An inbox full of leopards

Leopard by Malcolm Cerfonteyn

I got an email last night which scared the shit out of me.

A new project, in a new sector, doing new things for a new purpose, and… oh yeah… most of it will be in German. Even the mere thought of it filled me with terror as it seemed like exactly the kind of project which I could royally screw up.

Every fibre of my being wanted to send back an email reading “danke, but NO FUCKING WAY!”

But then after about thirty minutes of letting it percolate, I heard a smaller, quieter voice ask “what are you afraid of? How do you know this isn’t a good thing to do?”

So my question now is: When is it foolhardy to do something you’re scared of and when is it precisely the right thing to do? (And more importantly), what’s the process for discerning the difference?

There is a natural tendency to run away from things we’re afraid of, and with good reason. Fear is a strong, biological defence mechanism designed to keep us alive in some pretty tough situations. These days, most of us have the luxury of not having to deal with daily threats to our physical existence. There are no apex predators sitting higher than us in the food chain anymore. The chances of a leopard springing out from behind the printer, picking off an office straggler and mauling him to death in front of the stationary cupboard are relatively small.

But that same fear mechanism that protected us from predators is clear and present in our brain, and it fires with alarming regularity.

And we’ve been programmed to run away from whatever triggers it, despite the fact that, most of the time, it’s not been triggered in response to a physical threat.

If we run away from the trigger, then we’re using fear as a decision making system, which is like using a hammer to crack eggs. In one respect the job is done (decision is make, eggs are cracked), but you don’t really have the outcome you were looking for.

Fear isn’t a decision making system, it’s an indicator that something requires more attention than we’re currently giving it.

We shouldn’t run away from it, nor charge it down and embrace it. We just need to sit with it, look at it and ask what it’s trying to tell us.

In the case of this email, it was telling me that “the number of unknown variables in the project increased the chance of failure”. Ok, that’s something I can work with a little more. So then I asked “what’s the cost of failure? What do we sacrifice if it does all fall apart?”

Each question would get a response and each response was a little less panicked until what came out was “nothing is inherently too scary, but we’re already really busy, so there’s not a lot of flex in the system to deal with any unexpected problems”. Alright, that’s better.

That in itself, still might be enough of a reason not do the project, but it’s a lot more helpful than the “thanks, but NO FUCKING WAY!” response. At least now I understand the root of the challenges which might come with the project and can make a more informed decision if I want to accept the risk.

I can also ask “what would have to change in order to feel differently about this?”, which is a helpful way of looking at the emotional response to something in order to try and open up some possibilities for solutions.

There was no leopard in my email – I wasn’t about to be mauled to death in front of the stationary cupboard. But the fact that I felt there was almost made me run for the hills.

All it should have been telling me is that something is worthy of careful attention, and that attention, not the fear itself, can inform further action.