How many of us dare to face our fears? I am sure that quite a few of us would like to say that we are willing to give it a go.
There is always the possibility and the hope that we will come out the other side physically or psychologically stronger. However, at the same time we all know that embracing frightening situations and emotions is an incredibly hard thing to do. Fear is our body’s natural biological process to protect us from harm.
I think it helps to start by defining the different types of fear since there two main ones. And each requires a distinct response.
Firstly, there is innate fear, which is genetically hard-wired into us. The threat of a snarling animal with its teeth bared is something that our ancestors learnt to fear and stay away from very quickly. It was essential in order for them and their descendants to survive.
Then there is conditioned fear, which we learn through experience. We may, for example, have felt ashamed after failing at something in life. So in the future, we avoid situations where the same thing might happen again.
At THP, we train our staff to distinguish between the two and to learn how to engage rather than retreat from the second kind of fear. If we are able to do this, then we can improve through learned experience. It is the bedrock of a company’s R&D.
My father is exceptionally good at overcoming conditioned fear. In previous blog posts, I have written about his ability and enthusiasm for taking calculated risks.
I think it is worth doing again because it is what makes him such a successful entrepreneur. In essence, he does something that few people enjoy.
He will literally put himself in a position where his back is against a wall in order to find the strength to bounce back. He does this because of his belief in learning through experience rather than just reading the theory. He spots the greatest opportunities and develops the creativity to execute them when he is up against it.
There is no doubt that my father was born to be a risk taker. Scientists have discovered over 20,000 DNA markers associated with a propensity to take risks or avoid them. My father’s DNA puts him at the far end of the risk-inclined scale.
Environmental factors have also played a role in encouraging this natural propensity. The circumstances, which shaped both of my parents’ formative years, made them far more risk-inclined.
When he was a child, for example, my father did not get into a comfortable bed at night knowing that two loving parents were there to protect him in the next room. He spent a number of years in an orphanage where the nuns idea of a suitable overnight punishment was putting him in a pig pen on his own to face off against a couple of two hundred kilogram hogs.
When he graduated from university, it was right at the end of the Vietnam War. Bombs were raining down on a ruined city.
These kinds of experiences and many more during THP’s early days forged resilience and a “Nothing is Impossible” attitude that enabled both of my parents to build THP into a national champion.
But there is no reason why people who have grown in security and affluence cannot learn to adopt a similar approach to life.
One of the starting points to do is this is understand the physiological mechanisms behind fear. It starts in the brain (the amygdala), which sends a distress signal that activates our body’s sympathetic nervous system (its fight or flight response).
When this distress reaches our adrenal glands, they start to pump adrenaline and noradrenaline into our bloodstream. These hormones cause blood vessels to contract and air passages to dilate. This redirects blood to major muscle groups and provides them with more oxygen so that we can flee or fight more quickly.
Activating this response by means of a mild stressor provides a form of training for the nervous system, just as lifting weights in a gym does for our physical strength. Getting used to these mild stressors, therefore, helps to normalize our response to fear.
It means that when we are presented with a far greater challenge, our bodies are far less likely to overreact and fear will not disable us. We are starting from a much stronger foundation to deal with the challenge.
There are lots of ways to do train our minds and bodies to respond in this way. One very simple one is taking a cold water shower. Cold water is a mild stressor, which prompts the fight or flight response. It becomes far more bearable with repeated exposure.
This is what we do with employees too. Our form of cold water training is encouraging them to become acclimated to situations where failure is tolerable.
It forms a key part of one of our core values – Integrity. Do not feel ashamed of failure. It is an opportunity to learn, to innovate and to do better next time.
It reminds me of a recent conversation with one of our suppliers, Kian Ho, the CEO of April Advertising. When the pandemic erupted he was faced with the loss of his company after revenues dried up.
He had two choices. He was offered a sum of money in return for 100% of the company’s equity. April Advertising would have been saved, but it would no longer be independent.
But Kian Ho did not want to sell his dreams, so he worked with his senior executives to change the business model. He felt huge fear, but he harnessed it in a positive way.
He took heed from the strength that my father derives from his willpower. And he came to an important conclusion: the counterbalancing factor to huge fear is an equally big dream and the resolution to fulfil it. I believe he is right.