Fear and panic in entrepreneurship

I’ve been reading meditations from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening every morning for several years. A few weeks ago, the reading from September 27 in the book struck a chord with me relative to the challenges of fear and panic in entrepreneurship. Here is that meditation and my takeaways:


Leaning In

Few situations can be bettered by going berserk.” – Melody Beattie

It was the philosopher Michael Zimmerman who told the story of being a boy in school when someone passed him a pair of Chinese handcuffs, a seemingly innocent thimble-like casing with an opening at each end. It was passed to him without a word, and, of course, through curiosity, he slipped his left forefinger in one end and then his right in another.

Mysteriously, what made them handcuffs was that the more you tried to pull your fingers out, the tighter they held you.  Feeling caught, he panicked and pulled harder. The small cuffs tightened. But suddenly, it occurred to him to try the opposite, and as he leaned his fingers into the problem, the small casing slackened, and he could gently and slowly work his fingers free.

So many times in life our pulling in panic only handcuffs us more tightly. In this small moment, the philosopher as a boy reveals to us the paradox that underscores all courage: that leaning into what is gripping us will allow us to work our way free.


I can personally identify with this story.

I have learned the hard way that panic begets panic. I know this to be true through all my life and business trials. I also know that the majority of the times I have panicked, especially as an entrepreneur, it has involved matters of money. But, it’s often not really about the money itself. It’s more about what the money represents—a lifestyle, security, safety, and the like, and losing those things strikes a chord of fear in us. Panic always comes from fear, doesn’t it?

As the handcuff story above tells us, the more fearful we become, the more we entrench into the past problem-solving approaches, and the tighter the gripping fear has on us. The story also tells us we cannot solve our problems using our first instincts—those stemming from our past experiences. Moreover, the story illustrates the way out is not to rely on what has worked in the past, but to look for new ways. We must lean into the problem, rather than retreat from it.

I can attest to this, too. The past gives us tools and experience for moving forward. But every situation is different because the internal and external forces that influence the situation are different, or of a different mix of forces. So, the context of each situation creates something new, even if on the surface it looks as though it may be the same. A mentor once helped me understand this by telling me, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I know it’s easiest to grab the hammer. It’s on top of our toolbox because we use it often. We have more tools in our toolbox, though. Our past experiences help us to choose the right tool for the job at hand. Yes, it’s easy to grab the hammer. But, it’s not always the right tool.

All of this is not to suggest that we act frivolously in our business decisions. Instead, when faced with challenging times as an entrepreneur, we must find the courage to lean into to the future, rather than retreat into the past. We must find comfort in the gifts of wisdom, talent, and the experiences to make the best decisions for moving forward on your journey. My hope for you is that you might make strategic decisions about your business that are born from dreams, rooted in practicality, and polished by optimism.

And, try not to get caught in those handcuffs.


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Don’t be afraid of the storms

Highly effective teams have one thing in common: A very similar and structured process for achieving success.  The four steps in this process, Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, are critical steps in moving the ideas of the team forward to a common and focused goal.

In the Forming step, teams learn about their project expectations and explore how to reach the goal a group of individuals.  The Storming step is where conflicts arise as the members of the team hash out their differences about the steps to achieve project success.  In the Norming stage, the team becomes more comfortable with the strengths and contributions of each and agrees to move forward with a shared goal.  The team hits its stride in the Performing step when the individual members know how to function together as a single unit and their reliance and dependence on each other fuels higher enthusiasm and motivation for the project’s success.

These steps are not always apparent to the team members, but a good team leader understands the importance of the process and takes the responsibility to guide the team through each phase.  Sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it looks. Here’s why:

No one likes Storming.

You see, most people don’t like conflict.  You may be one of them.  Whether it’s a genetic predisposition, shyness, or their parents raised them to be polite, the very idea of an argumentative debate with another person over a business issue becomes horrifying.  I’m not talking about arguing for the sake of arguing; I’m talking about providing constructive criticism and personal insights to help shape and move the project forward in a positive manner.

So many will see this confrontation as a personal attack.  Therefore, most individuals on a team never rise to the level of Storming with their peers and a few strong-willed team members will take over the project.  Then the result reflects the ideas and solutions of the few, and not of the many.  Because the result is not representative of the team’s combined experience and intelligence, it falls far short of the ideal solution.

Now, I know you’re saying, “Where’s the team leader who’s supposed to guide the team through the process?”  The leader is there, of course, but most team “leaders” do not like conflict either.  Instead of encouraging and facilitating each step, the leader allows the vocal minority to take control.

Few projects, initiatives, or programs ever reach their full potential because most individuals and many “leaders” are too afraid to talk about the issues that are important to them as they strive to achieve their goals.  Lack of effective leadership is a serious problem in many corporations and nonprofits today—but that’s a topic for another post.

