I don’t consider myself someone held back by fear. As a former lawyer who threw it all in to start a coffee chain with my brother, I know my career path personifies life outside the comfort zone. My first book is titled Anyone Can Do It and is all about overcoming the fear of starting a business. My motto is “leap and the net will appear”.
So it came as a shock when, just the other day, I was contemplating a new project, something quite outside my comfort zone that involved sticking my head above the parapet, and I felt a bit of fear. Of course it didn’t announce itself as fear but as an authoritative voice in my head saying, "just stick to the safe stuff, the stuff that works. It’s pleasant here in your comfort zone. Why put yourself out there? Why take the risk?’
I noticed how easy it was for me to listen to that voice and file the new risk and thus the new opportunity away. So I set about trying to deal with the fear, delving into it. That didn’t work. Instead of the fear disappearing, I found myself with a very busy mind, running a marathon of inner dialogue, grappling with the fear like a person wrestling a gorilla. You can imagine how well that went.
Then a few days later, suddenly out of sheer frustration, I snapped out of it. I remembered my tried-and-tested method, which I used to employ routinely back when I started my first business, but which I had momentarily forgotten.
Too Busy for Fear
Whenever I speak about the entrepreneurial journey my brother and I took in building Coffee Republic, I tell the story of how we opened the UK’s first US-style coffee bar and no one came in. Our break-even sales were £700 and we were making only £200 a day. This went on for about six months. (Thankfully we had made overly pessimistic projections so we were fine for cash flow and the bank manager wasn’t on our back.) But the question I almost always get asked is: “How did you deal with the fear? How and why did you not give up? Weren’t you worried?”
The truth is we didn’t deal with the fear. Why? Because we were too busy. We never had time to sit staring into the sunset asking ourselves, did we make the right decision? Shall we continue or give up? And thank God we didn’t, because maybe if we had, we wouldn’t have persevered. Instead, we just focused day-to-day, working through the daily grind, one little goal at a time.
So I realized I could apply the same principle to my scary new venture. In order to press the delete button on the busy inner dialogue, I needed to start doing something towards my idea – anything really. I had been too much in my mind, too much navel gazing and looking meaningfully in the distance contemplating my path. I needed to get momentum on my side.
And the only thing that brings momentum to an idea (that starts in inertia, between your two ears) is DOING. So I started on a to-do list of a couple of stuff I could do to get my idea off the ground. I sent the first email, and then another. The next thing I knew I had some appointments in my diary. Surprisingly soon, there was a bit of momentum – and I was too busy to indulge in fear.
Flow not fear
This is, I suppose, what legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed ‘flow’. This state of total immersion, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, means "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Flow is a great feeling for several reasons. One, it’s simply more fun. Staring at your cubicle wall agonizing about what to do doesn’t bring much joy, getting fully absorbed in a new project does. But flow also sweeps away fear. When you are indulging in your fears and wrestling with the gorilla, you obviously have too much time on your hands. Your mind, because it's not busy in the present moment, is occupying itself by making up a false future for you to worry about.
The only thing you have to deal with, cope with, in real life – as opposed to imaginary mind projections – is this moment.
This of my favourite quotes from Ekhart Tolle because it reminds me of the futility of indulging in our fears. It’s a sum zero game basically.
We can’t cope or deal with our fears because they are not real. We can deal with real dangers, and people often surprise themselves with how they deal in a true crisis, but fears aren’t crises – they are imaginary crises, worst case scenarios made up and spruced up in our minds. And we haven’t got the tools to cope with scenarios and crises that exist only in our imagination. We only have the tools to cope with real scenarios – things are actually happening.
So keeping your mind on the present moment and building momentum and flow is a great solution to help delete these useless fear thoughts. Whether it's the fear of going it alone in business, the inherent fear of change that exists in large companies or the fear of failure. Momentum and doing wins everytime.
You might have heard the widely used Goethe quote about commitment: “Whatever you can do or dream, begin it.” It sounds grand, but "begin it" is actually both very powerful and also very mundane advice. It’s not about taking one momentous life-changing step, but about taking the smallest baby steps, like picking up the phone, arranging a coffee with someone who might help, or even just starting a to-do list. So whenever like me with my scary new venture, you feel too gripped by fear thoughts, begin it, get momentum on your side by doing something, anything. Remember the smallest most mundane steps begin big journeys.