I think there is a human instinct that tells each of us that if we even so much as glance at our biggest fears out of the corner of our eye, they will become more real. It’s actually the reverse. If you can confront your fear head-on, explore in-detail what it actually looks like, and ultimately if you can dance with it, the power dynamic will change completely. Perversely, it’s the only way to tame it.
Failure looms around every turn at in startupland and with it, shame, poverty, a ruined reputation, ignominious career and all our worst fears. Fear is such a powerful emotion that people are afraid to even attempt to confront it!
There are two things I’ve seen people successfully use to conquer their biggest fear. First, finding something you are even more afraid of and second, fully exploring your worst case scenario until you can dance with it head-on.
What was I even more professionally afraid of than starting Next Big Sound and failing so publicly?? Believe it or not I was more terrified that I would NOT start the company and that someone else would start this business and change the music industry. I was afraid that I would seriously not be able to live with myself if I’d had an industry-changing idea and didn’t act on it. Every morning I would check the web to see if someone had launched this idea and this paranoia drove a lot of my early urgency.
Fully Exploring My Worst Case Scenario
When we were first starting Next Big Sound Troy Henikoff asked me if I had a wife, kids, or a mortgage. I said no. As I told him back then, I needed to start Next Big Sound at some point in my life, and we both knew it was never going to get easier. The only way I got comfortable enough to quit my consulting job the month before I was supposed to start in order to pursue NBS full time, was to dance with the fear of my company being an unmitigated disaster and exploring fully what that would look like for me at 21-years-old.
I had several fall-back scenarios. I knew that by sleeping rent-free on the couch of my friends in Chicago I could stretch the remainder of the $25,000 we’d raised around 9 months until I hit zero. If we were unable to raise $150k seed round in 2008 I was planning to get a part-time job. I still have notebooks where I was brainstorming possibilities for this. Starbucks barista was the leading contender and I had to dance with the fear of serving former classmates and being self-assured enough that this wouldn’t rattle me (I would have been fine with it). Last place scenario was moving back to Ithaca, NY and in with my dad. I would have worked almost anywhere before that happened since that would really feel like failure to fly on my own, but I still could live with it. In the grand scheme of things my worst case scenario was not bad at all, I just had to fully get comfortable exploring it.
The stoic philosophers took dancing with fear to a whole new level. I recently learned that they prescribed that once a month “you should wear your dirtiest robe and sleep on the floor in your kitchen, where the dog normally sleeps, and drink water from the dog bowl.” As soon as you realize that you can survive under that horrible scenario, the risks you’re facing personally and professionally seem much less scary. While I don’t suggest you try this at home, this practice is an extreme monthly reminder that even if you lose EVERYTHING, and are forced to live like a dog, you’ll still be able to survive.
Dancing with your fears and fully exploring your worst case scenario isn’t fun, but it is a whole lot better than pretending they don’t exist.