In our personal lives, many of us have similar challenges.  We go through the same steps—Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing—as our life circumstances change and we are forced to adapt.  But, we rarely allow ourselves to Strom—to confront and address those issues that keep us from moving forward.  Instead, we often find ourselves standing still, perhaps talking in circles, and repeating the same conversations time-after-time because the real issues are not being addressed.  Alternatively, we may just resign ourselves to carry around the burdens and frustrations of not being heard.  Either way, it may sometimes seem much more comfortable to keep quiet than to step up and be the force that drives our own lives forward.

Storming is a necessary part of life.  It helps us to confront the issues and overcome the conflicts that prevent us from achieving greater successes.  We must not be afraid to Storm, however uncomfortable it may be for us.  Storming is especially critical when it serves to move projects or ideas forward, or supports growth in our personal lives.  Refusing to Storm never allows us to be the best we can be, as an individual or as a member of a team.

Think of it this way: Storms always pass.  When we step outside after the dark clouds move on, look up to the clear sky and breathe in the clean air, we find ourselves giving thanks for the heavy rain the storm showered upon us.  When we move from Storming to Norming, to Performing—as a team or as an individual—I guarantee the feeling of gratitude is the same.


Featured Image Source: After the Storm by Phil’s Hat

Will you make a public stand in life?

Until a few weeks ago, I had never given much thought to the concept of “what I stood for” in life.  In a training session for 140 people, I was forced into thinking about it when we were each asked the question and told we would share our answers publicly.  While, I have no problems talking in front of a group of people, sharing a thought as personal as “what I stood for” in life, was not something I was eager to do.

The facilitator allowed us ten minutes to decide the one thing that we stood for, above all other things, to share with the group.  I quickly made a list of things that were core to my life and beliefs then; I agonized for the remaining eight minutes over the priority of the words.  What was the one thing that stood above all others?  Was it creativity, or trust, or directness?  Was it something spiritual?  I just wasn’t sure.  Then, out of nowhere came a memory of a conversation with a friend.

A few months prior, I was sharing that I learned early in my career that I enjoy creating and building new businesses, processes, or programs, and I dislike the mundane details of the day-day-management of the things I’ve built.  Although I can make myself manage those things for a while, I usually get bored and frustrated, and I look to hire someone quickly who loves those daily details.  Frankly, it allows me to keep my sanity.  I need variety in my work and life to maintain my motivation.

After hearing my story, my friend asked what he thought was an innocent question, “What is it you like most; the act of creating or building something new, or seeing the finished result of your hard work?”  The question took me off guard; I think of myself as an introspective guy, yet I had never asked myself this question.

A few minutes passed before I answered, “The act of creating and building things is what motivates me most.  When I build a table, for example, the fun for me is in selecting and cutting the wood then, assembling the seemingly disparate pieces into a functioning table.  Once it’s built, I may walk by a couple of times and admire my handiwork, but then I move on to the next thing.  What drives me is, ‘what could be,’ not necessarily ‘what is.’”

This memory helped me realize that above all things, I stand for the “possibilities” in life and work.  The possibility of something yet to come stirs a passion and drive deep inside that propels me forward.  To have the ability, however, flawed at times, to see life or work in a way that allows me to envision the picture on the top of the puzzle box when others can only see the individual pieces of the puzzle; to create something new where nothing exists is exhilarating.  Unlike most, the possibilities of life or work do not scare me; instead, I thrive on what might be and push hard to get there, if only pause shortly before moving on to the next thing.

As wrote the word “possibilities” at the top of my list, our 10 minutes were up.  We stood and moved into a circle to share our “stands” with each other.  As each person told their stand, I almost immediately looked at them differently; as if I had a better understanding of the way they thought about new ideas or responded to the challenges of change.  It was literally as if a light bulb went on above my head.  I have long known the backgrounds and perceptions of others influence their actions and decisions, but I had never before heard someone sum up their life’s motivation in one word—their public stand.

I realized then my stand is both a gift and a curse.  I’m fortunate that I can often see the big picture or goal, even when imperfect at the start.  I am also blessed with ability think in detail, so I can design and take action on the steps necessary to reach that goal.  There are times, though, when I see the top of the puzzle box so clearly that I push others too hard without considering how their own “stand” might be guiding them on their journey.  Instead of helping them on the journey, I push them forward before their ready to go, causing some aggravation and frustration at times.

For those who are wondering, I have been working on holding my tongue until others are ready to hear what I have to say.  My success varies, hourly.

Since that training day, I’ve thought that life would be much easier if only we knew the “stand” of everyone we love and work with each day.  Would it make a difference if we simply stood up from our computer at home right now or walked into our office tomorrow and said, “I stand for [insert your stand here]” to our family and co-workers?  After they get over the shock of the public proclamation and you explain what you're doing, I believe it would make a difference.

It seems to me that understanding just one more thing about someone we work with or someone we love makes all the difference in how we can relate to them.  This new understanding becomes a gift because it not only changes our lives; it changes theirs.

Go on.  Do it.  Now.  It’s easy. I’ll even go first.

I stand for possibilities.

Want to take it step further? If you’re on Twitter, I encourage you to send a tweet after you read this with your stand (“ I stand for…”) and the hashtag, #takeapublicstand.


Featured Image Source: fists in the air by Ibai Lemon