It’s OK to be afraid

We all know what’s is like to be afraid. Will my presentation be good enough? Shouldn’t I rewrite that email before clicking on ‘send’? What if I commit myself fully and then my project fails?

Imposter Syndrome

The fear of not being good enough is what holds back a lot of people. They even have a name for it: it’s called imposter syndrome. But it’s not only holding back you as an individual. It also creates a culture of risk-avoidance. Engineers know that nobody ever got fired for buying Cisco. Marketeers know that as long as we reach the GRP’s in our communications plan, we did a good job.

Failing forward

But doing a good job is not good enough. If we want to compete in a changing environment, we have to take more risk. Until recently, I thought that the level of risk-adverseness was defined by the organisation you work in. If one compares working for Proximus with working for Richard Branson, one could assume that the former organisation will be more risk-averse than the latter. Since I also made this assumption, I tried to let our Proximus innovation teams work in a separate structure which shows a high tolerance for failure.

The dream team

Last week I had an experience which changed my opinion. In one of our innovation teams, I noticed a reluctance to ship the product. The team told me that it still needed a few tweaks before launching it. The pricelist wasn’t complete yet. We had to prepare ourselves better to make sure we launched something that can scale. All of this surprised me, because the team members were recruited specifically for their can-do attitude. They also demonstrated in the previous project phase that they could achieve the impossible by being hands-on and executing instead of making plans. In short: they’re a dream team. A textbook example of how to execute the lean startup method.

So this got me thinking. What happened that made them more risk aware? Did they change as individuals? Were they scared away by the big Proximus organisation which expects things to be fully under control?

Under pressure to not make mistakes

Then it hit me: the only thing that changed between the previous and the current project phase is the pressure on the project. The team now knows that if we don’t achieve product-market fit by March, the project they love so much will be stopped. So they are afraid to make a mistake. Because if they screw up now, it’s game over.

Face the fear

This is true for both risk-adverse and risk-inclined people: if you up the ante, fear will start to take over. I think we need to accept this. I am afraid. Afraid of not being liked. Afraid of not being funny. Afraid of not being good enough. Afraid of failure.

The only way to battle this fear is by confronting it. If you look at it rationally, the fear prevents you from trying something. It inhibits action. By not acting, you are lowering your chances to success. In most situations, you always have a second chance. And a third. The number of chances you have to get it right just depends on the speed at which you execute them.

Once we realize that doing is always better than not doing, we can rationalize our fear and give it all we got.

Or, TL;DR: like Master Yoda taught us “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”


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