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Follow the Fear

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Think about all the things that scared us when we were young. And how we 'grew out of our fears.'

Stage fright becomes grace under pressure. Shivering at the edge of the high dive becomes a love of soaring. Fear of ignorance becomes scholarship. Fear for the well-being of others leads to a lifetime of healing.

Fear of being the new kid in school becomes the ability to make friends and find common ground in new situations.

When we are children, we have no choice. We walk through our fears because we are placed in environments where there's no turning back. And then we grow out of it.

As adults, most of us come to believe that getting scared is what happens to children. Protective of our status as grown-ups, and 'those in charge,' we avoid unfamiliar situations and environments. When every situation we face is unfamiliar, there's obviously a big problem with this kind of behavior. Avoidance of fear does not equate to freedom from fear. In fact, just the opposite is true. We need to confront and embrace our fear, because it holds the key to growth, just like it did when we were children and were much more open to life's possibilities. We mistakenly believe we have grown out of our fears. The emphasis is wrong. We have grown out of our fears. Out of them, we have grown.

As adults, we cling to what's safe and familiar. We develop complex grown-up mechanisms for sheltering ourselves from the biggest fear of all, fear of the unknown. We give these mechanisms names like Money, Equity, Fame, Six Sigma, The Club, Prius, 401K, Beverly Hills and Rich Uncle Bernie.

Most Americans have had nothing to fear for so long that our greatest fear has become fearing anything at all. We pay mercenaries to destroy our fears. Imprison them. Torture them so they will never haunt us again. We bribe our fears to keep their distance. We produce massive amounts of media and drugs designed to help us believe that fear-less is the way to be. We pay good money to allay our fears about the way we smell, what we eat and whether or not we'll have an erection when our scenes call for them. We prefer the certainty of porn to the vicissitudes of love. We portray ourselves as being fear-less in battle, when we have never shot anyone other than a friend in the face with a shotgun while quail hunting from our chauffeured SUVs.

We're like zoo animals that have been eating zoo meat for so long that we have forgotten what it's like to hunt, or be hunted, when in fact, these are the most natural instincts in the world.

The fear we feel when we are thrust into a new economic environment like the one we face today is not unlike that of child in a new school. We didn't ask for this. But we're stuck with it, and there's really no way out except a kind of innocent childlike plunge into the whole fresh mess. In taking this plunge, we have every reason to be optimistic. Here's why: On the other side of our fear is the potential we cannot see or realize as long as we let our fear cloud our vision or keep us from taking action. On the other side of fear await the knowledge, connections and growth that will make our transformation not only possible, but probable.

If we lean into our fears instead of away from them, we have the ability to turn them into productive action, just the way we did when we were children.

Fear fuels us. We can work longer and harder at a problem than when we're cozy and un-threatened.

Fear gets us 'out of our heads'. We don't spend as much time talking or thinking about taking action. We take it.

Fear creates focus. When we confront our fears we focus on the problem at hand. Flight is all about confusion and mal-formation. Facing our fear, by contrast, sharpens our thinking and the performance of our team. Immediately in the wake of 9/11, when all was unknown, Rudy Giuliani faced his fears. Bush and Cheney fled from theirs. Who was more productive?

In December, I attended a forum at the University of Southern California where Ted Turner spoke to business and communications students. In a answering a question from the moderator, Turner made the following observation: "I don't know what's coming. No one does. But I know this. It's going to be an adventure, and I intend to participate in it." Ted Turner didn't get where he is today by hiding from his fears. He got there by taking action in spite of them, by turning his tilt with the unknown into an adventure.

There is a saying in improvisation, attributed to the legendary improv teacher Del Close: Follow the fear. He didn't just say this to neophyte improvisers afraid of performing without a script. Del taught the best there was. Bill Murray, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers - his former students are the improv hall of fame. What he said is that you can use your fear as a kind of divining rod. Do what makes you uneasy, he taught. Do the thing that scares you most. There, Close told his students, you will discover new worlds. It is a reminder we all can use these days. Follow the fear. Out of it, we will grow.

Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers - Improvisation for Business in the Networked World and the founder of GameChangers, LLC, a business learning company. His website is www.gamechangers.com.

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