An old man surveys a familiar world beyond his study window. His hair is grey, skin craggy and stature wizened. Yet it’s still the unmistakably kind face of Michael Palin:
“There’s a lot of little boy in the whole enterprise. In all the travels,” he reflects in the BBC’s recent Palin travel retrospective. “Whenever I’ve lost the little boy, the sense of wonder,” he continues, a touch of sadness crowding his voice, rough and gravelled at the edges, “I’ve lost something significant.”
Despite decades of seemingly effortless globetrotting with an ever-present twinkle in his eye, it turns out Michael Palin still harboured the same self-doubt, uncertainty and anxieties we all do when faced with risk, change and uncertainty. “Of course you had doubts, you had worries,” he admits in the documentary, yet somehow he prevailed and thrived.
It’d be churlish to say privilege and position alone helped Palin surmount his fears. There’s clearly something deeper at play here.
Perhaps it’s that sense of wonder he alludes to. Let’s find out.
When fear shows up
Of course, fear needn’t mean traversing the planet in 80 days, or embarking on a pole-to-pole voyage, wooing peoples of all nations with your wit, charm and common touch.
Fear manifests in all sorts of everyday ways too.
It could be unwitting procrastination over progress in your business. It could be frustrating, relentless indecision about that career move. Maybe you’re avoiding committing to different ways of working? Or avoiding taking on new risks in these uncertain times.
However fear gets in the way, I’ve seen it prevent changemakers from giving the world what it so desperately needs (as well as you need personally). Fear forsakes uncertainty in favour of predictability or mediocrity. It cheats us out of grand plans. It squanders your valuable time and talent.
And when that happens, you start to feel bad for feeling bad. You enter the fear loop.
Yet wonder; that childlike curiosity as Michael Palin suggests, could be the cure.
How’s your relationship with fear?
Everything changed for me when I heard fear and curiosity glued together. It came as a revelation via Finding Mastery – a full-on, high-five, Americana podcast, guaranteed to make any understated Brit belch up a spot of mouth-sick.
Yet one episode in particular unlocked a door for me, and continues to help me open doors for the people I coach:
“The ones that are changing an industry or the human potential landscape, they understand how to work with it… Fear is a signal and if we use that signal in anything in life, it’s our due north.”
Let me introduce Tony Blauer, a beefy, iron-balled, close combat specialist. Not a typical source of wisdom for the kind of emotionally intelligent discourse I offer my clients.
So I’ll keep it snappy.
Say what you like about Tony – a practically-minded alpha-male from a world of professional violence. But this man knows fear. He understands what makes it tick.
Fear as a movie
Tony likens fear to a movie. Whenever we’re triggered by the seemingly uncontrollable, some looming deadline, a situation, a person – our mind presses play. Next, we unwittingly watch a readymade mental movie, mindlessly munching our popcorn and losing ourselves in the plot.
Suppose you’re burning out from championing your cause. Sense says take a break. The movie plot says that’s selfish. It makes you feel guilty for making space.
Maybe you’ve got a big idea to protect nature and it’s commitment time. Involuntarily, the mind presses play, and your internal silver screen tricks you into thinking it’s already flop, so you may as well give up now.
The thing is, it’s just a movie
A made-up story, based tenuously on real-life.
It’s your imagination exploring worst-case scenarios in a way that’s probably quite helpful, if a threat is real, immediate and existential. But in this context – your life, career and business, our simplistic fantasies are often somewhat disproportionate and misplaced. A life’s journey is more complicated and unpredictable than that – it’s rarely wholly a failure or success.
So here’s a first step that might help you.
If you’re wrestling with fear and anxiety, notice when the mind presses play like this. Recognise what’s going on beneath the surface. Enjoying the movie? What’s the script like? Is the hero a victim? Is the ending really a foregone conclusion? Are there copious special effects that make it seem real?
By trying this you’ll become more self-aware than most people out there.
But what then?
‘So curiosity is like your keyway in. And so as soon as [you’re] feeling a flood of neurochemicals or physiology… you’re saying, “Hey, stay curious. Now what is this like?” And that curiosity is almost like the antidote.’
Micheal Gervais (quoted) hosts the very same podcast mentioned above. He’s also a coach. And he consistently says that one way to live with (because it never goes away) uncertainty and change, is to explore or to lean into it. With wide, wild eyes, healthy intrigue and endless questions.
Suppose you’re afraid of throwing everything behind some big idea that’ll change your fortunes. You know it’s right, but somehow you daren’t dedicate the time and energy it deserves. You perpetually skirt around the edges, make excuses, or let other people’s priorities trump your own.
