I am afraid of everything.
Leaving my house, groups of people, clients, writing, new work, scorpions--those are just a few of my fears. And if there's something I'm not even aware that I fear and you ask me about it, I'll probably develop a new phobia, right there on the spot.
I've never been accused of being rational. Thankfully, working for oneself and rationality aren't mutually exclusive. On the surface, this would make me seem like an unlikely entrepreneur--but I've spent almost two decades starting companies, regardless of all my fears.
In the beginning, I was definitely an unlikely entrepreneur. I had been the creative director at a marketing agency for a few years, but decided the job (and the company) weren't for me, so I quit. The following day, I was going to learn how to write a resume (since I had landed the previous job without one). Instead, I kept getting interrupted by calls from the clients I had worked with at the agency, asking how they could move their business to my next company. After three or four calls, I figured I could just work with them directly, instead of bringing them to a new agency. I was scared to start my own business, since it was something new, but I did it anyway. That was a long time ago (and I still haven't learned how to write a resume).
Here are a few common fears facing most entrepreneurs--including myself--and tips for dealing with them in a productive way:
That first step is usually the hardest, because it leads down an unknown path into an unknown journey. Regardless of research, investors, buzz--there are no guarantees. The only thing that's guaranteed is that if you don't start, nothing will happen. Your company or your work won't launch.
So the options are: stasis, or stepping into the unknown. If I were completely happy with my current situation, there'd be no reason to start something new. No one ever started their own company while being 100% content at a day job. But for those of us, like me, where true contentment is always elusive, even fear doesn't stop us from trying something new. Doing new work gives me a knot in my stomach, but doing the work is the only way I can get rid of that knot.
Going your way
Too often we're drawn to take a proven business model or a "how-to" from someone who's already succeeded and apply it to our own work. It's easy, but it doesn't always work. If copying someone else could guarantee success, then one person would have done things the "right" way, and everyone else who followed would just emulate that person. There would be money fights on every street corner and a six-year waiting list for 100-ft yachts.
Obviously, there's no guarantee your work will work, even if you use "proven methods." Since you're the boss now, why not do things your way? Why not base your business on what aligns with your working methods and values?
It's scary to do things your own way, because it feels more personal. But I know firsthand that carving your own path is the only way to do meaningful work. It's really easy to create a business you hate. So do things in a way that works for you, even if it's not a proven model for success.
Everyone and every business and every piece of work that launches gets judged. The more successful you or your company become, the more you'll be judged.
It's scary stuff. I almost have a panic attack when I think about it. But then I realize, I'll be judged if I don't launch or if I stop doing work, and it'll be harsher than if I do. Plus, if you’re judged after you launch something, some people will judge it in a positive light and gravitate toward the work. Launching means shining a beacon of light to draw your audience in. The people who see it, judge it favorably, and like it are probably your customers. The people who don't like it will never be your audience, so they don't matter.
I'm afraid of failing because I fail all the time. I've started several companies that completely flopped, or didn't attract a single customer. I've launched products with zero buzz (which is worse than negative buzz). But, on occasion, I've started things that have worked well--really well--sometimes enough to sustain my next few failures.
I try to fail as small as possible. If I have an idea, I test it with minimal time and money. I treat all my ideas as prototypes to see if they will sink or swim. That way, if they fail, it's not a huge deal. But if they prove themselves, I invest more resources into developing them further.
Being an impostor
This isn't just something I feel when I start something new; it’s something most people (barring the criminally egotistical) feel at many points in their careers. If we don't know absolutely everything about what we do, we feel as though we don't know anything, which obviously isn't the case. Understand that everyone feels this way--and be honest about it. If I don't know something, I say so. Being an expert doesn’t mean you know everything; it just means you know enough to offer value in your work.
I feel like an impostor with work I've done for years, just as I feel like an impostor with work I've done for a few months. This impostor syndrome is always there. I acknowledge it, try to remember that most people also feel it, and get down to doing my work.
If there's a road that leads to perfect, the road that travels in the opposite direction leads to launching. Nothing will ever be perfect--not your product, service, messaging, etc. But the only real way to test it is by getting your work in front of people. Flaws can be adjusted, but the only way to find them is to get your work out there.
Professionalism is a funny thing. It forces us to wear suits or gray skirts and talk in the same agreed-upon dialect (business speak). I've always found that being myself is the best way to differentiate myself in a saturated market. My personality is my differentiating factor. Some people hate it (and tell me how much they hate it), but some people enjoy it and that attracts more work or sells the products I create. I'm always respectful of other people, otherwise that wouldn't just be unprofessional--it'd be rude. But, I do let my personality shine through, even if it reveals a nervous and excitable little nerd.
What truly motivates me is seeing how far I can push myself, knowing how much I fear. How far can I take my ideas? How close can I get to understanding who I am? I’m never satisfied with anything, ever, so I feel as though I need to keep pushing or I’ll die a stagnant, uncreative death. My tombstone will read, “Here lies Paul. He was scared to do anything.”
I think tackling my fear is important, because it makes me present and accountable to myself, and keeps me living a meaningful life by testing my limits and my potential. We have no idea what we’re capable of achieving unless we try things and stretch the limits in our minds.
Pushing against fear can also create your proudest moments. I feel good about myself when I do something that I feared. Almost everything I’ve been afraid to do has turned into something I can’t believe I feared--and that I actually enjoyed. Even more, sometimes conquering those fears has led to my proudest experiences and accomplishments.
Great entrepreneurs aren’t fearless. Instead, they acknowledge their fear (even if they feel scared of everything) and try new ideas anyway. It’s the best way to succeed on your own terms.
--Paul Jarvis is a Gentleman of Adventure. He's also a web designer and author. He is currently writing a book called Everything I Know that explores fear, creativity, and self-employment. You can find him on Twitter at @pjrvs.
[Scorpion: Arnoud Quanjer via Shutterstock]