HALLOWEEN: WHY RISK IS ESSENTIAL FOR INNOVATION
The origins of Halloween date back 2000 years to the Celts and their Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) festival. The 1st of November marked the end of the summer and harvest and the beginning of the cold winter with shorter days and longer dark nights. As it marked the end of the harvest season it was also associated with death, and the Celts believed that on the night before their new year started, the worlds between the living and the dead were blurred. This was the night where the ghosts of the dead could return to earth, and bonfires were lit to ward off these spirits and to burn sacrifices to the spirits to bring good luck for the coming year. Those same Celts often dressed in animal heads and skins as part of the sacrificial celebrations around the fires.
For a people completely dependent on the natural world for their survival, the Celts took this festival seriously. Warding off evil spirits and praying for a good harvest next year were key to their success and fear of crop failures and the unknowns of the spirit world were very real.
Feel the Fear
Today this tradition has morphed into allowing small children dress up, and beg door-to-door for candy from total strangers (talk about mixed messages – one moment we are telling our children to never get into a car with a stranger, especially if they offer you candy, and then next we get them all excited to knock on random doors and ask strangers for that very same candy. #Confusing!)
But regardless of the frivolities of Halloween, the costumes, the jack-o-lanterns and the games, at its core is our fear. Fear of the dark, fear of the other worlds that may lie beyond, fear of the unknown. No matter how old you are, it is hard to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO with a steady heartrate.
Fear is healthy of course. In nature, fear is what keeps us alive. It is a warning system to keep us safe, away from any potential dangers. Regardless of how your rational brain might try and persuade you otherwise, when you experience something unusual, your automatic nervous system takes over and your fear flashes to instigate that fight, flight or freeze response. And for anyone who has every jumped out from behind a door on someone, you know the delight in instigating playful fear in others too. Just watch this example on Telekinetic activity to promote the movie Carrie– when faced with something we don’t understand, we generally fear the worst.
So yes, fear can be fun, but here are three things that your business can learn from fear and how you can be stronger harnessing that force.
1. Seek Out Ways to Feel Uncomfortable
Complacency will kill anything. Everyday businesses fail, brands die and relationships suffer (friendships, familial, spousal or professional) because we get complacent. I see it everyday in boardrooms all over the world. Businesses believe that because their approach or processes have been successful in the past, they will be in the future. Unless you are fearful of the future, unless you embrace the uncertainty, you are slowly already digging your own grave.
Start-Ups are by their very nature fearful. They have to be nimble, energetic and clever to cut-through. They are never complacent. But big business and big brands often are, indeed whole industries are. The assumption that you have nothing to fear is the moment you should fear most.
In 2014 I conducted a personal experiment where I stepped out of my comfort zone everyday for a year. It taught me that facing your fears and following through regardless expands your world, personally, professionally and psychologically. (You can watch the 18-minute TED talk here if interested in more on that)
In your business, indeed your life, true success will come from putting yourself in situations where there is inherent risk. Unless your heart rate is going up, it is likely you are playing it safe. And in today’s fast-paced world, those that play that ‘safe’ game tend to lose.
2. Push Yourself to the Edge and Embrace Failure
I was once on a yoga retreat where the instructor asked us, in a certain extended standing pose requiring a lot of balance, to keep pushing ourselves. She told us to keep going until the very edge, the moment where we knew that moving any farther would result in us falling over. In a room of different body shapes and heights, that point would be different for everyone. And so, we did. We pushed ourselves further, right to that edge. And once we were there, trembling and about to topple, she told us to go further, to go over that edge.
What happened next was interesting. You were already at our edge. This seemed foolish, to willingly fall over. Fear of failure is strong within us all. No one likes to fail. But we did what we were told. Surprisingly, before we each fell, there turned out to be another centimetre or two we could have gone. Her point was that going to the ‘edge’ wasn’t good enough. Sometimes you have to go past your edge, past your limit, to be able to look back and truly understand. In pushing past where you thought your edge was, you discovered it was further. And how would you ever discover that if you don’t embrace falling over?
In business (and perhaps life) it is the same. We often stop short of what we can achieve because we think we are at the edge. But what if you are not? What if there is more? How will you ever know unless you embrace fear, embrace the likelihood of failure and take the step anyway. Success comes to those that take those steps, not those that stand still.
3. Draw Your Strength from your Fear
My last point on fear I want to share with you is Astrid’s story. Earlier this year I was delivering my keynote on Innovation, Risk and Creativity high up at an event in the Artic Circle (the Celts would love it … it got dark at 2pm!). When discussing fear and risk I often use board-breaking live on stage. Breaking a 12mm board with just your fist in front of a live audience is scary. I have done it many times so not for me, but for those I ask to volunteer it is terrifying.
