I have something to confess.
I’m afraid of change. Which is funny because people who think they know me often say that I’m good at doing new things. Good at taking the leap.
And I must admit that this story feels nice. It’s the story that I like to tell myself.
It’s the story I tell when I say that I used to do skydiving. It’s the story I tell when I talk about that one time when I landed in a tree with my parachute. It could have gone terribly wrong, I say, but miraculously it didn’t.
When I tell those stories, I apply some mystical force to my character. As if I have some secret power that allows me to do scary things that might end up very bad and still it always turns out pretty okay. Perhaps doing this allowed me to not take responsibility.
I like the story because it shows that I have the courage to do scary things. Things that others do not dare.
But it’s not the whole truth. My life is filled with what seems like a built-in pattern to avoid sticking out. Just before, I was meditating at the office knowing no one else had shown up yet. Then I heard the front door open. Immediately, without thinking about it, I turned the chair around so I wouldn’t be facing whoever was going to enter.
The monkey mind (or lizard brain) had already kicked in. I was afraid of being called out for doing something not normal. For breaking the pattern. By turning around I could avoid facing those fears, which in a way is stupid because it didn’t change the fact that people would see me meditating. It only allowed me not to face them directly.
This small reaction got me thinking: How often does this happen in my life? When do I avoid making a point that is different from the rest, not because it is a bad point but because my subconscious lizard says “shut up”?
Perhaps this little thing has more power than anything else over how things turn out in life. When I say that my startup failed after half a year because the market wasn’t big enough, who’s really to blame: me or the market? Why didn’t I see it before investing so much time and money into it? Was I afraid of the answer and why?
What really determines my chances of success is my capacity to seek out the uncomfortable questions as soon as possible. If I can’t see that I’m unconsciously avoiding new things then how will I ever be able to break a pattern somewhere and make a difference? This skill is not about having any particular knowledge unique to your profession.
It’s what I’d call a human skill each and every one of us have to practice every day in order to make the changes we say we desire. Seth Godin calls it ‘dancing with fear’ and ‘embracing tension’ in his altMBA program that I attended this summer. I think it starts with seeing fear, putting a name on it. If you don’t know what you’re afraid of, then how will you ever overcome it?
Once you do that, the dancing becomes easier. So, if seeing is the hard part, how do we learn to see clearly?
This is the study that everyone should be doing regardless of their profession: The study of fear. What are the patterns that constitute fear? What do we typically say, do or think when we’re afraid? What does our body language look like?
Some people mistake the art of mastering body language to be about learning how to copy power postures from leaders like Angela Merkel. I think its real benefits are more subtle: It’s the ability to distinguish between different postures and the underlying state of mind in yourself and others.
When I catch myself crossing my arms or picking my nose, it’s often because I am defensive or nervous. The solution is not just to change my body to a position of strength and confidence — that would be avoiding the fear. Rather, the right path is to acknowledge that I am defensive and nervous and try to understand why this is.
This is a rather difficult study because each and every person has his or her own way of showing fear and the only one who can really tell is yourself. Yet, the underlying emotions are the same for every person (albeit with slight cultural differences, but that’s another story).
We become easily angry when we are afraid. How we show anger varies a lot. Sometimes I become silent, other times I shout. Empathy is about seeing these emotions in other people, perhaps even before they do so themselves.
Empathy is a delicate and complex art that Terry Sejnowski, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence and neural networks, calls one of the most important human skills for the future. When AI gets to replace more and more repetitive tasks from humans, the ones we have to nurture are the real, human skills like empathy.
That’s why I created this blog and why I’m writing a book: To provide some clarity in these uncertain times and help people like you and me to thrive professionally once the robot age kicks in for real.
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Today’s challenge: Write down 5 telltale signs you display, when you’re afraid. It can be body language, thoughts, some type of phrase you say or something entirely different. For the courageous ones: Write them in the comments below.