, and achieve. Rune strongly believes failing is the only way to that sweet success.

shirtless man putting on boxing gloves
Failure is inevitable. It’s how you pick yourself up from it that counts.

Focus to keep your mind off failure

I remember chatting to English entrepreneur, Wilfred Emmanuel Jones. Wilfred made himself a promise as a child, growing up in the heart of Peaky Blinders Birmingham, that one day he would own a farm. He was written off at school, dishonourably discharged from the army, yet his dream never wavered. It would take him decades, but he finally bought his farm in rural Somerset.

When he launched The Black Farmer brand, it was tough to get off the ground. People told him the name would never work. The supermarkets wouldn’t stock him. Wilfred had to re-finance his home as the banks wouldn’t back him. Yet now he has one of the best-known food brands in the UK.

Wilfred had learned from his father that the way to succeed is to focus and have ruthless determination. He believes that passion is the only antidote to fear. When people tell him that they are scared to start a business, he tells them that, “it is a lot like falling in love. People stop themselves because they are afraid of what might happen. Sometimes you do it despite everyone telling you that you are mad or making a huge mistake. You have to be consumed by it, not think of anything else. Like all great love affairs, it has its ups and downs, and part of the understanding of business is knowing that.”

To turn your concept of failing on its head, Wilfred advises that an excellent measurement of life is to look back over the last year and think of the list of mistakes you have made. If you have a good list, you will have been living life to the full. I urge you to try it!

Passion does indeed carry you past fear, and through many trials and tribulations. So never, ever, not for the tiniest moment, lose sight of why you are doing what you do.

What I have learned to combat fear

Fear seems to get worse with age! Here are some of practical steps you can take that help.

First, recognize and avoid people who tell you that “you can’t do it” or “you are wasting your time.” Listen out for them and steer clear of them.

We have to also be careful of repeating negative things to ourselves. When we say we are “no good” or “haven’t a hope,” we may think it is modest, but we quickly start to believe it. Instead, try keeping a journal with your weekly wins, then look back and add up every deposit you’ve made into your confidence bank every month. Looking back will surprise you.

Many, many entrepreneurs battle with imposter syndrome. I remember the first thing I ever won in business was some free coaching. I was terrified. Six sessions were to be delivered by A Very Impressive Person, with an entire alphabet of letters after their name. They would, I was sure, only have to be in my office for five minutes to expose that any success I had ever had was, at best, just outrageous good luck. Years afterward, I heard about imposter syndrome for the first time and realised that my shaking terror had been a classic case.

Success does nothing to dispel the fear of failure—if anything it makes it worse. But what will see you through these challenges is a passion for what you are doing, a total focus on the desired outcomes, an increased recognition that the world doesn’t end when you mess up, and the ability to re-frame failure as the best possible learning opportunity.

So, start your business, grow your business—surge ahead. You have nothing to fear in failure. Make fear, your new best friend.

  • This is an excerpt from Jan Cavelle’s book ‘Start for Success’, which is available here.