Episode 3: Fear Not
Roosevelt was right, and we ought to stop being frightened by everything that goes bump˛ in the night.
Hi. I’m Alan Weiss. The subject today is Overcoming Fear. A lot of us are afraid. There’s flight and there’s fight, but there’s also fright. Flight, fight, fright. I asked my father once, who was in the very first volunteer paratrooper regiment ever formed in the United States, slightly before World War 1. It was 1940 and he volunteered for this outfit, they jumped with a single shoot at first, no reserve, from cargo planes. He wound up after Pearl Harbor, fighting the Japanese in New Guinea, the farthest penetration of the war for the Japanese, defending Australia. He jumped at Lae, New Guinea from about 500 feet or so into Japanese guns. A great deal of his unit was wiped out and I said to him, “Weren’t you afraid?”
He said, “I always assumed it just wouldn’t be me.” I don’t know if that’s bravery or heroism, or rationality, or not. He just said, “I just felt it wouldn’t be me.” I took a long route to school when I was in grammar school for three months. Three months, because the junior police, these two big guys who were at the crosswalk, helping the kids cross the street when the light was green got upset with me. I made fun of them. They were three, four years older than I was and they started chasing me, but I could outrun them. Two big heavy guys. For three months, I was so frightened, I took a different route.
One day, I forgot and I took my normal route and there they were, and they didn’t say a word. They had forgotten about it. I was frightened for no reason. The fright was in my head. Bullies forget. Legitimate fear threatens your life and your assets. You should fear someone with a gun, you should fear a tornado warning, you should fear a drunken driver who’s heading at you, but illegitimate fear is that fear which threatens your ego. It’s bizarrely stupid, for example, to be afraid of public speaking or publishing, or fitting in with some in-crowd, or untried foods, or new experiences, or meeting new people. It’s absolutely and bizarrely stupid. Illegitimate fear is the product of low self-worth.
You fear you’re likely to be wrong, you fear you’ll be seen as an imposter, you fear that others are inherently more qualified, you fear for whatever reason you don’t deserve, you fear that you can’t handle ambiguity or uncertainty. Legitimate fears include threats to your health and wellbeing, threats to yourself, threats to your loved ones, catastrophes of nature, and others’ violence or carelessness, but for those fears that you actually have that are legitimate, you need prevent action and contingent action. Preventive action reduces the likelihood of something occurring and contingent action takes care of something should it occur and helps to mitigate the effects.
If you’re afraid of fire in your home, which is a legitimate fear, though a remote one in almost all cases, the preventive action is not to smoke carelessly. The preventive action is to make sure your wiring is up to or above standard. The preventive action is not to store combustibles in the same place. The contingent action is to have an escape route and to have insurance, to have sprinklers or fire extinguishers or whatever you choose. Legitimate fears, too, can be dealt with. People have tornado cellars in Kansas. Now, what are some remedies for fears, especially illegitimate fears? Well, I would suggest that you list and acknowledge your credentials.
Now, I know this sounds a little bit bizarre but let me tell you what I’m talking about. I dealt with a man once who was an expert in small legal firm management. His target audience would be managing partners of small legal firms, and he was doing fairly well in it, but he had a real imposter syndrome, and at self esteem program I asked him why that was. He said because he was never himself, the managing director of a small legal firm. He felt like an imposter when he walked into them, and consequently, his business probably wasn’t as frequent or as large as it should have been. I said, “Has anyone written more books than you on small law firm practice management?” He said, “No.”
I said, “Haven’t you taught at a couple of schools and universities?” He said, “Well, yes.” I said, “Do you have intellectual trademarked property in terms of manuals and kits and other kinds of resources?” He said, “Well, yes I do.” He said, “In fact, I’m published by one of the leading legal publishers as well.” I said, “And you have a string of these for clients. Many of these people are your clients, and don’t they give you testimonials?” He said, “Yes.” After about 15 minutes of this, I said to him, “You have more credentials to coach small law practice managing partners than managing partners do, so what’s the issue?” You have to list your credentials. All of you are more powerful than you think you are, but you give yourself short shrift.
Ask yourself, what have you accomplished? What have your results been? How have you helped others in the field in which you’re talking, and with the fears which are giving you a problem? If you want a remedy for fear, master language. When you meet strangers, when you’re in a buyer’s office, when you find something you didn’t expect, language will always, always help you out if you have the right language at the right time. You need a broad vocabulary, you need to use metaphors and analogy, you need examples that are contemporary to prove your point. Consequently, I also suggest to alleviate fears to reduce them or prevent them, you read vociferously. The more you know, the easier it is to deal with that uncertainty and ambiguity that might give you a problem.
