While flying to St. Louis from a Soccer game-filled Sunday at home in Greenwich, Conn., as my flight shook indicating that it was time to land, I got to an email from one of my students who is scared to take a big leap professionally, and reached out to me for advice. She has been a professional in her field for over 10 years and wants to go off on her own. But fear is stopping her from even considering taking action.
I absolutely can appreciate the fear of taking the risk to start out on your own. Her concern is one we all have. Whenever fear stops us, it matters whether we react to fear blindly or thoughtfully. The future trajectory of our lives depends on it. And surprisingly, there are academics who have spent lifetimes studying just this one question: what stops some people from taking entrepreneurial actions and encourages others to act?
I wrote back to my student and offered the following advice that’s worked for me in the past.
Examine the fear
Some people run away from fear. Some run toward it. I think both responses are flawed and that the best approach is to really look at the fear, understand it, then make a rational choice.
Research into this area (which academics refer to as “entrepreneurial intention”) offers a compelling framework that I have found to be enormously insightful. When faced with an entrepreneurial opportunity, three conversations come up that either have you take action or not on that opportunity:
1. Will it work?
Is this a business that could work? Could the business I am thinking about be successful in the hands of someone who is capable?
2. Am I capable?
Do I have what it takes to make it work? In the first question, I may have realized that the business could work because there already are businesses like the one I am contemplating, but am I the right person to start such a business?
3. Is taking action socially acceptable?
What will people say if I took the leap? Particularly, what would people whose opinions I care about say?
Sit down and think through where the fear is coming from. Look at whether your doubt stems from the conversation in your head that says:
- This won’t work, or
- I am not capable, or
- This would not be socially acceptable.
Then you can isolate your thought process. Then I would take that statement – this won’t work, I’m not capable, or this is not socially acceptable – and write two contrasting fictional stories.
In one story, you imagine that you overcome that conversation which has you stuck, you launch your company, and you completely fail. Think through what the consequences are. Where do you live? How do you buy food? What do your friends say? Often our fear comes not from what would really happen, but from our discomfort at considering what might happen.
Then write another story about the best potential outcome. You launch your business and it completely takes off. Dream up and describe the ideal outcome.
These steps won’t give you an answer, but I think they will help you make a thoughtful choice rather than one based on blind fear. You will look at what is really going on in your head and choose – take the leap or not right now – and feel you have made the right choice.