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What the Past Year Taught Me About Fear (and How to Overcome It)

When my partners and I launched  Vecteris a year ago, our primary purpose was to create a place where we love to work. We wanted to create an environment that inspires innovation, fosters collaboration, and welcomes diverse working styles and talents.  

To build the culture we want, we’ve spent a lot of time this first year defining our core values and making a commitment to live them. 

Five recurring themes emerged: fearless, generous, creative, committed and inclusive. The most important value for us to embrace this first year has been fearless.

Why Fearless?

Our mission is to help organizations successfully innovate.  And, to successfully innovate, the leaders that we work with have to overcome their own fears of failure and change.

Also, each of the co-founders overcame fear to start Vecteris. Personally, I left a rewarding job and a secure paycheck that provided stability for my family. I had to learn new skills associated with the day-to-day operations of running a consulting business, stretching me out of my comfort zone. I started tapping my network to land our first few clients, which could have put those relationships, and my professional reputation, at risk if we failed. The list of fears I have faced this past year is very, very long.  

The problem is that fear is a natural, fundamental human emotion. It is easy to say "face your fears." The hard part is learning the behaviors that help us face, and move through, our fears.

Yet, here we are, celebrating a year of facing fears:
Fearless Behaviors

Through my client work, my research and my personal experience, I’ve learned that the behaviors that help us successfully face our fears are different than what one might typically think. 

When you picture a leader who is “fearless” what do you envision?  Perhaps someone decisive, with a clear plan, hard-charging, competitive, risk-taking?

What I’ve observed, and personally experienced, is that we are better able to overcome our natural fears about the unknown when we do these four things:
  1. Listen, especially to our intuition
  2. Ask for help
  3. Let go of perfectionism
  4. Practice gratitude

Listen, Especially to Our Intuition

The most fearless clients I’ve worked with are fantastic listeners.  Not only do they listen to their customers and employees, they listen to their  inner voice. Often times referred to as “gut instinct” or “founder’s intuition”, these leaders have an inner voice encouraging them to take the unknown path and these leaders are following that inner voice, not ignoring it. 

I’ve had a regular yoga practice for ten years and a regular meditation practice for two years. Both have helped me tap into my inner voice by quieting the chatter of my mind. Hearing, and following, my inner voice has helped me clarify my purpose, see opportunity, and ease my fears about venturing into the unknown. I firmly believe that without my practice of yoga and meditation, I never would have launched Vecteris because my fears would have been louder than the inner voice telling me to follow this path.

And the research supports this. Tibetan monks, who have mastered meditation, were found by neuroscientists to have abnormally high levels of gamma brainwaves, which are associated with our ability to synthesize disparate bits of data, solve problems, heighten perception, and boost consciousness. [i]The study found that meditation can actually rewire the brain to make better connections and generate ideas.

Other research confirms that some kind of meditative practice, such as yoga, prayer, running, even taking a nice long bath, aids the brain’s process of idea incubation which means these breaks are a key ingredient to productivity and creativity. [ii]

Ask for Help

I’ve found that fear is best overcome when we ask for help. I’ve observed that my clients who are best able to guide their organizations through fear of the unknown will often state an intention to innovate without also communicating a concrete plan to achieve their vision.  Instead, they ask others to help them figure out how to make the impossible possible. 

I recently had a conversation with one of my CEO clients about how best to help the senior leadership team embrace a new product innovation idea.  This CEO was frustrated that the team seemed resistant to the changes the innovation would require and was wondering how to proceed.  We discussed two options:
  • asking the team to develop a business plan for the new product and risk ‘watering down’ the idea; or,
  • delivering a concrete plan to them and asking them to implement.

The CEO chose the first approach – having the team own the plan – and, although it took longer, it ultimately ended in a more ambitious (and successful) product.

My personal leadership journey is similar to this CEO’s. For me, asking for help meant giving up the idea that I needed to have all of the answers.  As a classic ‘smarty-pants’ overachiever this has not been easy.

I’ve had to resist the urge to leap in with all of my ideas at every opportunity. I had to go back to listening (see above!) and opening my mind to others’ ideas. I’ve also had to get much more comfortable leaning into debate or discomfort and  staying there. Gary Pisano wrote a great article for HBR that covers this topic. In it, he explains why healthy collaboration and comfort in debate is essential to innovation. “If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counter-perspectives, innovation can be crushed.” [iii]

Let Go of Perfectionism

It is easier to face our fears of failure when we accept that what we do does not have to be perfect. 

Getting comfortable with ‘good enough’ has been a game changer for some of my clients who are trying to innovate. Brené Brown nailed it in her book,  The Gifts of Imperfection, when she said ,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, i t’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” [iv]

For me, this has meant launching our website, publishing blogs, and even delivering work to clients without endless rounds of editing and agonizing over typos or imperfect graphics.  I certainly do not want to deliver a crappy product (and we do have a few editing rounds!) but I try to model for my clients and my team that, especially when we are talking about digital innovation, we need to rapidly iterate, rather than taking months of research and development to perfect.  Again, as a classic type-A, this has been a hard lesson for me to internalize.

Practice Gratitude

I consciously started a regular habit of writing thank you cards and keeping a gratitude journal in 2017, around the same time I started meditating. Both the thank you notes and the journal have helped to shift my mindset to one where I see opportunity, rather than scarcity. It keeps me positively focused. I believe that mindset shift has helped me have more courage to try new things, take risks and tackle my fears. 

My successful clients do something similar. They have a very strong understanding of their assets and their strengths, and they focus on building on those strengths. When generating new product ideas based on a SWOT analysis, for example, they focus on their strengths and opportunities, rather than their weaknesses and threats. This helps them talk to their teams in terms of opportunity, rather than dwelling on the obstacles.

Recent research from Gallup shows that strengths-based workplaces are more productive, too: [v] “Organizations whose mission, values and processes are based on their strengths have:
  • 15% higher employee engagement
  • 7% higher customer engagement
  • 29.4% higher profit
  • 72% lower attrition”

Coming from a place of strength and gratitude helps to remind ourselves, our team, and our clients of the most important fearless act of all:  believing that we are powerful beyond measure. Marianne Williamson' s wisdom below is still my favorite “face my fears” touchstone:

  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be?  . . . as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
-Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love