Intel co-founder Andy Grove once said of entrepreneurship, "only the paranoid survive." His words point to an important truth of early stage business: Fear can cripple the growth of an early venture, and yet we need fear to succeed.
Research on fear in entrepreneurship validates this essential truth. The work of Warwick Business School professors James Hayton and Gabriella Cacciotti, for instance, indicates that some fears are productive. Fears about things like opportunity costs, financial security, and funding motivate entrepreneurs to learn, to innovate, and to continuously improve.
Other fears, however, play a more destructive role in the entrepreneurial process. When fears become increasingly vague, personalized, and detached from tangible actions, they become crippling. Hayton and Cacciotti noticed, for instance, that fear turned destructive "when entrepreneurs worried about the potential of their idea or their personal ability to develop a successful venture."
The upshot is clear. You need to find your "fear sweet spot" -- that delicate balance between having too little or too much of it. Too little fear, after all, can make you complacent, drain your motivation, or lead you to reckless actions. Too much of it can drive you to constant worry, indecision, and unhealthy behaviors that can undermine your mental and physical health.
How can you experience the benefits of fear without succumbing to its destructive effects? Here are three strategies.
1. Notice the difference between productive and destructive fear.
Productive fear has a clear link to action. As an example, consider the fear you feel when your product goes offline. That's productive. It drives you to come up with a fix as soon as possible. The fear you feel about a big upcoming strategic decision is also productive. It motivates you and your team to think carefully about the costs and benefits of each path forward.
Destructive fears, on the other hand, are vague, personal, and full of stories that may or may not be true. Thinking "I'm not good enough" is a purely destructive fear. It has no clear link to action and covers all aspects of life like a sprawling dark cloud in the sky. Thinking "This thing's never going to work" is another destructive fear. It's not specific or tangible. It's just an ominous, negative, thought that failure is inevitable.
2. Ride the positive momentum of productive fears.
Productive fears can be the fuel for learning, innovation, and problem solving. So instead of trying to get rid of them, use them to propel you toward positive action.
To do this, slow down the gap between stimulus (fear) and response (your action). When you feel this variety of fear, take just a few deep breaths and consider: What's the wise action this fear is asking me to take? It's a process that takes just 30 seconds, but it will ensure that you respond consciously, rather than react instinctively, when facing fear.
3. Turn toward the experience of destructive fears.
The vague and destructive fears faced by most entrepreneurs -- fears about self-worth, failure, or ability -- are some of the most unpleasant and destabilizing of all negative emotional states. As a result, our habitual tendency is to avoid them by distracting ourselves through smartphones, social media, news, or work itself. This tactic, however, rarely works over the long term. Far from getting rid of the fear, it often energizes it.
A better strategy, supported by ancient wisdom traditions and emerging science, is to turn toward the experience of these fears. To do this, all you have to do is bring your attention to the sensations of the fear itself in the present moment. Notice what it feels like in your body. Notice what happens to your breath. Notice the thoughts it triggers. Try to do this from a spirit of genuine interest rather than judgment and self-criticism.
You will begin to see that, while uncomfortable, the present moment experience of fear is often workable. And your ability to stay with this experience gives these destructive fears the space to move through.
The big idea here is that fear is to entrepreneurship as gasoline is to your car. Without it, you simply can't move forward at a rapid pace. But the moment it starts overflowing, you run the risk of blowing the whole thing up. And so the key is to find your "fear sweet spot" -- to develop your ability to use productive fears to propel you forward while letting go of the grip of destructive ones.