Fear, Lies and Purpose

Today, I will not live in fear.

For all too many years, I did. I lived with fear.  Even as I write this I can replay the feeling.  The tightening muscles.  The cold rush of adrenaline.  It stops you dead in your tracks.

I won’t say anything trite like “fear has been my friend”.  It hasn’t been my friend.  It’s been my companion, but never my friend.

What did I fear?  The list is endless.  I’ll spare you the personal side of fear and for the sake of this piece I’ll focus on the fear that accompanied me in my career.

Would I be passed over for a promotion?  Would I make a mistake?  Not even real mistakes — I could work myself into a lather just thinking I could make a mistake.  I spent time wondering what could go wrong.  It wasn’t even fear of big consequences — even the shame, the blow to my ego of a mistake happening on my “watch”.   I even feared being wrong.

It wasn’t just the fear of mistakes.  There was another type of fear.  Fear of loss.   I feared losing my status — what if I wasn’t recognized for my accomplishments?  I even feared of losing things I didn’t even have — fear of not getting that promotion or that raise, that job I deserved. I could go on…and on…

I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that I wasn’t alone.  If you didn’t feel this way at one time or another, you are in the remarkable few.  I applaud you.  The rest of us are as described by Thoreau, the poet and keen observer of the human conditions who once said, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

One day, for me, that changed…

Many of us learn fear from the time we are children.  Once again, it’s a long list. For all too many, the fears are as terrible as they are numerous.  It’s made worse by the fact that we learn to hide our fears – it’s part of being “grown up” – not being a “baby”.  So we miss the fact that even those who live more placid lives have fears.  So not only do we fear, but we fear in isolation and insecurity.  Will I get picked for the team?  Will they like me?  Social fears are terrifying to many of us.  It’s why bullying is so cruel and effective – even though it’s not violent.  For some, it’s worse than violence.  We all rallied round the story of Amanda Todd, the beautiful young soul who took her life because she was being relentlessly bullied.  How many other Amanda’s are out there?  You only have to look at the teen suicide rate to see that kids often fear social shunning  and bullying worse than they do death.

Sticks and stones can indeed break your bones.  But names can hurt you — torture you.

Fear is powerful – more powerful than most of us like to think.  Neural science has shown that the “fight or flight” response uses the same circuits for a social crisis as it does when our lives are threatened. From a hormonal standpoint, it’s the same adrenalin that runs through us whether its a foxhole with gunfire all around us, a mugger with a knife or the fear of making that speech.  Same circuits.  Same hormones.  Surprisingly – for some – even the same intensity.

Right now there’s one person reading this who thinks — I’m tough — I can take it.  You think, they should “suck it up”.

Well think again.  Fear takes its toll even on the biggest and bravest of us.  Your fear may be different, but as George Orwell so eloquently illustrated in 1984 – every sane person has their own special fear.  Even  bullies have fears.  In fact bullies are often the most fearful of us.  Apart from the sociopaths (I’ll grant you that one exception) most bullies are,  at their heart —  living in their own pools of fear.  Many of us have discovered this when we stood up to some bully either in a physical or social situation, only to watch them turn tail and run either physically or figuratively.  I’ve had occasion in my life to deal with two men who have been abusive to their partners.  Both were physically much larger and stronger than me.  Both of them cringed like wounded animals when I refused to let them continue their abuse.  I’m not a brave man, but don’t put my back against a wall.  The worst fear for me is anticipation.  Once fear of what might happen is gone, I’m surprisingly clear headed.

I’m not a fighter by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m a total pacifist.  I describe myself as a proud coward.  But I can’t stand to see others people suffer or live in fear.  I am compelled to intervene.   Compassion and purpose trumps fear.

So here’s a great question.  If I didn’t want others to suffer, why did I make myself suffer?  Why didn’t I give myself the same compassion that I could so easily extend to others?  In corporate and even in social life – who was “bullying” me?  Me.

That’s right.  Me.  I was my own worst enemy.  Not others.  They were the least of my problems. As my friend Dave Howlett always says, “if you knew how little time most people spend thinking about you, you’d worry a lot less about what they were thinking.”   Best piece of advice I ever got from a motivational speaker. But I did worry – back then.  Today, I can say with all honestly that I rarely worry about what others say about me.

What changed?  For one thing, I realized that the voice that torments me is mine. I realized it’s not them.  It’s me.  It’s my ego talking.  In dealing with that, I’ve been fortunate to have found some very great teachers and mentors over the years.   It turns out that age is also wonderful teacher.  And it turns out, so am I.  My own heart has been my guide.  Has my ego stopped talking?  No.  But I did realize, I don’t have to listen.  Once I stopped listening to my ego,  I learned to find the quiet in myself and listen to that real voice within.

