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:
“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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David Harkins is a serial entrepreneur with significant experience in branding, strategy, licensing and marketing.
In his spare time, he consults, coaches, speaks, writes, hikes, explores, and creates art. Although, not necessarily in that order.
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