If I Lose My Fear, Do I Lose My Drive?

I hear this a lot from entrepreneurs and students. “If I lose my fear, do I lose my drive?”.  Two things are implicit in this question…1) fear/anxiety is an essential motivator for success and 2) being driven by anxiety & fear (often a default) has an unsustainable & unacceptable cost. This is a false trade-off…success through fear or contentment. They are not mutually exclusive.  My core belief, backed by science, is simple: There Are Much More Powerful, Sustainable & Effective Motivators than Fear and Anxiety. There is a growing base of research around Flow and Flourishing (“Yes And” solutions). I’ve often said that the anxious tennis player is no match for Roger Federer when he is in Flow. He doesn’t even know his opponent exists.

This is not a roses and puppy dog kind of existence either. Only through grit and hard work can we succeed. The question is whether we are motivated by running away from something (not enough, seeking approval, reputation loss, etc) versus moving towards something that matters, has purpose and/or is in service to others. I think Viktor Frankl said it best:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”  — Viktor Frankl

This calling doesn’t need to be solving world hunger but could be something as simple as building the best culture and company focused on a given SaaS platform or AI or e-commerce. There is what you do but equally important is how you do it (think Tony Hsieh at Zappos) and what values you instill in your firm or life. Anyone can do this…I remember talking with the janitor of 30 years at my son’s school. He said he got up every morning with a smile because he knew his cleaning would help teachers & students take pride in their school. Furthermore, he went out of his way to connect with young kids, especially those who seemed to be having a tough day, to bring some kindness into their world.

Our default setting is to “grind it out” so we’ll finally attain contentment with our next achievement. We are told that only the paranoid survive (Andy Grove, Intel) and the anxiously obsessed will eat our counter-parts for lunch. We have day to day responsibilities like winning accounts, getting product out or managing teams and “grinding it out” works perfectly fine.  We ignore the brain science, organizational research or piles of burnout students/execs that contradict this. We fear that we will become roadkill and our resulting behavior drains us.

Jim Dethmer, co-founder and one of the top CEO coaches at CLG, borrowing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, says that we have five layers of motivators.  At the base is ego-centric, fear & scarcity driven motivators and at the top are selfless, trust & “enough” motivators. Don’t be naïve…there is a place in life/company for all five. Great leaders know when to use them.

  • Level 1: Fear, guilt and shame
  • Level 2: Extrinsic Reward (kill it for recognition/freedom, beast has to be fed)
  • Level 3: Intrinsic Reward (purpose, meaning, value, matters)
  • Level 4: Play, Curiosity & Learning (when work becomes play & you are curious…you can’t get enough of it…the drive for Mastery)
  • Level 5: Love (selfless, done purely for love…helping those in need, raising your kids, not asking “what’s in it for me”)

So, what is anxiety (and fear)?  Simply defined, we succumb to anxiety when we cling to the outcome of something that we don’t have control over. I wrote about this in my blog post on Choice Is All You Can Control In Life. Ego is the architect and creates stories around facts…we aren’t enough, that horrible things will happen if we don’t achieve XYZ , that people will we will be judged, etc.

We jump from fire drill to fire drill and fail to enjoy the present moment. Late last year, I had a week where I got up each day anxious, raced from meeting to meeting, focused on my personal agenda, obsessed on couple of perceived insults, slept poorly, ate crappy food and failed to spend time with family or friends. I was drained and miserable. I thought to myself how easy it is to get into this rhythm and soon realize that months, even years, had gone by. This life is a gift. How do we want to spend it? Memento Mori…only today is guaranteed. So, I’ve become very conscious about this, asking myself each night the following question below.

“If I approached all of my remaining days like I approached today, what would my 80-year-old self say to me?” 
(Were we present today, connected with those around us, mastered something new and lived a good life or did we go from dumpster fire to fire on autopilot?)

So, what exactly is going on here? We rarely have true, life threatening situations where adrenaline laced fear is critical for our survival. Scientifically, this is a battle between our three “brains”. There is an ancient coping relic, buried in our reptilian brain which triggers our Limbic system and shuts down our Rational Brain/Cortex. So, our ego creates anxiety (not us) which comes from our Reptilian, autonomic core and reduces our ability to think rationally or have higher-level thoughts.

Does this make us perform better?  No. In the short run, it may focus our attention but it actually shuts down our pre-frontal cortex. In this state, we literally can’t do higher level thinking, creative/orthogonal thinking or be emotionally intelligent/connected. Ask any entrepreneur (or student) and they will tell you that they are stressed “out of their minds” because we keep hitting the Nitrous injector like a Fast & Furious movie.  The father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, wrote about the permanent building blocks for a life of profound fulfillment (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment—PERMA) in his book Flourish:

“I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being [PERMA], that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing…Even scarier, measures of ill-being have not declined as gross domestic product has increased [twelve-fold]; they have gotten much worse. Depression rates have increased tenfold over the last fifty years in the United States. This is true of every wealthy nation, and, importantly, it is not of poor nations.”

I can keep running up the score here but I think you get the point. I don’t need to go into additional gory details about how dysfunctional & ineffective the Fear driven model is (scientific research, interviews with older, successful entrepreneurs, top life coaches, Buddhist philosophers, stoic philosophers, health experts, etc). You will more likely find someone supporting the benefits of smoking than to find a knowledgeable person advocating “the Grind” approach. And yet, our autonomic Fight or Flight system triggers again & again.

By the way, when you go down the rabbit hole, you bring your colleagues down it with you. Not only are you consciously or unconsciously instilling a misguided behavioral norm, but you are also literally impacting their neurology. Fear and Optimism are equally contagious (think market crashes and irrational exuberance).  We have “Mirror Neurons” in our brains that track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with. This is a key part of developing empathy to learning skills from each other to forming relationships. Our neurons (brain cells) synchronize. Like the Coronavirus, you are contagious.

The focus of this post is not to layout a playbook for Flourishing but rather to dispel the value of the alternative approach to life. I’ll continue to write about the various elements of the playbook (mindfulness, curiosity, internal not external measurements, empathy, service, clarity on values, discipline/mastery, motivation strategies, power of relationships, etc). I wish I could provide the answer but each of us carries our own unique answer within ourselves. We won’t ever eliminate fear or anxiety. It is part of our DNA. However, we can approach life courageously. Courage is not having a lack of fear but rather stepping into or through fear in pursuit of a greater cause. Make today a Courageous one!