In the process I have learned to let go of many of my fears.  I’ve learned, although never perfected the compassionate art of giving myself a break.   I can, and do, stop beating up on myself.

There are still fears.  But wherever I can, I’ve replaced fear, where it was needed with a simple respect for challenges.  How?

I’ve learned to name my fears the same way I learned to name that voice that tormented me.  I’ve learned to say – that adrenalin rush is fear.  Fear cannot stand being named.  You would be amazed at how effective this is.

In the process I have lost many of my fears and gained an added gift — perspective.

Today, I can honestly say that I don’t  have many regrets.   Fewer with each passing year.   I see regrets as I see my fears.  I name them.  Naming them takes their power.  I have a respect for challenges.  I have no time for fear.  I have less time for regret.

I’m not saying I’m perfect.  I’m only saying that I’ve made a big shift and in doing so, I’ve realized just how entrenched fear is in my life and the lives of others.  I’ve seen that fear drives our world.   So much so that I’ve come to believe  that we “fear losing fear”.  Not just for us — we fear losing it in our world.

We use fear to keep order.  We use it in our civil society with our laws.   If you break the law, you’ll go to prison, you’ll pay a fine, even in some places — we’ll kill you.  If people didn’t fear the consequences, how would we keep order?

We use fear in our families.  Even those who no longer believe in corporal punishment still have punishments.  Go to your room.  Get a time out.  No computer.  Punishments don’t work without fear, in this case a fear of loss.

We use fear in our social interactions  at an even more complex level.  The wrong behaviour in society can get you named, shunned or ostracized.  Without fear of shame and fear of exclusion the forces that we think regulate our social lives break down.

I’m just scratching the surface here – fear is at the heart of how we think we maintain order in our lives.

So it’s natural that it’s part of our work life and corporate organizations.

The corporate world is a goldmine of fear.  We have all kinds of sanctions that are used to keep us in line.  In his book, “Your Brain At Work”, author David Rock codified what he things are key workplace fears.  He uses a 5 letter acronym – SCARF.  SCARF stands for the five things that drive fear in organizations.  We fear losing  – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships and even Fairness.  All of these are powerful. It’s from Rock that I learned that MRI’s show that these triggers  use the same neural circuitry and hormonal response as fear of imminent violent death.   All five do this.   But Rock claims that the two most powerful are Status and Fairness.  Loss of status or the  feeling that one is treated unfairly can totally derail the best of us and spur us to irrational actions.  People will harm themselves rather than endure these two.  They will quit a job even with nowhere to go rather than lose status.  They will walk away from deals at substantial loss or expense if their idea of fairness is violated.

It’s not the actions – it’s our fear of what happens that gives them power.

We suffer.  But so, it turns out do the organizations themselves.  At it’s worst, fear leads to irrationality, but even without that, fear leads us to sub-optimal performance.   It’s true that the adrenalin of a fear reaction does provide a boost.  But we shouldn’t mistake that for enhancing our organizational performance.  Adrenalin and fast response keeps you from thinking clearly.  It paralyzes as often as it inspires action.  And look at the actions that it inspires.  At worst, irrational and even at best — adrenalin pushes you into instinctive, habitual patterns.  To be fair, this is wonderful in situations where the known response is always the correct.  It worked in the jungle, for our ancestors to whom the fight or flight response meant survival.  For those it doesn’t simply paralyze, it works wherever  unquestioned, habitual action is correct response.

In other words, it’s the antithesis of what we want in the modern corporate world.   Ours is a world of uncertainty and complexity.  Ours is a world where new problems require new approaches – where the old solutions don’t work.   Ours is a world with “wicked problems”, where  we need creative, “out of the box” solutions.

Approaches that keep us in the adrenalin-laced/habit-laden behaviour are deadly to the modern company.  We see it constantly.   We ask ourselves why so many companies have miss seeing the real problems, the real competition, the real challenges?

In far too many cases, fear of punishment leads to organizational paralysis or even organizational cowardice.  Our fear of loss of what we think is our fair share drive us to habitual responses that are out of place, ineffective and downright destructive.

The converse, however, is a model of how organizations should work in this modern world.

A great example leaps to mind in the movie Apollo 13.  One of my favourite scenes is when the engineers on the ground have to come up with some way to save the crew of the ship from suffocation when the CO2 filters need replacing.  The leader  holds up a square filter and a round filter and says — “We have to make this — into this.  And here is what we have.”  With that he dumps a pile of what seems like junk and spare parts onto the table — none of which look very promising.  How can you make a new high precision filter in space?

In the movie, the person “in charge” doesn’t threaten.  He doesn’t dwell on the consequences.  He doesn’t need to.  They know the consequences of failure.  They have named them.  Instead, they focus on the real challenge.   They need to put a round part in a square hole.