I talk the audience through the technique, tell them anyone can do it, that it is all about motivation, self-belief, overcoming your fear, and following through. At this stage, I can actually tell if someone is going to fail before they even try. I can see it in their eyes and body language. It is not enough to want it, you have to possess a powerful level of self-belief. I want you to watch this video twice. Watch it once now, and then read the story below and watch it a second time having read the story underneath
On this occasion, on asking for volunteers a woman in her early 50’s was the first to stand up, literally before I had even got to finish my sentence. Women usually volunteer slower for this task, and generally with some persuasion so it was great to have someone so enthused. There was NO WAY she was not going to give this a try. She was joined by two other male volunteers on stage and we prepared to break boards in front of a full conference audience.
Board breaking is a difficult thing to do in front of a live audience of your peers when you don’t know if you can do it or not, and if you fail it is really hard to try again, for two reasons. The moment you fail, any self-belief you had evaporates to be left by a now niggling doubt that maybe, just maybe this is beyond you. And that niggling voice, that fear, often means you are doomed before you even try again. Astrid’s story was amazing.
She failed on her first attempt. When you watch the video above (she has kindly given me permission to share her story) you might be able to see that her level of self-belief before her first attempt isn’t where it needs to be. She mentions that she feels “a little bit strong”. She watches me and my face (compared to the next guy that only focuses on the board as I am instructing him). I know she might not break it. She is not 100% committed. That 1% fear of failure is enough to stop this from happening. And true enough she fails.
Now her hand hurts making a second attempt far more difficult. She still wanted to try again, despite her first failure. This is when you learn about someone’s character. Failure only counts if you stay down. People who want to try again immediately are disappointed in themselves, they want another go, they want to prove to themselves and others that this is not who they are, they are better than this. And so, she has a second go. But now there is that doubt. Can I do this? Her hand already hurts like hell (not going through the board impacts far worse than when you do break it).
True strength, true success comes from harnessing your fear, from turning it into a positive energy.
This time she nearly breaks it, but is just 5% short in power. But it was that added 5% she needed. Sometimes that is true in all our lives, we need to find that extra 5%. She takes a break. No one should attempt it three times in a row, your hand won’t like that. The other two delegates have a go, each breaking it first time. Watching the video, you will see their absolute commitment in their eyes, their body language. This is the male ego at work. A live audience of their peers. There is NO WAY they are not breaking this board. They’d probably break it with their heads if I asked. Again, watch the video. Watch the commitment, the self-belief.
Unusually Astrid decides to have another go. This is very unusual. If we fail at things repeatedly we often give up. Most others would have decided that this was beyond them at this stage. But not Astrid. I don’t know what changed for her over that 1 minute witnessing the other two breaking their boards. Was it frustration that she hadn’t? Was it a desire not to be beaten? Was it a sisterhood moment of deciding she wasn’t going to be shown up by two young guys? Or was it simply that she had seen that it could be done and that she knew, deep inside her, that she could do it too. Regardless of her motivation, the Astrid I met next time was different. She was impatient. Watching the video, you will see her waiting for me to shut up so she can do what she wants to do. And then in one swift move she breaks it. In fact, just like my point above about going ‘past your edge’ she puts so much power into it this time she falls over. THAT is commitment.
And Astrid’s story should teach you all something. True strength, true success comes from harnessing your fear, from turning it into a positive energy. Was she scared of failing a third time? Of course. Was she scared of letting the sister-hood down? Maybe. But she turned all those fears into a force.
Fear is only a weakness if you back down. Fear is only a negative force if you accept failure. Victors harness their fears and use them as a strength.
So, what does that all mean for business? Well it is quite simple. Unless you foster a sense of risk in how you run your business you are unlikely to ever achieve much. Pushing past what you know, pushing yourself over your ‘edge’ and being prepared to fail is key. And when you do fail, never let that define you. No one ever drowns by falling into water, you drown by staying there. Learn to love fear. Learn to embrace it. Live for it. It is how you know you are alive. In your business life and your personal life.
Unless you foster a sense of risk in how you run your business you are unlikely to ever achieve much.
This Halloween, be a Celt. Let the 1st November be your new year, your new you. Embrace fear and take more risks. As the American race-car driver Mario Andretti once quipped:
Happy Halloween everyone, and just one last scare? This is an oldie but a classic. The ghost girl in the elevator from Brazil. Always worth watching again!
Ken Hughes is the world’s leading Behaviouralists and Playologists, motivating delegates all over the world to unleash their creative energy. As a Playologist, his focus is opening up the individuals’ appetite to risk, adventure and play as a catalyst for personal and business growth.
Having been described as ‘Europe’s answer to Tony Robbins’ Ken Hughes is a speaker who enjoys continuous repeat bookings from those event organisers who experience his product, and he is voted best speaker at most of the events in which he participates.
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