Power or Panic: Making the Most of the Unknown
Fear and anxiety often are treated as synonyms. We toggle back and forth, freely exchanging one for the other. They are, however, distinct. Fear is biological; anxiety is psychological. Fear is rooted deeply in our brain structure. It leaps fully formed from our amygdala. Anxiety, on the other hand, emerges from the neo-cortex, the most recently developed layer of our brains. Fear is an instinctive survival reaction to threat. Anxiety is formed by our imagination. Fear springs from the present state—an immediate sense of real or perceived menace. Anxiety is anticipatory, resulting from projecting our mind into the future and imagining threat.
Mental time travel gives rise to anxiety, while fear is fed by real-time perception. Anxiety is a tense uneasiness caused by apprehension of possible future misfortune or danger; it is born from an active imagination about a painful future. Imagination, our uniquely human attribute, awakens anxiety when it runs rampant.
While fear and anxiety are distinct, they commonly are treated as interchangeable synonyms. We talk about fear of the unknown and fear of failure, not anxiety of the unknown or anxiety of failure. Though different, fear and anxiety have the same impact on learners. For this reason, I’ll address them interchangeably, too. Learning is traveling along the hero’s journey, and it happens in the presence of fear and anxiety, not in their absence. Fear of the unknown, in particular, can freeze a learner’s development and cause them to revert to old patterns and behaviors. So let’s understand that aspect of learning and how to tame it.
Fear of the Unknown
Nowhere does our imagination wreak more havoc than when we face the unknown. Confronted with a chasm of perceived danger, the mind races to create visions of pain and loss. I’ve seen leadership teams convince themselves of an unknown so awful that they defaulted to fighting for the status quo rather than growth. I’ve struggled with my own anxiety in the face of the unknown, opting at times to keep busy rather than commit to action in a new direction. For most of us, fear of the unknown is paralyzing.
Learning is rife with unknowns—leaving the familiar grounds of well-established skills and habits, and venturing into growth and uncertainty. Our fears hold us hostage as we attempt to remain safe and unhurt—financially, socially, romantically, and career-wise. The unknown, and its twin, uncertainty, are ever present. I propose, however, that it is not the unknown that is triggering our fear.
What are we afraid of? Typically, it’s one or more of these: failure, humiliation, loss of control, loss of power, looking stupid, feeling incompetent, losing time, losing money, or getting hurt. These are real concerns, not unknowns. What we’re afraid of is the undesirable and uncomfortable outcomes we can’t control. The unknown stretches out like a vast movie screen onto which we project our familiar and unknown fears. Follow this imaginary experiment to understand the futility of fear of the unknown. Imagine that you are a pioneering sailor in the early 1600s, crossing the sea to the new world. Standing on the ship’s deck, you hear the creaking of the wood, the wind pressing into the sails, and the cry of seagulls overhead. You guide your voyage by the stars, using a compass and sextant. Wouldn’t it be great to have the power of modern tools? Imagine yourself, a captain of the ship, with an iPhone. How proficient and accurate your journey would be! But as the iPhone has yet to be invented, your mind contains no knowledge of it—you don’t crave it, resent it, love it, or appreciate it. Because it is unknown, you have no relationship, belief, or feeling toward the device. The unknown, by virtue of the absence of knowledge and awareness, cannot evoke any reaction from you—neither excitement nor fear.
While we refer to “fear of the unknown,” it isn’t mentally possible. We fear the known that we don’t like and feel powerless to avoid. In the vastness of the unknown, our mind parades a host of known and unwanted possibilities. I’ve tasted the bitterness of failure before; that’s not unknown. I’ve had my heart broken by rejection; I wish that was unknown. I’ve lost money on investments that seemed great at the time, and I’ve lost time on projects that were well conceived but poorly timed. All these sources of pain and loss come rushing back to my mind when risk presents itself. Risk is ushered in by uncertainty—when a situation is new and learning demands growth.
Development plans are an effort to lay order over uncertainty. By planning, we project our imaginations forward and conceive a path and pattern to manage risk and opportunity. Planning, though, depends on the unknown, on the vast reservoir of potential that lies around us. So many plans falter because learners fall prey to their negative mental projections of the unknown. Rather than venture into the realm of possibility, they are drawn back to the safety of the known. Yet we require access to these possibilities, to their potential, in order to craft new outcomes. As we have been told, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always had.
As a trainer and coach, partnering with learners on their journey toward new behaviors and results, I look for honesty and courage. These allow us to peel back the obscuring layers of the “unknown” and decipher the unnamed fears lurking below. Once the fear is named, it can be addressed and defused, and a reasonable plan can emerge. Learning requires willingly staring into the unknown and not freezing. It does not mean fear is eliminated; it means that learning to name it, engage it, and ride its energy is a path to unlocking personal and organizational power. Ultimately, the unknown contains all untapped potential. This is the real power of the unknown…unlimited growth.
Excerpt from “Leadership as a Hero’s Journey—the Four Virtues for Turning Uncertainty and Anxiety into Results” by Eric Kaufmann (Ben Adam Press LLC, 2013). For more information, visit http://sagatica.com/leadership-as-a-heros-journey.
Eric Kaufmann is a native of Israel who lived and worked in South Africa, and brings two decades of experience in sales and management at Lanier/3M and Corning Clinical Laboratories. In 1999, he launched a consulting business in which he works with individual, leaders, and teams at Fortune 1,000 companies such as Sony, T-Mobile, Alcon, Genentech, Petco, Cox Communications, and Quest Diagnostics. He is the author of “Leadership as a Hero’s Journey,” which explores the four traits shared by successful, passionate, and creative leaders. In addition to being a management consultant, executive coach, and keynote speaker. Kaufmann is a lifelong practitioner of Zen meditation, a licensed hypnotherapist, and a master scuba diving instructor.