Dealing with anxiety in no uncertain terms

Published in UT San Diego, November 11, 2013

Rule No. 12

The entrepreneur needs to not only tolerate ambiguity; he needs to embrace it.

What is the correlation between ambiguity and anxiety? It turns out other people have wondered about this, namely Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks.

In the recent article “Overcoming Nervous Nelly,” in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, she posits that at its core, “anxiety is about uncertainty” — the worry associated with what “might” happen rather than something that will likely happen. Remember your mother’s advice, “Don’t cross the bridge until you get to it.” What you, the entrepreneur, feel, is that you do not have control over the events, and this out-of-control feeling can cause deep anxiety.

So, how does anxiety manifest itself and cause poor negotiation outcomes? One common expression is talking too soon; one has to learn to tolerate the silence. Another is an early lowball offer because you fear the other person will walk away. Barbara and I experience this in our class when we discuss “pre-money valuation.” The entrepreneur picks a number out of relatively thin air and then gets nervous when the investor just stares — and begins to chuckle.

Anxiety also can express itself in the need to surround yourself with advisers. It is rational to seek advice from so-called experts, but if you are in a state of high anxiety, you won’t know a good adviser from a bad one and good advice from bad advice. Your powers of perception are impacted negatively because you are uncomfortable. The trick for the entrepreneur is to know which adviser is really going to give you the really good advice. Even worse, Brooks found that a substantial number of advisers take advantage of their clients’ anxiety to increase their own profits. This one is easy — just repeat the words financial adviser, wealth manager and stockbroker. Not all of them, but enough to keep the feds busy suing a bunch of them.

My father had a maxim, “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing.” It is actually rational to embrace the anxiety and then allow it to subside by virtue of increased self-awareness and information — the more you know, the less you feel vulnerable. Think of the negotiation for a car when you are armed with the MSRP and the manufacturer’s rebate.

Another way to deal with anxiety is to create rituals. For example, some professional tennis players bounce the ball anywhere from eight to 18 times before they serve. This calms them down and makes their opponent nuts. Rituals work. When I fly, during takeoff I have a secret handshake with myself. Don’t laugh. It has worked fine so far.

Another technique that Brooks suggests is to “turn anxiety into excitement.” If you say, “I am excited about” rather than saying “Be calm,” it dramatically changes the outcome of your performance. She advocates combining high arousal with a sense of excitement.

A confession: I play golf, and I often approach a difficult shot with the words, “Here is an opportunity for greatness.” While it has on occasion proven true, I am not leaving my job to go on the PGA’s senior tour. However, Brooks statistically proves that combining “excitement” with your anxiety leads to more positive outcomes. Positive thinking creates positive outcomes and allows you to better embrace ambiguity.

So now we come to ambiguity. I think a key element for entrepreneurial success is the willingness to be comfortable without all the answers — to be willing to imagine success rather than fear the consequences of failure.

And that leads to considering “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Yes, failure is always an option, if not, in fact, a likelihood. So every time you start a project, remember this: The worst thing that can happen is that you will fail — but you are probably not going to drop dead. Which means you have a chance to do it all over again.

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