Conquering Fear

A Hybrid classroom at Harvard Business School. Source: HBS.

I’ve long thought that the two most powerful human emotions are these: fear and greed. You see it in everyday life, in the news, on social media, and in ourselves.

I write this because I have been reading students’ reflections on fear. We organized the class into small groups and each discussed this: “If fear didn’t exist, what job would I take for next year? What’s holding me back?” Each student then had to write up a short reflection.

I found business school to be profoundly transformative. And, for me, the best instructors were those who taught us about the topic at hand (for me, I teach the class on VC and Private Equity) but made room to let us think about our own lives.

I think overcoming fear, like the rest of life, is a process. It takes time. And, I think it’s important to trust the process. A lot of people either consciously or unconsciously go through a process and thereby lose their fear.

Examples abound. Here are three:

  • Many Special Forces soldiers are sent on high-risk missions, deep into hostile territory, and somehow are able to keep their wits together.
  • Many early Christians were asked to renounce their faith. Many were burned to death, fed to wild animals to entertain crowds, or be-headed. Eleven of the Twelve Apostles were killed.
  • Tom Brady, who sadly no longer plays for the New England Patriots, was famous for keeping calm under pressure. The bigger the stage, the more deliberate and focused he became.

All of the people mentioned above went through a process. The common element? What they did, they did for others. And, that let them live for along periods of time with discomfort.

Soldiers go into battle in deep partnership with each other. Their squad members have become like siblings to them. (They also have been taught this breathing technique to stay calm.)

The early Christians went to their deaths believing in something greater than themselves.

Tom Brady says there is nothing better than to be a team and win games together. He doesn’t care about individual awards.

In a smaller setting, it’s a lesson I learned earlier in life and take with me: the more I think about myself, the more stress I feel. So, when facing something high stakes, I resolve to go in as a net-giver and not a net-taker.

When I received the surprising invitation to teach part-time at Harvard Business School, there was a mixture of joy and nervousness. Other instructors told me that it took 10 to 20 hours to prep for a case. I was to teach 25 cases, which is why I worked hard all summer to get ready.

At one point, in August, I felt pretty overwhelmed. The pandemic was in force, the November elections were looming, I had my usual obligations for my VC job, I thought a lot about my children, I felt deep and lasting sadness about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Zoom teaching was going to be complex (you’re the lead actor, director and producer of an online variety show), and I had an enormous pile of cases to read and process.

I’m not sure what prompted it, but I decided then and there to focus more on the students and less on myself. I resolved to do a great job so that they could have the best experience I could give them through Zoom (thankfully, we last week transitioned to Hybrid). I thought that it sucked that they weren’t going to have the glorious in-person HBS experience, and I wanted to make it up to them.

And, very quickly, the stress went way down. I also adopted the breathing technique mentioned above. Soon, joy started to seep into my work. What discomfort I did feel seem to go down a few notches, to the point where I could co-exist with it.

There really is something about thinking that you are a net-giver. You care less about what others think about you. You present your most authentic self to the world. And, you’re less stressed as a result.

So, give and breathe. Doing both really can change our outlook.

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