12 Things You Need to Know About Fear, and How You Can Be a Better Entrepreneur Because of It
Here's what to look for to be more self-aware about your own fear, including when to accept it and how to prevent it from clouding your judgment.
Without fear, we wouldn’t survive. We need to act cautiously, or think with a healthy amount of skepticism, in order to avoid getting ourselves into dangerous or otherwise detrimental situations.
The key to not let that fear paralyze us and prevent us from thriving is learning how to identify when it’s warranted versus when taking action might be worth any potential risks involved.
As an entrepreneur, you have to make complex judgment calls to ensure your business grows and survives. Your own livelihood -- and that of your family and your employees -- might be at stake, not to mention your reputation, your self-worth, your customers’ health and safety and more. A 2017 Shopify survey found that fear was the second most common obstacle (after marketing knowledge) that respondents attributed to almost preventing their first sale.
To help you navigate feelings of fear and maximize your chances for success, read on for some psychology-backed tips.
1. Some fears can drive you.
A rational entrepreneur knows that their business could fail, or that any small decision could result in gains or losses. A partnership could fizzle. A new product could get lukewarm reception from customers. A new hire could turn out to be a poor fit.
A recent survey by researchers at Warwick Business School in the U.K. revealed seven sources of fear that entrepreneurs face: financial security, ability to fund the venture, personal ability/self-esteem, potential of the idea, threats to social esteem, the venture’s ability to execute and opportunity costs.
Three of these seven fear factors motivate entrepreneurs, the researchers found. Financial and funding worries push entrepreneurs to make decisions that will help their businesses. Opportunity cost is another motivator -- this term refers to sacrifices an entrepreneur makes in the name of their company. If an entrepreneur reflects on opportunities they forfeited for their business, they’re incentivized to succeed and not squander the opportunity they did pursue.
2. Some fears can limit you.
The Warwick Business School researchers determined that entrepreneurs who are worried about the potential of their abilities or ideas are more likely to let their fear paralyze them into inaction or passiveness.
When worries are linked to self-esteem in these ways, “decision making is slowed down as all possible data is sought and the avoidance of making a wrong decision becomes the primary driver,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their findings in Harvard Business Review.
You may be tempted to do a ton of research just to prove that your next move is the right move, but it’s important to avoid letting this due diligence get in the way of progress.
3. You may be tempted to deny your fears.
People may try to downplay or disregard their fears for a couple of reasons, says Brad DeWees, a U.S. Air Force captain and doctoral student of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who specializes in judgment and decision-making. He highlights social pressures and individual self-esteem as two reasons for denying fear, then identifies the common denominator between them.
“If you’re in a culture that values bravado or certainty or maintaining a sense of control of the situation, then admitting fear is admitting a lack of control and a lack of a sense of certainty,” DeWees tells Entrepreneur.
Leaders may feel pressured to impress others and reassure them by never expressing doubt. But people are receptive to uncertainty presented as fact, i.e., “I think this is going to happen,” or “There’s a 60 to 80 percent chance of X,” he notes. However, they don’t like it when those delivering the news seem uncomfortable with the uncertainty, or who display a lack of confidence or authority in their ability to predict what might happen.
Individuals often hold themselves to the same impossible certainty standards in their own heads. But it’s important to remember you will never be sure about everything.
“On an individual level, it is uncomfortable to admit that you don’t have control over a situation,” DeWees says. “It can be short-term beneficial, in the sense that it can feel better to delude yourself into thinking you know what’s going on when you don’t.”
4. It’s important to trace your emotions to their source.
If you find yourself reluctant to do something, whether it’s seeking out new clients or agreeing to participate in a speaking engagement, stop right there and diagnose where your emotion is coming from. In most cases, you’ll probably find that you can pinpoint its source.
There are “integral” emotions and “incidental” emotions, DeWees says. Simply put, if you’re feeling fear from another aspect of your life, such as a health issue someone in your family is experiencing, that might seep into your professional realm and limit your decisions.
As DeWees explains, “Emotions are like a pair of glasses that we put on. If I’m feeling afraid because of a situation at home, I put on my fear glasses and I see the world as riskier all around.” If you’re aware of the source of your emotions, you’ll be more likely to stop them from limiting you when they’re unrelated to the decision at hand.
If your fear is coming directly from a decision you’re gearing up to make, try to think about it rationally and as far ahead of time as possible. These two go hand and hand -- if you wait until the last minute to decide, you will be less likely to do so with a cool head. Your emotions will be more likely to get in the way of your risk tolerance.
“It’s not necessarily a bad idea to ignore emotions,” DeWees says. “But if you’ve taken stock of where the emotion’s coming from and you still are hesitant about a decision because of the emotions that it generates, it may be worth paying attention to. Get more information, as much as you can, until you have to make a decision.”
5. Fear and inexperience go hand in hand.
Be on the lookout for fear when you’re embarking on a new endeavor -- becoming an entrepreneur for the first time, entering a new market or making a certain type of decision that you’ve never had to make before. It all comes back to uncertainty and a lack of control, and you’ll be more susceptible to these if you’re inexperienced in a given area. Give yourself a break, and recognize that you probably have some information gathering to do.
Conversely, “our emotional reactions can be more informative in areas of life where we have lots of experience, especially experience that has come with regular feedback,” DeWees says, noting that his take on this is a bit controversial. “If you’re operating in such an area and you feel fear, it’s probably good advice to listen to the emotion.”
