“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune (Excerpt from the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear)
It won’t come as a surprise to those that know me well that I struggle almost daily with fear and anxiety. It begins first thing in the morning, right from the very first moment consciousness returns and I become aware of my surroundings. With my eyes still closed thoughts of what lies ahead flood my mind and with it comes the fear. I hear the blood start rushing through my ears and feel the skin around my eyes tighten. Adrenalin surges through my body making any thought of returning to sleep impossible. Most of the time this conveniently occurs around the time I would normally get up, but every so often it happens in the wee hours of the morning or before I go to sleep. I dread the next morning because being tired only makes it worse.
For what seems like the longest time I struggled to even acknowledge I was afraid. Until recently if you had of asked me “what are you afraid of?” I would have told you with a straight face “not a whole lot”. Having joined the Army Reserve at 17 and forged my own way though the world achieving modest success, I thought I was pretty tough. Certainly not someone who was anxious or afraid of anything. So what exactly was it that made me acknowledge my fear? Putting it simply; being out of my comfort zone.
Pre-startup life was pretty good in many ways. I had a respectable job, a steady paycheque, living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (Sydney) and great friends. My wife and I owned an apartment, a new car and could afford to eat out whenever we wanted. Actually I take it back. Life was excellent! Fast forward to today and all the security has been removed or changed in a dramatic way. Such is the life of an entrepreneur. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It was my choice to do this and gladly I made it. What I am saying is that if there’s a recipe for revealing fear in your life then the above comes pretty close to perfect in helping you find it.
One of the first challenges I faced in overcoming fear is recognising it at all. It sounds strange but even though I was fully caught in the throes of fear I was largely unaware of it. What I was aware of were symptoms.
Most notable of all my symptoms was the effect on my relationships, particularly with my co-founder Dave Trindall. It all came to a head one morning after I’d received some bad news from one of our investors via email. They were questioning their investment in us and were threatening to pull out their money. The news caught me off guard and I flipped out. The resulting argument with Trindall was pretty ugly but then something great happened. Trindall called me on my bullshit. It was the first time in positively ages that someone had brought the searing hot sword of truth to bear on me. To be honest I didn’t like it one bit. It hurt too much, left me exposed and undermined my view of myself as being tough.
My relationship with Trindall wasn’t the only thing that was suffering though. Bit by bit fear was eroding my ability to concentrate. My ability to perform even simple tasks quickly and effectively was seriously compromised. Focus was almost impossible when each moment a new thought of some looming deadline with terrible consequences would pop into my head and demand my attention. If you’ve been there you’ll know how frustrating, not to mention exhausting that is. Each day I would try to rev myself up, try to get excited about what lay ahead and end up burnt out about 2 hours later.
Another thing that was dying was the vision. When you’re held in thrall by fear it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a bright future. This is absolutely essential to generating new ideas, getting excited and maintaining confidence. As I allowed these thoughts to dominate my mind the light of hope was slowly being extinguished. I call this the death spiral. Once you start believing your doomed your mind ceases to offer up helpful suggestions and ideas about how to improve things. All I could visualise was my life slowly circling the drain. Pretty bleak really.
It actually took a while for me to do anything about my fear, even after I recognised its presence. Honestly I didn’t really know what to do about it. One thing I did do was start talking about it with people I trust. That was enough to get the ball rolling. It began slowly but what I realised along the way was that I didn’t possess the answers or the skills to beat this on my own. Thanks to my wife, a very patient co-founder, various other family members and friends I am slowly piecing together a plan.
Making a plan
While I’m certainly not out of the woods I’m feeling better than I have since I can’t remember when. I want to share with you three activities that are making a huge difference in my life today:
- Prayer & meditation
If you haven’t tried meditating then you really should. Done right, it’s one of the most amazing things you’ll ever discover. I’ve balked at meditation before because the last thing I wanted was to be alone with my thoughts; there be dragons! As usual however I was doing it wrong. Trindall introduced me to a secular form of Zen meditation (which fits with my Christian beliefs) that showed me how to avoid being trapped by my thoughts. Simply allowing them to be and letting them pass by, good and bad, without being distracted by them. Where before I would fight these thoughts and expend vast amounts of energy just to stay focused I’m now learning to simply let these thoughts come and go without giving them the time of day.
Once I’ve finished meditating (which only takes 20 mins max) I head out for a walk. It’s such an amazing feeling to just take in the morning once I’ve cleared out all the rubbish in my mind. Just 30 mins has me feeling reconnected with the world and puts things into perspective. Given the crazy hours I often work I’ve noticed that it’s easy to start feeling claustrophobic and distant from people when I don’t get out into the world.
Journalling caps it all off by allowing me to reflect on and take note of what’s changing. I note what new things are happening and also the passing of things out of sight. It’s a great opportunity to also explore your feelings and opinions about things without hurting anyone. I find that so many of my thoughts are only half formed. Writing them down helps me find the holes and rationalise what’s on my mind. Mountains often become molehills once I reckon with them on the page.
As a parting thought I’ll leave you with this:
Your mind is like a garden and you are the gardener. It’s up to you what you allow to take root and flourish there. Do you cultivate your mind to grow beautiful things or do you let the weeds take over?