Show me an entrepreneur, and I'll show you someone who loves a mountain-climbing metaphor.
That's because starting a business is a frightening, uphill, often solitary journey that can yield epic highs.
But mountain climbing is not the only metaphorical stand-in for the thrills and chills of the entrepreneurial journey. There are roller coasters, trust walks from staggering heights (like the one depicted above), bungee jumps, ziplines, sky dives, haunted houses. Sociologist Margee Kerr, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied -- and personally tried -- all of them. The fruits of what she learned appear in her new book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.
Kerr's study is also grounded in the reality of business. In addition to her job as a professor, she's worked for a haunted house in Pittsburgh called ScareHouse since 2008. Like a founder hoping to learn more about customer emotions -- and how to build a service around them -- Kerr has become a master observer of human behavior at ScareHouse. She's complemented her ethnographic research by crunching reams of data from customer surveys.
Kerr recently spoke to Inc. about the art of facing -- and overcoming -- your fears, whether they occur in nature or in business. Here are seven tips from her book and that conversation.
1. Accurate predictions can reduce fears.
There's a reason you can't tickle yourself. It's because there's no element of surprise. Your brain knows exactly what your hands are about to do.
Humans are skilled at making predictions from past experiences. The scariest moments come when your predictions do not match your experiences. "An incorrect prediction is profoundly disorienting at a visceral level--as when we mistakenly think there is one stair left going into the basement," she writes.
All of which is why the best thrill rides screw with your well-designed internal systems of creating expectations. "They take us to speeds we could never run, launch us in the air as though we could fly, take us around turns faster than we could ever survive on our own," she writes.
2. Fear doesn't arise--or vanish--based on statistical evidence.
Air travel--which takes you to speeds you'd never reach on your own--will always frighten people, no matter how safe the statistics say it is. Likewise, stats say skydiving is safe: In 2013, there were 3.2 million jumps and 24 fatalities. That's roughly .00075 fatalities per 1,000 jumps. You're more likely to die from suicide, drowning, electrocution, asteroid impact, or a lightning strike.
But none of these numbers will make diving from hubristic heights seem like a safe idea.
3. If you need to forget something scary, play Tetris.
Oxford professor Emily Holmes has discovered that if you play a repetitive, absorbing game like Tetris within six hours of viewing something disturbing, it will reduce the emotional weight of the memory. It will also reduce the occurrence of an unbidden flashback to the event.
Why does Tetris work? "The part of your brain responsible for emotional encoding is too busy watching falling blocks and trying to figure out where to put the crazy Z shape," Kerr writes.
And if you don't have access to Tetris, there are plenty of alternatives. "With Tetris, it's both the focusing on color and the spatial relations," says Kerr. "So any game involving that kind of manipulation can work." It doesn't have to be a video game, she adds. It can be LEGO or Minecraft. It can be old-school building blocks or jigsaw puzzles.
4. If you're scared, screaming loudly can help.
While it's hard to let loose with a scream in the office, doing so in the right context can be cathartic. Kerr says she gives herself permission to scream "at least once a week."
Why is screaming helpful? Think of all the energy and focus you're using not to scream. This, Kerr suggests, is why visiting a haunted house or riding a roller coaster can be useful (if it's not too scary for you). These thrilling activities "provide a safe space to give our internal impulse-control police a break," she writes. "And for those who believe screaming and being scared are signs of weakness, being in a situation in which it is OK to express fear can feel pretty good."
You can apply that insight to your own fears and frustrations. You can also apply it to the way your company provides support to angry customers. Wouldn't they appreciate a safe forum for screaming, before getting on the phone or in the chatroom with your customer service reps?
5. Families that get frightened together, stay together.
Research from Arthur Aron (Stony Brook University) shows that relationships of all stripes (families, couples, friends, colleagues) can improve after participating in novel, exciting activities together. Research from Garriy Shteynberg (University of Tennessee) shows that feelings intensify when you experience them simultaneously with others you know. Scary commercials get scarier. Happy images feel happier.
You can apply these insights to your leadership team, too. Think about how your next offsite might improve -- and your chemistry might grow -- if you and your colleagues replaced slideshows with roller coasters.
6. Visualization and self-talk can calm you at scary moments.
When Kerr was in the midst of her trust walk on the CN Tower's EdgeWalk (see above photo), 116 stories above the Toronto streets, she found visualization and self-talk to be a superb tools for calming herself.
She was worried about what would happen if she slipped, and the rope by which she was suspended hit the metal ledge and got cut. "I felt my stomach drop as though I were on a roller coaster," she writes. "Thinking about falling made me feel as if I were actually falling."
Soon she grasped that as long as she didn't imagine falling, she felt safe. Once she realized this, she held her arm out "in my best Supergirl pose," she writes. "I wasn't falling; I was flying, and I felt powerful." That last sentiment is straight out of Entrepreneurship 101: The difference between falling and flying can change, depending on how you frame your journey.
7. You can train yourself to forget your worst memories.
One of Kerr's most frightful moments didn't come from one of her experiments. It happened in real life. She was trapped between floors of the Veterans Hospital in Pittsburgh. She pushed the "Emergency Call" button 10 times. No one responded. She had no idea how long she'd be in the elevator.
Ironically, the situation got worse when she was "rescued." The elevator, in its broken state, was four feet below the nearest floor. So, to escape after maintenance men had wedged the doors open, Kerr had to jump up to a floor four feet above where she was standing. A man held out his hand and said, "Come on." But all she could see was "his arm being severed at the shoulder as the elevator crashed to the ground floor."
She eventually self-talked her way into grabbing his arm and making the jump. But this frightening experience was a big reason her fear on the CN Tower's EdgeWalk was also a mechanical failure -- the rope getting cut by the ledge.
Here's the good news: Over time, her recall of getting trapped in the elevator became less negative. Instead of feeling helpless in the elevator, she thought also of her successful EdgeWalk -- and how it helped her overcome her fear of mechanical failures. "And honestly, the memory is not so bad anymore," she writes. "Since it's now connected to exciting new experiences and personal growth."