Fear is fuel; I first heard this strange and counter-intuitive phrase uttered by Paul Gilding, the former Executive Director of Greenpeace, from the TED stage in 2012.
He had just outlined the apocalyptic future for Earth if we stayed on the current emissions path (spoiler: we’re still on it 10 years later) and asked the audience the question: “are you scared?”
If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.
He then went on to say that, if they were, that was good. That fear was a fantastic fuel for action. If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.
Above: Paul Gilding's TED talk suggested that fear was a fuel for action.
He went on to qualify that too much fear is paralysing. We know this from science. The body floods with adrenaline and too much of that is, literally, a poison. But fear itself is very useful as a trigger for action. From an evolutionary perspective the role of fear was vital. The presence of a threat allows the brain to focus and then concentrate on either fleeing from the threat or eliminating it. It can also, as Gilding said, be a very powerful motivator for taking action to solve problems in life or the world.
Harnessing fear can heighten emotional intelligence and bring success to every aspect of your life.
I became fascinated by this speech, and then by the book Fear is Fuel by Patrick Sweeney. Sweeney continues this theme about how useful fear can be as a positive force for change in life and business. He points out that fear is one of the most pervasive emotions in the human psyche, but is probably the least understood or studied. The book is a fascinating, contrarian ride in establishing fear as the path to optimal living.
He says: “Most of us know fear as the unwanted force that drives phobias, anxieties, unhappiness, and inhibits self-actualisation. Ironically, fear is the underlying phenomenon that heightens awareness and optimises physical performance, and can drive ambition, courage, and success. Harnessing fear can heighten emotional intelligence and bring success to every aspect of your life.”
Above: We shouldn't be scared to make creative decisions, after all, the negative outcome in a business context won’t be life or death.
Have I started to convince you yet? Where fear is most useful though (other than in species or personal survival) is in the world of creativity. I’m sensing your scepticism, so let me explain. Humans suffer from two rather unhelpful phobias when it comes to creativity, especially when one realises that the dictionary definition of creativity is simply different or original thinking.
The first is neophobia – the fear of the new. This was a rather useful thing to have 50,000 years ago, when anything new was likely to get you killed or seriously damaged. The second phobia is xenophobia – the fear of the different. Humans feel unsure when presented with something outside of the usual. Again, it was helpful in 50,000BC, but is less useful now, with fewer woolly mammoths about.
There is lots of research to show that, in the context of a safe environment, being scared can be incredibly positive.
When humans (whether client or agency, planner or creative) are faced with something new, it triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response at a sub-conscious level. Everything in our evolutionary spidey-sense is telling us that we should shun it, ignore it or kill it stone dead before it kills us. When you consider that the dictionary definition of creativity is about doing new things, you start to see a problem emerging.
And, anyhow, you really shouldn’t be scared these days. After all, the negative outcome in a business context won’t be life or death. It is highly improbable it will ever involve any physical harm. There is lots of research to show that, in the context of a safe environment, being scared can be incredibly positive. Good scary. The body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ mechanism can be hijacked when we feel safe; the natural chemicals that our body releases when it is scared can be put to good use. It can even be pleasurable. There is a lot to learn about this in Margee Kerr’s brilliant book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.
Above: When the way ahead looks scary, it could be a signifier of brilliance.
The thing is, fear is a brilliant signifier of creative brilliance. It’s a fantastic lightening rod for detecting whether your idea is different and new. That thing you’re feeling isn’t fear, it’s a creativity detector. Fear isn’t just fuel for creativity; it is the accelerator too. When you have an idea and it makes you scared, or you start to worry, then you shouldn’t walk away from it, you should run towards it as fast as your little shaking legs can carry you. It’s a good sign that you may be onto something category redefining or, at least, career enhancing!
When you have an idea and it makes you scared, you should run towards it as fast as your little shaking legs can carry you.
Everyone from every area of business needs to allow fear to play a truly positive role in their lives, to find ways to override their natural cowardly custard instincts. It’s time to reframe fear as excitement.
Thinking about fear in a different way enables you to act differently and effect a positive outcome. Are you actually scared, or are you just excited in an anticipatory way? Next time you feel nervous, try to appreciate that this is a great thing. This is your body and brain getting ready to fire on all cylinders. Fear is the best detector you have for knowing if your idea is a good one, and for making sure it's a new one.
So, don’t be afraid to be afraid.