When confronted with great uncertainty, our sensory cortex fires into high gear and produces a feeling of fear in our bodies. Chimpanzees have a similar biological mechanism, but at least their fight-or-flight response only activates when confronted by real danger. We humans on the other hand react to our imagined fears with the same ferocity as a life threatening situation. Whether it is fear of failure, rejection, reprisal, or death, it is fear that rules this world.
In the midst of our chimpish lives, seeking some kind of bliss while leaping from fear to fear, every once in a while we encounter someone who stands still and stares willfully into the abyss of doubt. We admire those who can enter into a moment of great uncertainty and risk, and yet will not run. I see this kind of courage every day working with men and women who build and run new ventures. They face enormous doubt and at times experience visceral fear, yet they persevere.
What is it that allows some people to move boldly into doubt while others cower or run away? First, you need a little ego. You must believe your action might lead to a better future. Whether you are like Howard Schultz who built a new kind of coffee company despite all the naysayers that insisted middle-class Americans would never pay $2 for a cup of coffee, or like Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger because it just wasn’t right, if you believe that your actions might lead to a better future, you are more willing to risk the consequences of today. Neither Howard nor Rosa was sure of the outcome of their effort. Both faced great uncertainty and economic or personal peril. Yet they each acted because they deemed that the future they sought was worth the risk.
Our inability to know the future often triggers the fight-or-flight response. The human mind, always seeking certainty, then assigns certainty to the undesirable outcome, just as a child at night is sure that the bogey man is in the closet. But until we open the closet, we just don’t know what is in it. The bogey man is in our head.
We all face uncertainty. The root of fear is fighting your doubt. The root of courage is embracing it.
Doubt is not your enemy. Doubt is the source of your creativity. By staring silently and openly into the dark closet of your uncertain future, you discover freedom. Since you can’t know for certain anything that lies in the future, you are completely free to choose today. Fear kicks in when you want to control the outcome. By definition, the riskier the decision or venture, the less control you have of outcome. Most days you can control whether one foot falls before the next as you walk. On the other hand, no matter how hard you try, you cannot control the rain. Nor can you control whether your venture will succeed or fail.
If you relax into your doubt, you will find creativity, hope, and opportunity. And others will witness courage in action.