Human beings are hard-wired to protect themselves from pain. As a young child you learn to test the temperature of your food before taking a big bite. Early civilizations learned the hard way to stay close to the village after dark, lest they be devoured by wild lions or brutal tribes. Today, just one steaming hot bite of tuna casserole early on can save a person from a lifetime of burnt tongues (and maybe even tuna casserole).
But the critical mechanism that keeps you safe throughout your lifetime can also hold you back from building the business you envision. People naturally assume that what happened in the past will happen in the future -- and if the past was rife with pain or disappointment, there is a whole lot of incentive not to strive for something new and better. If, for example, you grew up watching your father struggle to succeed as an entrepreneur, you may be terrified of trying out your own business idea and instead remain paralyzed by fear, miserably clocking in every day at your “safe” corporate job. It’s not unreasonable to assume that your family would suffer should you also take unnecessary risks, right?
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Well, wrong. It is foolish to dismiss every professional risk as a potential failure, and by doing, so you diminish your chances of building a rewarding, profitable business. Instead, when you find yourself with an opportunity, check your instinct to run. Is the fear really about this particular risk? Or is it about your past pain? Indeed, corporation have cash-to-asset ratios of as much as 5.4 percent higher in companies run by CEOs who had worked at firms that suffered in the recent downturn, according to a recent study by the Universities of Michigan and Washington. In other words, executives who had struggled through the financial crisis were overly conservative.
Sometimes this fear of pain is not from your own personal experience, but of others you know or even cultural stereotypes you’ve bought into by osmosis. Maybe you dream of being a bestselling author, but you associate that kind of creative success with a lonely life riddled with alcoholism and too many pets. Or maybe you see an opportunity to partner with a well-known personality in your industry but you worry you will come off looking like an opportunistic name dropper.
From the outside, it can be easy to see how others hold themselves back based on old messages and pain. But what I see time and again is these old stories influence people’s current lives without them realizing it. The unconscious brain is powerful, and if you don’t check it, it will define you.
Don’t let this happen. The next time you are faced with an opportunity or are evaluating your next steps in business or life, ask yourself these three questions:
- Why am I am saying no? What is the fear driving this decision?
- Where does this fear come from? What past experience informed this fear?
- Is it really feasible that the exact same, negative thing will happen in the future?
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