Most of us have an uncomfortable relationship with fear — for the most part, we want nothing to do with it. Especially for leaders, parents, or really anyone responsible for another person’s well-being, fear, in ourselves and others, can look like a villain to be caged or, at minimum, a distraction to be overcome.
There’s some wisdom to this. Our individual “fight / flight / freeze” responses can narrow our perspective at the moment we most need it to be open. It can cause us to over- and under-react, unable to process anything beyond armageddon or business as usual. It can cause us to stay up at night when we desperately need rest, or lash out at those we most need by our side.
At the same time, pushing our fear down into our subconscious doesn’t make it go away so much as gives it the power to affect our judgment beyond our notice. The great discovery of most wisdom traditions is that the only way not to be a slave to our reactions is to cultivate the awareness that they are occurring.
When we do — when we see and accept our fear — new options often become available that we could not have accessed from a place of suppression or panic. These range from the simple mechanisms of our biology (exercise, deep breaths) to broader creative clarity. Most fears, after all, hold within them evidence of something we genuinely love. Fear that our business may cease to exist can highlight to us the parts that we care most to preserve. Fear that we may lose our clients can speak to the ways we most want to serve them. Fear for our families opens us to new opportunities to cherish them. Fear for our physical safety may open us to caring for our health in ways we ignored before. Each fear, while often lying to us in so many ways, contains something true to be unearthed if we are willing to do the digging.
In the reflections below, Jeff lays out a simple process he’s been using to turn fear into fuel for creativity. It’s something that only works experientially, so I particularly recommend giving the “Try” activity a go this week.
The Fungus and the Lemonade
Fear is a fungus: it grows in the dark. As leaders, we are all struggling with our fears, whether we are aware of them or not. They often drive our behaviors, blind us to opportunities, and cause us to be volatile and unpredictable when calm is called for.
Fear is an outcome of confusion. When we are confused, we grow fearful. Because we aren’t aware of the confusion, and only just aware of the fear that is a result, we don’t address it.
But even worse, in this time when we need to all be our best as leaders and managers, we don’t take that fear and turn it into an advantage. That’s right, fear can be your friend. But only when you see it clearly, identify the confusion behind it, and transform it into solution fuel.
I do this by creating what I call a “Lemonade List.” I have a big whiteboard in my office. I draw a line down the middle; on one side I create a header called “Lemons” and on the other side I create a header called “Lemonade.”
Every hour I take five minutes to check in with myself. How am I feeling? Anxious? Depressed? Sad? Angry? Befuddled? It doesn’t matter — I just see it and put a label on it. “I am feeling anxious.”
I then ask myself “why are you feeling anxious? What’s behind that? What are you confused about?” When I ask myself these questions I get a lot of interesting answers:
“I am anxious because I am worried that my customers may drop us.”
“I am anxious because I may be doing things that hurt others, like asking them to take a pay cut.”
Once I have that answer, I jump up and go over to my whiteboard and write the answer down under “lemons.” I don’t sugar coat it. I don’t wordsmith it. No spellchecks or editing. I just write down the raw confusion.
The list gets longer, as I am checking in with myself every hour. But it doesn’t matter, because I am taking the fear out of the dark — out of the back of my mind and onto the whiteboard.
At some point every day something good will happen. I have a great call with a client. A teammate wins a new deal. We get a good mention in the press. I get excited and feel like anything is possible. It’s at exactly that moment that I jump up and go look at the Lemons List. While staring at the list, I ask myself, “How can I make these lemons into lemonade? How can I turn the confusion into fuel?”
Again, I don’t edit or critique ideas. I just write them down. And as I do, I feel myself getting more excited.
So next to the “Lemon” of “I am worried my customers will drop us” I write the Lemonade “I am going to offer my clients free help. They need it, and it will make me feel more connected to them.”
And down the list, I go. Even the toughest lemons start to yield useful ideas.
Maybe the ideas are good. Maybe they are bad. Who cares? The point isn’t to come up with perfect ideas. The point is to take your fears out of the dark of the subconscious, label them so they aren’t scary, and then use them to think of solutions. In the process, I am turning myself from a person overrun with fears to a person who can own my destiny and help others. The fear becomes the fuel.
- What are your biggest fears right now?
- What do those fears tell you about what you value?
- Can you connect to what you value separate from the fear itself?
Keep your own running Lemonade List. To do this:
- Draw a line down the center of a page (or whiteboard)
- On the left side write down your fears. Don’t edit yourself or evaluate if they make sense. Add to it whenever a new fear arises.
- When you have a moment in which you feel you have access to a little more energy / positivity, go look at your list. For each fear on the left side, connect to what it inspires as something to do on the right side.
- At the end of the week, look at your list of ideas on the right side, and pare it down to 2-3 you can actually run as experiments the following week.