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Why Every Entrepreneur Needs to Learn How to Defuse Fear

Why Every Entrepreneur Needs to Learn How to Defuse Fear

Fear is a time bomb. Here's how to MacGyver your way out of dread's grip and become a more confident leader. This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

According to Benjamin Franklin, the only certainties are death and taxes. But with all due respect to the Founding Father, he forgot to mention something just as common, at least for entrepreneurs: fear.

Fear can be an everyday state of mind for modern entrepreneurs. After all, when big problems happen, the world knows it at once and responds without remorse or filters. Even before BuzzFeed announced in January that it would lay off about 220 workers, CNN and other news outlets had already caught wind of that scuttlebutt. That left CEO Jonah Peretti in the unenviable position of explaining why 15 percent of his workforce would soon be searching Indeed and Glassdoor for new roles.

No startup founder wants to experience what Peretti did. Yet everyone in a leadership position must accept that, in time, tough choices will be necessary. That realization can lead to an increase in the fear already simmering just below the surface. And, unless you shake it off, fear it can become crippling.

Scared stiff in the C-suite

Of course, fear is hardly unnatural, especially for people struggling to keep a company afloat. Considering that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that three-quarters of companies are destined to fail within a decade, it's no surprise that entrepreneurs might break out in a cold sweat. 

What's more, closing shop is hardly the only worry founders have: There's also the threat of financial ruin and job instability; and the list goes on.

Like many other entrepreneurs of his generation, my father experienced these fears as the leader of a successful company. The business was dealing with a big problem, and he asked me to solve it. So I came up with a solution, but one that involved addressing the issue in a completely new way.

My father's fear, however, prevented him from seeing the value in my out-of-the-box solution, so he fired me. I was 17 years old. It wasn't until two decades later that I learned just how much stress he had been under.

All those years ago, my father hid his fears from me, and in my experience, a lot of entrepreneurs do the same. They live with nagging worries about various aspects of their businesses, but they keep those worries a secret from employees, friends, even family members, and that can add a layer of loneliness on top of that fear.

Even the smartest, most well-trained leadership team members are only human. And humans have something called the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain controlling creativity and innovation. This is also the part of the brain that goes into hibernation in response to rising fear.

The way to kick-start the prefrontal cortex and return to a state of control and confidence? Masterfear. Entrepreneurs can do this by following the following five-step path to achieve long-term, effective fear management.

1. Imagine the worst-case scenario.

When dread comes calling, address it head-on by “going there” and verbalizing the most disastrous outcome you can imagine. Rather than trying to push away your fight-or-flight desires, lean into your feelings. Be clear and fully outline exactly what you fear the most, putting words to all those neurological responses pinging from your amygdala.

Indulge your mind by going on an expedition to come up with the scariest scenario possible. Beyond bringing your fear to your conscious mind and away from a generalized sense of doom, you will engage the rational side of your brain and allow yourself to move to the next step.

2. Outline the map to that worst-case scenario.

Now that you've called out the worst things that could come to pass, figure out how they could come to fruition. Write down all the dominoes that would need to fall in perfect alignment for the worst to occur. In the majority of cases, you will be surprised at how unlikely the gravest situation can be or how easily some dominoes could be sidestepped.

Let's look at a worst-case scenario that did come to pass for one company: the downfall of Blockbuster. It turns out that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings approached Blockbuster CEO John Antioco in the early 2000s with the option to purchase the DVD company. While surely Antioco had a worst-case scenario in the back of his mind of his business failing, he neglected to map out the path there that included a pivot to mail-order and, eventually, streaming content.

He passed on the deal, and though Blockbuster still exists, most of us view it as a distant memory (in fact one of the two last Blockbusters in the world recently closed).

3. Determine how much time you have to avert disaster.

You have your worst-case scenario mapped out. Now, figure out how long you have to avoid the crisis. In most circumstances, you may be weeks, months or even years from disaster, so you have plenty of time to correct your course. Bringing awareness to how much control you actually have positions you to head off fear by taking a new path.

Avoid prediction bias by basing your forthcoming moves on realistic forecasts culled from similar prior projects, or even just reaching out to someone in your network so you can talk it over together. As humans, we often don't do a great job estimating how long it will take to complete tasks, so it can be helpful to get an outside perspective.

4. Decide on the top three disaster-aversion actions to take.

Using the information you've put together about your fear and what it will take to avoid a calamity, focus on taking action. For instance, one of your ways of avoiding a worst-case scenario might be to shift operational processes. In this case, you would create a do-able timeline to execute this action.

As you create your fear-defusing plan, implement goals using the SMART system: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-linked. By the time you are finished, you will have a strategy that is attainable and realistic.

5. Use a scale to gauge your worst-scenario likeliness.

Look at that: Now that you've completed the previous four steps, you've got a solid plan and time line to avoid your worst-case scenario. The last step is to take a good, hard look at the likelihood that said scenario will actually occur. Use the 1-to-10 rating scale that psychologists often use in self-reporting surveys, or something like SurveyMonkey's widely used Net Promoter Score template.

Using a scale instead of simply asking yourself whether the scenario will occur helps you pinpoint the extent of your fear. This step will show you just how successful the past four have been. I'd be willing to bet that your rating will be much lower than you might have expected at the beginning of this exercise.

Getting rid of fear is hard to do, especially if you have an ounce of emotional intelligence and sensitivity. Still, you can overcome your primal responses by validating, processing and rationalizing them. Over time, this skill will come easier, enabling you to grow your leadership abilities without being waylaid by dread.

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