Test yourself in low threat situations. If you fear for some reason making a speech, make a speech before 10 people at a Toastmasters group or at a rotary club, or some place where there’s no threat and it’s innocuous. Don’t walk into the lion’s den right away, start playing with kittens. Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? When you fear something and you say, “What’s the worst that can happen?” It is almost never death or injury or disability or anything like that. It might be a metaphoric black eye to your ego, but who cares? That’s easily remedied. I suggest that a cash reserve, believe it or not, is helpful in reducing fears. Most people, underlying everything, fear they’re going to be thrown out of their homes, that they can’t meet the rental or mortgage payment.
They fear they won’t have enough money for their old age, they fear that they can’t match the neighbors next door who send their kids to a certain school. Have a cash reserve, it helps tremendously. Create trusting relationships. People can tell you when you’re right and wrong and you can tell them. Believe it or not, that reduces fears. It gets you used to working with people and working in relationships in an intelligent way. Admit to your vulnerabilities and stop trying to hide them. The more you try to hide your vulnerabilities, the more vulnerable you are. The more you try to hide them, the more fearful you become, because somebody might discover them. They might pull the green curtain aside and see that you’re not really a wizard, you’re just pushing a lot of buttons at random.
Admit to vulnerabilities. A great way to do this is to coach others. Nobody learns like a coach, no one, and when you coach others you become very strong. Your vulnerabilities are exposed and you realize what you have to learn yourself. Understand that failure isn’t fail. Churchill said, “Failure is seldom fatal and success never final. It’s courage that counts.” Churchill knew. Failure will not kill you, failure’s simply a setback, failure’s a learning experience. Don’t fear it. Get personalized instruction for those things you fear. When I first went skiing I got myself a private instructor who taught me how to traverse the slope and bend my knees and things like that.
I didn’t just throw myself down the hill. I didn’t just wear any kind of clothing. I learned to get the right equipment. I also didn’t want to go in a large group because the instruction is blanket in that case and not individual. I never thought I would scuba dive, my son talked me into it. But we went with a private instructor and I became quite proficient at scuba diving. Again, always with a private instructor but it was a great time, because I overcame my fear of being 40 feet under the surface, breathing through a small device. Purchase insurance. I talked about contingent action. If you fear something happening, make sure you can take care of what would be the worst case, which might be loss of money or loss of property.
Build in strengths and build on strengths. Your built in strengths are those that you can use daily without thinking about it, unconscious competency, and then you build on those strengths. Ignore most self-help books. How’s that for a podcast? Ignore most self-help books because they assume you’re damaged. They build on your fears. “You can’t do this as well as others. You can’t do this as well as the author.” Forget about it. Ignore most self-help. Act responsibly. Years ago, John Kennedy Junior killed his wife and her sister by flying a plane out to Martha’s Vineyard in the dark. He was a licensed pilot but he was not qualified to fly at night or to fly by controls only. He turned the plane upside down, he lost his bearings, lost the horizon and crashed. Killed the three of them.
That’s because he was hugely overconfident, probably didn’t have the right fears, and a lot of people don’t depending on their upbringing, but he didn’t act responsibly. Associate with challenging, non-commiserating people. Don’t associate with people who share your fears, who encourage your fears, who build on your fears. Associate with people who will challenge you, who will help you overcome those fears. Commiseration is a lousy, lousy relationship. Prepare well. People show up at the top of the hill or at the bottom of the lift and they’re not prepared to ski. People who are afraid of walking on stage often haven’t prepared correctly, they haven’t prepared their movements or their breathing, or found out about the lighting or have the right kind of notes.
Worse, they try to memorize their speech which is the stupidest thing in the world to do. They haven’t prepared well. Isolate negatives and generalize positives. If you tend to be fearful, don’t tell yourself if you don’t get a sale you’re a lousy marketer. Don’t tell yourself if you’re in a softball game and you make an error, you’re a lousy athlete. Simply say, “I didn’t get that sale at this time on this day from that person” or, “I didn’t handle that particular ball well.” On the other hand, generalize your positives, and so if you make a key play in the game, don’t say, “I really got a good hit” or, “I made a great kick.” Say, “I am a hell of an athlete.”
