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Fear is the Company-Killer

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Fear, meta-fear, and what the hell is a good decision?


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-Frank Herbert, Dune


I’ve thought about fear in the context of early organizations a great deal lately. Fear (well-reasoned fear, precognitive ‘fight or flight’ reactions, or of other sorts) has seemed to be lurking behind many of the thoughts, feelings, decisions, and reactions of many key moments in the formative years of an organization.

Founders may avoid starting companies entirely in the face of fear, and remain in their currently (likely safer) roles. Founders may avoid discussing their ideas with friends, colleagues, investors, and potential co-founders due to fear of having them stolen. Founders may avoid testing and iterating on their ideas “in the wild” due to a fear of rejection by customers (though rejection and improvement may be exactly what they need).

Understanding what makes others afraid can be as important as understanding one’s own reactions. Thoughtfulness around what sorts of actions as a founder-CEO might spook investors (including evidence of being cowed by fear such as indecisiveness in the face of difficult situations) is essential to retaining their trust. Understanding the fear of an employee that you’re firing (fear of public shaming, fear that their skills or work aren’t valued, fear that they’ll be able to move forward) are essential to compassionately letting someone go, and minimizing the negative effect that their firing has on the rest of your team. Mitigating the fear of your customers (that you may leave them high and dry by either going out of business or “pivoting”) is crucial to building their trust, and therefore your business. Thoughtfulness about this from the beginning is extremely important- once a person’s fears have been “triggered”, it may be very difficult to steer back on course.

It seems fairly obvious that fear can hold us back from achieving our ambitions, but fear is not universally bad. Fear can keep us safe- a fear of rattlesnakes is an extremely healthy fear when hiking in Northern California. Fear can motivate us to more carefully consider our actions- rashly pushing all of our chips in the middle of the table is not a virtue. “Meta-fear” can be dangerous- starting a venture, or making an investment solely because you don’t want to listen to your fear is the worst kind of gambling.

Fear can be obvious and daunting, or insidious and nearly imperceptible. It has many flavors, varieties, and forms, and it’s not always easy to apply rationale thinking to fighting it. In fact, I’m not sure that “fighting” fear is the answer- understanding it may be far more powerful. Understanding what you (and others) are afraid of, how you (and others) react to it, and working to maneuver to mitigate fear’s influence of your actions and others’ reactions to you may be the best (and only) real answer.

Unless you’re the Kwisatz Haderach- then you already know all the answers 😉


2 thoughts on “Fear is the Company-Killer

  1. Great post, Evan. In many ways I think that what we label “risk aversion” is really just fear, a deep-seated fear of experiencing unpleasant feelings. I think that in order to overcome this fear we must do three things: (i) acknowledge that the fear exists and is real, (ii) remind ourselves that we tend to be terrible at assessing risk, and (iii) do what scares us given we probably blew the issue out of proportion anyways. Sometimes we will fail and experience the unpleasant feelings we were trying to avoid but other times we will take the plunge and come out relatively unscathed.

    There’s a great HBR article on this topic (link below) in which the author says, “Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate. But how? Practice. Which you get by taking risks, feeling whatever you end up feeling, recognizing that it didn’t kill you, and then getting on the board and paddling back into the surf.” I love this quote because embedded in it is the thought that taking risks is something that must be learned. That is, taking risks (and failing) is an unnatural process that we must learn to perfect. It might just be framing and semantics but when I think of risk taking as a learning process, the idea of failing become a lot more palatable. Failure, in essence, becomes part of the recipe to success. There’s obviously no correct answer to the question that you pose but thinking systematically through our fears might be one way to avoid fear becoming the company killer.

    HBR Article Link:

  2. Very thoughtful post Evan, and great response Jose. I think one part of why there is so much fear in career decisions is that it’s not just our fear, it’s also our families’s. In reflecting on my own decisionmaking, I recognize that I’m very influenced by my parents and significant other’s concerns about career stability and trajectory. In some ways I feel that it’s easier to take risks on myself and harder to worry about impact on others.

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