“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” ~
Fear. Who hasn’t been afraid? Not me. I have been afraid of many things: my mother’s slap. Embarrassment. Heartbreak. Failure. Being inadequate. A pack of rogue stray dogs (long story). Herdboys who harrassed my cousin and I one day when we were out herding goats (short story). Boys (blame the Catholic Convent High School). Emotional Pain. Death. I could go on but the list can never be complete without adding the uncertainty of the unknown. Nothing frightens me more.
Often, the literature around success, speakers, and ideas we come across tell us this: In order to truly be the best we can be, we must stop being afraid. We must go forth and conquer like Braveheart who was drawn and quartered without flinching. Isn’t that the stuff greatness is made of? Just do it right?!
I have only just started reading Adam Grant’s book, Originals, and in the very first chapter, he answers this question. Spoiler alert. The answer is no. Grant states that the idea that in order to win or to be original you must be made of the “right stuff” is so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche that we are barely even conscious of it. “We celebrate heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr who possessed enough conviction to risk their lives for the moral principles they held dear. We idolise icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for having the audacity to drop out of school and go broke, holing up in garages to will their technological visions into existence.”
When we think of people like these we never for a second imagine that they might be just like us. Surely they are iconoclasts, rebels, fearless, revolutionaries of some sort. We can’t imagine that they are not cut from a special kind of cloth that is fearless. That they are ordinary people like us who suffer the same fears, doubts, and trepidations that we do. That they are ordinary people who are also afraid.
After inventing the first Apple computer, Steve Wozniak who started Apple Inc with Steve Jobs in 1976 continued to work full-time in his engineering job with Hewlett Packard until 1977.
Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000 but continued working as a management consultant until 2002. He worked for his employer during the day and performed at night.
Bill Gates? Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t just drop out of school. After successfully selling a program he had written in his sophomore year, he still stayed in school for an additional year. Thereafter, he didn’t just drop out. He organised some backup money to live on and then applied for a leave of absence from school. After it was granted, he then gave his ideas a fair shake knowing he had hedged his bets.
Abraham Lincoln, whose natural inclination was to avoid conflict and to please others, agonised for 6 months about whether to free the slaves. He worried about what it would cost for him, the war and the country. He feared he would lose support. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation but he was afraid.
Martin Luther King Jnr. just wanted to be a pastor. He didn’t even particularly want to give the “speech” and he didn’t volunteer for it. *gasp!* And yet what would history be without it?
Grants gives a lot of these examples. They all boil down to one thing. Originality and its consequent success are not reserved for extreme risk-takers. It is reserved for those who despite their fear, weigh their options, mitigate their risks as best as they can, allow themselves to learn the lay of the land they wish to venture into, plan carefully and then cautiously begin. The people who exercise their conscious will to plan and try.
Here is an interesting statistic: “Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit. If you’re risk averse and have some doubts about the feasibility of your ideas, it’s likely that your business will be built to last. If you’re a freewheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile.” In other words, despite both being brilliant scientists, it is more likely the skeptical, probe all the holes in the idea Tony Stark than the fearless and brash let’s give it a bash Dr Bruce Banner who is likely to figure out the answer to the saving the world. #IfYouKnowYouKnow
It turns out that the titans of history were ordinary people who despite having the same workaday fears you and I have, became extraordinary. “As one great thinker, W.B. Dubois wrote, “he was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.” You and I can be ordinary and afraid and still do extraordinary things.