If you make a sale, don’t say, “Wow, I’m lucky I got that sale today.” Say, “I am a terrific marketer.” Isolate negatives, generalize positives. Do this for your kids as well, by the way, and you’ll find yourself fearing a hell of a lot less. In negotiations where people are very fearful that they’re going to get ripped off or cheated or just make a huge blunder, separate your musts from your wants. Musts are things that you can never, ever sacrifice, never, ever compromise on. Wants are simply desires you can give away. Give away a want to preserve a must, but never give away a must to preserve a want. When we moved to California at one point in our past, I told the realtor we must air conditioning, I had allergies.
She’d show us homes with no air conditioning, but say, “Look at the view” or, “You’re close to the schools.” She wanted me to give up a must for a want, I refused to do it. A successful negotiation, no fear on my part. Never assume the worst. People are fearful because they assume the worst. Here’s one of my favorite examples. I’ve worked with a guy who always asked me a bizarre question and the question has no basis in reality. In other words, it’s never happened but it would go something like this. “Alan, what happens if I’m in a buyer’s office and I see the buyer playing around with his top right desk drawer and when I peer over and look in the drawer, he’s got a gun, and he’s fingering the gun? What do I do then?”
Well, has it ever happened to you? No. Is it likely to? No. But nonetheless, he’s fearful of that, so I call it the famous “gun in drawer” story and when people start giving me fears that have no basis in reality or rationality, I say, “That sounds like a gun in drawer story. Let’s move on.” Don’t you have gun in drawer stories? Test your negative assumptions. If you think uni which is sea urchin, a Japanese delicacy, looks slimy or has a bad texture, or won’t taste good, try one. After you try it, you can tell me that, but please don’t tell me without trying it. Somebody says, “Oh, I would never eat lobster.” “Why? Do you have an allergy to shellfish?” “No, no.” “Have you ever tried lobster?” “Well, no.” “Do you eat crab?” “Yeah.” “You’ll deny yourself the delicacy for the rest of your life? That’s great. Goodbye.”
Don’t project on others or allow others to project on you. People will project fears on you. “If you’re going to go skiing, you’re going to fall several times. You might break a leg. You know, I broke a leg when I first tried it.” That’s projection. Stop it, don’t listen to them. Don’t even ask them. Now, how many of these are you employing? I just gave you 20 or 25 possible fears and some remedies. How many of these are affecting you? Fear creates hysteria. Right now as I record this, we have election hysteria. Now, this is a nonpartisan comment. I don’t care who you voted for or didn’t vote for, but right now we have people who did not vote for the current president, who are fearful of what he will do.
Now, they might be right, they might not be right. They don’t know. They have no idea what he will do or his cabinet will do. Past behavior folks, and I say this as a consultant for over 30 years, with Fortune 1000 companies and powerful people, past behavior is not indicative of future behavior. Perhaps they will have a right to be upset soon and perhaps not, but hysterical, hysteria, acting hysterical over something which you cannot yet predict is ridiculous. Certain foods have caused in appropriate fears. Red meat was no good for you, then it was good for you. Eggs were no good for you, then they were good for you. Milk was no good for you, then it was good for you. Red wine was good for you, then it was good for you. Do you get my mantra here?
Nobody knows. They keep changing. As bad sugar seems to be right now, with all the current studies as I record this, there are people who have been eating sugar 50, 60, 70, 80 years and are doing quite well. We have hysteria again caused by a one off study here or there, and it shows something that people quickly reverse. The scientists are no better. Mammograms are good for you, no they’re not. If you have prostate cancer you need immediate remediation, no, it’s watchful waiting. Sometimes nobody knows and they just create hysteria. The overreaction to harm, one harm, is terrible. It’s one of the worst aspects of fear. Drucker said that any law … Peter Drucker, the great strategist, “Any law passed in reaction to one instance is a bad law because it punishes 100 innocents for the failure or work one miscreant.”
What he’s saying is we overreact with our laws. There’s a dreadful fire that took place in Rhode Island years ago and the government in a knee jerk reaction, because they didn’t have the preventive action they should have had, the inspection of this nightclub, caused tens of millions of dollars of expense to a small business, requiring things after that fire, after the horse had left the barn. We see this all the time. You can’t bring liquids over a certain volume on airlines because someone once tried to use liquids to blow up an airline. Of course, it was unsuccessful. If terrorists were so smart, they wouldn’t be terrorist, but what about the underwear bomber?
