Don’t let fear steer your small business

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One of my go-to small business gurus is Tim Ferris. Iconoclast, entrepreneur, lifestyle guru, and so much more, Tim gave a new Ted Talk recently in which he advised that instead of goal setting, like so many of us do, we would be better off to engage in an exercise he calls “fear setting.”

The essence of the idea is that realistically confronting your fears will do more to get you ahead in life than setting another goal ever would.

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Tim tells the tale of a time when he was toiling in his first startup. Unhappy, yet stuck, what he really wanted to do was take some time off and head to London for a month. But fear was stopping him. What would happen to his business? What if the IRS came knocking for some reason while he was on holiday across the pond? What if, what if, what if?

Finally, Tim created and engaged in his fear setting exercise and in the process realized that all of the what-ifs were just in his head and in fact were getting I the way of his real life. So he looked at the worst-case scenarios, decided to do what he wanted anyway, came up with a plan, implemented it, and headed to England.

More: Steve Strauss: There’s no business like small business

Now, many years later, Ferris says it was and continues to be one of the best, most influential decisions of his entire life, not the least because he continues to do fear-setting several times a year.

What is it that you are afraid of?

Someone once shared something with me along these lines that has served me well. “Fear, Steve,” he said, “is usually nothing more than a False Event Appearing Real. F.E.A.R.”

Now, that sounds nice and all, but of course it’s not always true. As we all know, fear can and does serve a very real purpose in life and business. But it is equally true that for many people, myself included, fear can sometimes take on an outsized importance.

And yet, when properly managed, fear can be tamed and transformed into power.

I learned this viscerally, physically, many years ago from one of the other guys to whom I look to for business insights — Tony Robbins.

I met Tony many years ago at a time when few people had heard of him (and certainly no one had ever heard of me). I was living in L.A., with, as the song would have it, “my best old ex-friend Ray.” Ray asked me if I wanted to go see some motivational speaker that night, he had scored some free tickets. Playing another round of Donkey Kong didn’t really sound too appealing in comparison, and stuck as I was at that time in my life, I said sure.

Cut to a small room of about 50 people on a nondescript storefront along Wilshire Boulevard. Smoke wafts through the room and at the front is this mesmerizing giant of a man, telling us that by the end of the night we were going to walk barefoot across a 25 foot, red-hot bed of coals.

I don’t know if I was more petrified, mortified, or stupefied, but, as I said, I was so very stuck and needed something, so I stayed and listened. And this guy Anthony Robbins seemed to have figured a few things out. But frankly, although I participated and engaged in the process, I still felt palpitating fear.

But I did it anyway.

To this day I am not sure, physically at least, how I did it, but I did. Slowly and methodically we all walked over that hot bed of coals. Far more importantly, I looked my fear in the face that night and somehow decided that it was nothing more than a False Event Appearing Real.

Life changed, slowly but assuredly, after that. Fear never held the same grip it once had.

So let me strongly urge you to take 15 minutes and watch Tim’s Ted Talk. And then take a little more time and do his fear setting exercise.

So go ahead, take a look. You have nothing to fear but F.E.A.R. Itself.

Steve Strauss, @SteveStrauss on Twitter, is a lawyer specializing in small business and entrepreneurship and has been writing for for 20 years.