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The Seven Deadly Fears

As the recruiting season has shifted into high gear, I have at times felt gripped by paralysis when thinking about my career. Somehow I can read cases, work on projects, and sift through hundreds of emails, but my brain tries to shut down every time I attempt to research industries or brainstorm about my future.

Frustrated with my lack of progress, I wanted to understand how an otherwise self-conscious person could suffer from such mindlessness. The answer lied in the question. In the words of Frank Herbert’s Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.” It dawned on me that if I could categorize my fears and expose them to the light of day, I could take a positive step toward freeing myself from the vicissitudes of equivocation and procrastination.

Before delving into the seven deadly fears I uncovered, I feel compelled to draw an important distinction. Emotions are an integral part of the decision-making process and an undeniable part of what makes us human. Fear is an emotion, and there is definitely some rational basis for your fears; if not, they would have likely disappeared by now. Somewhere in your subconscious brain there is a cost-benefit mechanism that has retained your fears because you perceive that they aid your self-preservation. However, fear is not rational. It is a supercharged emotion that hijacks not only your rationality, but your other emotions as well. We need to listen to our fears because they warn us about imminent danger, but at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to let our instinctive reactions guide our decisions. As Herbert also writes, “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me.only I will remain.”

Put another way, courage is what happens when fear is no longer an option. Below, then, is a list of the fears that impede me from making clear-headed decisions, and I hope it will aid you as you think about your career. If you are having trouble thinking about something, career or otherwise, take a look at the list and see if any of the fears resonate with you. By identifying the source of your consternation, you should be able to make a more rational decision.

1. Fear of making a mistake
This fear is especially toxic to those of us who suffer from perfectionism. Rather than risk being wrong or responsible for a sub-optimal outcome, we doom ourselves to a paroxysm of anxiety and inaction. According to Career Services, most of us will change jobs at least once over the next five years. If we do end up making a mistake, we will be in good company, and we can relax in the knowledge that thousands of HBS alumni before us have successfully switched jobs after graduation. Plus, we will undoubtedly learn more about what makes us happy in the process.

2. Fear of being dominated
If the trends hold, over half of us will own a business (in whole or in part) within ten years. Thus, many of us might already find the thought of working for somebody else distasteful. But why do we insist on having such power and control? If we can understand the root of our fear, we might be able to seriously consider an opportunity with low enterprise control that meets other important criteria for learning and growth.

3. Fear of being alone
This might be the most complex and paradoxical of fears, for besides shying away from standing out from the crowd, we also demonstrate it by running away from intimacy. This fear might rear its head by making you not want to take jobs in certain cities to avoid current or former friends, family, or significant others.

4. Fear of death
For most of us at this stage in our lives, this fear manifests itself cloaked as a fear of losing or wasting time. We might be afraid of a certain choice because we have a limited window to start a family, or perhaps we think that our youth is fleeting and are afraid to squander it in some way. This fear can be used to rationalize working one hundred-hour weeks while one still has the stamina, or to justify being a beach bum while one can still appreciate the freedom.

5. Fear of what others think
We have been reading about successful alumni and even meeting them in person. Even if we had role models before we came to HBS, this institution has subtly insinuated a new performance standard into our minds. Our fear tells us that if we do not live up to these expectations, we might feel ashamed or inadequate. I find comfort in Dean Kim Clark’s commencement speech to the Class of 2000 when he stated unequivocally, “There is no success in business that can compensate for failure at home.” Although we might be preoccupied with managing our images, perhaps we can balance our fear of social judgment with the surety of knowing what makes us truly happy.

6. Fear of the unknown
When it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it is as if our childhood fear of the dark were to take mortal hold of us. With nothing concrete to countermand our most neurotic fantasies, we can construct any insurmountable challenge or danger from our imagination. The key is to confront this fear head-on and systematically reduce uncertainty through research and exploration. But even then, there is only so much one can do to predict and shape the future. As Abraham Lincoln once famously wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

7. Fear of pain
This ever-present fear might present itself in various forms. You could anticipate the pain of hard work and wish to avoid it, or you might fear the pain of not having enough money for the lifestyle you feel you deserve. As the most primal of all fears, in a way it permeates and feeds all other fears. Ask yourself what you are trying to avoid or what you do not want to lose and that will usually reveal the thing that you fear is going to cause you pain.

November 6, 2006
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