March was miserable for Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk:

1)    Tesla's autopilot delivered its first driver fatality.

2)    Tesla stock lost a quarter of its value.

3)    End of quarter Model 3 production seriously lagged company projections.

4)    Moody's downgraded Tesla as an investment. Analysts predict the company will run out of cash by the end of the year.

In response to these events, Musk turned to Twitter on April 1:

This April Fools stunt is funny exactly because it's a possible scenario--in fact, one analysts are actively discussing. Using humor this way, Musk shows us one habit associated with strong overcomers: the ability face fear proactively.

Courage in crisis is a choice.

There are no great achievements without great risks--and great risks are scary. For Musk, Tesla running out of cash has always haunted him. Recalling 2008, when Tesla was saved  by a Christmas Eve infusion of $50 million from Daimler, Musk said to Business Insider,  "I think we just made it by the skin of our teeth ... I'd say the last two years is when Tesla's achieved a level where it's not facing imminent death. Even as recently as early 2013, we were operating with maybe one to two weeks of money."

Operating an entire car company on one or two weeks of cash--for years? That's courage. Aristotle believed courage to be the most important virtue, writing, "Valor is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible."

If you'd like to hack your own capacity for courage, there's a way.

What Musk did, and what many who overcome their fears do, is called exposure therapy by psychologists. It's the art of facing what you're afraid of, so you can act freely and with less uncomfortable emotion. Behavior therapy is used for post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, for example. Meta-studies show exposure therapy is 60-70% successful, too.

3 steps to build courage:

1.    Acknowledge what you're actually afraid of. Getting this right is tough, because fear can seem to be a general haze fogging a situation. But dig in, and find out precisely what is scary for you. For example, if you're afraid your company is failing, is it the social embarrassment, letting down your team, or the financial consequences that scare you the most?

2.    Imagine that what you're afraid of has actually just happened. You may just do this mentally--or you may stage a scene, like Musk did as a joke. Either way, "go through" your fear rather than having a mental face-off. Don't verbally analyze it. Don't "think about it." Try to live through it.  If you can make your mind believe the situation is real, you'll hack through the fear. You're practicing survival. You're training yourself as a survivor just like running trains you for a race. 

3.    Consciously return to present reality. You might want to set an alarm, like for 30 minutes or an hour, and let that bring you back.Notice how you now feel about the fearful situation. Has the fear diminished? For most people, it does, and repeating the process creates stronger effects like any training.

Building courage like a muscle.

The essential move is desensitizing yourself so that you're able to get past your fight-or-flight response.  That way, you can bring your whole self to the challenges you're facing. Freeing yourself from fear is a process for founders and leaders, not a one-and-done. When I run this process myself--and I've done it quite a few times--it helps a lot. Next time you find yourself paralyzed in a decision or a situation at work, see if this makes a difference for you.

Published on: Apr 2, 2018