6. Information can validate or delay your decisions.
As mentioned above, fears about the validity of your ideas might drive you to go on a wild goose chase for information that will help you determine whether you’re on the right track. And inexperience might require that you do some homework.
DeWees explains that there are two key mindsets people can fall into when faced with decision-making. There’s a deliberative mindset, when you’re open to and actively seeking new information. Then there’s an implemental mindset, when you’re ready to stop researching and act or decide.
If you’re having trouble implementing, it may be helpful to remember that the information-gathering doesn’t have to end once the decision is made, especially if it’s a minor decision in the grand scheme of things.
“Try not to think of the decision as this big before-and-after moment, but as just a small step,” DeWees says. Even a decision that seems major can be adapted over time. Just think of how many companies pivot from their initial business plan, product or market, for instance.
But be wary of confirmation bias, he adds. “It is important though to state ahead of time what information you’re going to collect, otherwise you can get into this plowing-ahead mindset, where you make a decision and you look for information that only confirms the decision that you made.”
7. Having a plan of action for when you’re afraid can help.
When fear prompts you to back down because you’re uncertain or feel you don’t have control, it can be an unproductive emotion. But when it inspires you to gather more information (within reason) and prepare for any risks, it can be a powerful force.
To make the most out of fear’s potential, “decision-makers need a plan for how they’ll address the fear-inducing situation,” DeWees says. He draws on his Air Force experience: “The prospect of jumping out of a plane would inevitably induce anxiety. We’d deal with it by reviewing, alone or as a group, the steps we were supposed to follow throughout the mission. Going through that review was a way of reminding ourselves that we had some measure of control over the situation.”
For entrepreneurs, DeWees says, “I think their plan of attack needs to be aimed at gathering information. For example: ‘If I sense I’m in a fearful mindset, I’ll interview 100 potential customers, run an A/B test and call a mentor.’”
8. It’s a good idea to ask for support when you’re afraid.
It may be the last thing you’re inclined to do, but especially when you’re unsure of why you’re feeling a certain way, or whether your reluctance is based in fear, reaching out to another person and describing your feelings can help you get out of your own head, DeWees says.
Find someone you trust, who’s willing to ask questions. “We’re not talking about laying down on the sofa and playing psychologist,” he says. They might ask you what’s prompting your fear or uncertainty or discomfort now, whether you were more optimistic, say, two months ago and what might have changed.
Getting a second opinion is always a good call before you make any type of decision, DeWees says. “People really like it when you ask them for advice. It’s a compliment to them.”
A third party can also act as a mentor or advisor, helping with your information gathering process toward making a rational and well-researched decision.
9. Social and group dynamics can empower or limit.
Another benefit to opening up to another person or group of people about your fear is that you’ll be less likely to flee when faced with the fight-or-flight instinct, DeWees says. “If you encounter fear in a socially supportive situation, that makes you more likely to look for ways to respond to the fear stimulus other than just running away.”
But he also emphasizes that “emotions can be contagious.” That’s why, when people make decisions in groups, the best course of action is for them to come to their own conclusions individually. Emotions or other biases could spread among the group as each person makes their case, resulting in “groupthink.”
As the Warwick Business School researchers note in the summary of their survey findings, “early-stage entrepreneurs frequently benefit from local communities and networks, which provide formal or informal access to mentoring from those with more experience. Through this process, they learn that feelings of uncertainty and worry are commonplace, as well as which issues are deserving of attention and which will fix themselves over time.”
10. Fear can influence the goals you pursue.
When entrepreneurs are afraid, they tend to create unproductive goals for themselves, the Warwick Business School researchers found. They might decide to set benchmarks they’re nearly certain to achieve, to make it seem like they’re succeeding, rather than aiming higher and running the risk of falling short.
Alternatively, the researchers note, they might set lofty goals so that, when they fail to achieve them, they can make a good case for why they didn’t meet them.
Finally, when an entrepreneur sees failure is on the horizon but is reluctant to concede to it, they might double down on a goal or course of action despite negative feedback and indications that it’s not working.
Just simply being conscious of these pitfalls might help you catch yourself succumbing to one of them.
11. Success can be just as scary as failure.
Building a business takes a lot of work, but the effort doesn’t end when you hit your stride. Running a successful operation can be demanding and keep you busy.
Then there’s the element of being, well, out of your element. A Shopify blog post about entrepreneurship and fear explains, “commitment to a new venture and the loss of freedom that it might entail” can be scary, as can the prospect of losing “the life you know or your current circle of friends and family.” Particularly, people from disadvantaged backgrounds are most prone to this type of fear, the author notes, because they worry about being thrust into a new social role or sphere.
Ultimately, a fear of success boils down to a fear of change. But don’t underestimate your ability to adapt.
12. Face your fears to overcome them.
It may seem pretty straightforward or even cliché, but facing your fears is the best way to overcome them.
In Psychology Today, Israeli psychologist Noam Shpancer writes about the concept of habituation. While many people avoid situations that will make them anxious, if you never expose yourself to things that make you uncomfortable or afraid, it will be that much harder when you’re ultimately forced to confront them. You’ll also likely experience a sense of failure when you give in to weakness, vs. the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel if you face your fear.
Plus, “avoidance eliminates practice,” Shpancer writes. “Without practice it is difficult to gain mastery. Without mastery, confidence is less likely to rise.” The more you do the thing that scares you, the more equipped you’ll be, in addition to familiar.
But if you’re habituated to something, you’ll reserve your fear for new things you aren’t habituated to. But to get to that point, Shpancer says, “You will have to stay in the feared situation and stay with the heightened fear response until it begins to subside.”
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