Are you afraid of being afraid?

donotfeedthefearsMalcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath‘ is chock full of fascinating anecdotes explaining why so many weaker, smaller people have defeated larger, stronger opponents.

In many instances the various ‘Davids’ succeeded because they stopped being afraid of being afraid.

Here are three, brief examples:

1.) The Nazis assumed they’d kill hundreds of thousands of Londoners during the Blitz, and crush Britain’s will to fight. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Londoners came close to dying but, because they’d survived, they lost their fear of being afraid. In fact, Gladwell says, Londoners became ebullient, felt impervious to injury and went about their everyday lives as bombs continued falling all around them. The Battle of Britain ended up being Nazi Germany’s first setback.

2.) Segregationists in Birmingham, Alabama, figured they’d easily crush Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Civil Rights movement by killing him and intimidating his followers. Instead, King and his lieutenants, Wyatt Walker and Fred Shuttleworth, literally dodged one bullet and bomb after another. Like the Brits, they experienced a state of near euphoria as a result of the near misses. King, et al, lost any fear of fear, and persevered in their struggle. The rest is history.

3.) In 1969, the British Army thought they could easily suppress a Catholic uprising in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by sending 30,000 troops to restore peace. While many Irish Catholics were killed, far more experienced near misses. Like the Brits and black activists before them, the Irish lost their fear of fear, and resisted the invaders. After three decades, the British threw in the towel, and withdrew their troops.

I was once afraid of being afraid.

But, I experienced a near miss that ended up being just as transformative as the ones above.

Back in the mid-1990s, I endured a horrible, 15-month stint as president of Brouillard Communications, a now defunct division of J. Walter Thompson.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it was the worst period in my life. When it ended, though, I felt a sudden euphoria. While I’d been badly bent, I hadn’t been broken. I’d experienced Gladwell’s near miss.

I felt liberated. I no longer cared what other people thought of me. I no longer worried about failing because I’d already failed.

So, I strode confidently into Ed’s squalid, one-bedroom apartment in September of 1995, and we created Peppercomm. And mind you, at that point in time, I was married with two young kids, two mortgages, two car payments and two dogs. Yet, there was no fear of failing. It never even entered my mind.

In fact, I tell anyone who asks (as well as those who don’t), that the first year of Peppercomm was the single best year of my life.

How about you?

Have you experienced any near misses that enabled you to overcome the odds and slay your personal Goliath? If so, I’d love to hear the tale.

3 thoughts on “Are you afraid of being afraid?

  1. Thanks, Ken. I agree. and, I’ve seen many a client fall prey to “playing it safe” and keeping his agency at arm’s length. Adopting a “playing not to lose” approach to business, sports or life will eventually catch up to you. In the case of clients, someone eventually looks at the strategic, cutting-edge results NOT being produced by the CCO and makes a change. Sadly, we’re often swept out at the same time as the risk-averse client.

  2. Great post, Steve. I’m often amazed that in this business, where we need to persuade clients to part with tens-to-hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their communications campaigns, there are so many PR/comm executives living in fear. As I tell many clients, “Fear is NOT a good business strategy, nor is it the right way to convince your client to write you a big check!” It’s only when we walk through our fears that we achieve the success we deserve.

  3. Jack Welch describe this phenomena in an inverse manner many years ago, which he dubbed the vortex of defeat. If you’re convinced there is something to fear, you’ll be afraid. If you’re convinced you’re incapable of doing the job, then invariably, you’ll be incapable. And, if a misdirected, charismatic figure tells you convinces you that you don’t have influence, control or options, you’ll have none of those. If more people took the opposite approach, our society – from government to business – would be light years ahead of itself. Ironically, JWT with all of its global resources couldn’t figure out a way to keep Brouillard afloat, while formerly non-existent entities like Pcomm flourished. Business analogies abound – Dozens of music companies lost their balance of power to Apple; Microsoft lost a near monopoly on digital consumer interfaces to Google and Facebook. Our world progresses because enough special people know a vortex of defeat when they see one, and choose to work or live where fear and self-doubt are wasted energies. I can only hope that continues.