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Whenever anyone asks me about the critical traits of a successful entrepreneur, my first thought is “comfort with the unknown.” Great business builders have to have or develop a strong mechanism for dealing with uncertainty through periods of recurring doubt. The extension to this thinking is that they have to be able to continue to push forward in the midst of the doubt or uncertainty.

Take this notion beyond business and consider mankind’s greatest achievements. There, you will find case after case of discoveries, developments, and great leaps accomplished by those bold enough to dream, then press on through adversity and doubt into the unknown. An ongoing comfort with discomfort, or a at least the ability to cope with it, appears to be a critical element to achieving great things.

Boldness

A friend recently described his company’s strategy for responding to COVID-19 as “running toward the fire.” (Thank you Greg!) A response that entailed pushing forward into the unknown of an aggressively proactive response versus the strategy of retreat and protect adopted by many of their competitors.

The approach took them to the risky edge of investing in new offerings, redeploying resources, and going all-in on extended hours and service within the uncertain context of reduced revenues, clients impacted by the pandemic, and a potentially long time horizon. This CEO and his team chose boldness in spite of the risks. They dared greatness in the midst of a panicked marketplace. That is running toward the fire. The approach will pay great dividends. And, it was the right thing to do.

Our High-Anxiety World

Ours is a world of high-anxiety. Even without pandemic, we all suffer through fear of the unknown on a daily basis. I recently heard a definition that made a lot of sense. Anxiety is an over-estimation of the danger we face coupled with an under-estimation of our ability to deal with it. Uncertainty fosters fear and fear causes us to freeze and/or retreat.

Curiously, the answers we need often lie in the direction of the uncertainty we fear. We may perceive it as a dangerous direction but along the way, we frequently find the tools and answers we need to deal with it. Often, the most difficult step along that path is the first one. The greatest distance is the one from decision to forward movement. Faith is believing you’ll find the answer along the way. Courage is moving toward the fire before having that answer.

We intuitively know that fearing the unknown empowers it, yet that feeling can be tough to shake. A good place to start is recognizing that “playing it safe” is an illusion. The place of greatest risk is standing still. This is true whether we are in crisis or our “normal” day-to-day. The world around us is incredibly dynamic and when we stop moving is when trouble starts. Change is the only constant. Uncertainty is there whether we acknowledge it or not.

Naming It

Ah, acknowledge. What a great word. To acknowledge is to proactively admit to something, to recognize it. The opposite is to deny or, to be even less proactive, allow ourselves to remain oblivious. Burying our head in the sand, ignoring, or looking the other direction does not make something go away. Living in denial may ameliorate our fears for a moment but reality has other plans.

What happens when we name it? The moment we acknowledge the uncertainty, we trigger necessary survival gears that must be shifted. We may still flee but we are admitting to the fear. We see it. Now, we are dealing with it. Rather than simply cowering, we choose to be smart and engage some part of our rational mind. Is it time to retreat or do we press forward? Our other admission? “Wait and see” is probably the most dangerous place to be.

What happens when we reframe the uncertainty and shift our perspective on it? Rather than fear it, we see it as necessary. We begin to realize that we cannot answer a question we haven’t asked and that the solution to uncertainty is discovery. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Pushing toward the unknown brings us closer to the known. You cannot find it unless you walk to the edge.

What’s the Risk?

And there it appears: the under-estimation of our ability to cope. “What if?” becomes our muscle-freezing lamentation. Our worst-case scenario generator kicks-in and sitting still suddenly looks really, really appealing. Now is a good time to be very honest with yourself. What is the risk? The risk of running toward the fire, watching the fire, or retreating from the fire?

Often, the “risk” is simply our suddenly creative selves future-casting to the worst thing our lizard brain can conceive. Or worse, no particular conception, just fear of the unknown.

What if you find a bucket on the way to the fire? What if there are others racing toward it to help and you make new friends along the way? What if the fire is actually cozy and perfect for marshmallows? What if there are more potential positive “what if’s” than negative ones? What if the real danger is in the opposite direction?

Better Prepared

Look at the fire differently. Respect it but don’t fear it. Acknowledge the uncertainty of it without making any conclusions about how horrific it might be. Choose faith over fear. Assess it without emotion. Listen to your gut. What if that fire, the unknown, or your fear are actually opportunities? Remember that safety is not always our reality, even when it feels that way Then, be brave, and press on. My guess is that you are better prepared than you think.

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