Fear Is The Mindkiller

I had a long phone call with a CEO of a company on Friday.  He’s had an intense few weeks and was clearly stressed out.  His summary was “my stomach hurts.”  My objective view of his business is that it’s fine – lots of things are going well – but there are plenty of issues he needs to address and they don’t necessarily have a short term time horizon for resolution.

This reminded me of a question I received from another friend a few months ago:

I thought of you yesterday as I was speaking with a new business acquaintance.  She was telling me about all her new business ventures, including a talk show concept. She has already made a connection with an industry source who is helping her fine tune and sell it. As I congratulated her on the progress she’s made, she said, “This is so new to me. I try to listen to my gut instincts, but the fear gets in the way.”  Assuming that your entrepreneurs (particularly first-time entrepreneurs) are aware of at least some of the risks involved with starting any company, do you ever have to advise them how to manage their fear so it doesn’t get in the way of their potential success?

I have long believed that fear, anxiety, and guilt are useless emotions in an entrepreneurial context.  When I get into an existential discussion with some people about this, they argue that there are contexts where these are useful emotions, but I still haven’t found them.  So – my first advice is “let go of the fear and anxiety (and guilt) – immediately.” 

In my first company I was an anxious entrepreneur.  I felt the full burden of the business and even though I had a great business partner, I internalized all the ups and downs of the business.  I pushed through the anxiety regularly, which I imagine impacted my current style (which I like to think of as intense/playful) – much of which was forged from my experience with my first company and some of my big successes and failures from the 1998 – 2002 time frame.

“Letting go of fear and anxiety” isn’t trivial – nor is it automatic – but it can be done.  During my Friday afternoon CEO conversation, my friend acknowledged that he wasn’t panicked, but he felt close.  It was clear he was physically and mentally exhausted from the effort he was putting into his company.

When I’m tired, things go to hell.  My first indicator is that when something good happens I feel happy and when something bad happens I feel unhappy.  I used to just accept this as part of my reality – now I know this means I need a break.  Sometimes it’s just a weekend; other times it’s a week.

“Fear is the mindkiller” is my favorite quote from Dune (one of the all time greatest sci-fi books.)  Fear – at least for me in an entrepreneurial context – almost always comes from fatigue.  It’s really difficult to rationally address the issues that cause you fear when you are tired – which just makes the cycle more difficult.

I told my friend to take the weekend off.  He should turn off his computer, don’t try to “catch up on email”, don’t try to “fix anything, let the thoughts about his business roll through his head, but spend time with himself and his wife.  And sleep.  As much as he wanted to (I got up at 10:24am this morning.)  On Monday, he should come back refreshed, not anxious, and ready to address the issues that he’s facing.

Remember that fear is the mindkiller.

  • Craig

    Great post! I like the idea of rest to recover from fear/anxiety. I think it makes sense to make sure we do anything with full focus on the task. If we’re thinking about the results of our actions while we’re doing them, it doesn’t matter whether those thoughts are positive or negative–they still hurt performance significantly because we’re not “all there” with respect to the task. Think about the results of the goals before or after the task, not during. /guru

  • sigma

    There are some good sources of security that can help keep down the effects of fear, uncertainty, doubt, risk, threat: A good wife. A good family. Good friends. Solid rational foundation that can stand on to be quite sure really are doing the right things. Money in the bank.

    After such things, when totally pooped out, Shakespeare actually had a good point with his

    Sleepe that knits vp the rauel’d Sleeue of Care,

    ‘Macbeth’, Act Two, Scene Two

  • JM

    Brad, nice post. I agree with you that fear is a negative emotion, and not one that is enjoyable in business and other atmospheres.

    Many executives don’t necessarily agree with your thoughts on this subject I suspect, as many of them say that fear pushed them to work harder (assumption, is that work harder means better, which is not necessarily true).

    By saying that ‘fear is a mindkiller’, you are relating to a person. Would you also say that ‘fear is a businesskiller’, as many businesses are based on people (who have minds)?

  • I guess you could generalize to “fear is a businesskiller”, but I’m not sure it’s as important of a construct. It’s probably a long discussion given some executives’ “philosophy of fear” as a motivator. I personally don’t buy it (I’ve never been motivated by fear and I can’t think of any entrepreneurial leaders that I respect that lead by fear.) However, I’m not sure the correlation that “fear is a businesskiller” will play out.

  • Brad, you are on to something huge here. Business results are a function of strategy, leadership, and execution. Not enough people think about how these three things work together – especially how leadership fits in to results (and I’m not talking about basic leadership stuff).

    There’s a reason the quote “have no fear” has been around for a long time. Fear is one of the most basic human emotions, and for many entrepreneurs it is related to a deep lack self confidence (trust me I know). Think about it, there’s a reason many successful businesses(I’m talking big time) are run by teams of people that have had huge failures in their lives. They have come down closer to reality – they no longer have the same level of false self confidence, or more specifically, the fear of losing all the crap they tell themselves is important.

    Getting sleep, or meditating, slows down the brain. It helps create distance from the feeling “this has to happen or I/we fail.” As you said, it provides just enough perspective to turn around your thinking. But only in the short-term.

    Bottom line: not just entrepreneurs, everyone, needs to ask themselves what drives my fear? Think hard about it, and then let it go. Attachment to fear is a very powerful negative force, and all the strategy and execution in the world won’t overcome it. Just ask Yoda.

  • Excellent post Brad! (and great additions Herb)

    We get so caught up in everything, we don’t notice the things we’ve let go along the way.

    Such a good quote (

  • pravesh


    This is a very simple but one of the best posts from you. I also try to live by this philosophy that Fear, Guilt, Anxiety are not needed in life at any stage.

    Thanks for the encouraging words

  • steve

    How do you let go of the fear and anxiety? Do you just go away from it for a while and come back when you are refreshed? Won't it still be there? But you'll be better able to handle it because you are refreshed? Is conquering fear simply a matter of rationalizing your way through it, poking holes in it until it deflates? Or do you confront the fear with actions and plans to be prepared for when that fearful scenarios actually happens? Most of my fears never materialize, so I'm not sure it is a good idea to spend time coming up with plans on how to handle the disaster, because it never happens. But perhaps my fears are different from the fears of a big entreprenuer like yourself.

    • I encourage to spend a long weekend at a silent meditation retreat (at a place like Spirit Rock) and see what happens! Or maybe, take up long distance running. Or engage in other perspective building activities like volunteering at your local homeless shelter. Any of these things will likely change your relationship with fear and anxiety.