This team doesn’t work with a sense of fear.  They work with a sense of purpose.

A fiction?  I did manage to hear an interview with one of the engineers on that team.  I have to say that his recollection was similar to what we saw in the movie.  His comment was, “as soon as I saw duct tape, I knew everything would be okay.”  Imagine telling your boss that the solution to a life or death issue was certain as soon as you saw “duct tape”.

If I’m right, and this is the type of organizational behaviour we need, it raises are great question.  Why do business schools continue to perpetuate the old style of thinking?   Their “formal programs” with outdated and often fictional case studies perpetuate the worst habits in business.

Make no mistake.  Much of what passes for reality in business cases is straight fiction.  I can’t be the only person who has read a published story about a company I’ve worked at and wondered if the authors had even visited the offices.   How is it that  “their world” matched what we’d seen in  “real world”?   I’d say we are back to our topic – fear.   What’s that famous saying?  “Good decisions require good judgement.  Good judgement is learned by making bad decisions.”  Who is fearless enough to share their failures?  Few.  As a result, we get “shine” over “substance” and miss the opportunity to really understand the true learning.

I won’t shame particular authors here, but in a long career I’ve seen far too much of this omission and as a result far too much fiction in what passes for business cases.

That’s just formal program.  The “informal” program at most business schools is just as bad – maybe worse. These  programs teach ambition, entitlement and ego.  How else do you explain the idea that one school is better than another?  Come on.   Is a C student from Harvard really superior to an “A” student from a much lesser known school?  That is why Harry Truman, the fearless “tell it as it is” leader said, “C students rule the world.”

Institutional ego, entitlement and superiority — even among the “lesser lights” — is that why  graduates think that they should step into management roles without even having spent a day in the actual operation?   Is it how they think that  CEO should be worth 1,000 times what a line worker – the person who actually touches the customer – makes?   Is it why they think this even when the same CEO leads the company to disaster?

Fear and habits.   That’s what far too many of these great schools teach.  Great for survival in the primeval forest.   Deadly in our modern, post-industrial world.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be an “A” student to see the challenges of our world as we try to maintain  our environment, our social structures and yes, our standard of living.

Our is a world that desperately needs a reboot.  Its a world where new and innovative thinking are required as never before.

The need was never greater to break the cycle of habit.  We need, as never before to learn to live fearlessly.

So what provides the discipline to hold us together?  Surely we have to have something that regulates us, that provides us with cues for correct behaviour — something that keeps us on the right path?

We do.  It’s called purpose.   You won’t find it in many business cases — although some of the more enlightened schools are making strides in that direction.   Purpose is that motivator, that constructive driver.  I will take purpose over fear any time.

We are a world in crisis.  We are that huddled group, circling in the cold of space, waiting for the answer, ironically, to our CO2 problem — and a host of other environmental and social problems.  As we look at what we have to address these problems, will we look with fear?  Or will we look with purpose?

I don’t know.  All I do know is that it starts with me.  I’m looking at the mess laying out on the table.  I’m looking for the duct tape – or for the look of recognition in the eyes of the person who sees it.   I’m looking for that sign that says we don’t see it.  It doesn’t have to be me.  I don’t fear of the solution.  I just care about the solution.

So today I’ll cut myself some slack when I screw up.  I’ll let go of worry.  I’ll try to show compassion to someone.  And I’ll try to live with purpose.  And when I go back to the university where I teach or the business that I work at — I’ll go with purpose and not fear.

I wish the same for all of you.


Filed under Change, Commentary, Organization, Organizational Change, Social Change

3 responses to “Fear, Lies and Purpose

  1. Serg Art

    Hi Jim,
    I love how you tackle complicated topics with disarming honesty. Is that the “no fear attitude” in action? 🙂

    I wish it was possible to conquer fear with ease, like taking a blue pill. For me, fear comes in the most unexpected forms (although most of them were mentioned in your post). But am I the real reason behind that fear? You said age helps… Age gives you experience, perspective, power and wisdom. Well, most of the time it should work that way.

    However, what about folks in their 20ties, 30ties or even 40ties? Now that I think of, there is direction relationship between fear and age (think of Amanda Todd, age 15). Conquering fear is a challenging quest, because age isn’t not my ally.

  2. therealjimlove

    Thanks. And don’t despair. Age helps, but the only thing that age cures with certainty is youth. What matters is figuring out what matters – and recognizing fear for what it is. That’s really why I was driven to write this. I wanted to people to see fear for what it is – part of the human condition, useful in some circumstances and not in others. All the best and thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi Jim,
    An excellent read. Truly excellent. I’ve come to many of the same conclusions, and also had my views enhanced by yours.
    Thanks indeed,

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