Most of us know what to do. Eat healthier. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Stop smoking. Manage money better. Just do it. Right? So, why don’t we? The truth is that we don’t believe we can. As a result, fear of failure sets in. But fear can hold you back only if you let it. By controlling fear, you can achieve any reasonable and worthwhile goal you set for yourself.
Three things will keep fear from becoming goal-threatening anxiety: control, predictability, and optimism. As long as you perceive some measure of control, even the alligators in your life can be tamed. I know because I worked my way through college by wrestling alligators at the Black Hills Reptile Gardens in South Dakota. Even though I was slighter and lighter than many of the reptiles I took on, I usually won. That’s because I never let fear overwhelm me. I knew I had a great deal of control despite what things might have looked like to the spectators.
For one thing, no one forced me to accept the job. Before each show, I would choose the alligator I would fight. I learned to predict what each would do when I jumped on its back. I also knew how to maneuver the alligator so it couldn’t slam me with its tail. That weapon was as dangerous as its powerful jaws. Sure, there was risk. There always is. But with practice and by being prepared, you can reduce virtually any risk. That was the advice of the famous adventurer Verlen Kruger, who once logged 28,000 miles in a single canoe trip. During an interview, I asked what he would tell a young Verlen just starting out in life. He replied, “Be prepared.”
I belong to an organization called WaterTribe, inspired by Verlen’s extraordinary accomplishments. Our races cover distances that pale in comparison to his; nevertheless, the 300 miles Everglades Challenge and 1200 miles Ultimate Challenge are far from being leisurely excursions. By being aware of the risks, we can prepare and better control our responses. Furthermore, by training under all the conditions we may experience, we can learn to predict what is likely to happen should such conditions occur during the race. Even when we may lack control, just knowing what may happen next can enable us to endure. Throw in an optimistic attitude that even the worst conditions eventually will get better, and anxiety is kept at bay.
In the final analysis, we only ever do one of two things: those that give rise to pleasure or those that minimize discomfort. Fear causes discomfort, which prompts us to avoid. Unfortunately, that avoidance sometimes spills over and influences decisions that have nothing to do with the threat. You react by avoiding all change, including that which may be beneficial. The avoidance signal becomes an alarm that sounds throughout your brain. Progress towards personal and professional goals is stalled as you avoid more than just what triggered that emotion. You know what to do, but now fear keeps you from doing it. And it doesn’t have to be fear of bodily harm or loss. It also can be fear of failure.
You can counter this natural tendency of the brain to stay the course when fear is present. No, don’t reach for the rose-colored glasses. It’s unhealthy to ignore bad things when they happen. Do acknowledge them, but not to the extent that they blind you to opportunity. Begin by taking stock of everything that’s gone wrong. Write it down or talk about it. This simple act helps you shift your thoughts from brain areas governing emotions to those that mediate reason. You still may be primarily in fight/flight mode, but at least you have begun to engage those brain areas that will enable you to find a solution. Now do the opposite. Make a list of all the resources you have. Shift your focus from lost assets to those you still have.
This process turned things around for me almost instantly during the 1200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge. My kayak’s rudder snapped in two in heavy Atlantic seas depriving me of both my foot-operated and hand-operated steering systems. The pole supporting my stabilizing outrigger broke. It was after midnight on wind-swept Boynton Beach along Florida’s East Coast. Anger, triggered by these mishaps, was rapidly mixed with sadness that I would most likely be unable to finish the race. There was no way to repair the metal rudder or the stabilizing system. In addition, the boat had filled with water while negotiating the rough surf. Despite claims of their being waterproof, both my light and VHF radio were no longer functioning. I concluded that I was out of the race and began thinking about the logistics of getting back across the state to my home in Tampa. I was in avoidance mode and I wanted to withdraw to the familiar setting of home.
While pacing the beach pondering my dilemma, I verbalized these thoughts, and in so doing, I was able to hear my thoughts from a source other than from my brain’s emotion center. A different type of fear emerged, which was the fear of the regret I would experience if I were to drop out. While fear is still an avoidance-inducing emotion, I had now reframed it in a manner that would take me toward my goal. Just by shifting my thoughts, I became more optimistic and was able to transform fear into a formula for success.
Focusing on what I still had, I realized I could still steer with a paddle. I wouldn’t need the outrigger if I stayed in the protected waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. I was able to replace the light and radio, but it was still a bad situation. Tidal influences were much more powerful along the in-shore route that was longer than following a straighter course up the Atlantic. But I was once again making progress toward my goal, and I knew that if I paddled for longer days, I would still finish within the allotted time of 28 days. I made it in 26 days and 16 hours. It is rare that there is no solution. It’s simply a matter of finding it,.
You can do something else. You can prevent a feeling of despair by defining success with outcomes you can directly control, instead of those you can’t. If you are a salesperson, your goal should be to contact five new prospects a day rather than land a new client each week. It doesn’t matter if each person hangs up on you. You can’t control what another person does, so don’t make your success contingent upon it. Making five calls is realistic and attainable. All it requires is for you to expend the necessary effort to pick up the phone or make a personal visit. In a month’s time, you will have placed about 100 calls. In my consulting business, the research shows that you’ll get a 3 to 5 percent success rate from a marketing campaign targeting a random population of potential clients. That means 6 to 10 additional clients per month or 30 to 60 per year. Don’t confuse the signed contracts with the true success. Success was making the designated number of calls. Those signed contracts are your reward for that success.
I apply this process to WaterTribe challenges. On a daily basis, my goal seldom is to reach a point on the chart, and certainly not the final destination. At the start of the Ultimate Florida Challenge, the destination was 1,200 miles away. Nearly two weeks would pass before the remaining distance was less than what I had covered. Weather is the primary variable determining my rate of speed, and that’s something over which I have no control. I’m not going to gamble my sense of satisfaction on natural forces. Instead, my goal always is to make forward progress for 18 hours each day. On a good day with favorable winds and tides, I may cover 60 miles. On a bad one, it may be less than 20. It doesn’t matter. Oh, and stopping to make repairs counts as forward progress.
I have control over the time I spend paddling, thereby giving me control over my measure of success. The slow days are frustrating, but not to the point of being demoralizing or inducing thoughts of failure. Even during days of headwinds, I can always achieve my daily goal of paddling at least 18 hours. Those daily accomplishments make it that much easier to press on, no matter how bad conditions may be. The prospect of failure is not an issue since I had defined a means by which to celebrate success each and every day. Success is more than reaching a goal. Success is achieved every time you make progress. Each day, establish a realistic and worthwhile objective that is within your control. Then watch as you create your success.
Before you know it, you’ll arrive at your destination wondering what all the fuss was about.