It’s a four-letter word. A bad ‘un. So awful is this word that its use has been de facto banished from organizational discourse.
And yet the feeling this word describes is probably the biggest barrier there is to getting game-changing things done. It lurks in every room, in every organization, in every country of the world. It is a monster block to real progress, but it is pretty much unmentionable if you want to get ahead.
I am, of course, speaking about fear.
We don’t like the word (or its close cousins ‘afraid’ and ‘scared’), so we have found myriad ways of tarting it up: it’s not ideal, but it is okay to describe oneself as anxious, alarmed, agitated, or apprehensive. See what I mean? So keen are we to avoid using the F-word, we’ve invented four synonyms for it before we have left the letter ‘A’ in the dictionary.
We all feel it, but we don’t like to say that we do. So we might allow that we feel trepidation or consternation instead, are a bit nervous, or admit to some distress or disquiet about things in front of us. But we are not scared. Oh no.
Another favourite synonym is procrastination. A word that is nothing more than a fancy way of saying ‘I’m scared of what might happen if I start this’.
It’s quite amazing how we attempt to ignore one of the biggest factors at play when things are stuck, even though the ignoring of it only reinforces the blockage.
Given that we all feel it sometimes, let’s get real; it is actually totally normal to feel fear. There is nothing the matter with being afraid. If you are never afraid, you are – apparently – a psychopath. If you are just learning that now, I’m sorry to be the one to break that to you.
What does fear look like in the workplace? Well, in my experience it looks mighty busy. Avoiding doing the things that everyone knows in their heart of hearts that they should do takes a lot of effort. It takes saying ‘yes’ to a lot of meetings you should have said ‘no’ to, taking on projects in those meetings that keep you from doing truly strategic stuff, and then scrolling up and down in your inbox, opening, closing, and marking mails as unread in any free moment.
You still say you don’t feel fear? Really? Well, what do you think you are avoiding feeling when you keep jumping up to check that last mail that just popped in? Is it the call to a new client? A performance conversation with someone on the team who is really not performing? Writing a piece of thought leadership that might enable a different approach to clients?
If you never feel fear, then – again, hate to break it to you here first – you are never courageous. Courage is only necessary in the presence of fear. No fear, no courage. Courage is, ‘I feel afraid, and I find a way to work with my fear to go have a bash at the thing that scares me’.
It’s okay to be afraid; it’s just not okay to stay afraid.
What I find interesting is how I can grow courage out of my fear. When I get stuck (and I do, GTD or not) I find that by doing the things that I’m able to do with the courage that I have, I grow courage for the things that seem too scary when I first sit down at my desk.
That is why I’m often a bit perplexed by the ambient obsession with prioritising of lists ahead of time. It doesn’t make any difference whether a given action is the most important thing to do if I don’t have the emotional resources to do it now. That is why I’ve found it so helpful in GTD to simply do a next action – pretty much any next action will do – and then see where that takes me. There seems to be a snowball effect: as I do the first things, I get stronger for the next things.
The other thing that intrigues me is how connection seems to be an antidote for fear. I’d go so far as to propose the following formula:
F + C = C2A (or, Fear + Connection = Courage to Act)
But I see a lot of us are suffering from what I call ‘Clint Eastwood Syndrome’. What is that you ask? Somehow, somewhere along the line, we learned that – like Clint – we should be able to do things all by ourselves:
Ride into town, by ourselves
Kill the baddies, by ourselves
Ride out of town, by ourselves
Heroic, perhaps. Great cinema, for sure. But a bit of a lonely game, however you cut it.
I see that on any given day (and indeed at various points through the day) there are a couple of characters that can show up at my desk. I call them little ed and BIG ED.
Little ed thinks he should be like Clint, but is endlessly fretting about what might go wrong, what he might lose that he’s already got, or what he won’t get that he wants. And – often worse – what others might think when it all goes horribly wrong. All that thinking, reflection and self-obsession can quickly turn into paralysis.
BIG ED sees the big picture and is connected to the people he loves, his purpose, and to why doing the thing matters. BIG ED gets moving in spite of the fear.
I’ve found that I can usually trick little ed into being BIG Ed with a little light subterfuge. While little ed is busy thinking and worrying about himself and what might befall him, he is stuck. If I can manage to get him to think about someone else, the pattern seems to break. Even just thinking about thinking about someone else breaks the pattern.
If I can put action behind that thought, there is motion. I’ve made a call, or dropped someone a line. With motion comes momentum, and with momentum many things seem easy that were scary only an hour before.
F + C = C2A
If you are stuck anyway, what have you got to lose but the cost of a phone call?