He tried to light his underwear, tried to explode his underwear, but we don’t demand that people don’t wear underwear on airplanes, so apparently there are limits. We have to stop overreacting to one failed deed, to one crime. That’s hysteria. I was asked once by a European not long ago when I said, “I’m going to Tel Aviv on business.” He said, “Aren’t you afraid to go to Israel?” Well, there were terrorist acts in four or five European cities over the prior year. Why would I be afraid to go to Israel? There are some places I’d be afraid to go, but Israel isn’t one of them. Somebody said to me, “Aren’t you afraid to go to Marrakesh?” Marrakesh and Morocco were perfectly safe. Where he was going, by the way, at the time? To Israel.
People project these things and they have no basis in reality. Bullies you know, I talked about earlier, invoke fear. But bullies are simply trying to drag you down to their own level of insecurity. You don’t have to fear a bully, you confront a bully. You don’t confront him with a gun or a bat, you confront him or her with words. Bullies have terrible inferiority complexes, many were abused as children. They’re trying to drag everybody else down to their own perceived level of inferiority. bullies are not people to be feared, they back down when confronted. Once you’ve done the rollercoaster, or one of these huge plunges in amusement parks where you go down a waterfall, what do you want? You don’t want to run for home, you want larger roller coasters and more exciting plunges. Once you’ve done it, you’ve conquered it.
People have been through bootcamp in the service, brag about being through bootcamp. People who have been through some of my tougher workshops brag about being through workshops. People who coach with me brag about it. One person said, “Alan was brutal to me. He yelled at me.” Another says, “He yelled more at me.” Another one says, “Well, he killed me.” People brag about this, they no longer fear it, and what you don’t fear, you brag about. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Once you’ve done a rollercoaster or the plunge, you want something more exciting. It’s absolutely stupid, for example, to fear buyers. What’s the worst that can happen? You can’t walk out poorer than when you went in.
But the problem is we don’t see ourselves as equals, we don’t see ourselves as peers. We try not to lose the business, this classic prevent defense that you see in football which always loses the game. God bless Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. They claim he runs up the score. He says, “We perform well when we’re tying to score. We don’t perform as well when we simply try to prevent the other team from scoring, and by the way, isn’t it their job to stop us from scoring, not my job to stop us from scoring?” Trying not to lose business will almost always guarantee you do lose business. You’ll end up with poor business or no business. If you look at the imposter phenomenon, you’ll find it in Hollywood actors who get a Golden Globe or an actor and wonder if they’ll ever work again, because they were rewarded for portraying someone else.
You’ll see it in speakers who stand up there and are worried they’ll be exposed because they don’t feel good about themselves, and because they don’t have the content they need. They’re just using Sizzle, and they feel that they’ll be exposed by the audience, so what do they use? False metrics. They want a standing ovation, they want high marks on a smile sheet, to improve they’re not imposters. Here are my five concluding recommendations to avoid fear and to fear not. Number one, build your strengths continually, daily, just like you’d work out your physical muscles, so that you’re better and better at as many things as you can be. That gives you confidence and confidence overwhelms fear.
Number two, expand your communication skills. Be great at writing, be great at speaking, be great at informal communication, and formal presentation. Have a wide vocabulary, use humor, use metaphor, use example. That makes you a powerful person. You won’t fear person if you communicate as well as or better than they do. Number three, broaden your experiences. It’s very awkward and somewhat intimidating when someone’s talking about traveling and you haven’t traveled, when someone talks about dining out and you don’t dine out, when someone talks about the latest book or play or movie or TV special and you haven’t seen it. Broaden your experiences so you can discuss things with people, and be an intelligent and interesting conversationalist.
Number four, see failure as learning. Stop calling it failure. It’s just another step in the learning process, but failure is not a commentary on your self-worth. It’s simply something that happens from time to time to all of us, including the Wright brothers, and Thomas Edison, and Bill Jobs and everybody else. Steve Jobs. See, we all make errors. Number five, remember my mantra, it’s success not perfection, and so the search for perfection will kill excellence. You’ll always be afraid if perfection is the only metric that matters because you might not achieve it, and in fact, you won’t achieve it. Be not afraid, and be yourself, and stand up for yourself because you’re the only person who really can.
That’s how you overcome fear. You fear not.