The two fears every entrepreneur faces (and how to get over them)

How a simple reminder of our mortality makes us better makers

This post first appeared on Backstage. Read lots more like it (plus podcasts, tools, and interviews) here.

There are two types of fear. First, there is the fear of dying. Then, there’s the fear of living. The fear of dying was hardwired into our DNA thanks to our ancestors slipping off steep ledges or being outrun by hungry predators. The fear of living is a more recent addition and, in the context of modern society, more deadly.

Being here, injected into matter, living, breathing and bearing witness to it all, is a wink of the cosmic eyelid. The moment will come for each of us when the game is over. Perhaps it won’t be in the jaws of a peckish lion or slipping off a perilous rock face, but it’s still just that (and taxes).

When it’s over you don’t get to put in another coin, go around again to make use of every moment you had to speak up, share your true point of view and make that something amazing happen.

What happens between birth and death is a choice: to dream it, or do it; be silent or to speak up; consume or create. To spend hours anxiously avoiding spoilers for the next big Whatever just so you can binge watch it on the weekend, rather than finishing that screenplay, that app, that book, that business plan.

To be paralyzed by the fear of living is to constantly seek out distraction so you can avoid making.

The fear of being alive is the fear of judgement. It’s the fear of hearing your own voice speak a truth that nobody else dares to say. It’s thinking your unique awareness of the world is not interesting enough and that you should rather copy a formula created by someone else.

During my entire career I’ve seen it in every creative company I worked for. And everyday of my professional life, I’ve allowed the fear of life to paralyze me and my ability to make my voice heard.

I’m sure these situations are familiar to you:

  • Let’s present all three ideas and let them choose (because we’re scared they won’t like the one we really believe in)
  • The client is wrong about changing the layout like this, but we can’t tell them that (because we really need the business and don’t want to upset them)
  • We all feel the research is flawed but we are going to go with it anyway (because at least the numbers will back us up)

This is the fear that makes people lose respect for us. It’s the fear that lets good ideas die.

But where does this irrational fear of living come from? With our well-being and survival so much more guaranteed than it was for past generations, why aren’t we out there really living?

Perhaps we developed this fear because we have become so good at eradicating the fear of death? Advances in medicine help us deal with disease. Civilization keeps natural enemies in cages. And research and development makes the planes we fly in and the cars we drive safer.

Here’s the truth: As the fear of death slips away, it makes way for the fear of life.

I grew up in a dangerous country and lived in it for a long time. Fear of getting mugged or killed in a country like South Africa is real. But, I have also been lucky enough to live in very safe countries where death and destruction happens to other people in faraway places, on TV.

In my experience, those faraway places are, ironically, more creative. Every year, when you look at the results of big creative festivals like Cannes Lions, you’ll see that countries where crime is prevalent, like Brazil and South Africa, punch way above their weight on a global scale.

Is it coincidence? I don’t think it is.

My question is, how can anyone, no matter where they live, tap into the fear of dying to make better work and to overcome the fear of living?

For a start, you need to think of death everyday.

Not death as a concept. Your death. That certain event that could occur this afternoon or forty years from now. Like the late great Steve Jobs once said

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
— Steve Jobs

What can we do to remind us?

Quick, simple things, like making a desktop wallpaper with the words You Could Die Today in your favourite typeface.

Or you can cultivate good habits that will remind you of your temporary place in the universe:

  • Keep a hand-drawn calendar: Just see how Craig Mod does it. The visualization of the passage of your time through the pen on the paper will engrave itself in your conscious.
Image credit:
  • Turn off the tech: Just tune in to your inner voice and let it babble on. You need the shadows of your former self reminding you of your dreams, before you became inhibited by adulthood.
  • Run: Run three miles a day as fast as you can so that everyday you muscles ache and your lungs burn so you remember that you live in a fragile body that needs constant attention. Feel the blood course through your veins and your breathing become more regular. Once you’re more connected to your body you will appreciate its mortality more — be amazed at the fragile power of your homo sapien body.
  • Take up a scary hobby: Climb rocks. Scuba dive. Do things that require so much intense focus that if you make a mistake, you’ll die. Push a piece of wood through a band saw. Walk close to the edge so you can feel the adrenaline spreading through you like a warm glow. I once worked with a global creative director who was an avid kick boxer. When I asked him why, he said that climbing into a ring with a youngster who’s only goal is to knock your teeth out is relaxing. I get his point.
  • Cook your own food: Appreciate what goes in. Spend time flavouring a chicken savouring the soft white flesh. Better yet, go to a farm and see how animals are slaughtered. Become part of the circle of life. Understand your fragile place, and power, in the universe.
  • Lay off the booze: Alcohol can be great but is designed to be consumed in small quantities. Getting so drunk you forget stuff is giving in to the fear of living. That goes for all narcotics.
  • Keep a journal or get a pen pal: The act of writing everyday is a way of processing your life and your moments and the little decisions you make everyday, whether you are writing it for a friend to read, or yourself. When your inner voice starts dictating, you will get a sense of your own inner frequency.

As you do these things every day, you will start to feel the fear of living clearing way for the life-giving fear of death. And once you remember that your journey is a climb up a very rickety ladder that will eventually buckle under the weight of time, your creative powers will focus on what matters.

What matters is to record your unique point of view of the world. Only you have your unique combination of culture, upbringing, language, neural networks, and insight. You owe future generations a glimpse of what you saw. If you do it well, you’ll earn a legacy that will outlive you by several generations. If you don’t, you’ll be forgotten in two.

Embrace the fear of death.

Let go of the fear of life.

And make, make, make like only you can make.

Make every moment count.

Make that Thing happen.

Because you’re running out of time.