Rather than simply watch that disaster movie play over and over again, you instead wonder why it is that I’m so afraid of this? What’s possible here? What’s the real challenge?
Introspection isn’t quite the word
A lot of my coaching clients are thinkers (as well as do-ers) – they spend enough time wondering and questioning themselves. So it’s not about ruminating your inner world.
Think of this more like agnostic or impartial curiosity. You aren’t judging what or why you’re scared, nervous or afraid, you just notice fear for what it is – a signal to act upon.
So where does your compass point?
It could be that the thing you’re most afraid of is success, rather than failure. It could be that deep down you don’t really care enough about that thing you ought to do, after all. So you let go of it. Or conversely, maybe it’s definitely the right thing because it won’t leave you alone.
Think of it like a learning experience. What can you learn that will displace fear?
Another way to handle this is to get out of your head.
Ideas will always be ideas until you vocalise (and thus scrutinise) them, then turn them into action, a decision, or simply let them go.
One way to do that is to get a coach, talk to a friend, or try an exercise like free writing or doodling to unravel that toxic internal monologue.
Get some headspace
One reason why mindfulness has enjoyed such worldwide success is that it teaches people to greet uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with gentle inquisitiveness. When a feeling arises, like fear or anxiety, you note it, then turn your focus back to whatever it is you’re doing at that moment.
In its guided meditations, the internationally renowned HeadSpace app even suggests that healthy curiosity, mixed with humour, is the best way to embrace the unknown.
When that fearful movie begins to play, and your mind conjures up everything bad that could go wrong – whether that’s letting clients down, angering the boss, or losing your livelihood, you simply smile, and ponder wryly what rating the film would get on imdb.
How can you be bold and brave in the face of fear?
Speaking from experience, the surest way to amplify any uncertainty, hesitance and discomfort (about whatever predicament you find yourself in), is to deliberately ignore, avoid, repress or resist it.
I hear this a lot from people I coach in various forms: “be alright” “let’s see what happens,” “one day,” and the timeless “that’s just the way it is”.
This is a bit like telling the mind to not think about that purple mongoose you’re now thinking of. It’s equivalent to pretending there isn’t really a problem that needs addressing, or making out you have no choice.
But there’s always another way…
Another technique that works well for me and my coaching clients is to ask yourself – am I taking this (or myself) too seriously again?
Whenever I feel down or uptight, or otherwise not making the progress I want, chances are it’s because I’ve become a character, rather than an audience member, in the ongoing saga that is the movie of my life. When really, I should have pointed and laughed at the silly poster advertising it.
Lead with curiosity
Good leadership is about making space for other people to act naturally, encouraging them to trust themselves, and helping them plot their own way forward.
So, what if you lead yourself?
By that I mean create space to sit with your discomfort and those awkward feelings, instead of rebelling.
Wouldn’t that be a curious experiment?
Because that’s all curiosity really is – experimentation, observation and reflection on what’s going on. Otherwise known as learning.
When I became a coach I unwittingly became a leader, of sorts. And my fears lay in not knowing the right way forward for my clients, or how to handle deep conversations without intention, where outcomes present themselves.
Yet as soon as I went into uncertain coaching calls with curiosity for my clients, and started being bold and brave like I encouraged them to be, my impact got a lot deeper – not just for them, but for me too. I make space and, soon enough, their answers (not mine) begin to fill it.
If you deal with other people in your life, business or career – to what situations can you invite curiosity? If you played leader for a while, what might that teach you about yourself and your relationship with fear?
Be a kid again
The best thing about curiosity is it’s innate. You’ve had it your entire life. Maybe you’re just out of practice?
You only need to watch any young child at play to realise how perfectly natural, playful and effortless curiosity is. Without a life of upsets, setbacks and put-downs (the kind we’re not schooled to be resilient against), curiosity dominates fear.
In adulthood, some of us are lucky enough to hold onto our childlike curiosity – like Michael Palin did in travel, writing and comedy. Many of us grow-up too soon, and in the process forget that it’s inquisitiveness that leads to discovery, creativity, adventure, and ultimately fulfillment in life.
So next time that disaster movie is on repeat, what would it take to greet the screening with curiosity?
Consider the flip-side: can you recall a time where you approached a new situation with wonder, or simple open-mindedness? How did that turn out? Was it as bad as you imagined it would be? Probably not.
Maybe it’s time to rekindle curiosity when you next feel scared, nervous or unsure of yourself? Remember – no effort or resistance required, just wonder why again, and prepare to laugh.