Practical Advice for Fighting Fear
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This is the first time I’ve done an interview for Entrepreneur. If I blow it, my career could suffer. Should I be a little afraid?
Sure. One of the triggers of fear is uncertainty, and you don’t know how this interview will turn out. We have about seven times as much architecture in our brains to detect threat as we do for spotting reward. It’s evolutionary; it has allowed us to survive. We’re not fierce, fast or strong. We’re just smart. And we’re exquisitely sensitive to things that feel dangerous.
Doesn’t it seem like we should have some kind of built-in mechanism that helps us differentiate between life-threatening danger and, say, whether a meeting is going well?
We do have that mechanism. It’s called the frontal lobe. Every piece of information you meet in the world triggers an emotion, which tells you whether to believe something is true, dangerous or right for you. So when you have an emotional response to something -- a deadline, for instance -- that’s the animal brain putting you on high alert. The frontal lobe is the cognitive part of the brain that says, “You don’t really need to be that afraid.” This gives intelligence to our emotions. The downfall to emotion is that if it’s strong, it stifles your ability to access your prefrontal cortex. I tell the people I counsel, when you’re feeling anxious and you know you’re inflating the risk of something, literally walk away.
And what, this will give you more courage?
It will. Danger is magnified through a stress hormone called cortisol. It focuses danger in your brain. Taking a break resets the neurochemistry so that the stress response goes down.
What about when you’re on a deadline? It’s still good to take a break?
Absolutely. In my book I talk about research that says we need a break from intense cognitive work, the kind that uses the frontal lobe, about every 57 minutes. And that break should last for 10 or 15 minutes. I rounded down to make it a perfect hour, and now I call it the 50-10 rule. And it works. Set an alarm to go off after 50 minutes, and then go distract yourself. Hard-charging entrepreneurs -- and I’m one of them -- think we can plow through the day, skip lunch, work nonstop. When we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for bad decision making and increased fear.
Say I pitch you an idea for a great startup, and after I’m done, I say, “Ah, but I could never make it work.” What do you say?
I’d say you’re confusing fear with a lack of confidence. Confidence is a very different thing. It has fear based in it, sure: You’re afraid you’re not good enough. But it’s different.
So what’s the relationship?
Say you’ve just finished a proposal, and you’ve submitted it to the client. What a lot of people do after that is they let anxiety and fear build up. That dents their confidence, which starts to affect the rest of their life.
You second-guess yourself.
That’s what we call useless rumination. You’re re-eating it. That’s what cows do. OK, maybe you did screw up the proposal. But there’s not one thing you can do about it now. It goes back to that adage: Hope for the best, but expect the worst. Because if you expect the best and then you don’t get it, it causes depression. And then we begin to fear the next disappointment, because nobody likes depression. So do you see these circular patterns?
Absolutely. It sounds like fear is an emotion we experience more acutely, and the long-term effect is an erosion of confidence.
That’s exactly right. People with confidence are willing to step out and try something where they don’t already know the outcome. People with fear, when somebody comes back to them and says, “I don’t know if this is going to work,” they say, “Yeah, that’s what I figured.” They don’t ask for feedback or redirection. We feed the fear, which erodes our confidence, which then feeds fear again.
But it’s hard to imagine CEOs like Jeff Bezos or Marissa Mayer being afraid of a business decision.
I’d venture to say they’ve made lots of decisions that they were afraid about. But again: Don’t confuse confidence with fear. Bezos, Jobs, Gates -- I bet they’d tell you that they’ve faced a lot of uncertainty. What we see are their successes, but I bet they’re meeting failures all the time.
How about talking about my fear: Will that fortify my courage?
You’re weaker if you don’t talk about it. You know, more women get cancer, but more men die from cancer. One reason is that men don’t go to therapy. They don’t talk about it. But I would counsel against using the word fear here. Language matters. When you talk to somebody, you say, “Here are my concerns,” or “Here are my challenges.” Then you start to reframe the emotion. You start to talk yourself down.